Yesterday, Tim Geithner told reporters, “We have a financial system that is run by private shareholders, managed by private institutions, and we’d like to do our best to preserve that system.” On its face, I think most Americans would agree that a private banking sector is better than just having one big government bank. But “private” can still mean a lot of different things. For starters, here are three: (a) day-to-day operations are managed by ordinary corporate managers who are paid to maximize profits, rather than by government bureaucrats; (b) those profits flow to private shareholders, rather than the government; (c) the overall flow of credit in the economy is determined by private market forces, rather than the government.
When people debate “nationalization,” it’s not always clear whether they are talking about ending (a) and (b) or just (b). The recapitalizations to date under the TARP Capital Purchase Program have bent over backwards to avoid either one. Because the government purchased nonconvertible preferred shares, it has no ability (that I know of, although Robert Reich thinks otherwise in an article I’ll come back to) to turn them into common stock with voting rights that lead to management control; and because the shares pay a fixed 5% dividend, they are a lot like a loan, where any profits after paying off the loan flow to existing shareholders.