Reader Questions: Nationalization

If I had infinite time, I would respond to all reader questions and suggestions. Unfortunately, I can’t. But I’m hoping to occasionally post some in-depth responses to some of the tougher questions we get.

Chris Uregian, one of our readers, sent us three questions by email. In summary, he thought that we were overlooking some of the problems with nationalization and the reasons why Treasury might be moving more slowly than we would like. I originally answered him in email but we later decided this would be good to post to everyone, and Chris gave us his permission. I am going to copy his questions here and add a response after each one.

1. Question:

We have heard plenty about the Swedish model. But how about the US model. The last time a bank was nationalized in the US, it was Continental Illinois in 1984 – 1994.  That was the 7th biggest bank at the time.

If we nationalize Citi (ideally only Citi, although no one outside the Treasury, even Simon or Paul Krugman have any idea how many banks we need to nationalize), that is X times larger than Continental, how long do we have to hold it for? What is the cost to the taxpayer?

If we have to nationalize even 2 out of the 4 biggest banks in the US, that is around 30% of total banking sector assets according to Martin Wolf. So the US Government will officially be in charge of at least a third, more likely half the US banking sector for anywhere between 5-10 years.You guys do excellent forecasts, so tell me is that a reasonable forecast of what nationalization would look like? If so, and you were Tim Giethner, wouldn’t you try to avoid this at almost any cost? Shouldn’t nationalization be your very very LAST resort?

Roubini, for all his gloom, is currently the most reasonable of our nationalization crew. He recognizes that the Treasury really wants to avoid nationalization for political but also genuine economic reasons, but that is why their plan gives banks 6 months to find private capital. His argument is that in 6 months time,’ in the depth of the recession, we will really know which banks are really insolvent, and which ones could be solvent with a little government help. The notion that there is a clear distinction between insolvent banks and illiquid banks is a little strange to me given my experience… there’s a grey area with many shades and defining clearly which banks are insolvent in this economic environment is not easy. Again, that suggests caution and moving slowly, not jumping at solutions Paulson style.

Guessing how long the government would be in charge of these banks is basically impossible, but I think 5-10 years is not an unreasonable guess. I don’t think that means it should be the last resort, however. The problem is the real economy. The longer we have uncertainty, the worse the real economy gets. On the one hand, I agree with you and Roubini that time will give us a clearer picture. On the other hand, I think that the banking sector is not going to fix itself on its own, and the longer we wait the bigger the output gap (and the higher the unemployment rate) will be by the time the economy does recover. So I think reasonable minds can disagree on this.

2. Question:

Further, I think Simon’s point about if you covered the name of the country, then your IMF officials would give the same advice to the US as for any emerging market economy strikes me as missing one crucial detail. Citibank is not your typical Latin American bank – if a Latin American bank goes bankrupt, that doesn’t carry the risk of freaking out markets globally the way Lehman’s bankruptcy did due to counterparty risk, it does not have the number of creditors, bondholders fearing they will get a massive haircut that Citi has; You simply cannot tell me that if 2 out of 4 largest banks were nationalized overnight, that would not carry a very serious risk of freaking out the markets at least as badly as Lehman’s bankruptcy did, and potentially lead to the collapse of the stockholder confidence in a whole bunch of financial institutions that may well be healthy.

I think market freakout depends on the form of the takeover. As I have written (maybe since you sent this email), the main determinant of market freakout will be how creditors are treated. One possibility, which Krugman somewhat hesitantly endorsed, was to guarantee the bank liabilities. Another, which Bebchuk suggested, was to guarantee the liabilities up to some level (which could vary by type of creditor), where that level was engineered to minimize the risk of major collateral damage. I think with sufficient time to study the situation, it seems like you should be able to force some degree of debt-for-equity swaps without causing a huge domino effect. But a blanket guarantee is still an option.

3. Question:

Finally, let me remind you that Peter and Simon wrote a piece in the FT just over a month ago arguing AGAINST nationalization. Now, they are all for it. Yes, when the facts change, we change our minds…. but recognize that Tim Geithner  and Ben Bernanke do NOT have the option to change their minds. And they are NOT suddenly sell-outs or economic illiterates. But maybe they know too much about how close we came to the precipice and have become excessively risk averse. Perhaps. But quite honestly, I am not sure I blame them for wanting to be extra prudent. Back in  September, the vast majority of the financial commentariat said  Paulson made the right decision to let Lehman fail – it was not too big to fail. Now it’s the biggest mistake since Mellon liquidated the US banking sector. In such a crisis, certainty is not justified and should be left to the Rick Santellis of this world. At a time when Paul Krugman is disagreeing with Alan Blinder, maybe each side needs to listen more to the arguments of the other.

About the argument against nationalization back in January: I think the honest answer is that the thing we proposed then would have been preferable to nationalization, but it had very little chance of working. We made the mistake of describing an economically elegant solution that did not take political realities into account. Our proposal was for the government to buy toxic assets at market value (or something close to it) and then recapitalize the banks directly, at the same time. This would remove balance sheet uncertainty from the banks while minimizing the taxpayer subsidy. The mistake was in overestimating the power of the government to force such a solution. The problem that I have since realized is that as long as the banks can negotiate on their own, they will win that particular game of chicken. They will just say, “no, I won’t sell to you at that price” and wait for the government to propose a sweeter plan – because the government can’t walk away, because it’s responsible for the economic well-being of the country.

At the end, Chris wrote: “I fear you have not been as clear on the downsides of nationalization as you have been on the benefits, which might help explain why the Administration is ‘dithering’.” I think that’s a fair criticism. Hopefully I’ve helped redress that.

Originally published at the Baseline Scenario and reproduced here with the author’s permission.