Finance experts say that having Washington take stakes in United States banks now — like government interventions in the past — would be a promising move to address an economic emergency. The plan by the Treasury Department, they say, could supply banks with sorely needed capital and help restore confidence in financial markets.
Elsewhere, government bank-investment programs are routinely called nationalization programs. But that is not likely in the United States, where nationalization is a word to avoid, given the aversion to anything that hints of socialism.
In past times of war and national emergency, Washington has not hesitated. In 1917, the government seized the railroads to make sure goods, armaments and troops moved smoothly in the interests of national defense during World War I. After the war ended, bondholders and stockholders were compensated and railways were returned to private ownership in 1920.
During World War II, Washington seized dozens of companies, including railroads, coal mines and, briefly, the Montgomery Ward department store chain. In 1952, President Harry S. Truman seized 88 steel mills across the country, asserting that unyielding owners were determined to provoke an industrywide strike that would cripple the Korean War effort. That nationalization did not last long, though, because the Supreme Court ruled the move an unconstitutional abuse of presidential power.
In banking, the government took an 80 percent stake in the Continental Illinois Bank and Trust in 1984. Continental Illinois failed in part because of bad oil-patch loans in Oklahoma and Texas. As the nation’s seventh-largest bank, Continental Illinois was deemed “too big to fail” by federal regulators, who feared wider turmoil in the financial markets. In the end, the government lost an estimated $1 billion on the bad loans it bought as part of the takeover of Continental, which eventually became part of Bank of America.
The nearest precedent for the Treasury plan, finance experts say, are the investments made by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in the 1930s. The agency, established in 1932, not only made loans to distressed banks, but also bought stock in 6,000 banks, at a cost of $1.3 billion, said Mr. Sylla, the N.Y.U. economist. A similar effort these days, in proportion to today’s economy, would be about $200 billion.
When the economy stabilized eventually, the government sold the stock to private investors or the banks themselves — and about broke even, Mr. Sylla estimated. The 1930s program was a good one, experts say, but the government moved too slowly to deal with the financial crisis, which precipitated and lengthened the Great Depression.The lesson of history, it seems, is for Washington to move quickly in times of economic crisis with a forceful government intervention in the marketplace. And Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, has studied the Great Depression and the policy miscues in those years.
“The goal is to get the engine of capitalism going as productively as possible,” said Nancy Koehn, a historian at the Harvard Business School. “Ideology is a luxury good in times of crisis.”
The traditional American reluctance for government ownership is not shared in other countries. After World War II, several European countries nationalized basic industries like coal, steel and even autos, which typically remained in government hands until the 1980s, when most Western economies began paring back the state’s role in the economy.
Europe remains far more comfortable with government having a strong hand in business. So when Sweden, for example, faced a financial crisis in the early 1990s, the nationalization of much of the banking industry was welcomed. The Swedish government quickly bought stakes in banks, and sold most of them off later — a model of swift, forceful intervention in a credit crisis, financial experts say.
“In Europe, the concept of the social contract is much more social — that is, socialist — than we’ve been comfortable with in America,” said Robert F. Bruner, a finance expert at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.