U.S. Intervention in Banking Industry Is Bold, but Has a Basis in History





The government’s plan to prop up banks large and small — along with recent bailouts as well as guarantees to support business loans, money markets and bank lending — represents the most sweeping government moves into the nation’s financial markets since the Great Depression, and perhaps ever, according to economists and finance experts.

The high-stakes program is intended to halt the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. If successful, it could long be studied by historians as a textbook case of the emergency role that government can play to rescue a teetering economy.

“It is profound, and it is something of a shift back to the state,” said Adam S. Posen, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “But is this a recasting of capitalism? I think what we’ll see is that the government acts as a silent partner and gets out as soon as it can.”...

The government’s plan is an exceptional step, but not an unprecedented one.

The United States has a culture that celebrates laissez-faire capitalism as the economic ideal, yet the practice strays at times. Over the last century, the federal government has occasionally taken stakes in railways, coal mines and steel mills, and has even taken a controlling interest in banks when it was deemed to be in the national interest.

The corporate wards of the state typically have been returned to private hands after short, sometimes fleeting, stretches under federal stewardship.

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.



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