Monday, January 05, 2009

Is the Federal Government about to Create a Consumer Bank?

Back in September, when Wall Street suffered a horrible meltdown, we were told that $800 billion being pumped into financial institutions through taxpayer dollars would get the "economy moving again." Four months later and we could not be more amazed by the delays in the process. Essentially, the major banks have enjoyed a massive gift that make them more secure, but they have done nothing for the average consumer.

As a result many Members of Congress in both the House and Senate are up in arms and are about to declare that they will not take it any longer. The way I believe they may respond, is by taking the $300 billion plus left from the first bailout and additional dollars from the $1 trillion in being proposed by President-Elect Obama, to create a government based, consumer lending bank.

I don't believe they will make these banks "within" banks or even attempt to run the programs through credit unions, but will make them separate, government run, institutions. They no longer trust the banks to be altruistic, which I think was foolish to believe they would be in the first place. Banks are largely successful because they are self interested and run on the profit motive. Banks are only behaving like banks.

That leads us back to the new, government driven, banks that I believe are right around the corner. These new institutions will run with the efficiency of most government bureaucracies, which means they will continuously be running deficits, will be unresponsive to consumer needs, and will possibly undermine the competitiveness of private banks because it is very hard to compete against free or cheap money.

Since Wall Street is so dependent on private banking, the possible rise of these lending institutions will only further drive stock market fears. These banks will create ever more unpredictable investment environments and further drag the economy into despair. Although it is true that many bankers have made horrible decisions (mainly driven by political pressure from organizations like ACORN), such poor decision making would become standard with government run banks. Instead of making investments based on possible returns, they will be based on altruism and political pandering. If you ever wondered what the expression that the "road to hell is paved with good intentions" means, wait until you see these new banks.

Government leaders continue to seek short cuts and political solutions to our economic situation. Members of the US House of Representatives will all be fighting for their political lives in just two years and the President is not that far behind with his four year term. With these type of election cycles, the pressure is on to improve thing immediately, even if the consequences are potentially harmful in the long run.

A good doctor would allow some of these economic woes to run their course and not keep applying quick fixes to long term problems. Our financial institutions, like the economy in general, need a time to heal and not so called "reforms" that promise to have devastating long term consequences.

Kevin Price is a syndicated columnist whose articles frequently appear at ChicagoSunTimes.com, Reuters.com, USAToday.com, and other national media. Kevin Price is Host of the Price of Business (M-F at 11 AM on CNN 650) and Publisher of the Houston Business Review. Hear the show live and online at PriceofBusiness.com. Visit the archive of past shows here.

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