Skip to content

Nationalization Of Banks Around The Corner?

January 26, 2009

This is not as shocking a concept in January 2009, as it would have been as a conversation starter in January 2008.  The banking/financial services industry is on its knees, and some bold and decisive action will be needed in the weeks to come.  The New York Times did an impressive piece on the matter today, and finds both pros and cons to the idea of nationalization of banks.  But given the gravity of the problem, I am betting that at  least a short-term nationalization in some form will take place.  After all, taxpayers already are the largest stockholders in Bank of America and Citigroup.

The argument in favor of nationalization, even a brief nationalization of a few months or years, is straightforward: It might be the only way to pull America’s largest financial institutions out of the downward spiral that makes it enormously difficult to raise the capital they need to keep operating.

Right now, many banks are reluctant to write off their bad debts, and absorb huge losses, unless they can first raise enough capital to cushion the blow. But they cannot attract that capital without first purging their balance sheets of the toxic assets. Japan’s experience proved the dangers of that downward swirl; the economy stagnated, new lending ground to a halt and the country’s diplomatic clout shrank with its balance sheets.

Nationalization could pull the banks out of that dive, at least temporarily, as the government injected capital, hired new managers and ordered a restart to lending. But some Republicans who bit their tongues when President Bush ordered huge interventions in the market would charge that Mr. Obama was steering America toward socialism.

Nationalization, said Charles Geisst, a financial historian at Manhattan College “is just not a term in the American vocabulary.”

“We think of it,” he continued, “as something foreigners do to us, not something we do.”

It is also something foreigners do to themselves: the British have recently taken a majority stake in the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Some of Mr. Obama’s advisers have asked who the government would get to run the banks. Many of the most experienced executives are tainted by the decisions they made during the age of excess. And how would the government attract the best talent if it demanded that they take minimal pay — a political reality in the current environment?

Another option is for the government to buy the banks’ most toxic assets either through a giant fund, or, more likely, a federally supported bad bank designed to buy up troubled investments. But in that case, taxpayers might well be the losers: They would have all of the banks’ worst assets and none of their performing loans. And unless a deal is worked out to take a larger share of the banks whose bad loans are shuffled off to the government, the taxpayers would not have the chance to benefit by selling the shares back to private investors.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: