‘Banking While Black’: How Cashing a Check Can Be a Minefield

Black customers risk being racially profiled on everyday visits to bank branches. Under federal laws, there is little recourse as long as the banks ultimately complete their transactions.

Clarice Middleton shook with fear as she stood on the sidewalk outside a Wells Fargo branch in Atlanta one December morning in 2018. Moments earlier, she had tried to cash a $200 check, only to be accused of fraud by three branch employees, who then called 911.

Ms. Middleton, who is black, remembers thinking: “I don’t want to die.”

For many black Americans, going to the bank can be a fraught experience. Something as simple as trying to cash a check or open a bank account can lead to suspicious employees summoning the police, causing anxiety and fear — and sometimes even physical danger — for the accused customers.

There is no data on how frequently the police are called on customers who are making legitimate everyday transactions. The phenomenon has its own social media hashtag: #BankingWhileBlack.

Most people who experience an episode of racial profiling don’t report it, lawyers say. Some find it easier to engage in private settlement negotiations. The few who sue — as Ms. Middleton did — are unlikely to win in court because of loopholes in the law. Now, the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which set off nationwide protests against systemic racism, is prompting more people to speak up.

Ms. Middleton had gone to the Wells Fargo branch in Druid Hills, a wealthy, mostly white neighborhood in Atlanta, to cash a refund for a security deposit from a real estate company that had an account with the bank. Three bank employees examined the check and her identification, but refused to look at the additional proof Ms. Middleton offered. They declared the check fraudulent, and one employee called the police, according to her lawsuit.

When an officer arrived, Ms. Middleton showed him her identification and the check stub. As a former bank teller, she knew that would be proof enough that her check was authentic. The officer left without taking action. The Wells Fargo employees asked Ms. Middleton whether she still wanted to cash the check.

“I said yes, because they had written all over the back of the check,” said Ms. Middleton, who sued Wells Fargo last year for racial discrimination and defamation and sought an unspecified amount of damages.

Mary Eshet, a Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said Ms. Middleton had begun yelling “abusive and profane language” at the employees when she saw her ID being scanned.

“Employees tried to address Ms. Middleton’s concerns by explaining our policies, but Ms. Middleton continued to yell profane language,” Ms Eshet said. “She was asked to leave the branch multiple times and refused, so our employees followed their processes to engage law enforcement.” She added that the bank “appreciates the sensitivities of engaging law enforcement and the importance of continually reviewing our training, policies and procedures.”

Ms. Middleton’s lawyer, Yechezkel Rodal, said her client had not used profanity. “Wells Fargo is in possession of the video surveillance showing exactly what happened in the branch that morning,” he said. “The video will not support Wells Fargo’s lies.”

Some incidents play out without the involvement of police or courts.

In March 2019, Jabari Bennett wanted to withdraw $6,400 in cash to buy a used Toyota Camry from a dealership in Wilmington, Del. He had just sold his house in Atlanta and moved to Wilmington to live with his mother. Having been a Wells Fargo customer for four years — he had around $70,000 in his account from the sale of his house — Mr. Bennett walked into a nearby branch expecting to be back at the dealership and in his Camry within minutes.

He came away empty-handed and reeling.

First, a teller refused to accept that he was the account holder, questioning his out-of-state driver’s license, he said — even though Mr. Bennett had informed the bank of his new address just two weeks earlier. Then, a branch manager told Mr. Bennett to leave. He left in disbelief, then returned to try to complete the transaction. This time, the manager threatened to call the police. Mr. Bennett left again.

The experience “made me feel like I was nothing,” Mr. Bennett said.

He abandoned the deal on the car. A week later, he moved all his money out of Wells Fargo and then hired Mr. Rodal, who had gained a reputation for representing black customers against the bank after the story of one of his clients went viral in 2018. Mr. Rodal sent Wells Fargo a letter, but negotiations stalled.

Mr. Bennett decided to share his story publicly in light of the recent protests: “I don’t want anybody else to go through what I went through.”

Ms. Eshet, the Wells Fargo spokeswoman, said that branch employees were trained to spot potential fraud, and that the bank had increased security protocols to thwart internet scams involving large transfers of money.

“In this instance, there were enough markers for our team to conduct extra diligence in order to protect the customer and the bank,” she said.

The protests also pushed Benndrick Watson into action.

Last spring, Mr. Watson was driven out of a Wells Fargo branch in Westchase, a wealthy neighborhood near Tampa, Fla., by what the branch manager described as a “slip of the tongue.”

Mr. Watson, who was already a bank customer with a personal checking account, went to the branch to open a business account for his law firm.

A banker did a corporate records search and found Mr. Watson’s other business, a record label. Mr. Watson tried to direct the employee to the records for his law firm instead.

Eventually, the branch manager got involved. He sat down across from Mr. Watson and watched him enter information, including his Social Security number, into a keypad.

Then, the man uttered the N-word.

”He just said it — clear as day, no mistake,” Mr. Watson said. “My jaw just dropped, I dropped the pen, there was silence, he kind of looked at me, I said: ‘Did you really just say that?’”

Mr. Watson said the man had immediately begun to protest, saying that he had not meant to use the word, and that he was deeply sorry. Mr. Watson did not buy it. He got up and left. The manager followed him to his car, apologizing profusely, and resigned from the bank shortly afterward.

“I felt like I had a knife in my gut,” Mr. Watson said. “It’s a sickening word.”

Mr. Watson turned to Mr. Rodal, who wrote to Wells Fargo seeking an apology. The bank’s regional president, Steve Schultz, responded. “It seems that the utterance of the offensive term was unintentional,” Mr. Schultz wrote, but said the bank had taken “corrective action” against the branch manager anyway, without providing details. Ms. Eshet of Wells Fargo said the manager was deemed ineligible for any job with the bank.

Mr. Watson sued Wells Fargo in federal court in Florida on June 4.

In a statement, Ms. Eshet said: “We deeply apologize to Mr. Watson. There’s no excuse for it, and while we took action to address the matter, it cannot undo what happened and how he felt. We are very sorry.”

The problem is hardly confined to Wells Fargo. Last June, Robyn Murphy, a public relations consultant in Maryland, took her 18-year-old son, Jason, to a Bank of America branch in Owings Mills, Md., to open a joint savings account. Ms. Murphy, a 20-year customer of the bank, said she was shocked when an employee refused to proceed after a computer program flagged her son’s Social Security number as fraudulent.

Ms. Murphy protested: Her son had his own checking account at the bank. His Social Security number had already been used there without issue. The Murphys are black. Mr. Murphy, his mother said, is 6-foot-9.

“For all I know, it’s fraud,” the employee told them. Ms. Murphy said he had asked them to come back with Mr. Murphy’s Social Security card. When Mr. Murphy stood up, the employee yelled: “Don’t get up!”

After Ms. Murphy contacted a senior vice president she knew at the bank, other officials apologized and offered to open the branch whenever it was convenient for the Murphys to return and complete the transaction — which they did.

“It weighed on us very heavily for a long time,” Ms. Murphy said.

“We understand the client did not feel she and her son were treated properly in this interaction with our team, and we regret that,” Bill Halldin, a Bank of America spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “These alerts are designed to protect our clients from fraud and misuse of their personal information.” He declined to comment on what, if any, action the bank had taken against the employee.

Banks say they reject racism of any sort. The country’s four largest banks by asset size, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citigroup, all require branch employees to complete annual diversity training, according to the banks’ representatives.

Still, banks have not managed to weed out discrimination. The New York Times reported in December that a JPMorgan Chase employee had described a customer as being “from Section 8” and therefore undeserving of service. The bank has since said it would seek to increase its sensitivity to issues surrounding race.

But little is mandated by law. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 lists specific businesses that may not treat black customers differently: movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, and performance and sports venues. Federal courts have held that because the law identifies the kinds of businesses to which it applies, those not on the list, such as banks, cannot be held to it. That loophole makes it hard for victims of racial profiling to win in court.

There is an additional limitation. In 1866, Congress created new laws to establish rights for black Americans, including one giving them the right to enter into agreements to buy goods or services and have those contracts enforced. Courts have since ruled that the law requires only that service be granted eventually.

In 2012, for instance, a federal appeals court ruled that a Hispanic man who had been turned away by a white cashier at a Target store in Florida did not have a case against Target because he was able to complete his purchases with a different cashier.

That could stymie Ms. Middleton’s case. Wells Fargo is arguing that because she was eventually able to cash her check, a judge should dismiss it.

Steve Eisman: “They mistook leverage for genius”


Steve Eisman: Quantitative Easing was a failure: it didn’t get corporations to borrow and invest. Rather, they borrowed and bought up their own stock.

 


Steve Eisman: Inequality was cause of Financial Crisis (10:17)

 

Steve Eisman: They made money because of their leverage (debt ratio) and they mistook their leverage for genius (12:19)

 

Steve Eisman was one of the few who predicted the 2008 financial crisis, and he made his name by foreseeing the collapse of subprime mortgage market.

Michael Lewis portrays him as one of the heroes in the bestselling book The Big Short and Steve Carrell plays an outspoken version of him in the Oscar-winning movie of the same name.

EFN:s Katrine Marçal meets Steve Eisman at Claridges hotel in London.


Transcript

00:00
they’re all getting screwed you know you
00:03
know if they care about they care about
00:04
the ballgame or they care about what
00:06
actresses went into rehab I think you
00:08
should try medication no no we agreed if
00:12
it interferes with work you hate Wall
00:14
Street maybe it’s time to quit I love my
00:15
job you hate your job I love my job
00:18
you’re miserable I love my job I love my
00:21
job honey
00:22
mark Steve Iseman welcome to the offense
00:25
I’m glad to be here so you’ve been
00:27
portrayed in a book and in a film what
00:30
did you prefer I would say they were
both fairly accurate as the way I was
back then and let’s just leave it at
00:38
that okay okay so I’ve heard that some
00:42
Brad Pitt’s almost caladium in the film
00:44
it’s not true I got a phone call from
00:47
Adam McKay who was the author director
00:50
of the movie in November of 2015 to say
00:58
that he was writing the movie and that
01:02
there was a possibility that Brad Pitt
01:04
would play me to which I responded that
01:08
the only thing Brad Pitt and I have in
01:10
common is that we both have really good
01:11
hair okay
01:13
so being one a few people who sold the
01:16
financial crash coming how did it feel
01:18
to have see this big disaster unfold and
01:20
not being able to do anything about it
01:23
the analogy I use it’s a little bit like
Noah in the ark yeah so you know Noah’s
on the ark he’s okay and that he saved
his family but he’s not exactly happy
hearing everybody screaming outside
01:38
that’s was sort of my experience all
01:41
right did you think the financial market
01:44
potential market from the financial
01:46
sector would get back get back to
01:47
business and get back to some kind of
01:49
normal as quickly as it did no I didn’t
01:51
expect it would it would happen that
01:53
quickly you know a lot of that was the
01:57
fact that the government backstop the
01:59
system and once the become a backstop
02:01
the system it was what the financial
02:04
markets did come back but the banking
02:05
system has been changed so in the book
02:08
and the film it becomes very clear that
02:09
you’re you betting against the subprime
02:11
mortgage market is not
02:13
just a trade but it’s kind of a moral
02:15
crusade are you still on this moral
02:17
crusade I’m not because a lot has
02:20
changed
02:22
you know dodd-frank I think really fixed
02:25
a lot of things leverage has come down
02:27
enormous ly the Consumer Financial
02:29
Protection Board has been put in place
02:31
to protect consumers I the world’s very
02:33
different from what it was pre-crisis
02:35
hmm but now many of these things are
02:38
threatening I mean Donald Trump has
02:39
promised to repeal vast parts of the
02:41
dodd-frank act for example it’s not
02:44
something I’m in favor of I think that
02:46
will be a big fight you know it’s
02:48
possible the industry is going to get
02:50
deregulated to a degree we’re not going
02:52
to go back to what we where it was so
02:54
for example you know Citigroup used to
02:56
be levered 35 to 1 today its levered 10
03:00
to 1 I feel if we go into some type of
03:03
deregulation maybe you get 2 to 3 turns
03:05
more leverage it’s not something that
03:07
I’m personally in favor of but I don’t
03:08
think it’s a calamity hmm so do you
03:11
think with Donald Trump be president
03:14
today if more than one banker had gone
03:17
to jail for the financial crisis it’s an
03:19
excellent question and the answer is I
03:22
don’t know you know I don’t know
03:24
I’m cold about it I’ve thought about it
03:26
a lot
03:27
I think there’s a definite very strong
03:30
sentiment that it was wrong that nobody
03:34
went to jail I’m not going to say if
03:36
that sentiment is right or not but
03:39
there’s definitely a very strong
03:40
sentiment in the country that that’s the
03:41
case and I think people are very angry
03:44
that nobody did go to jail again I’m not
03:46
going to say whether that’s right or
03:48
wrong and if people had gone to jail I
03:50
think that would have soothed some of
03:52
the hangar that was seen in the election
03:55
so it’s possible that impact of the
03:57
election but it’s impossible it’s
03:58
impossible to say right so now taxes are
04:01
going to be can’t and Finance regulators
04:03
because the populace to campaign against
04:05
Wall Street 1 correct correct okay so
04:09
what do you do with investment then I
04:11
hear you you are investing quite a lot
04:13
in bank stocks well I mean there’s
04:15
there’s two issues there’s what I think
04:18
about finance the financial system and
04:20
what I think about financial stocks and
04:24
the two don’t necessarily
04:26
correlate so with respect to the
04:28
financial system I think that what’s
04:31
been done has been a good thing but it’s
04:34
been very intense bank the dodd-frank
04:36
act and the Fed forcing people to
04:39
de-lever to de-risk etc so from a
04:43
financial system I’m very happy I could
04:47
say very strongly the United States
financial system has never been held
this healthy in my lifetime but it’s
been very painful for financial stocks
because as you de-lever and do risk you
make less money and therefore it hurts
your stock price so the last six years
05:08
or so have been extremely painful for
05:10
financial stocks especially banks as
05:13
they’ve de-levered and dearest well if
05:16
we’re going to go into world where we’re
05:17
going to deregulate and leverage is
05:19
going to go up at least some just
05:22
reverse the story
05:23
so therefore financial stocks should do
05:25
well right okay
05:27
like I said financial system financial
05:30
stocks but you are not necessarily the
05:32
same an interest rates in America are
05:34
going up yes that’s very good for banks
05:37
all right
05:37
so America is kind of moving from a
05:39
monetary stimulus to a fiscal stimulus
05:41
with something but it’s like that’s
05:43
something I’m in favor of yes I think
05:45
it’s a good thing the infrastructure
05:46
investment yeah that’s right until not
05:48
believe that quantitative easing is a
05:52
successful strategy why not there are
05:55
too many negative impacts for from it to
06:00
I mean look it was a noble experiment
06:02
there was no fiscal expansion there was
06:04
no other game in town so I don’t blame
06:06
the Fed for doing it the idea was that
lowering rates would cause people to go
up or out on the risk curve and vest in
the economy and really the other thing
happened was they went out on the risk
curve by buying back their own stock
they didn’t really invest in the economy
06:22
and with lower rates that hurts consumer
06:25
because they makes us money we pay the
06:26
money in the bank so I haven’t you know
06:30
when we started the monetary policy of
06:33
quantitative easing
06:34
us growth was one-and-a-half to two
06:38
percent and after we did it it’s one and
06:41
a half to two percent so in my view
quantitative easing is a failure
06:45
alright so in November you said to the
06:48
Guardian in Europe but Europe is screwed
06:50
you guys are still screwed referring to
06:53
their non-performing loans in the
06:54
Italian depends of the country yes
06:56
are we in Europe still screwed well my
07:00
wife wish I hadn’t said that
07:01
yes so okay oh we in big trouble not big
07:07
it depends on the country you know Italy
07:10
has a very large non-performing loan
07:11
problem I don’t see the Italian
07:14
government doing anything to really
07:16
solve that problem if they like before
07:18
Christmas that was a nasty suppose that
07:20
was just monte de Paz yeah and you never
07:22
like to say monte de Partie because it’s
07:24
such a great name and the world’s oldest
07:27
bank as the world’s oldest bank correct
07:29
and I don’t you know you could try and
07:31
Simmel to deposit ten times fast it’s
07:33
very hard but it’s not really solving
07:37
the problem I mean this is something
07:39
called a Texas ratio which is a ratio
07:42
that bank analyst Achon myself compute
07:45
which is non-performing loans divided by
07:49
tangible book value plus reserves
07:52
basically the numerators all the bad
07:54
stuff divided by the money you have to
07:57
pay for the bad stuff and one of the
08:00
great lessons about bank analysis is
08:03
that one in Texas ratio gets over a
08:05
hundred percent the bank is done and in
08:08
Italy the two largest banks are in paisa
08:11
and you credit and their Texas ratios
08:15
are at ninety percent and every other
08:17
Bank in Italy is over 100 percent so I
08:21
don’t envy Italy the problem ok famous
08:24
ahma is the country there’s the bigger
08:26
than I think it won’t come and I think
08:28
the problem with the banks generally in
08:30
Europe is that they are still under
08:33
capitalized and they they are they do
08:37
not make enough money per dollar
08:39
employed basically European banks don’t
charge enough for this
services they never have and they’ve
tried to make up the difference with
leverage and in a world where you have
to use less leverage that model doesn’t
work
what about Deutsche Bank quite the same
well don’t you make sort of the poster
child for that let’s think about this
09:01
this way so today if a bank has a 1%
09:08
return on asset and is loved or ten to
09:12
one the return on equity is 10% that’s
09:15
the simple formula so you know Citigroup
09:19
for example doesn’t even have a 1% ROA
09:23
but they’re not that far off but
09:27
Deutsche Bank today has a 30 basis point
09:29
ROA they need to improve their
09:31
profitability by more than three times
09:34
there’s no way Georgia Bank on its own
09:37
can improve its profitability three
09:39
times the entire European banking system
09:41
has to be price you know how that’s
09:44
going to ever happen I don’t know but
09:46
until it does your paint banks it could
09:48
be a problem
09:49
they’re going to be a problem so you’ve
09:50
been in here in London for a few hours
09:52
now and you must have realized already
09:54
that the only thing people talk about
09:55
here with breakfast yes
09:57
so what financial risks do you see
09:59
coming from brexit big question is a big
10:04
question
10:04
okay what will happen in March I have no
10:07
idea you have no I really have no idea
10:08
honestly I don’t think and more
10:11
importantly anybody else has any idea
10:12
that it’s going to be an adventure a not
10:15
so it’s going to be a fun adventure but
10:17
it’s going to be an adventure so you
10:18
said that we’re very bad at dealing with
10:20
crises that develop very slowly and you
put the blame on the big financial
crisis of 2007-2008 on income
distribution really do you see that
10:32
changing at all I mean let me explain
10:35
that yes because it’s not intuitively
10:39
obvious how the two are connected so you
10:42
know my thesis is that one of the
underlying causes of the financial
crisis it was bad income distribution so
you know when I say that people’s eyes
generally clays are like you know what
are you talking about
but I think that there’s a
cause-and-effect relationship in that
you know starting in the 90s when income
distribution started to get really poor
in the United States rather than focus
on that and what the solutions worth of
that problem let credit get democratized
that was the euphemism for will will
make loans to people that we didn’t make
loans to before so rather than get
people’s incomes up they let them lever
themselves [take out more debt] and one of the ways people
lever themselves was by taking out loans
on their homes and loving themselves
that way and so I think one of the
causes of the subprime mortgage crisis
is that you know post dodd-frank hard to
get a mortgage loan yeah you know
incomes have only started to start
growing again we’ll have to see what it
does the new administration can do
anything hmm
so it don’t Frank it’s harder to get a
loan but well it’s hard to get a
mortgage why although I don’t think that
I caused a defect of dodd-frank I think
it’s more of an effect of all the fines
that were imposed on the banks for the
mortgage crisis and so the banks I think
not unjustifiably are kind of worried
12:11
about making mortgage loans that they
12:14
might they might not should or should
12:16
not make so the financial crisis what he
12:19
said the main problem was the products
12:22
the tools available or the culture ah I
would say is one of the unsung aspects
of the financial crisis that people have
definitely not written that up about
which is psychology yes and what I mean
by psychology is you have an entire
generation of Wall Street executives who
grew up in the 90s in the early aughts
who really only had one experience which
is they made more money every single
year now what they didn’t really notice
was that as they were making more money
every single year the leverage of their
various institutions was increasing
every single year
now they thought they were making more
money because it was them but really
what was happening as they were making
more money because their institution was
becoming more levered and really what
happened was they mistook leverage for
genius
I wrote that sentence by the way I read
that I do it’s a good son it’s a good
sentence I don’t write a lot of good
sentences but that’s definitely one of
them tweetable yes it’s very good right
if I tweeted I would tweet listen I am
so let’s imagine you went to a Wall
Street executive in circa 2006 and you
said to the CEO of you know pick the
name of your institution and you’d say
dude listen the entire paradigm of your
career is wrong you have to de-lever so
did you ever have a conversation like
that I did I’ve never told this story
before there’s like AI now it can be
told story okay um so the day is
February 2008 and I have a meeting with
the head of Risk Management and one of
the big Wall Street firms we won’t name
them anyone else today but it wouldn’t
matter because I would have had the same
it would have been the same conversation
with any of them
given what was discussion one so I sit
down with a head of risk management of
one of the big farms it’s one month
before Bear Stearns almost to the day
and I say to him you have got to de-lever
and you’ve got to de-lever now because
Armageddon is coming the point of it is
the direct that’s almost a direct quote
I used the word Armageddon and he looks
at me and he says you know I hear what
you’re saying but you know we at X we
can be much more levered to the bank now
back then there was a bank based in
Detroit called net city it was a
medium-sized regional bank and it had a
lot of subprime mortgages so it was a
bit of the topic of the day and so I
said to him you know do you know what
happens if knacks City goes down and he
says no what happens I said nothing the
regulator’s come in they seize the bank
they pay off the depositors they fix the
bank they sell the bank the government
takes something of a loss end of story
do you know what happens if your firm
goes down planet earth burns who should
be more levered and he looked at me like
I was speaking ancient Greek like he
just it was so outside his paradigm it’s
like he didn’t know I was talking about
and I realized it was over that there
was no way these guys were going to do
what needed to be done before the world
blew up but I think we’re going to see
someone to go to jail right
I mean you can have to break up the bank
partido I don’t know I don’t know I have
a feeling in a few years people are
going to be doing what they always do in
the economy tanks they would be blaming
immigrants and poor people it’s not X
equate from you is that Hollywood’s a
great quote it’s a great mark it’s not
yellow it was written by Adam McKay with
the author and director and but did you
16:26
think in those terms back then oh I
16:28
always think in those times always
16:30
thinks in terms of disaster yes why is
16:33
that just I have a very strange DNA do
16:39
you see this paradigm changing at all
16:40
this culture I was told check it steady
16:42
change they’ve been beaten to a pulp
16:44
yeah
16:45
you know the dodd-frank gave much more
16:49
power to the Fed to regulate the banks
16:53
that power was put in the hand of
16:56
Governor Daniel Tarullo and I think he’s
17:00
done a tremendous job of de-levering the
17:03
banks in the United States you know I
17:05
would say the CEOs of the bank’s fought
17:09
him kicking and screaming but I’d say in
17:12
the last year or two they gave up and I
17:15
know you said before that Europe’s done
17:18
not as good of a job with that that’s
17:21
correct why well it’s what your starting
17:25
point so you know just pre-crisis
17:29
Citigroup is levered thirty five to one
17:31
deutsche bank is lowered over 50 to one
17:35
so today’s Citigroup is levered ten to
17:37
one and deutsche bank depending on how
17:40
you calculate is probably levered twenty
17:41
five to one so everybody’s leverage is
17:44
lower European banks have always been
17:48
much more levered than US banks so
17:51
they’re still more levered they just
17:53
left levered than they were right not
17:57
they’re not de-levered enough to my taste
17:59
yes
18:00
but that again we gets back to the Paula
18:03
Mills they’re not profitable enough per
18:05
dollar employed so the regulator’s in
18:08
Europe let them be more levered I think
18:10
it’s a mistake but that’s the way the
18:12
systems it works okay and everyone’s
18:16
asking you what the next one of the
18:17
crisis is going to be so I don’t have a
18:19
dick I know I’m not going to ask you
18:20
money I will ask you that question I say
18:25
you know everybody’s trying to pick the
18:28
next big short and I’ve done that
18:30
already I’m in no rush
18:31
okay thanks a lot Steve Eisman thank you

Everything Is Going Wrong All at Once for U.S. Banks

Epidemic triggers risks from low interest rates, slow loan growth and sliding stock and energy prices

Add together some of the biggest challenges U.S. banks weathered in the dozen years since the financial crisis, and you get an idea of how bad the coronavirus epidemic could be for them.

A decade ago, banks persevered through a recession and widespread loan defaults. Until 2015, they endured years of ultralow interest rates and slow loan growth that pressured their profitability. In 2015 and 2018, banks survived selloffs in the stock market. In 2016, the industry came through a collapse in energy prices with a few bruises, but no big busts.

Now, banks face all those threats simultaneously. Many of their businesses mirror economic activity, so falling growth and rising unemployment can dent their profits. Sharp drops in asset prices can sap their investment-banking and trading revenues as deal activity and investors pause.

Banks entered the year better capitalized and less reliant on flighty, short-term funding than they were on the eve of the financial crisis. But their earnings likely will suffer.

Fears of the impact of the coronavirus have erased all of the “Trump Bump” gains that the KBW Nasdaq Bank Index and four of the six largest U.S. banks had notched since the 2016 presidential election. The KBW index fell more than 10% Thursday morning as investors bet that new travel restrictions and the possibility of more rate cuts from the Federal Reserve will continue to hammer the financial sector.

Here is a look at how banks could fare in a coronavirus-related slowdown:

Lower Lending Revenue

Around two-thirds of banks’ revenue last year came from interest earned on loans and securities, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The rates banks charge on some large categories of loans, including commercial and industrial lending and credit-card balances, are tied to benchmarks that have fallen in recent weeks. That threatens to crimp banks’ net interest income.

For instance, a reduction of 1 percentage point in both short- and long-term interest rates translates to $6.54 billion in lost interest income in 2020 for Bank of America Corp., BAC -9.53% or roughly 7% of its annual revenue, according to estimates from Credit Suisse Group AG. Bank of America is an outlier, but the average big U.S. bank will face a 2% hit to revenue from a drop in interest rates of that magnitude, according to Credit Suisse.

Falling Loan Growth

Banks might also struggle to make up on loan volume what they are giving up in terms of loan yields. Throughout 2019, businesses and consumers showed a willingness to borrow, and loan balances at all U.S. banks at the end of the year were up 3.6% from their levels at the end of 2018, according to FDIC data.

More recently, fears of the coronavirus weighed on businesses’ decisions to invest and expand, especially in sectors such as travel and hospitality and in industries that depend on global supply chains. Commercial and industrial loans increased by less than 1.5% each week in February compared with the same period last year, according to data from the Fed. In February 2019, commercial and industrial growth exceeded 10% each week.

Consumers have borrowed from banks at a higher pace than corporations have since the start of the year, but have started to flag in recent weeks. Since late January, banks’ consumer-loan growth has plateaued at just under 6%, according to Fed data.

Consumer Crunch

The prospect of scores of consumers missing work and forfeiting paychecks also bodes poorly for many of the loans banks already have on their books. Delinquencies and defaults on mortgages, auto loans, credit cards and other forms of consumer borrowing tend to rise and fall with the unemployment rate, and any prolonged period of joblessness likely will mean that borrowers fall behind on their loan payments.

Banks have been more conservative in extending credit to consumers since the financial crisis, and the industrywide loan-loss rate is well below its long-term averages and just 0.18 percentage point above its record low in 2006, according to analysts at Barclays BCS -14.82% PLC. But things can worsen quickly: Banks have been reducing the reserves they have set aside to cover potential defaults in recent quarters, even as defaults on certain loan categories have been rising, according to FDIC data.

Even if consumers keep paying back their loans, their spending on luxuries such as dining out and vacations is likely to fall, decreasing revenue that banks earn on those kinds of credit- and debit-card transactions.

Not Out of Energy

Many of banks’ corporate borrowers will also face difficulties making loan payments in a worsening economy, especially those in the energy sector. A steep decline in oil prices this week means oil and natural-gas companies will have less money coming in to meet existing debt payments and a less valuable asset in the form of energy reserves that they will be able to borrow against.

If energy prices stay at this level, loan losses in banks’ energy portfolios would notch a “notable uptick,” analysts at KBW wrote in a note on Monday. The four largest U.S. banks have $65.5 billion in exposure to U.S. oil-and-gas companies, and loans to such companies account for more than 10% of overall portfolios at several regional U.S. banks, according to KBW.

Markets

Revenue from Wall Street businesses such as investment banking and trading account for one of banks’ biggest sources of fee income, and both are sensitive to the impact of the coronavirus. Since the start of the year, reluctance from corporate chiefs to pursue deals has driven global mergers-and-acquisitions volume down 28% from this point in 2019, according to data from Dealogic. Citigroup Inc. C -14.83% is expecting investment-banking fees to fall in the first quarter, finance chief Mark Mason said at an investor conference Wednesday.

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Volatile markets and big swings in stocks, bonds and commodities kept banks’ trading desks busy during the first quarter, but fees from that business likely won’t be enough to offset weakness elsewhere. Banks employ fewer traders today than they did during the financial crisis, and with more trading moving to electronic venues, some fees have come down. Mr. Mason said Citigroup’s trading revenue was expected to increase “in the mid-single-digit range” in the first quarter, even though trading volumes rose by much more.