The Public Option in Banking: How We Can Beat Wall Street at Its Own Game

Published on Huffington Post, by Ellen Brown, August 5, 2009.

President Obama has repeated his call for a public option in health care, in order to create some competition for the insurance companies and keep them honest. We the people need to call for a public option in banking, in order to create some competition for the private banks and keep them honest.

In Wall Street’s latest affront to the public trust, the nine mega-banks graced with $125 billion in taxpayer bailout money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) were reported last week to be paying out billions of dollars in bonuses to their executives. At least 4,793 bankers and traders received more than $1 million each in bonus payments, although it was one of Wall Street’s worst years on record. After months of investigating banker compensation, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said on July 30:

The repeated explanation from bank executives that bonuses are tied to performance in a manner designed to promote (national economic) growth does not appear to be accurate … 

… In India, public sector banks also operate alongside private sector banks. Privatization has made significant inroads into India’s banking system, but fully 80 percent of the country’s banks are still government-owned. Before the current crisis, neoliberals criticized India’s public banks for being oriented more toward serving the customer than turning a profit; but studies showed that the public sector banks were out-performing the private sector banks in terms of customer satisfaction. Today, when the credit crisis has hit the aggressive private international banks particularly hard, customers are fleeing into the safety of India’s public sector banks, which have emerged largely unscathed from the credit debacle. The public banks have been credited with keeping the country’s financial industry robust at a time when the private international banks are suffering their worst crisis since the 1930s.

In China, private-sector banking has also made some inroads; but state-owned banks still predominate. In a June 2009 article titled “The Chinese Puzzle: Why Is China Growing When Other Export Powerhouses Aren’t?”, Brad Setser noted that nearly all countries relying heavily on exports for growth have experienced major downturns and remain in the doldrums — except for China. When China’s external markets fell off, the government turned its credit machine inward to domestic development. Its state-owned banks engaged in a huge increase in lending, with local governments and state enterprises borrowing on a large scale. The result was to create a real fiscal stimulus that put workers to work and got money circulating again in the economy.

In the United States, the trendsetter in public banking is the state of North Dakota, which has owned its own bank for nearly a century. North Dakota is one of only two states (along with Montana) that are currently not facing budget shortfalls. Ever since 1919, North Dakota’s revenues have been deposited in the state-owned Bank of North Dakota (BND). Under the “fractional reserve” lending scheme open to all banks, these deposits are then available for leveraging many times over as loans. Other banks in the state do not see the BND as a threat because it partners with them and backstops them, serving as a sort of central bank for the state. BND’s loans are not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) but are guaranteed by the state. North Dakota has plenty of money for student loans, makes 1% loans to startup farms, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, and is generally not feeling the pinch of the credit crisis at all.

Theory and Practice: The Proof Is in the Pudding

A bank charter brings with it the privilege of creating “credit” simply as an accounting entry on the bank’s books. The flaw in the private banking scheme is that banks create the principal portion of their loans but not the interest, which is continually drawn off the top as profit. New borrowers must continually be found to take out new loans to create this extra profit, making private banking effectively a pyramid scheme; and like any pyramid scheme, it has mathematical limits. Today, those limits appear to have been reached. Personal and national debts have gotten so large relative to incomes that it is no longer possible to maintain the fiction of solvency. We soon won’t have the money even to pay the interest on our existing debts, let alone to incur new ones. Public banking does not suffer from that flaw, because interest is not drawn out of the system but is returned to the public coffers. Public banking is thus mathematically sound and sustainable.

That is the theory, but there is nothing so persuasive as putting it to the test. Like with the public option in health care, we need to pit the public banking option against the private banking option and see which works best. My money is on the public option. (full text).

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