Monday, February 16, 2009

Nationalization, or Pre-privatization?

I don't pretend to be enough of an expert, or to be close enough to the facts, or to have a large enough staff, to know what should be done with the banking system, which is at the center of our current economic turmoil. But I am confident that fixing it should be the main focus of policy efforts.

In this regard, I found this tidbit thought-provoking:
"The word 'nationalization' scares the hell out of people," Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said on "This Week." To combat that, some clever advocates of nationalization have come up with alternative names, including "government receivership" and "pre-privatization." (Source.)
The search for alternative names can be amusing at first, but I think there is more here than mere semantics.

Why are people scared about the idea of nationalization? One reason is that it is a sign of the depth of our problems. A second, more substantive reason is that it seems to point in a bad direction. I certainly do not want the government deciding who deserves credit and who does not, what kind of investments are worthy of financing and what kind are not. That is a big step toward crony capitalism, where the politically connected get the goodies, and economic stagnation awaits the rest of us.

If the government is to intervene in a big way to fix the banking system, "nationalization" is the wrong word because it suggests the wrong endgame. If banks are as insolvent as some analysts claim, then the goal should be a massive reorganization of these financial institutions. Some might call it nationalization, but more accurately it would be a type of bankruptcy procedure.

Bankruptcy could become, in effect, a massive bank recapitalization. Essentially, the equity holders are told, "Go away, you have been zeroed out." The debt holders are told, "Congratulations, you are the new equity holders." Suddenly, these financial organizations have a lot more equity capital and not a shred of debt! And all done without a penny of taxpayer money!

I am sure there are a host of legal issues here. The government cannot blithely walk into banks and tell them they are insolvent when the banks are saying (pretending? hoping? praying?) otherwise. But as bank regulators, the feds have more leeway with banks than they would with other types of business enterprise. How much leeway is an issue beyond my ken.

But there is one thing I am sure of: If this is the route we go down, the government had better get in and out as quickly as possible. If it is done right, nationalization will be the wrong word to describe the process.