It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I favor nationalization of failed, systemically important banks. But James Surowiecki and Floyd Norris have a point. We absolutely should not nationalize as a means of persuading banks to issue credit more freely. If the government (idiotically) wants looser lending than banks are willing to provide, it oughtn't take their money and lend it. The government can lend its own damned money (well, our own damned money) if it thinks that profitable loans are not being made, or that for the good of the economy unprofitable loans must be made.
The reason to nationalize a bank is because the bank has failed and its former owners have no legitimate claim to its assets. The government has been forced to offer support with public money, thereby purchasing the corpse fair and square. We take the bank into public ownership because taxpayers who have been conscripted to accept extraordinary losses are entitled to whatever gains follow the reorganization they finance.
When a bank is nationalized, shareholder equity should be written to zero, and existing management should be handled as roughly as the law allows. If we have a bit of courage, we should impose haircuts or debt-to-equity conversions on unsecured creditors, but I don't think we have that kind of courage. "Toxic" assets should be revalued at pennies-on-the-dollar market bids or else written to zero and hived into "bad banks". Once we have a conservative valuation of the assets and know exactly what is owed, we'll know how much public money would be required to cobble a robustly funded bank from the wreckage. However, if we recapitalize "too big to fail" banks without restructuring them, we will quite deserve our next mugging. We had better cut these monsters into little, itty, bitty pieces. We should embed strict size and leverage limits into their itty, bitty charters, restrict their ability to recombine, and then hire management to run the little things on strictly commercial terms. Hopefully we will change what it means for a bank to run on commercial terms — we should create a tax and regulatory structure that penalizes scale and leverage across the board. Better yet we should decouple the payment system from risk investment by reorganizing banking functions into "narrow banks" and credibly not-guaranteed investment vehicles.
But whatever the banking industry comes to look like, nationalized banks should be recapitalized once, then managed to compete in it, and for no other purpose. Taxpayers should seek to extract maximum value from their eventual privatization. But should any of the reorganized banks seek a second helping at the public trough, they should be ostentatiously permitted to fail. Rather than an implicit government guarantee, successors of nationalized banks should face a particularly itchy trigger finger.
Having nationalized "banks" make loans that prudent managers of a well-capitalized bank would not make is just a way of obscuring a subsidy and ensuring permanent quasi-public status by requiring on-going guarantees, bailouts, and capital injections. Further, putting easy-lending public banks in competition with ordinary thrifts would resuscitate the destructive dynamic we have just put behind us, wherein bank managers must match the idiocy of their most foolish counterparts or watch their businesses wither.
If we want to stimulate the economy, put idle resources to work, stoke animal spirits, whatever, we should do that with some combination of transfers, investment subsidies, inflation, and public works. But if we are dumb enough to force-feed credit into the economy, let's not hide that behind a bunch of puppet banks. And let's keep it very clear that we are not confiscating private firms in order to make them tools of the state. We nationalize reluctantly, when we have had no choice but to inject public money (or guarantee assets, which amounts to the same thing) in banks that otherwise would have failed. We nationalize because, in a capitalist economy, investors get to keep the profits they endow, even when the investors happen to be taxpayers.
Some nationalization links
- Buiter — Time to take the banks into full public ownership
- Clusterstock — More Cries For "The Swedish Model" To Fix Banks, Why Are We So Afraid To Fix Banks The Right Way?
- Cowen — Why bank nationalization is a last resort, Is the Sweden plan so much better?
- Dillow — Arguing about bank nationalization
- Drum — Kevin Drum Smackdown Watch, Nationalization Revisited, Nationalization
- Fama — Government Equity Capital for Financial Firms
- Fox — Why hasn't the government nationalized Citigroup? Hank Paulson's sort of answer, The case for nationalizing Citigroup and Bank of America, and getting Robert Reich a fact checker
- Free Exchange — Why not nationalise?
- Hempton — Nationalisation after due process
- Jones — Nationalisation linkfest
- Kedrosky — Bank nationalization: Why Are We Pretending?
- Krugman — Wall Street Voodoo
- Gaius Marius — nationalization now!
- McArdle — Why not nationalize, like Sweden?
- Quiggin — What to do with nationalised banks?
- Salmon — The Urgent Financial Crisis Facing Obama, Insolvent Banks: Why a Debt-for-Equity Swap Won't Work, Felix Salmon Smackdown Watch, More on Bank Nationalization, Why Nationalization is the Best Alternative, Why We Should Nationalize Now, Nationalize Citigroup and Bank of America
- Surowiecki — Nationalization will not be easy, Where would bank nationalization stop?
- Yglesias — The grain