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Stress testing “Nationalization” of US Banks

Posted on: February 19, 2009


Source: Yahoo Newsroom – 1 hr 34 mins ago

A touchy word has entered the public debate about the future of America’s economy. It’s a word that would shock the nation in normal times, but as even Republicans begin to whisper it, temporary “nationalization” of troubled banks is increasingly seen as our last best hope for fixing our financial system.

Simply put: Nationalizing ailing banks could mean the government would tell some bank execs to take a hike, and then oversee taxpayer dollars as credit courses through the banking sector’s veins. When all is well, after quickly re-privatizing the banks by selling assets and operations to new investors, the government then steps back and lets a newly regulated bank sector float on its way.

Arguments for bold government action range from the passionate (Michael Hirsh of Newsweek) to the elegant (Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times). In any case, the number of economists and columnists calling for an aggressive takeover of our “zombie banks” is growing.

This week, respected economists Nouriel Roubini and Matthew Richardson laid it all out in a Washington Post op-ed:
“The U.S. banking system is close to being insolvent, and unless we want to become like Japan in the 1990s — or the United States in the 1930s — the only way to save it is to nationalize it….Nationalization is the only option that would permit us to solve the problem of toxic assets in an orderly fashion and finally allow lending to resume. Of course, the economy would still stink, but the death spiral we are in would end.”

One could ignore this pessimistic view if Roubini hadn’t been consistently correct in his predictions for our worsening economy. Roubini, or “Dr. Doom,” as some have called him, is one of the few who saw the housing meltdown coming and who actually voiced his concerns years before it happened.

In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Simon Johnson, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, argues that many of the executives and members of the banking lobby need to be fired or flushed out, though he stops just short of explicitly calling it nationalization.

Another former IMF economist, however, does not. Ken Rogoff, a Harvard professor who was at the IMF with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, thinks government receivership of insolvent banks is becoming our only option. In a roundtable discussion on “PBS NewsHour,” Rogoff predicted Geithner and his aides will come to the same conclusion once they “stress test” more Wall Street balance sheets.

Nobel-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was one of the first to note that Geithner’s new financial rescue plan does not rule out nationalization. Krugman points to Geithner’s “stress tests” as a possible first step in the temporary government takeover of crumbling banks:
“Will those public-private partnerships end up being a covert way to bail out bankers at taxpayers’ expense? Or will the required “stress test” act as a back-door route to temporary bank nationalization (the solution favored by a growing number of economists, myself included)? Nobody knows.”

Krugman notes in a following column just how quickly the idea of nationalization is picking up steam, even among conservatives:
“There’s hope that the bank rescue will eventually turn into something stronger. It has been interesting to watch the idea of temporary bank nationalization move from the fringe to mainstream acceptance, with even Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham conceding that it may be necessary.”

On “This Week” on ABC, Graham argued for nationalization, while Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer glowingly endorsed Geithner’s seemingly less-than-aggressive rescue plan.

Meawhile, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” senior White House adviser David Axelrod was asked if nationalization was off the table. Axelrod said it was not, indicating the Obama administration will do whatever it takes to right the nation’s financial ship.

However, President Obama has publicly indicated he is against nationalization, for now. When asked about Sweden and how it temporarily nationalized its banks in the early 1990s, saving its economy from an extended slump, Obama noted that Sweden is a different kettle of fish, a rather smaller and socialist one to be exact.

When ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) about nationalization on “This Week,” she said she wasn’t quite ready to take that route herself. But she also pointed to the national semantics surrounding the question as the first key hurdle to clear:
“Well, George, as you know, the word “nationalization” scares the hell out of people. And so the debate has been opened up now, and that’s good. Let’s talk about it.”

– Thomas Kelley
**Yahoo! News bloggers compile the best news content from our providers and scour the Web for the most interesting news stories so you don’t have to.

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3 Responses to "Stress testing “Nationalization” of US Banks"

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