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How State-Owned Banks Can Help Americans (And Stick It to Wall Street, Too)

With its populist business model, the Bank of North Dakota provides a template for sustainable fiscal policy at the state level.
 
 
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Pouring money into the private banking system has only fixed the economy for bankers and the wealthy; it has not done much to address either the fundamental problem of unemployment or the debt trap so many Americans find themselves in.

President Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan has so far failed to halt the growth of unemployment: 2.7 million jobs have been lost since the stimulus plan began. California has lost 336,400 jobs. Arizona has lost 77,300. Michigan has lost 137,300. A total of 49 states and the District of Columbia have all reported net job losses.

In this dark firmament, however, one bright star shines. The sole state to actually gain jobs is an unlikely candidate for the distinction: North Dakota. North Dakota is also one of only two states expected to meet their budgets in 2010. (The other is Montana.) North Dakota is a sparsely populated state of less than 700,000 people, largely located in cold and isolated farming communities. Yet, since 2000, the state's GNP has grown 56 percent, personal income has grown 43 percent and wages have grown 34 percent. The state not only has no funding problems, but this year it has a budget surplus of $1.3 billion, the largest it has ever had.

Why is North Dakota doing so well, when other states are suffering the ravages of a deepening credit crisis? Its secret may be that it has its own credit machine. North Dakota is the only state in the Union to own its own bank. The Bank of North Dakota (BND) was established by the state legislature in 1919, specifically to free farmers and small businessmen from the clutches of out-of-state bankers and railroad men. The bank's stated mission is to deliver sound financial services that promote agriculture, commerce and industry in North Dakota.

The Advantages of Owning Your Own Bank

So, how does owning a bank solve the state's funding problems? Isn't the state still limited to the money it has? The answer is no. Chartered banks are allowed to do something nobody else can do: They can create credit on their books simply with accounting entries, using the magic of "fractional reserve" lending. As the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas explains on its web site:

"Banks actually create money when they lend it. Here's how it works: Most of a bank's loans are made to its own customers and are deposited in their checking accounts. Because the loan becomes a new deposit, just like a paycheck does, the bank ... holds a small percentage of that new amount in reserve and again lends the remainder to someone else, repeating the money-creation process many times."

How many times? President Obama puts this "multiplier effect" at eight to ten. In a speech on April 14, he said:

"[A]lthough there are a lot of Americans who understandably think that government money would be better spent going directly to families and businesses instead of banks - 'where's our bailout?,' they ask - the truth is that a dollar of capital in a bank can actually result in eight or ten dollars of loans to families and businesses, a multiplier effect that can ultimately lead to a faster pace of economic growth. "

It can, but it hasn't recently, because private banks are limited by bank capital requirements and by their for-profit business models. And that is where a state-owned bank has enormous advantages: States own huge amounts of capital, and they can think farther ahead that their quarterly profit statements, allowing them to take long-term risks. Their asset bases are not marred by oversized salaries and bonuses; they have no shareholders expecting a sizable cut, and they have not marred their books with bad derivatives bets, unmarketable collateralized debt obligations and mark-to-market accounting problems.