In the latest issue of The Nation, Bill Greider expresses what has become the mantra of the left at this moment of high fiscal drama: nationalize the banks. Rather than just injecting passive capital, we are told to take a decisive position in common (voting) stock, so we can change the management, put our foot down on compensation, and generally change the whole modus operandi. It sounds very radical, harking back to the days when socialists saw nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy as the first step toward nationalization of the minor peaks, foothills and ultimately just about anything above sea level.
But it’s a bad idea. If you want the banks, you can have them. After the hammering they’ve taken in the market the last few months, their combined capitalization is a tiny fraction of the Fed’s new, gunky portfolio. And there’s a reason: they’ve got a solvency gap of trillions of dollars. Buy a bank and its liabilities are now yours. If you happen to be the US government, your full faith and credit is on the line for every penny.
There is nothing radical, not to mention equitable or practical, about underwriting the vast quantities of dubious financial instruments that metastasized during the past decade. You want a publicly owned and managed bank to lend against the tide and finance reconstruction? Start a new one.