No general rule of conduct applicable to all alike can be prescribed for bank management. The element of personal equation enters as largely into this line of business as it does into all occupations of a fiduciary character. What may be considered good management in one bank might be regarded as very defective management in another bank. So far as the degree of personal supervision exercised by boards of directors over their respective institutions is concerned, the banks of the entire country may be divided into three classes. The banks in the larger cities, as a rule, have better systems of management and more complete organization than those in the smaller cities and towns. And this must necessarily be so, because of the larger volume of business handled and the nature and extent of their transactions. The business of such banks is separated into departments, and each department has its special line. Discount, finance, auditing and other committees are provided, and each committee has certain specific duties to perform. Loans and discounts are passed upon and approved by a discount committee before they are made, and in some banks the directors alternate in serving on such committees. The full board has regular days for meeting, and tri-weekly or semi-weekly meetings are held and the directors keep in close touch with the important business of the institution. But even in such well-managed and regulated banks the directors do not look after the details of the work, such as was covered by Mr. Murray's list of questions. Such matters of detail are left to the supervision of the executive officers of the bank, where they properly belong.
In another class of banks, such as are found in the smaller cities or towns, it will be found that the directors as a board give very little attention to the details of management. They place competent men in charge of the bank and leave the management almost wholly to them. They hold board meetings at stated intervals, at which the loans and discounts made are usually examined and approved and the acts of the officers concurred in. In such banks all the details of management are left to the officers, and probably could not be improved upon if daily meetings of the board were held and each transaction given their personal attention. In most of the banks of this class the management is competent, conservative, and all that could be desired.
The third class of banks, and fortunately they are largely in the minority, are those whose boards of directors give the business of the bank very little, if any, attention, but leave the management entirely to one or more of the officers. The directors seldom meet as a board and know very little of the bank's affairs. Such banks are, as a rule, dominated by one man, or one or two of the directors, who, usually, are free borrowers. In this class of banks loose and dangerous practices will be found, injudicious loaning, speculative tendencies, and very often absolute incompetency.
It was this class of banks that Mr. Murray had in mind when he issued his famous twenty-nine questions. He made the same mistake in this respect in regard to directors that he did in measuring the standard of efficiency of the examiners as a whole by the shortcomings of a few. Such of his questions as were rational were very appropriate in their application to the directors of banks of this class. Had the questions been well considered and directed toward the essential features of what constitutes good and proper management, they would have accomplished their purpose in stirring up the directors of such institutions to a sense of their responsibilities and duties to their respective associations and their depositors and stockholders, instead of inspiring ridicule, as they did, by being submitted to the boards of directors of banks whose management was all that any reasonable-minded man familiar with proper and efficient bank management could expect.
While Mr. Murray was no doubt actuated by proper motives in endeavoring to raise the standard of bank management, as he was in endeavoring to raise the standard of bank examinations, his failure to discriminate in each instance between good and bad management and examinations, and the publicity he gave to the percentage of directors who did not know the things they were not required to know and which it was not necessary they should know, and the things they did not do and which it was unnecessary for them to do, had the effect of weakening confidence in the banks by creating in the public mind the false impression that the directors of all banks were neglectful alike of their duties and permitted their institutions to be run in a loose and dangerous manner.
A public official who is actuated by sincere and sensible motives in quietly inaugurating administrative reforms which he honestly believes to be for the best good of the service of which he is in charge is a valuable public servant and is deserving of the commendation and hearty support and encouragement of every right-minded citizen. But the official who attempts to make radical changes in long-established usages, which affect vast interests, without regard to the merit of such changes or their effect upon such interests, but simply for the purpose of exploiting himself in the public eye as a reformer, and to secure the approbation of the public through misrepresentation of actual conditions and facts, is a dangerous character in any position of trust and responsibility, and the sooner his real essence is disclosed and his methods and motives exposed, the better for the public service and the interests affected by his ill-considered acts.