The public option in banking: Another look at the German model

Published on Intrepid Report, by Ellen Brown, October 19, 2011.

Publicly-owned banks were instrumental in funding Germany’s “economic miracle” after the devastation of World War II. Although the German public banks have been targeted in the last decade for takedown by their private competitors, the model remains a viable alternative to the private profiteering being protested on Wall Street today. 

One of the demands voiced by protesters in the Occupy Wall Street movement is for a “public option” in banking. What that means was explained by Dr. Michael Hudson, Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, in an interview by Paul Jay of the Real News Network on October 6:

[T]he demand isn’t simply to make a public bank but is to treat the banks generally as a public utility, just as you treat electric companies as a public utility. . . . Just as there was pressure for a public option in health care, there should be a public option in banking. There should be a government bank that offers credit card rates without punitive 30% interest rates, without penalties, without raising the rate if you don’t pay your electric bill. This is how America got strong in the 19th and early 20th century, by essentially having public infrastructure, just like you’d have roads and bridges. . . . The idea of public infrastructure was to lower the cost of living and to lower the cost of doing business.

We don’t hear much about a public banking option in the United States, but a number of countries already have a resilient public banking sector. A May 2010 article in The Economist
noted that the strong and stable publicly-owned banks of India, China and Brazil helped those countries weather the banking crisis afflicting most of the world in the last few years … //

… The price of success:

The German public banks were brought down by knocking their public legs out from under them. Previously, they had enjoyed state guarantees that allowed them to acquire and lend funds at substantially better rates than private banks were able to do. But in 2001, the European Commission ruled to strip the Landesbanks of their explicit state credit guarantees, forcing them to compete on the same terms as private banks. And today the European Banking Authority is refusing to count the banks’ implicit state guarantees in their “stress tests” for banking solvency.

The upshot is that the German public banks are being stripped of what has made them stable, secure, and able to lend at low interest rates: they have had the full faith and credit of the government and the public behind them. By eliminating the profit motive, focusing on the public interest, and relying on government guarantees, the German public banks were able to turn bank credit into the sort of public utility described by Prof. Hudson.

The example of Germany shows that even success is no guarantee in the face of a relentless onslaught of propaganda by large privately-owned banks interested only in making money for their CEOs, wealthiest clients and shareholders. But peering behind the propaganda, the public banking model that helped underwrite Germany’s economic success might be the fast track to a U.S. banking system that serves Main Street rather than Wall Street. (full long text).

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