Banks vs. bank holding companies

I continue to see many bloggers suggesting that bank nationalization is a fait accompli and that anyone who isn't on board right now is in denial.  It is far less common that bloggers give serious consideration to the difference between a bank and a bank holding company.  In fact I usually don't see that critical distinction mentioned at all.

If the government nationalized (or "pre-privatized"…whatever) Citibank, Citicorp would go bankrupt and we would be back at a Lehman Brothers scenario again.  So the government would have to take over Citicorp too.  That goes way, way beyond anything the Swedes did or for that matter it goes well beyond WaMu. Shall I turn the mike over to Wikipedia?

Citigroup was formed from one of the world's largest mergers in history by combining the banking giant Citicorp and financial conglomerate Travelers Group on April 7, 1998.
Citigroup Inc. has the world's largest financial services network,
spanning 107 countries with approximately 12,000 offices worldwide. The
company employs approximately 300,000 staff around the world, and holds
over 200 million customer accounts in more than 100 countries. It is
the world's largest bank by revenues as of 2008.

You can read about Travelers Group here.

Thinking through the implications of said nationalization for the counterparty positions of a bank holding company, or its role in the commercial paper market, is mind-boggling.  Neither the FDIC (which generally does an OK job) nor any other government agency is in any way prepared for this kind of management task.  It has very little to do with standard FDIC procedures.  All I hear about is "bank" this, "bank" that, etc. but again little or no talk of the bank holding company.

Of course this is only a problem for the five or six biggest financial institutions but those are precisely the issue at hand.

On nationalization, Bernanke is very much on the ball.  He said this:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said this week, is “that you tend
to lose the franchise value, that the counterparties and others don’t
want to deal with you because they don’t know your future.”

I usually don't like to speak so negatively, but it's the advocates of nationalization who are in denial.  There is a belief that Obama, Bernanke, and/or Geithner are somehow spineless or in the pocket of the banking lobby.  The sadder truth is that they understand just how ill-prepared the U.S. government, or the Fed, would be to run such an enterprise.

I do understand that if all the water runs out of the sink, as it may, nationalization will come in some form or another, however disastrous that may be.  But the desire to postpone it until the last possible moment, and the desire to pursue even a small chance of avoiding nationalization, are signs of wisdom, not cowardice.

When you read about nationalization, and see only the word "bank," and not "bank holding company," be very afraid of the advice on tap.

Addendum: Here is a different but related piece on banks vs. bank holding companies.


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