WASHINGTON – Banks give away millions of dollars in charitable donations and loan guarantees to the underserved each year, but BB&T may have just become the first bank in recent memory to withhold money from developers who don't line up with the bank's view of eminent domain law.
The North Carolina-based bank, which employs more than 28,000 people in 1,400 branches in 11 states, announced last month that it would no longer approve loans for developers who want to pursue commercial enterprises on land seized by the government using the power of eminent domain, or taking private property for public use.
The announcement was a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last June in Kelo v. City of New London. The court ruled 5-4 in favor of the Connecticut town's right to take land for private development if its use was deemed in the public interest.
In a Jan. 25 release, BB&T executives stated their disapproval of the court's ruling.
"One of the most basic rights of every citizen is to keep what they own," said BB&T Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Allison, a noted libertarian. "As an institution dedicated to helping our clients achieve economic success and financial security, we won't help any entity or company that would undermine that mission and threaten the hard-earned American dream of property ownership."
Experts who watch financial institutions and philanthropy for a living say this is the first time they've seen a bank take such a stand.
"It's interesting, because the bank itself, apparently without pressure, is taking a position in this area where they actually can have some influence," said Bob Huberty of the Capital Research Center, which follows corporate giving trends.
"I'm delighted," said Roger Pilon, head of legal studies for the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. "It's very unusual for a private company to stand up for principle and I commend it for it, being that it's doing it at a cost to itself. It's a hopeful sign."
Company officials said they expected a small loss of business, but have been pleasantly surprised at the overwhelming feedback.
"Ninety-nine point eight percent of it has been positive," said BB&T spokesman Bob Dedham. "We've had a thousand internal responses from our employees … supporting our decision, saying how proud they are to be an employee of the bank, how good it makes them feel."
Allison has shaped the company's philosophy to reflect core values of ethics, justice, honesty and free enterprise, said Dedham. The BB&T Charitable Foundation contributes money to business schools at colleges and universities across the country, hoping to instill the idea that ethical and moral decision-making are inseparable from capitalist endeavors.
"My sense is that John and the bank are very dedicated to ethical behavior in corporations in general, not just the bank," said Claude Lilly, dean of the Belk College of Business at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "I think this (announcement) is just a part of the process that the bank has gone through in developing its own philosophy,"
But not everyone thinks the philosophy is a good one, and not everyone disagrees with the high court's ruling in Kelo v. New London.
"(It's) a rush to judgment without reflection or public discussion or debate," said Donald Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities, which considers the taking of land for public and private use a tool of last resort, but one that can transform blighted neighborhoods into functional communities.
"For a bank to make a blanket policy in response to what is clearly an emotional issue concerns us, because it doesn't take into account that [eminent domain] is used by cities trying to strengthen and provide opportunities for the broader community," he said.
So far, no other bank has followed BB&T into the fray of the eminent domain debate. In fact, withholding loans to applicants who don’t share the bank's ideology, philosophy or politics is pretty much unseen. Civil rights laws would preclude many such cases, Huberty surmised.
"You cannot discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion, gender, disability. … It never occurred to lawmakers that you would discriminate on a loan because the developer is using land taken by eminent domain, though," he said.
Huberty added that activist groups have been successful in wringing thousands of dollars in contributions out of institutions through protests and boycott threats. Special interest groups all over the spectrum would love for banks to tailor lending practices according to their own agendas. For years, pressure has been put on banks to do so, but institutions have not been forthcoming, he said.
"That would be their dream come true if the bank itself were to say 'no, this plant will contribute to global warming so we are not going to support it.' But that is not the case. Normally, banks retreat behind 'we have our rules and so forth,'" Huberty said.
Bill Grassano, spokesman of the Independent Community Bankers of America said it's nothing new for banks and other financial institutions to give loans and grants for programs benefiting low-income entrepreneurs, homeowners and community-based education and training efforts in and outside the country, and not all of that giving is the result of a twisted arm or strategic public relations.
Grassano said he has not heard of any other bank taking a stand against eminent domain, but his association's nearly 5,000 affiliated banks make decisions everyday with their communities in mind — that includes lending as well as charitable donations.
"Community banks help those communities grow, they move them move forward," said Grassano "That's probably how they make their decisions."
Observers agree it's premature to predict whether BB&T is starting a trend among banks.
"Their job, rightly or wrongly, is to maximize returns for shareholders," said Pilon. BB&T's decision is "probably an anomaly."
Borut said that BB&T's decision is shortsighted, as projects that could ease unemployment and poverty in deadend neighborhoods could be thwarted if other banks take similar stands against eminent domain.
"[They're] not taking into account individual circumstances, and that's something I think they need to do."