Bank stocks plunged last week on fears that the government will have to take over battered institutions like Citigroup and Bank of America. That would wipe out the banks’ shareholders — hence, investors’ rush for the exits — and put the government in control of a swath of the financial system.
Americans have a visceral horror of the word nationalization. So call it restructuring or majority ownership. Or call it the taxpayers’ due after pouring in hundreds of billions of dollars in capital and guarantees and standing ready to pour in hundreds of billions more. We increasingly believe it is the least bad solution to a truly desperate situation.
Bank losses are mounting, leaving some institutions undercapitalized and — by credible calculations — insolvent. That is a disaster for taxpayers. They need the banks to function, and it is their money on the line to support banks that are too big to fail, like Citi and BofA.
Rescue measures have so far prevented a system-wide meltdown, but they have not reversed the downward slide or revived bank lending. That will not happen until investors have a firm grasp of the losses that everyone knows are on banks’ books — but that the banks are loath to acknowledge.
Done right, a takeover would be a once-and-for-all fix. The government would examine the banks’ holdings to get a realistic assessment of the toxic assets that are crippling the banks — and how much capital each bank needs, not only to survive but to begin lending again.
Institutions that are healthy enough to raise the needed capital from private investors would remain in shareholders’ hands. Those that are too weak would be taken over by the government and recapitalized with taxpayer money. The government would be in charge of restructuring those banks’ finances and operations. Current management would be fired — an appropriate end for executives whose failures have brought their companies and the country to this dark and dangerous point. Because taxpayers would be the owners, they would benefit from the gains to be had when the banks recover.
Critics will charge that government bureaucrats do not have the skills to pull this off. But the United States has a successful history of seizing insolvent banks through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The takeovers contemplated here are larger in scale and would be more complex than those that have generally fallen under the F.D.I.C.’s purview. But the notion that the government totally lacks the know-how to nationalize insolvent banks is not valid.
Safeguards must also be built into the process to curtail political meddling in lending and other decisions.
The aim is to clean up the banks efficiently, rather than allow the problems to become bigger, and then — as soon as possible — to sell the banks back to private investors. They will be smaller institutions. And there will be proper regulations in place to ensure that this catastrophe does not happen again.
Taking over big failed banks will be very difficult politically. But technically it could be easier than many of the elaborate rescues that have been tried and proposed.
On Friday, President Obama’s spokesman tried to calm the markets by reaffirming the administration’s preference for a sound privately owned banking system. We share that preference. But it looks as if the best way to get from here to there is for some of the banks to spend some time in the government’s hands.