Nationalize Broken U.S. Banks
In light of the financial crisis, the U.S. should nationalize banks, taking over the most troubled ones. Pro or con?
Pro: The Surest Way to Recover
When a bank fails, the FDIC has three options: closure and liquidation, merger with a healthy bank, or nationalization. Most failures are resolved using the merger option, but for very large banks, nationalization for a temporary period may be the best choice for taxpayers.
In 1984, Continental Illinois Bank, then the seventh-largest bank in the U.S., failed. The FDIC decided to nationalize it. It wiped out existing shareholders, infused capital, took over bad assets, replaced senior management, and owned the bank for about a decade. The management ran the bank like a commercial enterprise, not a government agency. In 1994, it was sold to a bank that is now part of Bank of America (BAC).
Nationalization does not mean socialization. It means the government will manage the bank as a commercial entity, with the intention of selling it back into the private sector. This approach means that the deposit insurance fund and taxpayers gain protection from the hazard of poorly capitalized institutions’ taking excessive risk with guaranteed deposits in a gamble for resurrection.
If nationalization is done carefully and for a temporary period, it can prove useful for contending with large bank failures.
Con: An Unneeded Complication
The U.S. government has no business taking over banks. Outright nationalization of banks would lead to poorly run banks and, in the long run, make America poorer.
As a trip to any Motor Vehicles Dept. can illustrate, the government doesn’t always do a great job running things. Even when they provide decent service, in fact, government-run "businesses" like the Postal Service and Amtrak almost always lose money. Government-run banks would almost certainly lose even more. And, when they lose money, taxpayers would end up with the bill.
Long-term government bank ownership, in any case, would simply make the country poorer. Banks actually create money when they lend it out, but doing so only has positive overall economic consequences when the loans get repaid. Government-owned banks would face enormous, understandable pressure to lend to politically powerful groups and industries that can’t reasonably repay their loans. Even the best managers couldn’t overcome this pressure.
The government has a role in making sure that banks operate in an honest and forthright manner. But it shouldn’t try to run banks.