Once the black sheep of high finance, government owned banks can reassure depositors about the safety of their savings and can help maintain a focus on productive investment in a world in which effective financial regulation remains more of an aspiration than a reality. —Centre for Economic Policy Research, VoxEU.org (January 2010)
Public-sector banking is a concept that is relatively unknown in the United States. Only one state—North Dakota—owns its own bank. North Dakota is also the only state to escape the credit crisis of 2008, and has sported a budget surplus every year since, but skeptics write this off to coincidence or other factors. The common perception is that government bureaucrats are bad businesspeople. To determine whether government-owned banks are assets or liabilities, then, we need to look farther afield.
When we remove our myopic US blinders, it turns out that, globally, not only are publicly owned banks quite common, but countries with strong public banking sectors generally have strong, stable economies. According to an Inter-American Development Bank paper presented in 2005, the percentage of state ownership in the banking industry globally by the mid-nineties was over 40 percent. The BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—contain nearly 3 billion of the world’s 7 billion people, or 40 percent of the global population. The BRICs all make heavy use of public-sector banks, which compose about 75 percent of the banks in India, 69 percent or more in China, 45 percent in Brazil and 60 percent in Russia.
The BRICs have been the main locus of world economic growth in the last decade. China Daily reports, “Between 2000 and 2010, BRIC’s GDP grew by an incredible 92.7 percent, compared to a global GDP growth of just 32 percent, with industrialized economies having a very modest 15.5 percent.”
—The two largest banks by market capitalization (Industrial & Commercial Bank of China [ICBC] and China Construction Bank) —The largest bank by deposits (Japan Post Bank) —The largest bank by assets (Royal Bank of Scotland, now nationalized) —The world’s largest development bank (Brazilian Development Bank [BNDES by its Portuguese acronym] in Brazil).
A May 2010 article in The Economist noted that the strong and stable publicly owned banks of India, China and Brazil helped those countries weather the banking crisis afflicting most of the rest of the world in the last few years. According to Professor Kurt von Mettenheim of the Sao Paulo Business School of Brazil:
Government banks provided counter cyclical credit and policy options to counter the effects of the recent financial crisis, while realizing competitive advantage over private and foreign banks. Greater client confidence and official deposits reinforced liability base and lending capacity. The credit policies of BRIC government banks help explain why these countries experienced shorter and milder economic downturns during 2007-2008.
In a 2010 research paper summarized on VoxEU.org, economist Svetlana Andrianova and her colleagues wrote that the post-2008 nationalization of a number of very large banks, including The Royal Bank of Scotland, “offers an opportune moment to reduce the political power of bankers and to carry out much needed financial reforms.” But, wrote Andrianova, “there are concerns that governments may be unable to run nationalised banks efficiently.”
Not to worry, say the authors:
Follow-on research we have carried out (Andrianova et al, 2009) ... shows that government ownership of banks has, if anything, been robustly associated with higher long run growth rates.
Using data from a large number of countries for 1995-2007, we find that, other things equal, countries with high degrees of government ownership of banking have grown faster than countries with little government ownership of banks. We show that this finding is robust to a battery of econometric tests.
Expanding on this theme in their research paper, the authors write:
While many countries in continental Europe, including Germany and France, have had a fair amount of experience with government-owned banks, the UK and the USA have found themselves in unfamiliar territory. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that there is deeply ingrained hostility in these countries towards the notion that governments can run banks effectively…. Hostility towards government-owned banks reflects the hypothesis ... that these banks are established by politicians who use them to shore up their power by instructing them to lend to political supporters and government-owned enterprises. In return, politicians receive votes and other favours. This hypothesis also postulates that politically motivated banks make bad lending decisions, resulting in non-performing loans, financial fragility and slower growth.