I had to pause when I read George Melloan’s Wall Street Journal piece today. Seems he sees a conspiracy between Treasury and the Federal Reserve to fund the national deficit with bank funds to the detriment of business and economic growth. In Melloan’s world, the co-conspirators do this by regulation, giving banks little choice but to invest in Treasuries, partially funding the deficit, keeping the government’s interest costs down, not lending to business.
I’m as concerned as anyone about total government spending and the deficit. I’m probably more concerned than most about bank lending to business. But, conspiracy isn’t the problem.
Part one of Melloan’s theory is that the Fed is causing banks to be excessively risk averse. He says “The Federal Reserve, which supervises some 7,000 banks, has been telling bankers that they must cut risk.”
The FDIC reported today that there are 552 banks on their problem list. Banks have been charging off $40 to $50 billion per quarter in loans for a year now. Capital has been eroded, and banks are way overleveraged, in part because of excessive risk taking. You think that maybe banks should be more risk averse today? You think that maybe there is a rational reason for banks to lend less to business and purchase more government securities?
The real problem is not some government conspiracy. The real problem is the government’s quiescence.
Too many of our banks are zombies, and we face something like Japan’s lost decade if we don’t fix them. This is the single most serious United States problem today. It drives me crazy that we are wasting huge amounts of resources and political capital on second-order problems while ignoring the bank problem.
Robust recovery requires banks lending to businesses. Banks can’t lend to businesses until they are adequately capitalized, and the bad assets are off the books. We will not have a robust recovery and put people back to work until our banks are fixed.
Bankruptcy is one way to clean up our banks. Since the FDIC fund is currently upside down, -8.2 billion, this would require external funds to the FDIC. The other option is the one successfully used by Sweden. They nationalized the banks, cleaned them up, and resold them. This would also require an investment.
Either way, fixing the banks is a far better use of money than some Stimulus 2 program or even the unspent portion of the current stimulus program.