Monday, October 24, 2016

Abacus Bank: The Fighters

Even the smallest victory is never to be taken for granted. Each victory must be applauded, because it is so easy not to battle at all, to just accept and call that acceptance inevitable.
       --Audre Lorde

Mr. Sung, I'm glad they pick on you, cuz you're a fighter.
--from the just released Steve James documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Thomas Sung, founder, Abacus Bank

Of the many dire things I've found, thought and written about on EM08, until now there's been little sunshine. Thanks to the great Gretchen Morgenson, as dogged and principled a journalist in the msm as there is - particularly in regard to EM08 - I first learned of the tale of Abacus Bank.

When my initial EM08 research began, no less than Meredith Whitney came into my awareness, and I remember her ominously forecasting how what the government was doing was "saving" the system, but punishing and destroying community banks and credit unions.

In 1995, megabanks — giant banks with more than $100 billion in assets (in 2010 dollars) — controlled 17 percent of all banking assets. By 2005, their share had reached 41 percent. Today, it is a staggering 59 percent. Meanwhile, the share of the market held by community banks and credit unions — local institutions with less than $1 billion in assets — plummeted from 27 percent to 11 percent. 
-The Institute for Local Self-Reliance 

I wrote to Abacus to offer encouragement, and Jill Sung, founder Thomas' daughter and CEO, replied. That correspondence follows below. What's heartening is that Steve James, award winning filmmaker (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself, among others) has undertaken the task of telling the Abacus story, in a doc that evidently is knocking out audiences.

My mind's racing with a torrent of thoughts and emotions:
  • At the top, and as usual, there's outrage watching Uncle Scam pick on the small guys while rewarding the biggest psychotic crooks in history.
  • As a minority community bank, Abacus' David vs. Goliath story takes on magnitudes of importance, given how crazy America's racial history is.
  • An ironic EM08 observation: one of the most infamous EM08 weapon of destruction's name? Abacus. Who were the architects? In the main, Goldman and John Paulson. BILLIONS stolen, with Paulson alone netting a billion and Goldman in eating its own customers, made hundreds of millions. This is what my country has devolved to, a cesspool of crooks with "deals" that, to anyone with a shred of fairness and decency, reads like something out of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book for the vampire bureaucrooks. Forget innovation or entrepreneurship. No, let's just erect endlessly opaque bureaucrookery so we can feed off of the helpless, the small, the weak. Here's the REAL enemy, folks. It's not middle eastern, it isn't la cosa nostra, it isn't the Crips or Bloods. No less than Reuters has a highlight reel here.

Those who endure my endless ranting about these psychopaths deserve a break; here's a heretofore unseen ray of sunshine, some great Americans, heroes, really, sticking to their guns.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. Can't wait to see it. Our correspondence follows, but in a moment of serendipity, this first short piece, courtesy of Creatomic/Medium, just came to my attention, and deserves a place as preface. It makes me think of the many sacrifices my family went through, just so I could be here, blogging this... it aptly sets up the Sung's battle, while illuminating their resilience, courage and old school values.

Stop telling each other it’s alright. Sometimes, it’s just not.

People’s lives fall apart in a splinter of a second, their dreams get destroyed, they discover that their bodies have been hiding a disease that’s only getting worse.
Businesses fail, and products crash, and people who love other people get their hearts broken, and people who would give anything to succeed wait for their ships to come in long after they’ve lost the strength or the energy to do anything about it.
What’s the first thing we say to each other, when something goes wrong? What’s the first thing we say when the world gets turned upside down, when all of the shit and the tough times and the breakdowns come?
We say, “it’s alright.”
“It’s alright.”
And that’s a default reaction, it’s the first thing that comes out of our mouths, often. It’s the only assurance we can think of, and the only way we often know how to respond to awful things that seem so far out of our control or influence.
“It’s alright.” Or its alternative, “It’s going to be okay.”
But in the end, a great many things never turn out alright. A great many things just aren’t okay. And saying they are, trying to fool ourselves and the people who need us into believing that it’s all a blip on the radar, it’ll all be sorted out — that’s not helping.
Do you know why?

We know it’s just not true.

People don’t want to hear that everything is alright, when they know — deeply and painfully — that it isn’t. They don’t want to be lied to, even if it’s in the nicest way possible.
All they want is for us to be near. Be open. Be awake and willing to listen. Be patient. Be understanding. And most of all, to just be there. Because the greatest gift you can ever give to someone who is mourning a tragedy, a business disaster, anything — is to ensure that they aren’t alone.
That’s why people in a time of crisis often scream out for help or for companionship. It’s not because they want the rest of the world to solve their problems; they understand that nobody has a magic wand. It’s because they want the simple comfort of knowing that they do not walk in isolation when they’re in need.
We don’t want our pain to be minimized.
Because that’s what happens, when we’re told it’s alright. We feel like we’re over reacting, because if everything really is alright — we ask, why are we feeling so much pain, and what is the root and the cause of it, and are we even entitled to our pain?
We want the enormity of our disasters to be recognized by the people around us, so that we know that what we feel isn’t a trick of our hearts and our minds — it’s a reality. And it sucks, and it’s acceptable to feel like it sucks.

Life really does go on.

It does. And sooner or later, no matter what our struggle is, we start to understand that. And sooner or later, things do feel as alright as they ever can, without ever being the same. Life finds a way, in every nightmare, and life keeps on going. But the way we get there is long and hard, and we need other people to be patient and to walk with us, in silence if need be.
I remember in one of the roughest periods of my life, when it felt as though more things were ending than could ever begin again — I was floundering and struggling and I could barely keep my head above water.
My partner, Emily, told me this.
“I’m not going to say it’s alright, because I know it’s not. And it might never be. But I’m always going to be here, whether you like it or not, to make the best of it, even if that’s not much. I promise.”
5 years later, I’m happier than I ever thought possible. I got through things that seemed insurmountable. I got through things by recognizing that they just weren’t alright. And they weren’t okay.
If your startup fails? It’s not alright. But you can get through it.
If your freelance career bombs? It’s not alright. But you can get through it.
If your relationship comes to an end? It’s not alright. But you can get through it.
If your dreams burn out? It’s not alright.
But you can get through it.

July 23, 2015

Thomas Sung
Jill Sung
Vera Sung

Abacus Federal Savings Bank

Dear Thomas, Jill & Vera Sung,

As an Asian-American whose grandparents came to this country with nothing, I, and all of my cousins – over 25 of them – are testament to their and our parents' sacrifice for the better good, the big picture … the future. It's difficult to reconcile my family's history and the America of my youth with the America of today. When the events of 2008 occurred I was blindsided, but the history major in me was determined to find answers. Soon, Michael Lewis, Matt Taibbi, Nomi Prins… and Gretchen Morgenson, would broaden my view of what I call “EM08”: the economic meltdown of 2008.

So it was with this background I came upon Abacus Bank's story – I wish I could say that I was surprised, but no less than Meredith Whitney, years ago, predicted the woes for smaller lending institutions. What was so interesting to me was the way in which our legal system is front-loaded as a financial dis-incentive for small businesses.

Isn't it remarkable, what the America of my grandparents has devolved to? The last presidential campaign set a new fund record of over a billion dollars, and the 2016 circus will set yet another; some analysts forecast a new high of $2 billion. No clearer message to everyday, working class Americans (and the world) exists.

Yes, it's entirely fixed on behalf of the wealthy, but what can we do? Be decent. Your fellow New Yorker, Spike Lee, popularized the slogan, “Do the Right Thing,” and it's something my family was steeped in. The storm is coming, and while the practical necessities of protecting ourselves are in play – what finance calls “hedging” – I'm convinced that having principles and a morality based upon decency is at the core. It's like William Holden's Pike Bishop says in The Wild Bunch: If you can't do that, you're like some animal. You're finished. We're all finished.

This is why I am writing to you; KEEP YOUR HEAD UP. I was very proud listening to your story, and for what it's worth, want you to know that the great silent majority of decent Americans are out here. People like my ancestors and you are what this country used to stand for, and it's needed now more than ever. Don't ever let go of that.

Very truly yours,

JP Kaneshida
Los Angeles


Dear JP,

Thank you so much for your below email!  We are very fortunate to have supporters like you and we are proud to share a heritage of immigration, hard work and entrepreneurship with you.     

I am impressed that you have taken the time to understand what caused EM08.  The causes are numerous but the effects were devastating for small banks like ours where the resulting regulation created to stop the harms caused by big banks, ended up choking small community banks.  The ironic result is that we now in an even more dangerous situation than before –  more power concentrated in the monetary system in the hands of few.  

They say “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  This is a mantra my family and I have repeated over and over to ourselves these past several years.   Now with the trial over, we are focused on just that – rebuilding our small institution to make it stronger to meet the many challenges that still face us.  We feel that we have no choice but to continue to fight this fight and feel blessed that we have been given this opportunity to do this.

I hope we will be able to meet in person one day.  Until such time, we wish you and your family  peace, good health and success in whatever you do.

Best Regards,

Jill Sung
CEO & President
Abacus Federal Savings Bank

Great Americans: Vera, Jill & Thomas Sung