Monday, March 9, 2009

Some Myths About Banks

Some Myths About Banks
Nationalization would undermine confidence in the financial system.

By Kenneth D. Lewis
Published: March 9, 2009

The story of our economic crisis mirrors every great market bubble in history. Clearly, banks were key participants, but they were not alone. Mortgage lenders, borrowers, regulators, policy makers, appraisers, rating agencies, investors and investment bankers all played a role in pushing economic excesses forward. The institutions that gave in completely to the frenzy are no longer with us. Those that balanced the need to compete with the need to lend prudently survive today and are helping to stabilize the system.

Amid the turmoil, it has become clear that banks need to make changes in the way they run their business, from risk management to expense control to compensation practices. Most banks are making these changes in a good-faith effort to adjust to new economic realities.

And what role should government play in this? Speculation is rife about whether banks need more capital assistance from the government or whether they need to be nationalized. Unfortunately, our current debate has been riddled with misinformation that will not help us understand our current reality, or help us decide on a sensible path forward.

I would like to provide some clarity on a few key claims that have been repeated so often they are now taken to be fact. They are not.

- The banks aren't lending. This claim is simply not true. Yes, banks have tightened lending standards after a period in which standards were too lax. But, according to Federal Reserve data, bank credit has actually increased over the course of this recession, and business lending is trending up modestly so far in 2009. Also, mortgage finance volume is booming as a result of low interest rates. What's gone from the system is the easy credit that got us into this mess, as unregulated nonbank lenders have disappeared, and the market for many asset-backed securities has all but dried up. Most banks are making as many loans as we responsibly can, given the recessionary environment.

- The banks are insolvent. In the past 18 months, we've seen fewer than 50 bank failures. That compares to about 2,000 failures or closings of commercial banks or savings institutions between 1986 and 1991. There may be more to come, but the vast majority of banks will weather this economic storm.

- The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) hasn't worked. Not true. Last October, when the TARP was enacted, systemic risk threatened our entire financial system and economy. The point of the program was to stabilize surviving banks, prevent a total meltdown, and enable banks to lend more. The TARP and other government programs have worked, and banks are making more loans as a result.

- Taxpayers have given the banks billions and won't get their money back. TARP funds are not charity. Banks that received TARP funds will make about $13 billion in dividend payments to the U.S. Treasury this year. TARP funds are loans yielding anywhere from 5% to 8% interest. This is a win-win: Banks are getting the capital they need, and taxpayers are getting a strong return on their investment.

- The banks that caused this mess must be held accountable. In fact, while all banks participated in the bubble economy to some degree, the companies that did the most to cause this mess are gone. The managers and shareholders of those institutions have been held accountable by the toughest, most unforgiving master of all: the free market.

- The only way to fix the banks is to nationalize them. This is a misguided premise. The announcement of nationalization would undermine confidence in the financial system and send shudders through the investment community. Politicizing lending decisions and the credit allocation process would be destructive for the economy. Nationalization also would give the false impression that all banks are insolvent. We agree with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's statement that nationalization of banks is not necessary to stabilize the banking system.

Getting our facts straight as we debate the important issues will help us rebuild a healthy financial services sector that can better support economic growth. I have two thoughts to help us get started.

First, our industry must continue to work in partnership with the government to solve our toughest problems. Congress and the administration have already taken several very positive steps. The Fed is providing sufficient liquidity and has helped lower mortgage rates. The $787 billion stimulus package will help boost economic activity. The Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) will help liquefy the credit markets. And the administration's housing and foreclosure relief plan will be very helpful to both homeowners and banks as we work to stabilize housing markets across the country.

Second, one of our greatest challenges is balancing the need to extend credit with the need of households to pay down excessive debt. In an economy that became too dependent on debt-driven consumption to create growth, the prospect of household deleveraging is sobering. The answer, in my view, is to let competitive forces lead us back to responsible lending practices, not the type of indiscriminate lending that has created so many problems.

Mr. Lewis is chairman, chief executive officer and president of Bank of America.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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