Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, back home in Wellesley after attending last week’s World Economic Forum in Switzerland, made appearances this week at both Babson College and the Wellesley Country Club to share takeaways from Davos and updates on the economy.
We attended the Country Club event, hosted by Rotary Club of Wellesley, a community service organization that has been making big strides locally on the food insecurity front. We had planned to attend the event purely as guests, leaving the interviewing that night to Katherine Doherty of Bloomberg News, who chatted with Moynihan on stage before the audience had its turn with a Q&A.
But shortly after the discussion began, a group of more than a dozen environmental activists secretly embedded at the dinner tables got up and surrounded the stage with large banners in hand. In a surprising and scary publicity stunt, they yelled and chanted about BoA’s funding of companies in the fossil fuel industry. Moynihan left the stage; protesters were escorted from the dining room, and left the club peacefully after the Wellesley Police appeared. The activists had a Rolling Stone reporter in tow who fitted the incident into a broader article on climate activism.
This wasn’t the first time climate activists have targeted a Wellesley bank. For example, a Chase bank branch was given an unwarm welcome upon its arrival in 2022.
Following last night’s interruption, Moynihan and Doherty carried on with their conversation.
Attendees lived vicariously through Moynihan regarding his attendance at the just-completed World Economic Forum, which annually attracts world political, business, and cultural leaders to Switzerland.
All eyes are on the United States, Moynihan said, including the country’s significant backing of Ukraine. “If Ukraine’s going to be successful, the United States has to be behind them,” he said. Those from other countries “are worried about the stability of the United States as a partner,” he said. Likewise, the U.S. is putting big dollars into stabilizing the Middle East, he said.
In every session, people wanted to talk to U.S. business and political leaders about the upcoming election, Moynihan said. U.S. leaders assured others that the election would happen and the world would go on. The power of capitalism and democracy has prevailed through other tough times, he later said.
Other topics covered included everything from last year’s high-profile bank failures and the commercial real estate crunch to the latest on Wellesley’s BoA branches, including the Wellesley Hills branch on Washington Street (Moynihan assured one guest that he’d help her track down her safe deposit box…). And yes, attention did return to fossil fuel investments before the night was done.
As for the 2023 failures of institutions such as Silicon Valley Bank, Moynihan said such banks weren’t as big as they may have seemed, and that churn is a natural part of the banking system. BoA and others paid billions into the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation pool to help stabilize things. He argued that the overall banking system proved its strength throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as well, even as the economy was in crisis.
The bank executive also expressed optimism about the economy, noting that while consumer spending has slowed from a year ago, it was unusually high then. More normal spending will help get inflation in line, he said.
Not that Moynihan suggested there’s clear sailing across the financial waters. Asked by Bloomberg’s Doherty, “Do you see any risks on the horizon?,” Moynihan replied: “All of them.”
Among them, the situations in the Middle East and Ukraine, which depending on how they go, “could be very difficult for the world to absorb,” Moynihan said.
Back to the issue of climate destabilization, an attendee said near the end of the event that he can understand “these young people” (referring to the protesters) being nervous about their futures, but asked Moynihan what’s going to happen to investors in facilities such as natural gas pipelines and terminals if they are stranded.
The BoA CEO, a veteran of attending United Nations COP climate change conferences, said much has changed over the past decade-plus in the private sector as companies and countries have committed to net-zero goals in the decades to come. History-changing efforts are underway at companies like Occidental Petroleum, which Moynihan said is making “massive investments in carbon capture storage,” and others in committing to sustainable aviation fuel. BoA has countered criticism from activists as well as environmental outfits like Sierra Club by pointing to investments it has made to address climate change. “We literally did $150B of financing of green projects around the world last year,” Moynihan said. “It’s a transition, it has to happen.”