This is my last post on nationalization for at least a week, and hopefully a lot longer than that. I’m tired of writing about it. But I was listening to Raghuram Rajan on Planet Money, and things became a little more clear to me.
Rajan was saying that he had some concerns about nationalization and didn’t think it was necessary to fix the banking system. His concerns were sensible, I have counter-arguments for them, and I don’t want to get into a detailed debate here. More importantly, he agreed with the nationalizers that the system is broken, hasn’t been fixed, and needs to be fixed – he just thinks you could do it a different way.
We’ve talked and talked about it but never actually taken action. We need to take some of the bad assets off the balance sheet. We need to recapitalize the banks to the extent that is needed after that, and that might mean more and more government ownership, that’s a possibility. . . .
The real issue is the taxpayer, unfortunately, has to put more money into the system; hopefully much of it will be recovered. He has to put more money in in the short run, both in buying these assets off balance sheets, and recapitalizing the banks, so that the banks then have clean enough balance sheets such that they will begin to lend when the system recovers. . . . If you can clean up the system, my sense is whether you call it nationalization, or call it cleaning up by putting more money without nationalizing, cleaning up is the first-order thing.
I think there are three main positions in this debate:
- A1: The banking system is broken. Banks need to get rid of their toxic assets and they need more capital. The solution is for the government to buy their toxic assets at a high price (or insure those assets) and to give them lots of cheap capital.
- A2: The banking system is broken. Banks need to get rid of their toxic assets and they need more capital. The solution is for the government to take them over, transfer off their toxic assets, recapitalize them, and (when possible) sell them back into the private sector.
- B: The banking system is basically sound and will recover if we give it some time. In the meantime, the government should give the banks just enough money and intervene as little as possible to keep them afloat until asset prices recover.
The big divide is not between A1 (Rajan) and A2 (Simon and me). In both cases, you end up with a healthy banking system, at significant taxpayer expense. (A2 should be somewhat cheaper because it wipes out the shareholders, but I agree with Rajan that it is dramatically cheaper only if the government is willing to restructure some of the liabilities.)
The big divide is between both of these and B, the position of the Bush and Obama administrations – both of which rejected aggressive measures in favor of just-in-time, just-big-enough bailouts. Now the government is conducting stress tests on an industry it has already said is adequately capitalized, and will follow that with a public-private asset-buying program that tries to split the difference between paying real market value and paying enough to keep the banks happy. I’ve quoted these exact words before, but here’s Krugman again: “The actual plan seems to be to keep the banks semi-alive by implicitly guaranteeing their liabilities and dribbling in money as necessary, all the while proclaiming that they’re adequately capitalized — and hope that things turn up.”
Now, let’s say you agree that something more needs to be done. Then you have to choose between A1 and A2. A2 is the one people typically call “nationalization.” But which is more consistent with a capitalist system: protecting the creditors who lent money to a failed bank, the shareholders who invested in a failed bank, and the managers who failed . . . or firing the managers, wiping out the shareholders, and maybe, if possible without triggering collateral damage, forcing some of the creditors to take some losses? Which one better approximates the incentives you want in a free market?