To be a banker during the past few years meant you probably had a lot more money than you had friends.
Whether accurate or not, many Americans think Wall Street greed precipitated the 2008 financial crash that cost millions their jobs and/or financial assets. President Obama famously derided financial executives as “fat-cat bankers” traversing the country on corporate jets. When there were news reports that $8.7 billion in U.S. funds had gone missing in Iraq, Jay Leno joked, “I didn’t even know they had a Goldman Sachs (GS) over there.”
The jokes may keep coming, but bankers these days are more popular than they used to be. A new poll by Gallup shows the banking industry qualifies for a Most Improved award in 2013, with an 18-point jump in its reputational rating. Banking still has something of a black eye, with 43% of Americans saying they have a negative view of it and just 33% having a positive view. But that’s much better than the numbers from last year: a 53% negative rating and a mere 25% positive rating. Overall, it’s the biggest improvement in any of the 25 industries Gallup measures.
Still plenty of fuel for criticism
That has happened even though banks continue to provide plenty of fuel for criticism. Many of them have been adding new fees while cutting back on services depositors used to take for granted, such as free checking. Meanwhile, controversies such as J.P. Morgan Chases’s (JPM) “London Whale” fiasco, a spate of insider trading prosecutions and ongoing litigation relating to the 2008 crash has kept a black hat firmly pulled over the ears of the financial industry.
What’s making Americans feel more charitable toward banks is probably the rising balances on their deposit and investment accounts that have come with a buoyant stock market and an economy that’s recovering sporadically from a grueling recession. In that regard, banks may owe their improving reputation more to the Federal Reserve — whose easy-money policies have helped inflate investors’ financial assets — than to their own good deeds.
Two other industries once vilified for their connection to the housing and financial busts and the recession that followed are now enjoying a bit of a renaissance. The image of the real estate industry improved by 13 points in the Gallup survey this year, probably because home prices have been surging, the housing market is recovering and household wealth is bouncing back. And the image of the car business improved by 11 points in 2013, with Americans beginning to forget about the unpopular 2009 bailouts of General Motors (GM) and Chrysler.
The airline industry also turned in a surprisingly strong showing in 2013, with a 12-point jump in its image rating from 2012 to 2013 and more positive impressions than negative ones in Gallup’s poll. Like banks, the airlines have raised fees and prices recently, a fact the Justice Dept. pointed out when it decided on an attempt to block the pending merger of U.S. Airways (LCC) and American Air Lines (AAMRQ). Yet consumers are taking it somewhat in stride, perhaps because prior mergers have helped flights run more smoothly and with fewer problems.
The most unpopular industry remains an old perennial: oil and gas, which has a negative image among 57% of Americans and a positive image among just 26%. That probably has more to do with gas prices than anything else, since they have been elevated at around $3.65 per gallon for much of this year, even though demand for gas has dropped (and prices have also recently dropped as well and are 20 cents lower than at this time last year). Protests over the drilling technique known as “fracking” also tend to generate bad press in some areas.
The most popular industries, meanwhile, are computers (think Apple) (AAPL), restaurants (since everybody likes to eat out), farming (they feed us, after all) and the Internet sector (Google & company) (GOOG). And even Uncle Sam is getting an image boost this year, with an 8 point improvement in the federal government's rating. On the whole, in fact, Americans seem considerably less cranky toward most industries than they were just a couple years ago. Imagine that: An improving economy makes everyone more popular.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.