When it comes to Christmas movie bad guys, none are quite as wicked as mean old Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. Owner of the town bank, Mr. Potter not only controls most of the money in Bedford Falls, he also owns most of the land too, which gives him unparalleled authority over the small town and its downtrodden residents. He’s okay with being the bad guy too, even telling Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, “I am an old man and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either, so that makes it all even.”
But, just maybe, Mr. Potter is giving people the wrong idea. While being a “banker” of any sort certainly sounds like an evil profession, especially since the 2008 crash, maybe It’s a Wonderful Life judges them too harshly. So, in the spirit of the season, I’ve asked a few bankers some questions to get their side of the story.
How Do You Feel Bankers Are Portrayed in It’s a Wonderful Life?
Greg, vice president at a major investment bank: It’s a Wonderful Life is obviously an exaggeration, but also fairly accurate. Banks don’t care about your sob story.
Zach Lopatin, investment banker: The portrayal of bankers in that time period fits the stereotype that even carries on now — the Occupy Wall Street movement shows that to me. Now, though, a lot of capital management companies try to uphold a different image than what you see with Mr. Potter.
Nate Tobik, founder and CEO of CompleteBankData: The movie portrays bankers as the enemy of the common person. People are in a struggle against them to keep their house or keep their livelihood, but the banks just try to get their money and keep them down. The thing is, that’s not at all accurate. The bank has no motivation to take over houses or a business. They want you to succeed as much as they succeed. It’s a partnership. They want a buyer to get the house they want, they want to give them the money upfront so they can get the house now instead of later, and they want that person to be satisfied. In return, they’re asking for three or four percent a year and we want it to work out because we want our three or four percent.
Are You More Like George Bailey or Mr. Potter?
Tobik: I’m probably more of a George Bailey-type. I’m always looking out for others and trying to figure out how to help people. That’s how you win.
Lopatin: I don’t know any real “Potter-like” bankers. It doesn’t get you very far in the climate we’re in. Though I also think Bailey is too idealistic, so maybe it’s best to be a bit of both.
Greg: I mean, professionally or personally? Professionally, my function is very black and white — it’s all about money and what the bank can afford. So, professionally, I guess I’m more like the bad guy just because I have to be.
Are You as Despised as Mr. Potter?
Greg: I would say no.
Lopatin: The people I’m close to don’t hate me, though I think the general perception of people overall is that they hate bankers.
Tobik: No, people don’t hate me personally. I’m a well-liked person. I once had someone describe me as a puppy dog who’s excited about everything and always wagging his tail.
What Should Happen to Someone if They Miss Their Mortgage Payment?
Tobik: It’s in the bank’s best interest to work it out. They’re going to try to extend it or offer some forgiveness. There are banks out there that are like Mr. Potter, though.
Lopatin: I like the system we have now where, when someone misses a mortgage payment, it hurts their credit and things like that — except for extenuating circumstances like we’re having right now. There should be an agreement between bureaus and banks not to report missing payments right now.
Greg: If you miss enough mortgage payments, you’re just one of a million loans that a bank might be holding, so they don’t care about your sob story. You committed to paying something back for a certain amount and at a certain time and if you don’t do that for long enough, they’re going to take your shit.
Is Anyone Worth More Dead Than Alive?
Tobik: I don’t think so, no.
Greg: Technically speaking, there are probably a lot of people worth more dead than alive. Life insurance is a tricky thing. If you’re in enough debt and your income isn’t high enough to cover that long term, and you have a good life insurance policy, then you are, in fact, worth more dead than alive. It’s an unfortunate circumstance to our financial system.
Have You Ever Called Anyone a “Garlic Eater”?
Tobik: No, I can’t say that I have.
Lopatin: I’ve never called anyone that before, though I do like garlic sometimes.
Have You Ever Called Anything “Sentimental Hogwash”?
Lopatin: I haven’t used that term before.
Tobik: No, I haven’t. I’m a pretty sentimental person, actually.
Greg: No, but, before I had kids, I guess I would have considered a lot of stuff to be sentimental hogwash. Now, though, I went soft — my hard, New Yorker skin has been slowly peeling off with every subsequent kid I’ve had. So, now I have a lot of my own sentimental hogwash.
Is It True That “No Man is a Failure Who Has Friends”?
Tobik: I’m not sure. A lot of people have friends that enable destructive behaviors. I think if you have good friends — true friends who can speak the truth to you — then it’s probably true.
Greg: No, that’s bullshit. There are a lot of people who have friends that are complete and utter failures. Now that’s sentimental hogwash.