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Banks should pay heed to Occupy Wall Street protests

Marchers with Occupy Wall Street lead off a march that included labor unions through Lower Manhattan Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011 in New York.

Craig Ruttle/Craig Ruttle/AP

The Occupy Wall Street protests are easily shrugged off as a rag-tag band of activists with disparate aims, from ending corporate greed to cancelling student debt to breaking up banks to just having a good time in the streets.

And plenty of people are doing just that: Shrugging off the growing protests as the work of freeloaders who want to take from the rich.

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, a former executive at a pizza chain, criticized the Occupy Wall Street protest movement that began in New York as "un-American." Rival candidate Mitt Romney, a former private equity fund executive, has called it "class warfare."

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But there are large players in the financial industry itself who are paying attention. From Laurence Fink, the head of the world's largest asset management company, to some senior Canadian bankers, there's a realization that the protesters are not just a bunch of flakes. There is something deeper feeding their anger, and it could have legs.

The three-week-old protests have seen 700 people arrested for blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. Protesters have camped out in a New York park for days on end. The crowds are growing. An estimated 15,000 people marched in New York last week. And now the protests are spreading, with thousands gathering in Washington D.C.

Underlying the movement is a real concern about lost homes, lost jobs and lost futures, argues Mr. Fink, head of BlackRock Inc., the world's largest asset management company.

"These are not lazy people who are just sitting around and trying to find something to do," he told reporters in Toronto last week. "These are men and women who say 'I don't like the direction where we're going. I'm frightened of the future. Nothing else has worked so we're going to the streets.' "

The protests are a concern for Canadian banks. For some, they have to worry about the implications for their growing businesses in the United States. Toronto-Dominion Bank has grown into one of the biggest banks in the eastern U.S., and Bank of Montreal recently bought a big Midwestern lender.

In the U.S., "people are really angry with their banks and they don't discriminate," said a senior Canadian bank official. "This is how things start ...We're definitely paying attention."

There's also the possibility that the protests will spread to Canada. A copycat protest is planned for Toronto. A group calling itself Occupy Toronto Market Exchange plans to start protesting on Oct. 15, and judging by their website, they plan to keep at it for many days, like the U.S. protesters. There are also some plans for protests in other Canadian cities.

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To be sure, if the protests do descend on Canada, it's going to feel a lot more forced and may have trouble gaining the same momentum.

While some of the anger fuelling the protests in the U.S. is a natural outgrowth from a view that corrupt banks brought down the economy and ruined lives, Canada's banks have done no such things.

The country's housing market is holding up, loans are available. What's to protest? Yes, banks make a lot of money so they are a target for the "end corporate greed" slogans, but beyond that, it's hard to imagine what the protesters will chant. Hey-hey, ho-ho, those big home equity loans have got to go? It just doesn't have the ring.

But as Mr. Fink argues, there's something deeper, beyond the sloganeering.

For many, it's about a perception that the middle class can't get ahead because society is becoming more polarized. Bankers with their big pay packages and banks with their billion-dollar profits symbolize that. Whether or not the anger is misdirected, that's bad for business.

"We should all pause and say, 'What is the point here?' " Mr. Fink said. "I'm not talking about the words or the posters. What is the implication? From my perspective, the implication is we have people losing hope and going into the streets."

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