Tag Archives: Bank of North Dakota

The Public Bank Option – Safer, Local and Half the Cost

Phil Murphy, a former banker with a double-digit lead in New Jersey’s race for governor, has made a state-owned bank a centerpiece of his platform. If he wins on November 7, the nation’s second state-owned bank in a century could follow.   

A UK study published on October 27, 2017 reported that the majority of politicians do not know where money comes from. According to City A.M. (London) :

More than three-quarters of the MPs surveyed incorrectly believed that only the government has the ability to create new money. . . .

The Bank of England has previously intervened to point out that most money in the UK begins as a bank loan. In a 2014 article the Bank pointed out that “whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.”

The Bank of England researchers said that 97% of the UK money supply is created in this way. In the US, the figure is about 95%. City A.M. quoted Fran Boait, executive director of the advocacy group Positive Money, who observed:

“Despite their confidence in telling the public that there is ‘no magic money tree’ to pay for vital services, politicians themselves are shockingly ignorant of where money actually comes from.

“There is in fact a ‘magic money tree’, but it’s in the hands of commercial banks, such as Barclays, HSBC and RBS, who create money whenever they make loans.”

For those few politicians who are aware of the banks’ magic money tree, the axiom that the people should own the banks – or at least some of them – is a no-brainer. One of these rare politicians is Phil Murphy, who has a double-digit lead in New Jersey’s race for governor. Formerly a Wall Street banker himself, Murphy knows how banking works. That helps explain why he has boldly made a state-owned bank a centerpiece of his platform. He maintains that New Jersey’s billions in tax dollars should be kept in the state’s own bank, where it can leverage its capital to fund local infrastructure, small businesses, affordable housing, student loans, and other state needs. New Jersey voters go to the polls on November 7.

That means New Jersey could soon have the second publicly-owned depository bank in the country, following the very successful century-old Bank of North Dakota (BND). Other likely contenders among about twenty public banking initiatives now underway include Washington State, which has approved a feasibility study for a state bank; and the cities of Santa Fe in New Mexico and Los Angeles and Oakland in California, which are exploring the feasibility of their own city-owned banks.

A Bank Is Not Simply an Intermediary

An article in City Watch LA critical of the idea of a city-owned bank observed that Los Angeles formerly had a bank that failed, closing its doors in 2003 due to insolvency. The argument illustrates the confusion over what a bank is and what it can do for the local government and local communities. The Los Angeles Community Development Bank was not a bank. It was a loan fund, and it was designed to fail. It was not chartered to take deposits or to create deposits as loans, and it was only allowed to lend to businesses that had been turned down by other banks; in other words, they were bad credit risks.

With a loan fund, a dollar invested is a dollar lent, which must return to the bank before it can be lent again. By contrast, as the Bank of England acknowledged in its 2014 paper, “banks do not act simply as intermediaries, lending out deposits that savers place with them.” A chartered depository bank can turn one dollar of capital into ten dollars in bank credit, something it does simply by creating a deposit in the account of the borrower. If the bank’s books don’t balance at the end of the day, it borrows very cheaply from other banks, the Federal Home Loan Banks, or the repo market. It borrows at bankers’ rates rather than retail rates, and that is one of the many perks that a publicly-owned bank can recapture for local governments. Borrowing from banks rather than the bond market actually expands the circulating money supply, stimulating the local economy.

Compelling Precedents

Public sector banks, while rare in the US, are common in other countries; and recent studies have shown that they are actually more profitable, safer, less corrupt, and more accountable overall than private banks.

This is particularly true of the Bank of North Dakota, currently the only publicly-owned depository bank in the US. According to the Wall Street Journal, it is more profitable than Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase. The BND is risk-averse, lends conservatively, does not gamble in derivatives or put deposits at risk. It is able to lend at lower than market rates because its costs are very low.

The BND holds all of its home state’s revenues as deposits by law, acting as a sort of “mini-Fed” for North Dakota. It has seen record profits for almost 15 years. It continued to report record profits after two years of oil bust in the state, showing that it is highly profitable on its own merits because of its business model. It does not pay bonuses, fees, or commissions; has no high paid executives; does not have multiple branches; does not need to advertise; and does not have private shareholders seeking short-term profits. The profits return to the bank, which either distributes them as dividends to the state or uses them to build up its capital base in order to expand its loan portfolio.

The BND does not compete but partners with local banks, which act as the front office dealing with customers. It does make loans that community banks are unable to service, but this is not because the borrowers are bad credit risks. It is because either the loans are too big for the smaller banks to handle by themselves or the smaller banks cannot afford the regulatory burden of lending in rural communities where they get only a few loans a year.

Among other cost savings, the BND is able to make 2% loans to North Dakota communities for local infrastructure — half or less the rate paid by local governments in other states. The BND also lends to state agencies. For example, in 2016 it extended a $200,000 letter of credit to the State Water Commission at 1.75% and a $56,000 loan to the Water Commission to pay off its bond issues. Since 50% of the cost of infrastructure is financing, the state can cut infrastructure costs nearly in half by financing through its own bank, which can return the interest to the state.

If Phil Murphy wins the New Jersey governorship and succeeds in establishing a New Jersey state-owned bank, expect a wave of public banks to follow, as more and more elected officials come to understand how banking works and to see the obvious benefits of establishing their own.

 

 

What if People Owned the Banks, Instead of Wall Street?

When Craig Brandt marched into the City Council chambers in Oakland, California, in the summer of 2015, he was furious about fraud.

The long-time local attorney and father of two had been following the fallout from the Libor scandal, a brazen financial scam that saw some of the biggest banks on Wall Street illegally manipulate international interest rates in order to boost their profits. By some estimates, the scheme cost cities and states around the country well over $6 billion. In June of 2015, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Barclays, among other Libor-rigging giants, pleaded guilty to felony charges related to the conspiracy and agreed to pay more than $2.5 billion in criminal fines to US regulators. But, for Brandt, that wasn’t enough. He wanted the banks banished, blocked from doing business in his city.

“I was totally pissed about it,” he says. “It was straight-up fraud.”

So, in a small act of stick-it-to-the-man defiance, Brandt drafted a resolution that barred the municipality from working with any firm that had either committed a felony or had recently paid more than $150 million in fines. He presented the homespun and eminently reasonable legislation to city officials and urged them to adopt it.

“The city councilors said they couldn’t do it,” Brandt says. “If they did, they wouldn’t have a bank left to work with. They said there wouldn’t be any bank big enough to take the city’s deposits.” Oakland, it seemed, was hopelessly dependent on ethically dubious and occasionally criminal financial titans. Brandt, however, was undeterred.

After the City Council turned him down, he started looking for other ways to wean Oakland off Wall Street. That’s when he fell in with a group of locals who have been nursing an audacious idea. They want their city to take radical action to combat plutocracy, inequality, and financial dislocation. They want their city to do something that hasn’t been done in this country in nearly a century, not since the trust-busting days of the Progressive Era. They want their city to create a bank—and, strange as the idea may seem, it’s not some utopian scheme. It’s a cause that’s catching on.

Across the country, community activists, mayors, city council members, and more are waking up to the power and the promise of public banks. Such banks are established and controlled by cities or states, rather than private interests. They collect deposits from government entities—from school districts, from city tax receipts, from state infrastructure funds—and use that money to issue loans and support public priorities. They are led by independent professionals but accountable to elected officials. Public banks are a way, supporters say, to build local wealth and resist the market’s predatory predilections. They are a way to end municipal reliance on Wall Street institutions, with their high fees, their scandal-ridden track records, and their vile investments in private prisons and pipelines. They are a way, at long last, to manage money in the public interest.

Since 2011, advocates from a national nonprofit called the Public Banking Institute have traveled across the country, preaching the practical benefits of public banking and recruiting or training activists and organizers to take up the cause. They have found willing and enthusiastic supporters from coast to coast. The movement has been embraced in Philadelphia, where the city council held hearings on the idea last year. It’s been championed in Seattle and San Francisco, where a number of city supervisors are calling for a task force to study public banking. It’s taken root in Santa Fe, with backing from the mayor, and in Oregon, Vermont, and even New Jersey, where a leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Phil Murphy, has proclaimed his desire to create a state bank right next door to the financial capital of the world.

“I believe this is the wave of the future,” says Craig Brandt, who is now a leader of Friends of the Public Bank of Oakland, the group advocating for public banking in the city. “And I hope Oakland will be the first one out the door to do it.”

The city is well on its way. Last November, the Oakland City Council passed a resolution announcing their intention to explore the creation of a public bank. In February, elected officials and community activists gathered at City Hall for a packed forum on the benefits of a public bank, including the possibility that it could hold deposits from the state’s multibillion-dollar cannabis industry and help promote affordable-housing development. This summer, meanwhile, the council will likely vote on whether to dedicate as much as $100,000 to fund a feasibility study that will explore the technical requirements of creating an independent publicly owned financial institution in Oakland.

“The fundamental point is to have a bank whose purpose is to be responsive to community needs,” says Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, a key backer of the local public-banking movement. “This would allow us to save money compared to traditional corporate bank rates, and it would allow us to fund vital projects based on community need rather than having those decisions driven by the profit motive.” She says the City is also interested in the possibility of creating a regional public bank by partnering with neighboring cities like Berkeley and Richmond, California.

“The more folks on board,” she said, “the stronger the support for taking this kind of action.”

Public banks have a long, though subterranean, history in the United States that stretches back to the days of Benjamin Franklin, who helped establish a public land bank in Pennsylvania to provide cheap loans to small farmers. Even today many public institutions, from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to the Small Business Administration to the Federal Housing administration, are essential components of America’s banking system. But there’s only one true public bank in this country and it’s not in Washington or New York or some coastal liberal enclave. It’s in North Dakota, where it has survived and thrived for nearly a century.

First established in 1919 by populist state legislators eager to extend credit to cash-strapped farmers and ranchers, the state-owned Bank of North Dakota (BND) is now a modern and multifaceted financial juggernaut. The bank holds deposits from government agencies. It provides low-cost credit for school construction and municipal infrastructure projects. It refinances student debt at reduced interest rates. Rather than opening branches of its own, it generously partners with local community banks and credit unions tos issue small-business, home, and agricultural loans. Best of all, it funnels its profits back into state coffers whenever North Dakota has budget troubles. The bank is, in other words, essentially socialist.

It’s also a steady source of profit. Last year, according to its annual report, the Bank of North Dakota saw its 13th consecutive year of record profits, taking in more than $136 million in income while growing its loan portfolio by $449 million dollars. And, unlike some of its counterparts, the bank accomplished all that without opening fraudulent accounts or manipulating interest rates or otherwise scamming consumers.

The bank’s success—its long track-record of supporting and stabilizing local economies, sharing the wealth, and minting a profit to boot—has turned it into an intriguing model for cities around the country that are keen to find creative fixes for their ongoing financial woes.

“Public banking is finding its time now because municipal executives have very poor choices,” says Walt McRee, the chair of the Public Banking Institute. “As things deteriorate and have to be fixed, as population grows but jobs decline, as tax receipts dry up, cities can either can cut services, raise taxes, fire people, or privatize things. But those trends are enormously destructive.”

“The prospect of a public bank does something entirely different,” he continues. “It gives a community the ability to liquefy its own assets and lend itself money, to do things it needs to do with money it already has, to hold on to people’s capital instead of sending it to Wall Street.”

Consider municipal bonds. Cities regularly go to the municipal-bond market to raise money for big projects, from school construction to bridge building to park development and more. These bonds, however, come with overhead costs in the form of fees that normally hover around 1 percent, but can climb as high as 10 percent, of the bond’s principal value. A recent report by the University of California Berkeley’s Haas Institute estimates that cities and other public entities pay upward of $4 billion a year in such fees, an enormous sum that serves only to fatten the purses of multinational banks, legal firms, and others involved in the bond-issuance business. A public bank could help reduce these costs and free up funds by enabling a city to deposit its money in a public entity instead of a profit-centric institution like Wells Fargo or JPMorgan Chase. The city would then be able to borrow money from its own bank rather than turning to the Wall Street bond market, with its overhead costs and market-set interest rates. It could, in short, introduce a radical alternative into the realm of municipal finance.

One of the other places where this radical alternative has taken root, surpassing even Bay Area efforts, is Santa Fe, New Mexico. The movement in that city of 67,000 started gathering momentum in 2014, when a small but determined group called Banking on New Mexico held a symposium to promote the idea. More then three hundred people showed up, including the newly elected progressive mayor, Javier Gonzales.

“A group of advocates met with me early in my term,” says Gonzales. “I was really intrigued and excited about an opportunity to explore a different way to have fiscal relationships.”

In early 2015, Santa Fe commissioned a private consultant, in partnership with New Mexico State University, to conduct a feasibility study into public banking. A year later, in January 2016, the report came back and the news was positive: By funding the city’s capital needs and improving municipal cash management, among other functions, a public bank could generate more than $24 million in savings and earnings for Santa Fe over a seven-year period. And such a bank would be particularly effective, says Katie Updike, the consultant who authored the study, if it serviced the city as well as the surrounding county and school district.

“In the case of Santa Fe, where I saw the biggest benefit is if the city, county, and school district worked together,” she says. “When you begin to step out of the jurisdiction of the city and look at the county and the school district too, which are separate entities, all their cash could be pooled and used to fund projects and then it began to get more interesting.”

In late April of this year, based on the results of the feasibility study, Santa Fe’s city council announced that it was creating a nine-person task force to spend six months digging deeper into the legal and financial prerequisites of establishing a public bank. The task force will focus, above all, on developing a governance structure for the bank.

“Governance is a concern for a lot of people,” says Elaine Sullivan, a leader of Banking on New Mexico and a passionate promoter of the cause. “People don’t want the bank run by political officials, and it wouldn’t be. There would be a clear distinction between the public bank, which would be managed by public bankers, and the city of Santa Fe.”

Indeed, the prospect of political interference into a public bank is one of the most common critiques of the idea. If public banks are to succeed in cities around the country, say skeptics and supporters alike, they must to be firmly insulated from the whims of legislative bodies and elected officials.

Here, once again, the Bank of North Dakota offers a model. While overseen by a commission of elected officials, including the state’s governor and attorney general, BND is managed on a day-to-day basis by an independent and highly transparent executive committee of professional financial managers. Its operations are also subject to regular inspection by independent auditors. BND, moreover, maintains public goodwill by declining to compete with local banks. It has no retail locations or ATMs. Rather, it partners with community banks and credit unions to provide its services.

By putting similar structure in place and starting small, Sullivan believes a public bank in Santa Fe could someday be a smash hit. It wouldn’t just provide ample economic benefits to the city but would serve a larger purpose too.

“As the global banks and major corporations that don’t have a moral tether have become more and more powerful, communities have become weaker and weaker and more passive,” she says. “A public bank is about addressing plutocracy. It is about restoring hope.” A public bank, she asserts, would be a red-hot engine of local economic democracy.

This essential fact, more than anything else, explains why the public-banking movement is blossoming in a post-recession, too-big-to-fail America where Donald Trump rules the White House and Wall Street rules Washington.

“We are seeing a resurgence of community-oriented life and activism and vision in this imperial era,” says Councilmember Kaplan of Oakland. “And it has strengthened the movement.”

How a California Public Bank could fix the freeways, send kids to college and ambush Wall Street

The new Bay Bridge rises as the old one is dismantled in San Francisco Bay on September 24, 2014. The $6.4 billion bridge will ultimately cost taxpayers more than $13 billion after paying off the debt to private financial institutions. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Republicans are dead set on rolling back regulations passed to restrain Wall Street and big banks from repeating the kind of shenanigans that fueled the 2008 financial collapse. Rather than fight a losing battle at the federal level, advocates for a secure, accountable and transparent financial system should channel their energy in a different direction: chartering public banks in every state.

The Bank of North Dakota is the model. Chartered in 1919, it is the nation’s lone public bank. It was set up, as the Wall Street Journal described it, “under a socialist-oriented government that represented farmers frustrated with out-of-state commodity and railroad owners.” Today, the Bank of North Dakota is hardly a socialist endeavor: By statute, North Dakota’s governor, agriculture commissioner, and attorney general — currently all Republicans — make up the bank’s three-person executive body.

All of North Dakota’s state funds, its assets, are deposited in the bank. The bank then deploys the money in the form of loans often issued through smaller community banks. BND is primarily a “bankers bank,” not a retail bank. North Dakotans can open a checking account with BND but only by showing up at the bank’s single branch. There are no BND credit cards, ATMs or online bill paying services. The bank is specifically chartered to partner with, rather than compete with, commercial banks.

Mostly, BND’s money goes to businesses, farms, municipal projects, home mortgages and student loans. Because it isn’t charged with making money for private shareholders but with supporting North Dakota’s overall economy, it charges low interest rates — as low as 1% in some cases. Its modest profit is still substantial — about $1 billion over the past two decades. The profits are returned to the state’s general fund or to the bank’s assets, which is to say to the people of North Dakota. Because the Bank of North Dakota focuses on down-home projects, not credit default swaps or other high-risk financial schemes, it remained stable throughout the Great Recession.

“The need to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure might provide an opportunity to overcome big bank opposition to public banking.”

Setting up a state bank is relatively simple: State legislatures pass a bill creating a bank, and mandating that state funds — or at least some portion of them — will be deposited in the new entity rather than in private banks. (Municipalities and counties can also set up public banks.) Public bank campaigns are active in 10 states, including an effort spearheaded by Public Banking Institute, a think tank and advocacy group, in California.

Not surprisingly, state banks are bitterly opposed by major Wall Street institutions, which pour lobbying money into scuttling public banking legislation wherever it crops up. If states were to open public banks, the likes of Citibank, Wells Fargo and Bank of America would lose the billions of dollars those states now deposit with them. And if a city or a farmer borrows through a public bank rather than a Wells or a BofA, once again Big Finance loses.

The need to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure might provide an opportunity to overcome big bank opposition to public banking. The high cost of building and fixing roads, bridges, airports and the like is only increased by the fees and interest payments charged by private banks and by bond issuers. Public banks could mitigate those costs.

Consider the cost of the new Oakland-to-Yerba-Buena-Island span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It was completed in 2013 for a reported $6.4 billion. But the actual price tag will be more like $13 billion because of the interest payments on bonds privately capitalized through Wall Street institutions and their investors. For every dollar spent on the actual project, another dollar will ultimately go to paying off that debt. If a state bank had financed the project the interest and fees could have been lower to begin with, and they would have gone back into California’s coffers, not Wall Street’s.

As the White House and Congress consider legislation covering an estimated $1 trillion of infrastructure spending, they could include an incentive to jump-start the formation of more state banks with just those kinds of savings in mind. One simple approach would be to mandate that all federal building projects must be financed at no more than say, 2% interest. Big banks would be free to participate although given their appetite for higher profits and higher interest rates, they might not bite. That would give states a formidable push to form their own banks to fill the gap. Federal infrastructure dollars could also be earmarked for deposit only in public banks.

There would, of course, be a fierce battle against such a provision in a national infrastructure bill, but there ought to be a strong constituency for it as well. The interest savings alone should appeal to those members of Congress who regularly rail against unnecessary spending of public money. And encouraging the formation of public banks should appeal to other politicians who want to reduce the size of the “too big to fail” banks. State banks would inject a healthier, sustainable way of loaning money and collecting interest on it into the American financial system. They would make the lives of millions of people a whole lot better.

A Bank Even a Socialist Could Love

“Money is a utility that belongs to all of us,” says Walt McRee. McRee is a velvety-voiced former broadcaster now plotting an audacious challenge to the financial system. He’s leading a monthly conference call as chair of the Public Banking Institute (PBI), an educational and advocacy force formed seven years ago to break Wall Street’s stranglehold on state and municipal finance.

“This is one of the biggest eye-openers of my life,” says Rebecca Burke, a New Jersey activist on the call. “Once you see it, you can’t look back.”

This ragtag group—former teachers, small business owners, social workers— wants to charter state and local banks across the country. These banks would leverage tax revenue to make low-interest loans for local public works projects, small businesses, affordable housing and student loans, spurring economic growth while saving people—and the government—money.

At the heart of the public banking concept is a theory about the best way to put America’s abundance of wealth to use. Cities and states typically keep their cash reserves either in Wall Street banks or in low-risk investments. This money tends not to go very far. In California, for example, the Pooled Money Investment Account, an agglomeration of $69.5 billion in state and local revenues, has a modest monthly yield of around three-quarters of a percent.

When state or local governments fund large-scale projects not covered by taxes, they generally either borrow from the bond market at high interest rates or enter into a public-private partnership with investors, who often don’t have community needs at heart.

Wall Street banks have used shady financial instruments to extract billions from unsuspecting localities, helping devastate places like Jefferson County, Ala. Making the wrong bet with debt, like the Kentucky county that built a jail but couldn’t fill it with prisoners, can cripple communities.

Even under the best conditions, municipal bonds—an enormous, $3.8 trillion market—can cost taxpayers. According to Ellen Brown, the intellectual godmother of the public banking movement, debt-based financing often accounts for around half the total cost of an infrastructure project. For example, the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge cost $6.3 billion to build, but paying off the bonds will bring the price tag closer to $13 billion, according to a 2014 report from the California legislature.

Public banks reduce costs in two ways. First, they can offer lower interest rates and fees because they’re not for-profit businesses trying to maximize returns. Second, because the banks are publicly owned, any profit flows back to the city or state, virtually eliminating financing costs and providing governments with extra revenue at no cost to taxpayers.

“It enables local resources to be applied locally, instead of exporting them to Wall Street,” says Mike Krauss, a PBI member in Philadelphia. “It democratizes our money.”

Legislators, Brown says, commonly object that governments “don’t have the money to lend.” But this misunderstands how banks operate. “We’re not lending the revenues, just putting them in a bank.” That is, the deposits themselves—in this case tax revenues—are not what banks loan out. Instead, banks create new money by extending credit. Deposits simply balance a bank’s books. Public banks, then, expand the local money supply available for economic development. And while PBI has yet to successfully charter a bank, there’s an existing model in the unlikeliest of places: North Dakota.

During the Progressive Era, a political organization of prairie populists known as the Nonpartisan League took control of the state government. In 1919, they established the Bank of North Dakota. It has no branches, no ATMs, and one main depositor: the state, its sole owner. From that deposit base, BND makes loans for economic development, including a student loan program.

BND also partners with local private banks across the state on loans that would normally be too big for them to handle. These loans support infrastructure, agriculture and small businesses. Community banks have thrived in North Dakota as a result; there are more per capita than in any other state, and with higher lending totals. During the financial crisis, not a single North Dakota bank failed.

BND loans are far more affordable than those from private investors. BND’s Infrastructure Loan Fund, for example, finances projects at just two percent interest; municipal bonds can have rates roughly four times as high. And according to its 2015 annual report, the most recent available, BND had earned record profits for 12 straight years (reaching $130 million in 2015), during both the Great Recession and the state’s more recent downturn from the collapse in oil prices. A 2014 Wall Street Journal story described BND as more profitable than Goldman Sachs. Over the last decade, hundreds of millions of dollars in BND earnings have been transferred to the state (although the overall social impact is somewhat complicated by the bank’s role in sustaining the Bakken oil boom).

The long march through the legislatures

Brown founded the Public Banking Institute in 2010, after years of evangelizing in articles and books such as The Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth About Our Monetary System and How We Can Break Free. Since then, by Walt McRee’s estimate, around 50 affiliated groups have sprouted up in states, counties and cities from Arizona to New Jersey.

“I’ve been working against the system all my life,” says Susan Harman of Friends of the Public Bank of Oakland. “I think public banking is the most radical thing I’ve ever heard.” Harman, a former teacher and a onetime aide to New York City Mayor John Lindsay, helped get the Oakland City Council to pass a resolution last November directing the city to determine the scope and cost of a feasibility study for a public bank—a tiny yet promising first step.

A feasibility study completed by Santa Fe, N.M., in January 2016 found that a public bank could have a $24 million economic impact on the city in its first seven years. A resolution introduced last October would create a task force to help the city prepare to petition the state for a charter. “It’s the smallest municipality investigating public banking,” says Elaine Sullivan of Banking on New Mexico, who hopes the task force could complete its business plan by the end of the year. “We’re interrupting the status quo.”

In February 2016, the Philadelphia City Council unanimously voted to hold hearings discussing a public bank. Advocates are now working with the city treasurer to find funds to capitalize the bank.

PBI has faced a rougher path in state legislatures. In Washington, state Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D) has introduced a public banking bill for eight straight years. Despite numerous co-sponsors, the bill can’t get out of committee. Efforts in Arizona and Illinois have also gone nowhere. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed a feasibility study bill in 2011, arguing the state banking committees could conduct the study; they never did.

One overwhelming force opposes public banking: Wall Street, which warns that public banks put taxpayer dollars at risk. “The bankers have the public so frightened that [public banking] will destroy the economy,” says David Spring of the Washington Public Bank Coalition. “When I talk to legislators, some are opposed to it because ‘it’s for communists and socialists.’ Like there are a lot of socialists in North Dakota!”

In Vermont the financial industry fought a proposed study of public banking, says Gwen Hallsmith, an activist and former city employee of Montpelier. “We don’t have branches of Bank of America or Wells Fargo in Vermont, but they have lobbyists here.” So Hallsmith got the study done herself, through the Gund Institute at the University of Vermont. It found that a state bank would boost gross domestic product 0.64 percent and create 2,500 jobs.

The state eventually passed a “10 percent” program, using 10 percent of its cash reserves to fund local loans, mostly for energy investments like weatherizing homes. Meanwhile, Hallsmith helped push individual towns to pass resolutions in favor of a state bank— around 20 have now done so. Hallsmith says her advocacy came at the expense of her job; the mayor of Montpelier, in whose office she worked, is a bank lobbyist. Hallsmith now coordinates a citizen’s commission for a Bank of Vermont.

Because of state resistance, PBI has encouraged its supporters to go local. And several issues have emerged to assist. For instance, environmental and indigenous activists have demanded that cities move money from the 17 banks that finance the Dakota Access Pipeline. But therein lies another dilemma: Who else can take the money? Community banks and credit unions lack the capacity to manage a city’s entire funds, and larger banks are better equipped to deal with the legal hurdles involved in handling public money. So divesting from one Wall Street bank could just lead to investing in another.

A public bank could solve this problem, either by accepting cities’ deposits or by extending letters of credit to community banks to bolster their ability to take funds. Lawmakers in Seattle have floated a city- or state-owned bank as the best alternative for reinvestment, and Oakland council member Rebecca Kaplan has connected divestment and public banking as well.

Another opportunity arises with marijuana legalization initiatives. Because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, most private banks are wary of working with licensed pot shops, fearing legal repercussions. This means many of these shops subsist as all-cash businesses. “It’s seriously dangerous; people arrive in armored cars to City Hall to pay taxes with huge bags of money,” says Susan Harman. In Oakland and Santa Rosa, Calif., public banking advocates are partnering with cannabis sellers to offer public banks as an alternative, which would make the businesses safer while giving the banks another source of capital.

While Donald Trump hasn’t formally introduced a long-discussed infrastructure bill, his emphasis on fixing the nation’s crippling public works has also bolstered the case for public banking. Ellen Brown maintains the country could save a trillion dollars on infrastructure costs through public-bank financing. That’s preferable to Trump’s idea of giving tax breaks to public-private partnerships that want big returns.

From the Great Plains to Trenton

“All it’ll take is the first domino to fall,” says Shelley Browning, an activist from Santa Rosa. “Towns and cities will turn in this direction because there’s no other way to turn.” And PBI members think they’ve found an avatar in Phil Murphy, a Democrat and former Goldman Sachs executive leading the polls in New Jersey’s gubernatorial primary this year.

Murphy has made public banking a key part of his platform. “This money belongs to the people of New Jersey,” he said in an economic address last September. “It’s time to bring that money home, so it can build our future, not somebody else’s.”

Derek Roseman, a spokesman for Murphy, tells In These Times that Bank of America holds more than $1 billion in New Jersey deposits, but only made three small business loans in the entire state in 2015. Troubled state pensions could help capitalize a state-owned bank, and would earn more while paying lower fees.

Murphy’s primary opponent, John Wisniewski, chaired the Bernie Sanders campaign in the state, while Murphy raised money for Hillary Clinton. Some believe Murphy is simply using public banking to cover his Wall Street background—and on many issues, Wisniewski’s policy slate is more progressive. But Brown thinks Murphy’s past primed him to recognize public banking’s power: “It’s always the bankers who get it.”

The first new state-owned bank in a century, chartered in the shadow of Wall Street, could shift the landscape. What’s more, blue-state New Jersey and red-state North Dakota agreeing on the same solution would highlight public banking’s biggest asset: transpartisan populist support. “We have Tea Partiers and Occupiers in the same room liking public banking. What does that tell you?” asks PBI’s Mike Krauss.

“Regardless of declared conservative or progressive affiliations,” says state Sen. Hasegawa, “regular folk … almost unanimously grasp the concept.” He is working with Washington’s Tea Partybacked treasurer, Duane Davidson, to advance public banking. “I go to eastern Washington, … they get the whole issue about independence from Wall Street and corporate control.”

In fact, Krauss is himself a Republican. “The biggest thing going on in America, people decided we don’t have any control anymore,” he says. “Whether it’s Bernie’s people or Trump’s people, they’re articulating the same thing but differently. … They want control of their money—and it is their money.”

 

What a State-Owned Bank Can Do for New Jersey

Phil Murphy, the leading Democratic candidate for governor of New Jersey, has made a state-owned bank a centerpiece of his campaign. He says the New Jersey bank would “take money out of Wall Street and put it to work for New Jersey – creating jobs and growing the economy [by] using state deposits to finance local investments … and … support billions of dollars of critical investments in infrastructure, small businesses, and student loans – saving our residents money and returning all profits to the taxpayers.”

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 that 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.

In North Dakota, by contrast, state revenues are deposited by law in the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and are guaranteed by the state. The BND pays a competitive interest rate on these deposits that is generally at about the midpoint of rates paid by other banks in the state. The BND, in turn, guarantees municipal government deposits, which are generally reserved for local banks. Unlike in other states, where local banks must back public deposits with collateral to an extent that makes the funds largely unavailable for lending, North Dakota’s community banks are able to use their municipal government deposits to back loans because the BND provides letters of credit guaranteeing them.

The concern that a New Jersey state-owned bank might make risky loans can be obviated by limiting lending, at least initially, to the same sorts of loans the state makes now, using the same underwriting standards. Sidamon-Eristoff observes that “the state already maintains a comprehensive range of economic development, infrastructure finance, housing finance, and student assistance programs.” What financing through the state’s own bank would add is leverage. State and local governments routinely make loans through revolving funds, in which the money has to be there before it can be lent out and must come back before it is lent again. Chartered depository banks are allowed to leverage their capital into 10 times that sum (or more) in loans, acquiring the liquidity for withdrawals as needed from the wholesale markets (Fed funds, the repo market or the Federal Home Loan Banks). A bank with adequate capital will lend to any creditworthy borrower, without first checking its deposits or its reserves.  If the bank has insufficient reserves, it can borrow from a variety of cheap sources that are normally the exclusive province of the banking club, but that local governments and communities can tap into by owning their own banks.

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.

The BND is able to make these cheap loans while still turning a tidy profit because its costs are very low: no exorbitantly-paid executives; no bonuses, fees, or commissions; very low borrowing costs; no need for multiple branch offices; no FDIC insurance premiums; no private shareholders. Profits are recycled back into the bank, the state and the community.

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

Sidamon-Eristoff argues that “a new public bank would inevitably compete against New Jersey’s private banks for routine business.” But the BND does not compete with private banks either for municipal deposits or for loans. Rather, it partners with local banks, participating in their loans. The local bank acts as the front office dealing directly with customers. The BND acts more like a “bankers’ bank,” helping with liquidity and capital requirements. By partnering with the BND, local banks can take on projects in which Wall Street has no interest, projects that might otherwise go unfunded, including loans for local infrastructure.

The BND helps local private banks in other ways. It acts as a mini-Fed for the state, providing correspondent banking services to virtually every financial institution in North Dakota. It offers secured and unsecured federal funds lines to over 100 financial institutions, along with check-clearing, cash management and automated clearing house services.  Because it assists local banks with mortgages and guarantees their loans, local banks have been able to keep loans on their books rather than selling them to investors to meet capital requirements, allowing them to avoid the subprime and securitization debacles.

Due to this amicable relationship, the North Dakota Bankers’ Association endorses the BND as a partner rather than a competitor of the state’s private banks.  Indeed, it may be the BND that ultimately saves local North Dakota banks from extinction as the number of banks in the US steadily shrinks. North Dakota has more banks per capita than any other state.

Bolstering the State’s Budget

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% interest.

Having a cheap and ready credit line with the state’s own bank can have similar benefits for New Jersey and other states. It can reduce the need for wasteful rainy-day funds invested at minimal interest in out-of-state banks; allow the state to leverage its funds, expanding its current credit facilities without adding to the state’s debt burden; cut infrastructure costs nearly in half; and jumpstart the economy with new development,  new employment, and an expanded tax base.

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Ellen Brown is an attorney, founder of the Public Banking Institute, a Senior Fellow of the Democracy Collaborative., and author of twelve books including Web of Debt and The Public Bank Solution. She also co-hosts a radio program on PRN.FM called “It’s Our Money.” Her 300+ blog articles are posted at EllenBrown.com.

 

The Savings And Stability Of Public Banking

As a society obsessed by money, we pay a gigantic price for not educating high school and college students about money and banking. The ways of the giant global banks – both commercial and investment operations – are as mysterious as they are damaging to the people. Big banks use the Federal Reserve to maximize their influence and profits. The federal Freedom of Information Act provides an exemption for matters that are “contained in or related to examination, operating, or condition reports prepared by, on behalf of, or for the use of an agency responsible for the regulation or supervision of financial institutions.” This exemption allows financial institutions to wallow in secrecy. Financial institutions are so influential in Congress that Senator Durbin (D, IL) says “[The banks] frankly own this place.”

Although anti-union, giant financial institutions have significant influence over the investments of worker pension funds. Their certainty of being bailed out because they are seen as “too big to fail” harms the competitiveness of smaller, community banks and allows the big bankers to take bigger risks with “other people’s money,” as Justice Brandeis put it.

These big banks are so pervasive in their reach that even unions and progressive media, such as The Nation magazine and Democracy Now have their accounts with JP Morgan Chase.

The government allows banks to have concentrated power. Taxpayers and Consumers are charged excessive fees and paid paltry interest rates on savings. The bonds of municipalities are are also hit with staggering fees and public assets like highways and public drinking water systems are corporatized by Goldman Sachs and other privatizers with sweetheart multi-decade leases.

Then there are the immense taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street, such as those in 2008-2009 after the financial industry’s recklessness and crimes brought down the economy, cost workers 8 million jobs, and shredded the pension and mutual fund savings of the American people.

Standing like a beacon of stability, responsiveness and profitability is the 98 year-old, state-owned Bank of North Dakota (BND). As reported by Ellen Brown, prolific author and founder of the Public Banking Institute (Santa Clarita, California), “The BND has had record profits for the last 12 years” (avoiding the Wall Street crash) “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 investment of a whopping 18.1 percent. Its lending portfolio grew by $486 million, a 12.7 percent increase, with growth in all four of its areas of concentration: agriculture, business, residential and student loans…”

North Dakota’s economy is depressed because of the sharp drop in oil prices. So the BND moved to help. Again, Ellen Brown:

In 2015, it introduced new infrastructure programs to improve access to medical facilities, remodel or construct new schools, and build new road and water infrastructure. The Farm Financial Stability Loan was introduced to assist farmers affected by low commodity prices or below-average crop production. The BND also helped fund 300 new businesses.

All this is in a state with half the population of Phoenix or Philadelphia.

A California coalition is forming to establish a state-owned bank for California. Coalition organizers say a California State Bank will cut the state’s long-term financing costs in half, compared to what avaricious Wall Street is charging. The nation’s largest state (equivalent to the world’s sixth largest economy) can free itself from massive debt accumulation, bid-rigging, deceptive interest-rate swaps and capital appreciation bonds at 300% interest over time.

What assets does the state have to make this bank fully operational? California has surplus funds which total about $600 billion, including those in a Pooled Money Investment account managed by the State Treasurer that contains $54 billion earning less than 1 percent interest.

Money in these funds is earmarked for specific expenditure purposes, but they can be invested – in a new state bank. To escape from a Wall Street that is, in Brown’s words “sucking massive sums in interest, fees and interest rate swap payments out of California and into offshore tax havens,” a state bank can use its impressive credit power to develop infrastructure in California.

Huge state pension funds and other state funds can provide the deposits. Each one billion dollar capital investment can lend $10 billion for projects less expensively and under open stable banking control by California. Presently, California and other states routinely deposit hundreds of billions of dollars in Wall Street banks at minimal interest, turn around and borrow for infrastructure construction and repair from the Wall Street bond market at much higher interest and fees.

This is a ridiculous form of debt peonage, a lesson Governor Jerry Brown has yet to learn. He and other officials similarly uninformed about how the state of California can be its own banker should visit publicbankinginstitute.org and read Ellen Brown’s book, The Public Bank Solution.

Legislation for public banks is being pursued in the states of Washington, Michigan, Arizona and New Jersey, as well as the cities of Philadelphia and Santa Fe. Look for county commissioners and state treasurers to come on board when they see the enormous safeguards and savings that can be secured through “public banks” in contrast to the convoluted casino run by unaccountable Wall Street gamblers and speculators.

A longtime backer of public banking, retired entrepreneur Richard Mazess, hopes that national civic groups like Public Citizen, Common Cause, People for the American Way and Consumer Watchdog can get behind the proposal. “Public, not private, infrastructure is essential for an equitable economy,” he says.

California already has a public infrastructure bank called the IBank. Mr. Mazess and others believe that expanding the existing IBank into a depository institution would be more likely to pass through the California legislature. The deposits would come from public institutions, and NGOs (not from private persons). These pension funds and other public deposits would become reserves and serve as the basis for safely leveraged loans to public projects at a conservative tenfold multiplier. No derivatives or other shenanigans allowed.

Before that proposal can be enacted, however, there needs to be much more education of state legislators and the public at large.

Such enlightenment would illuminate the enormous savings, along with the restoration of state sovereignty from the absentee, exploitative grip of an unrepentant, speculating, profiteering Wall Street that believes it can always go to Washington, DC for its taxpayer bailouts.

 

The People’s Bank

How did deep-red North Dakota end up with the nation’s most populist financial institution?

When the financial crisis struck in 2008, nearly every state legislature was left contending with massive revenue shortfalls. Every state legislature, that is, except North Dakota’s. In 2009, while other states were slashing budgets, North Dakota enjoyed its largest surplus. All through the Great Recession, as credit dried up and middle-class Americans lost their homes, the conservative, rural state chugged along with a low foreclosure rate and abundant credit for entrepreneurs looking for loans.

Normally one of the overlooked states in flyover country, North Dakota now had the country’s attention. So did an unlikely institution partly responsible for its fiscal health: the Bank of North Dakota. Founded in 1919 by populist farmers who’d gotten tired of big banks and grain companies shortchanging them, the only state-owned bank in America has long supported community banks and helped keep credit flowing. The bank’s $5 billion deposit base comes mostly from state taxes and funds. The money is leveraged so the bank can offer loans for local small businesses and infrastructure projects; the interest, rather than going to Wall Street banks, stays in the state. The Bank of North Dakota rarely makes direct loans; instead, when a community bank wants to give a sizable loan but lacks the capital, the state bank will partner on the loan and provide a backstop. Such partnerships help ensure that small-business owners, farmers, and ranchers can access lines of credit—and they strengthen community banks, which is why North Dakota has more local banks per capita than any other state.

During times of economic crisis, from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, the state bank has been essential to cushioning the blow for North Dakotans. It offers countercyclical support, meaning that in bad times, when credit starts to dry up, it plays an even bigger role in offering credit and helping struggling small banks make loans to good candidates. But the state bank has been good for North Dakota in another way you wouldn’t expect: It’s helped bolster the state budget. Since it became profitable in the 1940s, the Bank of North Dakota has returned more than $555 million to the state’s general fund.

North Dakota’s rosy financial picture can’t all be chalked up to the bank. An oil boom in the western part of the state has created thousands of jobs, and North Dakota’s housing prices were always low, so they never inflated to the dangerous levels other states saw. But policy experts like Sam Munger, the managing director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for State Innovation, say that by offering partnerships and avoiding the risky practices of commercial banks, like subprime lending, the state bank was instrumental in keeping community banks healthy. “It’s partly because you have civil servants in charge,” he says, “rather than folks whose paychecks depend on how much money the bank makes in a quarter.”

To many Americans, of course, the idea that state governments should be running banks—that they can run them better—is anti-capitalist blasphemy. But in conservative North Dakota, the bank is so well established and popular that former U.S. Senator Kent Conrad, who’s 64, says he can’t remember a time when anyone seriously challenged it. Now, across the country, some policymakers and community groups want to follow North Dakota’s lead. Since 2009, lawmakers in more than 20 states have filed legislation to either start a state-owned financial institution or at least study the prospects. Most of the efforts have fizzled, but this year lawmakers in several states are cautiously optimistic they can turn their proposals into policy—creating, if not a full–functioning state bank, then at least the groundwork for one.

It won’t be easy; the idea is so unfamiliar that it strikes many as downright kooky, if not scarily socialistic. Times were different, opponents insist, when North Dakota founded its bank in 1919. But the hurdles faced by state-bank proponents a century ago were not altogether different from what they face today.

By the turn of the last century, North Dakota farmers knew they were getting cheated. Wheat dominated the state, and its growers were at the mercy of Minneapolis-St. Paul’s big banks and grain companies. Most Midwestern states were “economic colonies,” says Bill Pratt, a historian of the era at the University of Nebraska. “The empire was administered from the Twin Cities.” North Dakota farmers faced double-digit interest rates, while their cousins closer to the empire’s capital only had to pay a fraction of that. The loans almost always came due during the harvest, which forced farmers to sell more wheat when prices were cheapest. Making matters worse, just about every grain elevator along the railroad was operated by the big grain companies, which offered the same price and the same grade rating—always lower than the growers needed and wanted. The final insult: When the grain was weighed, the companies used a fan to blow on the pile, supposedly to remove dust. As an article in the Wyoming Star Tribune noted in 1921, “What actually happened was that the fan removed not only the dust but during the course of the year in some of the larger elevators, fifty thousand bushels of grain as well.”

Republican lawmakers who dominated North Dakota politics were in the pockets of the banks and grain companies, so the farmers got nowhere lobbying for reform. In 1915, they began to team up with former socialist organizers eager to create a viable political operation. Calling themselves the Non-Partisan League, they began to challenge Republicans in primaries. Enthusiasm for the NPL grew quickly; by the end of 1915, the group had 25,000 dues-paying members. After the 1916 elections, the group controlled the state house and governor’s office. “They kind of caught the old-style politicians by surprise,” Pratt says. By 1918, the NPL had taken the state senate as well and set about implementing a populist agenda, which included creating a number of state-owned institutions. At the top of the list, along with a state-owned mill, was a bank.

The idea was relatively simple: Sell $2 million in bonds to finance the institution, require municipalities to make deposits to the bank to keep it capitalized, and start helping farmers access credit at reasonable rates. A powerful Industrial Commission—made up of the governor, attorney general, and agriculture commissioner—would oversee the bank, as well as other state-owned projects the NPL was launching.

Trouble was, the NPL had lousy timing. By the time it came to power after the 1918 elections, World War I was over and a postwar recession was hitting American agriculture as demand dropped off. Meanwhile, the war had stoked right-wing nationalism and the communist revolution in Russia had successfully deposed the czar, heightening fears of “red” revolt in the U.S. It was not a propitious time for radical reform.

News of the Bank of North Dakota was greeted with suspicion and fear. “North Dakota Adopts Autocratic Socialism,” blared the front-page headline of one Montana newspaper. Media coverage was largely critical (except, of course, in the NPL’s paper, The Nonpartisan Leader). National papers were particularly free with comparisons to Bolshevism; The New York Times, which featured frequent stories on the bank, ran a piece in 1921 arguing that the NPL “dreamed of duplicating in at least a great section of this country what Lenin and Trotsky did in Russia.”

Assaults on the bank had serious consequences. To appease the state’s community banks, which worried about the competition, the Industrial Commission promised not to withdraw state funds that had already been deposited with local banks. Anti-NPL politicians forced an audit, filed an unsuccessful lawsuit, and by 1920 had repealed requirements that municipalities make deposits there. As a result, the bank had almost no liquidity. Its bonds weren’t selling, and it stopped honoring its checks.

The NPL’s political opposition, the Independent Voters Association, set out to kill the Bank of North Dakota for good in 1921. It floated a state referendum on the NPL’s state-owned programs, including the bank, and engineered a recall election for the Industrial Commission members. (The recall and referendum were innovations of the NPL, now being used against it.) The election resulted in the nation’s first recall of a governor, attorney general, or agriculture commissioner. But while voters dumped the bank’s commissioners, they surprised almost everyone and voted to keep the bank.

A decade later, North Dakotans would be grateful they’d stuck with their “socialist” bank. The 1932 election, as the Great Depression raged, brought a new wave of NPL leaders to power. With the agriculture community in crisis, the bank began actively helping farmers to repay loans. While many farms were foreclosed on, giving the Bank of North Dakota thousands of acres of land, bank leadership started innovative programs to help people buy back what was once theirs. It all offered North Dakotans a fresh view of their bank as a helpful state institution—working for the common good, bailing out folks in need.

Over the following decades, the bank became a noncontroversial part of the state’s financial landscape. It made the nation’s first federally insured student loan in 1967 and became a major source of college loans. When the next great economic crisis hit, the Bank of North Dakota once again was indispensible, responding to the credit and loan crisis of the 1980s by aggressively backstopping local bank loans and providing credit that farmers could not get elsewhere.

By the 1990s, the state bank had become a major collaborator with the community banks that once feared it. A new bank president, John Hoeven, sought to make the bank a driver of economic growth, starting many of the programs for which the bank is now known, including targeted partner loans for small businesses. “I think the state bank has been hugely helpful to those community banks,” says former Senator Conrad. “They’re able to take loans that they just couldn’t do on their own.” Meanwhile, Hoeven’s leadership helped catapult him to the governor’s office and ultimately into the U.S. Senate—a Republican who owes his popularity, and his election, to his efforts to expand the role of a state-owned bank.

Given the success of North Dakota’s model, it’s hardly surprising that lawmakers in other states have tried to emulate the idea. Few of the measures have gained traction, partly because the idea of a state bank still strikes many as downright weird. This year, however, advocates are hoping that Vermont—which has been known to embrace the weird—will take up the cause. Vermont, state senator Anthony Pollina tells everyone who will listen, currently puts its tax dollars in the megabank TD. “They charge us fees, they lend our money wherever they want to lend it,” but “they don’t do that much lending in Vermont anymore. We need a bank that’s going to invest in the priorities of Vermont, not the priorities of Wall Street.” Pollina’s idea is to create a small-scale bank with around $50 million in assets. A bill to study its feasibility and propose a model has already been assigned to the committee on which Pollina serves as vice chair, and all five committee members are co-sponsors—good reasons for his optimism. In Montana, a group of lawmakers has introduced a bill to create a bank; it’s the third attempt there, but advocates are hopeful, having successfully brought together a coalition of small businesses and progressive-minded organizers.

A new state bank—somewhere, anywhere—would help to legitimize the idea. Between 2010 and 2011, lawmakers in 16 states from both parties proposed a total of 27 bills to either create a state bank or study its feasibility. Most failed. But after Massachusetts passed a bill to investigate a state bank, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston produced a report advising against it. While the report did credit North Dakota’s state bank with emphasizing “safe and sound lending practices” and partnering successfully with small banks, it also pointed out that the bank, on its own, could not stop financial crises that directly impact North Dakota, like the one in the 1980s (even if it did alleviate the problems). The report argued that policymakers “would be better off studying the federal programs that have been augmented since the crisis.” The Center for State Innovation and De¯mos, a progressive think tank, wrote a joint letter taking issue with the report’s findings and accusing the Boston Fed of playing politics. Big banks, they pointed out, increasingly do not lend to small businesses, and there’s not enough evidence to show that the federal programs are helpful or adequate.

Still, the report took its toll; as one of the only official studies on the topic of state banks, it added to the already-considerable political challenges advocates face. In Oregon, a strong grassroots coalition pushed hard for a state bank but wound up with an investment act instead. The state will make a larger investment in collaborative loans with small banks. In New Mexico, state Representative Brian Egolf introduced a measure in the last session to create a state-owned bank, only to be confronted with an angry lobby of community banks. This time around, he’s renamed the financial entity a “small business development fund” so the community banks won’t try to kill it.

Proponents like Marc Armstrong, the executive director at the nonprofit Public Banking Institute, argue that banks are better for states than economic-development funds. Rather than directly loaning out, say, $50 million, a state bank would leverage that money, allowing it to put as much as ten times the asset amount to work in the state through relatively low-risk loans. In Armstrong’s own state, California, counties pay millions in interest on bonds and loans for their infrastructure needs. “If California had had a state bank,” he says, “we could have used the state bank credit to fund virtually all of that debt at very low cost.”

Still, for many states, creating or beefing up an economic-development fund is the only option that’s viable. Local banks often worry that a publicly owned state bank would hurt business rather than offer support. For their part, politicians tend to have a knee-jerk reaction against the “crazy” idea of a public bank. North Dakotans are baffled by that. “All of those people in other states who are really concerned ought to talk to the banks in North Dakota,” says U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat who served on the Industrial Commission. Community banks, she says, “have found the Bank of North Dakota to be a complete and total partner, to be willing to share risk with them on things they wouldn’t do alone.”

Perhaps the best argument for state banks is found in North Dakota’s history of weathering economic crises better than most. Sam Munger of the Center for State Innovation says that while a state bank can’t save a state economy “single-handedly,” the countercyclical nature of the bank will “help cushion the effect of the next inevitable boom-and-bust cycle. Build it now, so it’s in place and can be effective and functioning the next time.”

For now, however, the only state bank still operates in one of the country’s most conservative states. Roger Johnson, North Dakota’s former agriculture commissioner, says the state got lucky. “I’m a huge supporter of the state bank, and most people in North Dakota are,” Johnson says. But if legislators tried to create a bank today, he says, “I can assure you it would not have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting passed.”

Donald Trump Wants to Gut Protections for Bank Customers. Here’s How to Fight Back.

Photo: FrankRamspott/iStock; KeithBishop/iStock
Call it the “public option.”

With Wall Street as greedy as it ever was, and the Trump administration seeking to ditch banking restrictions enacted in 2008 to protect the little people, a handful of cities are considering a do-it-yourself alternative: Public banking is just what it sounds like—financial institutions owned and operated by a government entity. Officials in Philadelphia and Oakland, California, are taking a hard look at the idea, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, has done a feasibility study that concluded a city-run bank would benefit the community, socially and economically. If done right, the report found, the bank would create a “robust local lending climate” and bring in millions of dollars per year in revenue.

From 1910 to 1966, Americans could deposit and borrow small sums at US post offices.

There are already successful public banks in France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. There’s even a robust American model: North Dakota has had a state-run bank for nearly a century. Although created by socialists, the Bank of North Dakota retains ironclad support among the red state’s residents, many of whom credit it for helping North Dakota weather the 2008 financial crisis. Moreover, from 1910 to 1966, US post offices operated as de facto public banks where people could deposit and borrow small sums.

Leading the push in Oakland are progressive City Council members Rebecca Kaplan and Dan Kalb. “Public banking can give us a bank that is more responsive to the needs of the community,” Kaplan told me, “rather than prioritizing the needs of shareholders who don’t live in our community or the needs of corporate profit.”
The other big impetus, Kaplan says, is to give local pot entrepreneurs a safe place to stash their cash—literally. “We have a large and growing cannabis industry which has been kept out of traditional banks,” she says, “and so getting them access to banking so they don’t have to work in cash would be very helpful.” Dispensaries and future cannabis sellers (recreational pot won’t be legal officially until 2018) won’t have to worry so much about getting robbed, and all that capital could go a long way in helping a city bank get established.Kaplan says there are two key reasons Oakland should pursue public banking. The first is that it can help low-income people—and especially people of color who may face discrimination at corporate banks—secure loans at a fair rate. “Oakland has long suffered from redlining,” Kaplan points out, and for-profit institutions can’t necessarily be trusted to refrain from discriminatory tactics.

“The beauty is that you could really tailor a public bank to target whatever a community’s needs are,” says Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of Georgia and author of How the Other Half Banks. Baradaran, who worked on Wall Street for a decade, explains that the major banks are bad at meeting community needs because their end goal is “not to benefit the people—it’s to increase capital.” A public bank can pool local resources and apply its money to local concerns.

“Maybe a certain community has a problem with payday lending,” Baradaran offers. A public bank could provide free accounts and emergency loan services for low-income people without the predatory practices of subprime corporate lenders. “Or maybe another community has an affordable housing issue, or needs farm loans or student loans.”

Interest has spiked since the 2008 crisis: “The hostility to the private banking system is quite hot.”

The cultural climate is ripe for this conversation, says economist Richard Wolff, a retired University of Massachusetts professor who now teaches at the New School. “One of the many consequences of the collapse in 2008 has been a renewed interest in public banking,” he says. “The hostility to the private banking system is quite hot. The spectacle of bank leaders rushing to Washington and begging for a bailout was not lost on the American people.”

Not only did those bailouts trigger outrage among average people who saw no such relief, Wolff points out, but they also revealed the pseudo-public nature of private banks. “Post-bailout, we saw a discomfort with this idea that so much of the banks’ losses were being borne by the taxpayer,” Baradaran says, “while their gains were just going to their own shareholders. That’s wealth redistribution the wrong way.”

Wolff, a longtime advocate for public banking, believes that the job of managing a community’s money is too important to be delegated to for-profit corporations. “Nothing that is so socially embedded should be left in the hands of an institutional organization whose admitted, explicit first priority is maximization of profit for itself,” he says. “The goals and objectives of the private enterprise are not necessarily overlapping one for one with the social benefit.”

A public bank can resolve that tension. As the president of the Bank of North Dakota put it, “We’ve never been a bank that tries to hit home runs. That’s not what we’re all about. We have a specific mission which is more important. Most corporations and banks, their top priority is to maximize shareholder return. And that is a nice byproduct for us because we do have a nice return…But really where we take the most satisfaction is making sure we meet the needs of the state, and finance those types of things that make our state go forward.”

Banking in North Dakota

North Dakota is one of the three most conservative states in the United States, according to Gallup. Wyoming is number one, with self-identified conservatives outnumbering self-identified liberals by 35 percentage points. In North Dakota and Mississippi, the percentage is 31 points.

Yet many progressive social and environmental activists look to an old North Dakota institution for inspiration. That’s the Bank of North Dakota (BND). It is the only publicly owned bank in the United States.

The bank provides cheap loans to farmers, college students and businesses. During the 2008 economic meltdown, the BND did quite well.

It was created as a result of a populist revolt by farmers, sick of being screwed over by predatory big banks in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Chicago and New York. In 1915, a failed flax farmer and former Socialist Party organizer named A.C. Townley founded a movement called the Non Partisan League (NPL).

The NPLers entered the Republican primaries in a disciplined manner, holding preliminary local meetings where everybody openly discussed the issues. In 1917, three quarters of the Republicans and almost all of the Democrats in the state legislature were in the NPL caucus. By 1919, the NPL controlled the governorship and elected a U.S. congressman.

They established not only a publicly owned bank but also created socialized flour mills, grain elevators, a railroad, meatpacking houses and hail insurance. They pushed through significant reforms such as advanced versions of workers’ compensation, income and inheritance taxes, a strong mine-safety law and limits to legal injunctions on strikes.

The NPL spread throughout the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. It even branched out into Canada where it would inspire the creation of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which would merge with the Canadian Labour Congress to become today’s democratic socialist New Democratic Party (NDP). It is Canada’s third largest party best known for creating a single payer health care system in the province of Saskatchewan in the early 1960s. For years, NDPers in the national parliament pushed a national single payer system which would be created in 1968 by a Liberal Party government.

The U.S. NPL wasn’t as successful as the NDP. It faced fierce attacks by the big banks, but was able to elect a governor twice during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, the NPL declined in power and merged with North Dakota’s Democratic Party in 1956. But the socialized bank and grain mill still exist.

Public banking advocates hope the successes of the BND will help their movement the way that the example of the NDP’s single payer health care system in Saskatchewan spurred the development of a national reform in Canada.

The bank is the depository for all state tax collections and fees. They plow those deposits back into the state of North Dakota in the form of loans. This boosts agriculture and economic development.

Ellen Brown, founder of the Public Banking Institute, argues that Americans could save $1 trillion over 10 years by financing infrastructure through publicly owned banks. She notes that the BND is funding infrastructure at 2 percent annually:

“In 2015, the North Dakota legislature established a BND Infrastructure Loan Fund program that made $50 million in funds available to communities with a population of less than 2,000, and $100 million available to communities with a population greater than 2,000. These loans have a 2 percent fixed interest rate and a term of up to 30 years. The proceeds can be used for the new construction of water and treatment plants, sewer and water lines, transportation infrastructure and other infrastructure needs to support new growth in a community.”

In April 1997, a massive flood wiped out the city of Grand Forks. There were 50,000 evacuees and the property losses were over $3.5 billion. The BND swiftly came to the rescue with nearly $70 million in credit lines before the state received laggard Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements.

This bank isn’t a gambling casino but a careful institution. As BND president Eric Hardmeyer said in a 2009 Mother Jones interview:

“We’re a fairly conservative lot up here in the upper Midwest and we didn’t do any subprime lending and we have the ability to get into the derivatives markets and put on swaps and callers and caps and credit default swaps and just chose not to do it, really chose a Warren Buffett mentality — if we don’t understand it, we’re not going to jump into it. And so we’ve avoided all those pitfalls.”

The BND has a very non-political stance. Public banking advocate Matt Stannard raises some vexing questions about this on the “Cowboy on the Commons” blog. He says “BND created the infrastructure for North Dakota’s oil boom, and if the state were to commit to a truly proactive transition to renewable and clean energy (it has taken baby steps), the BND would make it happen financially — with an efficiency that would put the rest of the country to shame.”

Stannard notes something more disturbing. The BND has provided millions to fund law enforcement expenses at Standing Rock. He says “the actions illustrate the folly of pushing for state and local control without accompanying universal human and environmental rights.”

Stannard says public banking advocates “ought to emphasize the ways public control of state and municipal finance can fund new structures of work and production that neither exploit nor extract. That has always been the most powerful argument for public banks.”

On Feb. 11, there will be a conference on public banking at the First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., in Boulder from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. There is a suggested donation but no one will be turned away.

How to Cut Infrastructure Costs in Half

Americans could save $1 trillion over 10 years by financing infrastructure through publicly-owned banks like the one that has long been operating in North Dakota.

President Donald Trump has promised to rebuild America’s airports, bridges, tunnels, roads and other infrastructure, something both Democrats and Republicans agree should be done. The country needs a full $3 trillion in infrastructure over the next decade. The $1 trillion plan revealed by Trump’s economic advisers relies heavily on public-private partnerships, and private equity firms are lining up for these plumbing investments. In the typical private equity water deal, for example, higher user rates help the firms earn annual returns of anywhere from 8 to 18 percent – more even than a regular for-profit water company might expect. But the price tag can come as a rude surprise for local ratepayers.

Private equity investment now generates an average return of about 11.8% annually on a 10-year basis. For infrastructure investment, those profits are made on tolls and fees paid by the public. Even at simple interest, that puts the cost to the public of financing $1 trillion in infrastructure projects at $1.18 trillion, more than doubling the cost. Cities often make these desperate deals because they are heavily in debt and the arrangement can give them cash up front. But as a 2008 Government Accountability Office report warned, “there is no ‘free’ money in public-private partnerships.” Local residents wind up picking up the tab.

There is a more cost-effective alternative. The conservative state of North Dakota is funding infrastructure through the state-owned Bank of North Dakota (BND) at 2% annually. In 2015, the North Dakota legislature established a BND Infrastructure Loan Fund program that made $50 million in funds available to communities with a population of less than 2,000, and $100 million available to communities with a population greater than 2,000. These loans have a 2% fixed interest rate and a term of up to 30 years. The proceeds can be used for the new construction of water and treatment plants, sewer and water lines, transportation infrastructure and other infrastructure needs to support new growth in a community.

If the Trump $1 trillion infrastructure plan were funded at 2% over 10 years, the interest tab would come to only $200 billion, nearly $1 trillion less than the $1.18 trillion expected by private equity investors. Not only could residents save $1 trillion over 10 years on tolls and fees, but they could save on taxes, since the interest would return to the government, which owned the bank. In effect, the loans would be nearly interest-free to the government.

New Money for Local Economies

Legislators in cash-strapped communities are likely to object, “We can’t afford to lend our revenues. We need them for our budget.” But banks do not lend their deposits. They actually create new money in the form of bank credit when they make loans. That means borrowing from its own bank is not just interest-free to the local government but actually creates new money for the local economy.

As economists at the Bank of England acknowledged in a March 2014 report titled “Money Creation in the Modern Economy”, the vast majority of the money supply is now created by banks when they make loans. The authors wrote:

The reality of how money is created today differs from the description found in some economics textbooks: Rather than banks receiving deposits when households save and then lending them out, bank lending creates deposits. . . . Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money. [Emphasis added.]

Money is not fixed and scarce. It is “elastic”: it is created when loans are made and extinguished when they are paid off. The BOE report said that private banks now create nearly 97 percent of the money supply in this way.

Richard Werner, Chair of International Banking at the University of Southampton in the UK, argues that to get much-needed new money into local economies, rather than borrowing from private investors who cannot create the money they lend, governments should borrow from banks, which create money in the form of deposits when they make loans. And to get that money interest-free, a government should borrow from its own bank, which returns the interest to the government.

Besides North Dakota, many other states and cities are now exploring the public bank option. Feasibility studies done at both state and local levels show that small businesses, employment, low-cost student loans, affordable housing and greater economic stability will result from keeping local public dollars out of the global banking casinos and in the local community. Legislation for public banks is actively being pursued in Washington State, Michigan, Arizona, Philadelphia, Santa Fe, and elsewhere. Phil Murphy, the front-running Democratic candidate for New Jersey governor, is basing his platform on a state-owned bank, which he says could fund much-needed infrastructure and other projects.

New Money for a Federal Infrastructure Program

What about funding a federal infrastructure program with interest-free money? Tim Canova, Professor of Law and Public Finance at Nova Southeastern University, argues that the Federal Reserve could capitalize a national infrastructure bank with money generated on its books as “quantitative easing.” (Canova calls it “qualitative easing” – central bank-generated money that actually gets into the real economy.) The Federal Reserve could purchase shares, whether as common stock, preferred stock or debt, either in a national infrastructure bank or in a system of state-owned banks that funded infrastructure in their states. This could be done, says Canova, without increasing taxes, adding to the federal debt or hyperinflating prices.

Another alternative was proposed in 2013 by US Sen. Bernie Sanders and US Rep. Peter DeFazio. They called for a national infrastructure bank funded by the US Postal Service (which did provide basic banking services from 1911 to 1967). With post offices in nearly every community, the USPS has the physical infrastructure for a system of national public banks. In the Sanders/DeFazio plan, deposits would be invested in government securities used to finance infrastructure projects. Besides financing infrastructure without raising taxes, the plan could save the embattled USPS itself, while providing banking services for the one in four households that are unbanked or under-banked.

Reliance on costly private capital for financing public needs has limited municipal growth and reduced public services, while strapping future generations with unsustainable debt. By eliminating the unnecessary expense of turning public dollars into profits for private equity interests, publicly-owned banks can allow the public to retain ownership of its infrastructure while cutting costs nearly in half.