LAT’s’s Hiltzik Spells It Out

The Los Angeles Times’s Michael Hiltzik has been off to a good start with his return to column-writing.

Today, he simplifies the matter of nationalization to make its case:

…it’s obvious that nationalization of the banks is a done deal. We bought them. We own them.

The only problem is that we’ve failed to exercise our right to control them…

The cash injections alone are almost enough to buy up all of BofA’s outstanding common stock twice over and Citi’s stock three times over. Yet the government has failed to demand any specific performance in return. There have been no sackings of management and no mandate that the money be applied to support loans in credit-strapped sectors, like small and medium-size businesses.

This is a great quote:

So it’s unsurprising that the banks still act as if Job One is to maximize shareholder value. BofA Chairman Ken Lewis told Congress last week that he was determined to “balance the interests of customers, shareholders and taxpayers.” That struck Campbell R. Harvey, a banking expert at Duke University, as “the opposite of what it should be. BofA would be bust without the U.S. government. The taxpayer should be No. 1, not No. 3.”

Hiltzik then looks at the Swedish experience that’s been much talked about and clears away some misconceptions about what happened with its nationalization and boils it down to a few simple points:

Plainly, the key pieces of Sweden’s recovery were the frank admission of loan losses, the creation of the bad bank and the setting of a substantial price to be paid by shareholders and management in exchange for bailout capital. Meanwhile, the gravity of the crisis produced a politics-free consensus among bank executives and government leaders, including Parliament.

Of these four elements, the number thus far implemented in the United States is zero.

There’s almost no mystery about how to restore credibility to American banking. Call it “nationalization” or not, it amounts to transparency, recapitalization and an end to the entitlement culture of bank executives and shareholders. How much longer should we wait?

Hiltzik makes this all seem very simple, and I mean that in a good way.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.