Nationalization Revisited

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NATIONALIZATION REVISITED….Steve Waldman takes issue today with my contention that Sweden didn’t actually nationalize very much of its banking industry during its credit crisis of the early 90s, and his rebuttal is worth a read. In the end, though, it turns out that we don’t actually disagree about that much. We both agree that Gota was nationalized, and we both agree that Nordbanken was bailed out. However, we disagree a bit about whether Nordbanken was a “state bank.” This is something of a judgment call: since the Swedish government was the majority owner, I think that’s a fair description, but Waldman points out that it was publicly traded and “not actively controlled by the state prior to the nationalization.” Fair enough. It’s also a judgment call whether this was really a nationalization. If the state goes from majority ownership to full ownership, is that nationalization?

To some extent this is splitting hairs, of course, and you get into some of the same issues in the U.S. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example, have plainly been nationalized, but how about AIG? For some reason no one wants to call it nationalization, but what else should you call it when the feds own 80% of the company? But semantic arguments to one side, there’s also this:

Nordbanken alone had an asset base of 23% of GDP. To put that in perspective, in US terms that’s almost as large as Citi and Bank of America. (Citi and Bank of America together had an asset base of 26% of US GDP at the end of 2007.)

Again, fair point. It’s one thing to say that “only” two banks were taken over, but if those two banks account for a third of your banking system, then you’ve nationalized quite a bit even if a big chunk of that third was state-owned in the first place.

Anyway, read the whole thing. Just to be clear, I’m not trying to make any kind of bulletproof argument against nationalization, only trying to point out that the story is more complicated than it’s sometimes made out to be. Sweden did some nationalization, but it was the systemic banking guarantee in late 1992 that formed their biggest policy response to the crisis.

FWIW, I think it’s wise to be wary of nationalization. It should be a last resort, and I’ve gotten a sense recently that a lot of people are talking about it awfully casually. Still, it’s true that there are some benefits to nationalization, and one of them is that it allows us to avoid the problem of valuing and buying up toxic assets from troubled banks. If the government owns the whole bank, then the bad stuff can be easily hived off without any kind of valuation at all, and then left to sit for a while before it’s sold off — which is what the Swedes did.

If we have to nationalize, then we have to nationalize. But we should understand the precedents before we do, and go ahead only if we have to. No stampedes, please.

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