As the novel begins, the position of CEO of one of America's largest banks, First Mercantile American (very loosely based on the Bank of America, although it is located in Cleveland, Ohio [during the first 5 chapters of the book, it only describes the bank's location as a state in "the Midwest" and the state itself is never identified) is about to become vacant due to the terminal illness of Ben Roselli, the incumbent chief, whose grandfather founded the bank.
Two high-ranking executives groomed for the succession begin their personal combat for the position. One, Alex Vandervoort, is honest, hard-charging, and focused on growing FMA through retail banking and embracing emerging technology; the other, Roscoe Heyward, is suave, hypocritical, and skilled in boardroom politics, and favors catering more to business than to consumers. Heyward lives in a "rambling, three-story house in the suburb of Shaker Heights," Cleveland, Ohio.(Hailey 1975, p. 82)
Many characters and plot lines interweave. Senior bank teller Miles Eastin is discovered to be defrauding the bank whilst casting guilt on another teller, a young single mother named Juanita Nunez. He is dismissed, arrested, and convicted. In prison, his knowledge of counterfeiting brings him to the attention of a gang of credit card forgers, who offer him a job on his release. Owing money to loan sharks, and desperate not to have to go to work for a criminal organization, he tries going back to his former employer to ask for some kind of job. Nolan Wainwright, the bank's Head of Security, obviously won't hire him to work directly for the bank, but with the approval of higher management, is allowed to pay Eastin to go undercover as an affiliate of the forgers and secretly report back details of their operation to Juanita Nunez, who had forgiven him after he came to see her and apologize for what he did. She agrees to be the "cut-out" whom Eastin will contact, and she will report back what he tells her to Wainwright. Eastin is discovered to be a planted spy by the criminal organization and tortured, only to be rescued in the nick of time as a result of Juanita being captured by the forgers and forced to identify Eastin. She is released, but uses her photographic memory to count the amount of time she spent blindfolded in the car and the movements it made, and as a result is able to lead police to the safe house where Eastin was being held and tortured. Also featured is Edwina D'Orsey, the head of FMA's flagship downtown branch and her husband, Lewis, who writes a financial newsletter.
As readers increasingly appreciate Vandervoort, the protagonist, they learn of his troubled personal life. His advancement in banking circles has come as his marriage is failing; his wife Celia is confined to an inpatient psychiatric facility. Vandervoort is shown as having developed a relationship with Margot Bracken, who is depicted as a radical attorney and political activist many years his junior; her attitudes sometime conflicts with Vandervoort's role at FMA. Meanwhile, Vandervoort's antagonist, Hayward, is depicted as a devout Episcopalian who strives to maintain an air of personal integrity and morality, only to slowly sacrifice them both in his pursuit of the presidency of FMA.
As these men pursue their battle for the soon-to-be-vacant position of CEO, various issues involving the banking industry, such as credit card fraud, embezzlement, inflation, subprime lending, and insider trading are discussed. First Mercantile American is eventually revealed to have a doppelganger in the form of an organized crime family.
The fight for control of the bank continues under the darkening clouds of an approaching economic recession. Roscoe is manipulated into making a large, illegal and toxic loan to Supranational Corporation (SuNatCo), a multinational conglomerate (loosely based on International Telephone and Telegraph) run by the powerful, unscrupulous CEO, G. G. Quartermain. It turns out that SuNatCo is on the verge of bankruptcy, using the bank's loan in a vain attempt to keep afloat. The ensuing scandal causes a bank run and panic among depositors, shareholders, and employees, with the perpetrator committing suicide rather than facing the consequences of his actions. By the vote of the board of directors, Vandervoort assumes the position of CEO of the half-ruined bank.
The Moneychangers was written before the wave of USA bank mergers that began in the 1980s. Under current conditions it is difficult to believe that a maimed bank, as First Mercantile American is described as being by the end of the book, could continue in business as an independent firm. Likewise, the novel predates the technological revolution and its effect on the financial services sector, with computers replacing the personal contact that characterized banking relationships when the book was written. For example, one of the book's characters is a savvy investment advisor who writes a high-priced newsletter that is typewritten and mailed to subscribers. With the technology of today, this same newsletter would be a website with the creator having a cable TV show or webcast to disseminate his advice.
One of the banking innovations that Hailey mentioned in The Moneychangers is Docutel, an automated teller machine,(Hailey 1975, p. 308) based on real technology that was issued a patent in 1974 in the United States.
In the novel, Jill Peacock, a journalist, interviewed First Mercantile American Bank executive VP, Alexander Vandervoort, in a suburban shopping plaza where the bank had installed the first two stainless-steel Docutel automatic tellers. Vandervoort, whose clothes looked like they were from the "fashion section of Esquire" and who had the "mannerisms a la Johnny Carson," was not at all like the classical solemn, cautious banker in a double-breasted, dark blue suit. Peacock compared him to the new ATMs which embodied modern banking.
The history of the real Docutel was traced in a New York Times magazine article. The breakthrough came when Don Wetzel, Vice President of Product Planning at Docutel, was waiting in a long line for a teller at a bank in Dallas, Texas in 1968. Wetzel had seen cash dispensing machines in Europe and was inspired to adapt Docutel technology, which was originally used in airport baggage handling, to create Docuteller, an American version. By 1969 work began on the prototype and the first working Docutel ABM was installed at Chemical Bank in New York.
A television miniseries bearing the same name and based on the novel was broadcast in 1976 with Kirk Douglas as Alex Vandervoort, Christopher Plummer as Roscoe Heyward, Susan Flannery as Margot Bracken, Anne Baxter as Edwina D'Orsey, Hayden Rorke as Lewis D'Orsey; Percy Rodrigues as Nolan Wainwright, Joan Collins as Avril Devereaux, Helen Hayes as Dr. McCartney, Marisa Pavan as Celia Vandervoort, Jean Peters as Beatrice Heyward, Ralph Bellamy as Jerome Patterton, Lorne Greene as G. G. Quartermain; Timothy Bottoms as Miles Eastin, and Robert Loggia as Tony Bear. The Bank of America Center in downtown Los Angeles served as the FMA's headquarters building.
- Arthur Hailey (February 1975). The Moneychangers. Doubleday. p. 472. ISBN 0-385-00896-1.
- NYT (24 August 2013). "Who Made That?". The Magazine. Innovations Issue (New York Times).
- "Rise and fall of Docutel: Part II of II". ATM Marketplace. 18 March 2003. Retrieved 24 August 2013.
- Ellen Florian. "The Money Machines". Fortune.com.An account of U.S. ATM history