Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, April 2017
A former Wall Street banker himself, Murphy knows how banking works. But in an April 7 op-ed in The New Jersey Spotlight, former New Jersey state treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff questioned the need for a state-owned bank and raised the issue of risk. This post is in response to those arguments, including a short refresher on the stellar model of the Bank of North Dakota (BND), currently the nation’s only state-owned depository bank.
Which Is Safer, a Public Bank or a Private Bank?
Sidamon-Eristoff warns, “[W]e need to remember that a public bank would be lending the state’s operating cash balances – we’re not talking about an enormous pool of unused, unencumbered cash – and that any repayment shortfalls or liquidity restrictions could potentially impact the availability of funds for employee salaries and other regular operating expenses.”
As the Bank of England recently confirmed, however, banks do not actually lend their deposits. The deposits at all times remain in the bank, available for withdrawal. They are no less available to the state when deposited in its own bank than in Bank of America. In fact, they are more at risk in Bank of America and other Wall Street banks, which with the repeal of Glass-Steagall are allowed to commingle their funds. That means they can gamble with their deposits in derivatives and other risky ventures, something a transparent and accountable state-owned bank would not be allowed to do.
Today, government deposits are at risk in private banks for another
reason. Banks across the country are telling governments of all sizes
they can no longer provide the collateral required to fully protect
these deposits while paying a competitive interest rate on them, due to
heightened regulatory requirements. FDIC insurance covers only the first
$250,000 of these deposits, a sum government revenues far exceed. The
bulk of these deposits are thus left insufficiently protected against a
banking collapse like that seen in 2008-09—something that is widely
predicted to happen again.
That is one of the major benefits to the state of having its own bank: it can borrow very cheaply in the money markets. It can get the sort of Wall Street perks not otherwise available to governments, businesses, or individuals; and it is backstopped by the Federal Reserve system if it runs short of funds. This is the magic that allows banks to be so profitable, and it is what makes a publicly-owned bank exceptionally useful at state and local levels of government.
Cutting the Cost of Infrastructure in Half
Consider the possibilities, for example, for funding infrastructure. Like most states today, New Jersey suffers from serious budget problems, limiting its ability to make needed improvements. By funding infrastructure through its own bank, the state can cut infrastructure costs roughly in half, since 50 percent of the cost of infrastructure, on average, is financing. Again, a state-owned bank can do this by leveraging its capital, with any shortfall covered very cheaply in the wholesale markets. In effect, the state can borrow at bankers’ rates of 1 percent or less, rather than at market rates of 4 to 6 percent for taxable infrastructure bonds (not to mention the roughly 12 percent return expected by private equity investors). The state can borrow at 1 percent and turn a profit even if it lends for local development at only 2 percent—one-half to two-thirds below bond market rates.
That is the rate at which North Dakota lends for infrastructure. In
2015, the state legislature
established a BND Infrastructure Loan Fund program that made $150
million available to local communities for a wide variety of
infrastructure needs. These loans have a 2 percent fixed interest rate
and a term of up to 30 years; and the 2 percent goes back to the State
of North Dakota, so it’s a win-win-win for local residents.
In November 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that the BND was actually more profitable than the largest Wall Street banks, with a return on equity that was 70 percent greater than for JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. This remarkable performance was attributed to the state’s oil boom; but the boom has now become an oil bust, yet the BND’s profits continue to climb. In its latest annual report, published in April 2016, the bank boasted its most profitable year ever. The BND has had record profits for the last 12 years, each year outperforming the last. In 2015 it reported $130.7 million in earnings, total assets of $7.4 billion, capital of $749 million, and a return on equity of a whopping 18.1 percent.
The BND Partners, Not Competes, with Local Banks
The BND also helps directly with state government funding as needed. Between 2009 and 2016, the BND retained its profits because the state did not need them and the bank needed the additional capital for its rapidly expanding loan portfolio. But in December 2016, Governor Jack Dalrymple proposed returning $200 million from the bank’s profits to the state’s general fund, to help make up for a budget shortfall caused by collapsing oil and soybean proceeds. Dalrymple commented, “Our economic advisers have told us there is no similar state in the nation that could have weathered such a collapse in commodity prices without serious impacts on their financial condition.”
The BND also served as a rainy day fund when the state went
over-budget in 2001-02 due to the dot-com bust. The bank simply declared
an extra dividend for the state, and the next year the budget was back
on track: no massive debt accumulation, no Wall Street bid-rigging, no
fraudulent interest-rate swaps, no capital appreciation bonds at 300%
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