The Housing Chronicles Blog: Is it time to just nationalize the banks already?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Is it time to just nationalize the banks already?

For the last two weeks, we continue to hear various pundits and economists call for nationalizing the banks -- at least temporarily -- in order to fully admit the scale of the problems we face instead of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back tried so far. Now Dr. Nouriel 'Dr. Doom' Roubini, who is certainly no fan of preventing the free market from working, is suggesting that we may no longer have a choice. From a Wall Street Journal interview:

An idea he floated only last week -- that our "zombie banks" be temporarily nationalized -- aired first on, where he writes a weekly column. It has evolved, in the space of just a few days, from radical solution to almost received wisdom...

Mr. Roubini tells me that bank nationalization "is something the partisans would have regarded as anathema a few weeks ago. But when I and others put it in the context of the Swedish approach [of the 1990s] -- i.e. you take banks over, you clean them up, and you sell them in rapid order to the private sector -- it's clear that it's temporary. No one's in favor of a permanent government takeover of the financial system."

There's another reason why the concept should appeal to (fiscal) conservatives, he explains. "The idea that government will fork out trillions of dollars to try to rescue financial institutions, and throw more money after bad dollars, is not appealing because then the fiscal cost is much larger. So rather than being seen as something Bolshevik, nationalization is seen as pragmatic. Paradoxically, the proposal is more market-friendly than the alternative of zombie banks."...

So, will the highest level of government be receptive to the bank-nationalization idea? "I think it will," Mr. Roubini says, unhesitatingly. "People like Graham and Greenspan have already given their explicit blessing. This gives Obama cover." And how long will it be before the administration goes in formally for nationalization? "I think that we're going to see the policy adopted in the next few months . . . in six months or so."

That long? I ask. "Six months from now," he replies, "even firms that today look solvent are going to look insolvent. Most of the major banks -- almost all of them -- are going to look insolvent. In which case, if you take them all over all at once, you cause less damage than if you would if you took over a couple now, and created so much confusion and panic and nervousness...

Yet another reason why bank nationalization is a good idea, Mr. Roubini continues, is that "we started with banks that were too big to fail, but what has happened, in the process, is that these banks have become even-bigger-to-fail. J.P. Morgan took over Bear Stearns and WaMu. BofA took over Countrywide and then Merrill. Wells Fargo took over Wachovia. It doesn't work! You can't take two zombie banks, put them together, and make a strong bank. It's like having two drunks trying to keep each other standing...

How does Mr. Roubini think the media has covered the financial crisis? "The problem," he says -- after first stating to me that he intends "no offense!" -- "is that in the bubble years, everyone becomes a cheerleader, including the media. This is the time when journalists should be asking tough questions, and I think there was a failure there. The Masters of the Universe were always on the cover, or the front page -- the hedge-fund guys, the imperial CEO, private equity. I wish there had been more financial and business journalists, in the good years, who'd said, 'Wait a moment, if this man, or this firm, is making a 100% return a year, how do they do it? Is it because they're smarter than everybody else . . . or because they're taking so much risk they'll be bankrupt two years down the line?'

"And I think, in the bubble years, no one asked the hard questions. A good journalist has to be one who, in good times, challenges the conventional wisdom. If you don't do that, you fail in one of your duties."

Indeed, only needs to review the former covers of magazines such as Fortune, Forbes and Business Week to wonder why they didn't ask, "Exactly HOW are these people making this much money?"

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