Restoring Economic Sovereignty: The Push for State-owned Banks

It is time to declare economic sovereignty from the multinational banks that are responsible for much of our current economic crisis. Every year we ship over a billion dollars in Oregon taxpayer dollars to out-of-state and multinational banks in the form of deposits, only to see that money invested elsewhere. It’s time to put our money to work for Oregonians.

— Bill Bradbury, former Oregon Senate President and Secretary of State, quoted  in The Nation

Responding to an unfilled need for credit for local government, local businesses and consumers, three states in the last month have introduced bills for state-owned banks — Oregon, Washington and Maryland – joining Illinois, Virginia, Massachusetts and Hawaii to bring the total number to seven.

While Wall Street is reporting record profits, local banks are floundering, credit for small businesses and consumers remains tight, and local governments are teetering on bankruptcy.  There is even talk of allowing state governments to file for bankruptcy, something current legislation forbids.  The federal government and Federal Reserve have managed to find trillions of dollars to prop up the Wall Street banks that precipitated the credit crisis, but they have not extended this largesse to the taxpayers and local governments that have been forced to pick up the tab.

In January, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced that the Fed had ruled out a central bank bailout for state and local governments.  The collective state budget deficit for 2011 is projected at $140 billion, a mere 1% of the $12.3 trillion the Fed managed to come up with in liquidity, short-term loans, and other financial arrangements to bail out Wall Street.  But Chairman Bernanke said the Fed is limited by statute to buying municipal government debt with maturities of six months or less that is directly backed by tax or other assured revenue, a form of debt that makes up less than 2% of the overall muni market.  State and municipal governments, it seems, are on their own.

Faced with federal inaction and growing local budget crises, an increasing number of states are exploring the possibility of setting up their own state-owned banks, following the model of North Dakota, the only state that seems to have escaped the credit crisis unscathed.  The 92-year-old Bank of North Dakota (BND), currently the only state-owned U.S. bank, has helped North Dakota avoid the looming budgetary disasters of other states.  In 2009, North Dakota sported the largest budget surplus it had ever had.  The BND helps fund not only local government but local banks and businesses by providing matching funds for loans to commercial banks to support small business lending.

In the last month, three states have introduced bills for state-owned banks, following the North Dakota model.  On January 11, a bill to establish a state-owned bank was introduced in the Oregon State legislature; on January 13, a similar bill was introduced in Washington State (discussed in an earlier article here); and on February 4, a bill was introduced in the Maryland legislature for a feasibility study looking into the possibilities.  They join Illinois, Virginia, Hawaii, and Massachusetts, which introduced similar bills in 2010.

Broad-based Support

The bills are widely supported by small business owners.  The Seattle Times reported on February 3 that 79% of 107 business owners surveyed by the Main Street Alliance of Washington supported the Washington bill.  More than half said they had experienced a tightening of business credit, and three-fourths of those said they could create additional jobs if their credit needs were met.

A survey by the Main Street Alliance of Oregon produced similar results.  Their survey, which covered 115 businesses in 28 communities, found that two-thirds of small-business owners had delayed or canceled expansions because of credit problems; 41 percent had been turned down for credit; and 42 percent had seen their credit terms deteriorate.  Three-quarters of the business owners surveyed supported the Oregon bill.

Also supporting the idea of a state-owned bank is Oregon state treasurer, Ted Wheeler, with this twist: he thinks Oregon can unlock additional lending capacity in partnership with existing institutions by creating a “virtual” bank.  The state would not need to build new brick and mortar banks requiring hundreds of new employees to service them.  The new tools afforded the state by being a “bank” could be arranged quickly and cheaply through a framework he calls a “virtual economic development bank.”  In an OpEd posted on on February 9, he wrote:

This new model would consolidate Oregon’s various economic development loan programs in one place, and allow state government to step in as a new lending participant, which will help qualified Oregonians to secure additional financing. We also have strategic investment tools such as the Oregon Growth Account that could be better utilized as part of this framework.

Banks “create” money by leveraging their capital into loans.  At an 8% capital requirement, they can leverage capital by a factor of twelve, so long as they can attract sufficient deposits (collected or borrowed) to clear the outgoing checks.  States give this leveraging power away when they put their deposits in Wall Street banks and invest their capital there.

State and municipal governments have assets tucked all over the state in separate rainy day funds, which are largely invested in Wall Street banks for a very modest return.  At the same time, states are borrowing from Wall Street at much higher interest rates and have to worry about such things as credit ratings, late fees, and interest rate swaps, which have proven to be very good investments for Wall Street and very bad investments for local governments.

By consolidating their assets into their own state-owned banks, state and local governments can leverage their own funds to finance their own operations; and they can do this essentially interest-free, since they will own the bank and will get the interest back.  The BND contributed over $300 million to state coffers in the past decade, a notable achievement for a state with a population that is less than one-tenth the size of Los Angeles County.

The growing movement to establish local economic sovereignty through state-owned banks has been a grassroots effort that has grown spontaneously in response to unmet needs for local credit. In Oregon, the push has come from an active volunteer group called Oregonians for a State Bank working with the Working Families Party.  In Washington, a major role has been played by the Main Street Alliance, a project of the Alliance for a Just Society (formerly NWFCO).  The chief legislative champion in Washington State is Rep. Bob Hasegawa.  In Maryland, the campaign was initiated by the Wisconsin-based Center for State Innovation (CSI), working with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Progressive States Network.  Progressive Maryland is a prominent NGO supporter.  Detailed analyses of the Washington and Oregon initiatives and their projected benefits have been done by CSI.  For grassroots efforts in other states and for petitions that can be signed, see here.

Ellen Brown is an attorney, founder of the Public Banking Institute, and author of twelve books, including the best-selling Web of Debt, The Public Bank Solution, and Banking on the People: Democratizing Money in the Digital Age. She also co-hosts a radio program on PRN.FM called “It’s Our Money.” Her 400+ blog articles are posted at This article was first published in Scheer Post. Read other articles by Ellen.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Keith said on February 17th, 2011 at 4:54pm #

    “Allow me to issue and control a nation’s currency, and I care not who makes its laws.” (Mayer Rothschild, 1791)

    At the macro level, the economy, hence the political economy, is essential under the control and direction of the financial system. Having the financial system under private control for private profit is a recipe for disaster. Since it is not possible for the states to change the federal system, they must adapt as best they can. State-owned banks are an obvious partial solution which should have been enacted by all of the states long ago. Oh well, better late than never.

  2. Deadbeat said on February 17th, 2011 at 11:20pm #

    State-owned banking is a band-aid solution. What state-owned banking would have done is delayed crises but it still would not resolve crises since crises is inherent of the Capitalist system.

    In addition I don’t see any evidence in Ms Hodgson-Brown article where ND’s budget surplus is due to its state-owned banking. ND recently lowered its top income tax rate which will benefit the rich and more than likely transfer the budget surplus upward. In other words tax policy is relates much more to budgetary surplus than state-owned banking. I’d appreciate it if Mr. Hodgson-Brown provide a reference to support that portion of her argument.

    In addition, state-owned banking doesn’t resolve the need for credit — meaning the need to obtain money because money is withheld from people in order to meet their needs. Isn’t it time we consider a society free of money and the need to shift a fictional commodity around in order to meet human needs.

    State-owned banking is yet another Keynesian or “3rd-way” solution to maintain the Capitalist system and all the maladies inherent of this system.

  3. ajohnstone said on February 19th, 2011 at 5:24am #

    i concur with the sentiments of Deadbeats comment.

    It is no co-incidence that the cries for banking reform invariably comes during economic depressions. The lubrication that keeps the capitalist machine running – the money markets – are dysfunctional. As Marx identified “So long as things go well, competition effects an operating fraternity of the capitalist class…so that each shares in the common loot in proportion to the size of his respective investment. But as soon as it is no longer a question of sharing profits, but of sharing losses, everyone tries to reduce his own share to a minimum and to shove it off upon another. The class, as such, must inevitably lose. How much the individual capitalist must bear of the loss, ie, to what extent he must share in it at all, is decided by strength and cunning, and competition then becomes a fight among hostile brothers. The antagonism between each individual capitalist’s interests and those of the capitalist class as a whole, then comes to the surface…” Marx also pointed out that “the moneyed interest enriches itself at the cost of the industrial interest in the course of a crisis” Bankers are enriching themselves at the expense of industry and workers, in other words. So whats new?

    The economist David Harvey has explained that the losses of the crisis are finally distributed between factions of the capitalist class, and between the working and capitalist classes, and whatever the power struggle that ensues, the necessary result will be the destruction of value (closure of workplaces, the laying off of workers, destruction of surpluses, defaulting on debt, cutting of state services, and so on) so that a new round of capitalist accumulation can begin. The sad but inevitable reality of capitalism

    I think if we are to discuss specifics , the State Bank of North Dakota may reflect that the state’s economy is primarily based on agriculture and oil , both involved in current boom times. Nor was the state particularly exposed to the sub-prime disaster “North Dakota really didn’t participate in subprime to a significant degree. I mean, that was–you know, it was sort of a flyover state. All of the aggressive subprime lenders apparently didn’t think there were enough folks in farms that they could get to lever up to take on these dodgy loans.” Yves Smith. author of the book ECONned and creator of the website
    In Scotland, we have the almost unique bank success story (but with differing outcome) of the “Airdrie Savings Bank” . Bucking the trend, it lent 24% in 2010 than it did in 2009 and posted for the same period a rise in profits of 21%. Yet “North Lanarkshire has been particularly rocked by the recession, including above-average redundancies, because the economy is not as diverse as some and there remains a heavy reliance on sectors that seem more susceptible to economic shocks” as one report describes.

    What socialists say about the banks is not regulate them, nor nationalise them, but make them redundant. Abolish them, along with all the rest of the complicated, financial superstructure of the capitalist production-for-profit economy. The mythology surrounding the power of banking helps those who take the view that this vast institution is so necessary that the prospect of a world without money would be unthinkable. Let’s abolish capitalism and live in a moneyless, propertyless world without banks. That means moving from a demand for ‘regulation change’ to one for ‘system change’. Perceived wisdom is that it should be easier to make socialists in a recession when the shortcomings of capitalism are more evident. This capitalist recession will eventually end and the economy at some time in the future will inevitably return to growth. If there are more socialists at that future time, then at least one positive outcome will have resulted from this sorry and preventable mess.

    “…no kind of bank legislation can eliminate a crisis” – Marx