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Time to Stop the Nationalization Rhetoric, and Let the System Work

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This week, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation took over Silver Falls Bank in Silverton, Oregon. Silver Falls Bank was the 14th bank taken over by the FDIC this year. This compares with 25 banks that failed in 2008 and 3 in 2007. Bank failure is not unheard of. And up until a week or so ago, the term "nationalization" was not invoked.

Since its creation in 1933, the role of the FDIC has been to prevent runs on banks by insuring bank deposits and to oversee the orderly disposition of failed banks. For the better part of a century, it has done its job quietly and effectively. And today, we would all be well served to let the FDIC and its capable leader, Sheila Bair, do their job.

From the beginning of the current financial crisis, one of the problems has been the failure of the leading agents of the government, embodied by Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke, to establish clear rules and follow them. Instead, we have plodded along, from crisis point to crisis point. From Bear Stearns to Fannie Mae to Merrill Lynch to Lehman Brothers to AIG to Washington Mutual, each collapse engendered a unique response by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve.

In a similar manner, the focus of the $700 billion Toxic Asset Relief Program -- the federal bailout -- to address the insolvency of the nation's largest banks has veered from the purchase of toxic assets to injections of capital to guaranteeing of assets. Now once again, toxic asset purchases are back in vogue as the strategy of choice, this time under the "good bank, bad bank rubric."

This week, the stock market broke through its technical support levels, and now appears headed toward 6,000 as its next support level. Some observers have suggested that the decline reflected the market response to looming plans for the "nationalization" of the banking system and one more step down the road to socialism, as trumpeted on the cover of Newsweek.

But market decline was not a result of the fear of nationalization, and nationalization would not mark the next milestone on the road to socialism. Quite the contrary. Investors are running away from banks -- good banks and bad banks alike -- precisely because the federal efforts to date have obscured the true financial condition of the banks. Faced with uncertainty and poor information, investors will always pull back and wait for the fog to clear.

The takeover of insolvent banks by the FDIC is the way the process is supposed to work, and the way it has always been allowed to work--up until now. For all of the debates over the "Swedish Model" -- where banks were taken over, balance sheets reconfigured, and then spun back out to private ownership -- the way they did it in Sweden is not actually all that different from the way they do it at the FDIC, when the FDIC is allowed to do its job. Insolvent banks are seized. Assets are sold off and the depositors are paid or, if possible, the balance sheet is cleaned up and the bank is sold off to a new owner.

The problem today is that a small number of our insolvent banks, notably Citi, are very big and very visible. But the problems they face are the problems that the FDIC was created to fix. This is not nationalization, it is essentially a debtor-in-possession bankruptcy process whereby the FDIC serves as the receiver.

If left to do its job, the FDIC would do what the banks resolutely refuse to do: sell their bad assets, accept the price of their business decisions, and move on. The banks refuse to do it because it would force them to face up to what the markets, and increasingly outraged taxpayers, have known for a while: They are insolvent.

For years, America has told other countries how to deal with financial crises: Cut your losses. Clean up your balance sheets. Get on with it.

This week, the stock market said the same thing.

On a side note, the Ford Motor Company -- the one that is not taking federal money -- has seen its market share rise steadily for the past four months. This is the way markets are supposed to work. Saving one company or another -- or one bank or another -- is not an inherent public good, however politically compelling. And pumping public money into one company serves to dramatically disadvantage their competitors.

One of the biggest mistakes that Hank Paulson made was demanding that banks take TARP money, even if they didn't want to -- or need to- -i n order to remove the stigma from those who did. Somehow, this was supposed to be a way of maintaining confidence in the system. But instead of protecting the bad banks, by letting them hide among the good, it has achieved the opposite. That is why investors have turned their back and are walking away.

The banking industry and the markets would be better served if the politicians and the pundits quieted their politically loaded hubris about nationalization, and if the Treasury and the Fed let the process work, as it has been designed to work. Forget about creating good banks and bad banks. Let insolvent banks take their medicine. Management, shareholders and bondholders will pay a steep price for business failure. And let the banks that are healthy take market share from those that are not.

It is time to let the process work. Punish failure. Reward success. This is not nationalization, it is the way the system is designed to work. Time to take the banks off the dole, and let Sheila Bair do her job.