As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Nationalization Rumblings - Senators Step Up

Big news today on the bank nationalization front. First, Sen. Dodd states the obvious:

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd said banks may have to be nationalized for “a short time” to help lenders such as Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp. survive the worst economic slump in 75 years.

“I don’t welcome that at all, but I could see how it’s possible it may happen,” Dodd said today on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” to be broadcast this weekend. “I’m concerned that we may end up having to do that, at least for a short time.”

Bank of America and Citigroup, which received $90 billion in U.S. aid in four months, tumbled as much as 36 percent today on concern they may be nationalized. The Obama administration today said a “privately held” banking system is the “correct way to go” and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank said nationalization ought “to be avoided.”

And then Chuck Schumer followed suit:

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) believes that failed "zombie" banks, no matter what their size, should be taken over by the government, which should then wipe out shareholders, fire management, clean up the banks and quickly resell them into the marketplace. Such a move, he cautioned, should come only if the "stress tests" being conducted by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner determine a bank to be insolvent.

Schumer argued that there are good and bad ways to nationalize banks, and that the loaded nature of the term often leads to confusion. "'Nationalization' means many different things to many different people, and somebody needs to clear it up," said Schumer. "We have to distinguish. I like the good and don't like the bad."

Schumer also pressed that nationalization should be a last resort. "It should be the last arrow in the quiver. The danger here is when a government takes [a bank] over, it drives down shares of other banks that might not be in as bad shape," he said. "Let me be clear about this because I want to be very careful: I am not speaking of any specific institution, just a general comment about a general situation. And I don't have -- and please write this -- I don't have any specific institution in mind."

These aren't backbenchers. They're the Chair of the Senate Banking Committee and Wall Street's man in Washington. And they're merely saying out loud what already has the markets in a panic. The right will try to pin any erosion of the banks on Dodd and Schumer, surely, but the problem is not loose lips, but that many banks are insolvent:

We are not talking about fears that leftist radicals will expropriate perfectly good private companies. At least since last fall the major banks — certainly Citi and B of A — have only been able to stay in business because their counterparties believe that there’s an implicit federal guarantee on their obligations. The banks are already, in a fundamental sense, wards of the state.

And the market caps of these banks did not reflect investors’ assessment of the difference in value between their assets and their liabilities. Instead, it largely — and probably totally — reflected the “Geithner put”, the hope that the feds would bail them out in a way that handed a significant windfall gain to stockholders.

What’s happening now is a growing sense that the federal government, in return for rescuing these institutions, will demand the same thing a private-sector white knight would have demanded — namely, ownership.

And they'd better get to it soon before the whole financial sector goes over the cliff.

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