The recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank — the second and third largest bank failures in U.S. history respectively — has laid bare the vulnerability of the private banking sector. With over 563 federally insured banks toppling between 2001 and 2023, it’s impossible to ignore: The status quo is unsustainable. Amid this financial turbulence, the need for public banking has never been more pressing. It’s high time we seriously consider public banking as a stable, transparent, and accountable alternative that would firmly anchor public interest at the heart of the financial system. After all, banking should be a public utility that benefits everyone, not a high-risk game played by bankers trying to score big profits.
Just over two months into the new year, 2021 has already seen a flurry of public banking activity. Sixteen new bills to form publicly-owned banks or facilitate their formation were introduced in eight U.S. states in January and February. Two bills for a state-owned bank were introduced in New Mexico, two in Massachusetts, two in New York, one each in Oregon and Hawaii, and Washington State’s Public Bank Bill was re-introduced as a “Substitution.” Bills for city-owned banks were introduced in Philadelphia and San Francisco, and bills facilitating the formation of public banks or for a feasibility study were introduced in New York, Oregon (three bills), and Hawaii. In addition, California is expected to introduce a bill for a state-owned bank later this year, and New Jersey is moving forward with a strong commitment from its governor to implement one.
When the Dodd Frank Act was passed in 2010, President Obama triumphantly declared, “No more bailouts!” But what the Act actually said was that the next time the banks failed, they would be subject to “bail ins” – the funds of their creditors, including their large depositors, would be tapped to cover their bad loans. Then bail-ins were tried in Europe. The results were disastrous. Many economists in the US and Europe argued that the next time the banks failed, they should be nationalized – taken over by the government as public utilities. But that opportunity was lost when, in September 2019 and again in March 2020, Wall Street banks were quietly bailed out from a liquidity crisis in the repo market that could otherwise have bankrupted them.
As states and cities face a tsunami of emergency expenses, collapsing tax revenues, and a shrinking bond market, we wanted to bring to your attention some new funding possibilities that have recently opened up. The Federal Reserve has stepped up to the plate by relaxing some of its rules and dropping interest rates to zero, but only for banks. The state could take advantage of this opportunity by having its own bank, something that could be done quickly by Executive Order. That and two other new funding possibilities are detailed below. #1 Use your emergency powers to set up a state-owned public bank. The Fed is now making its discount window available for loans at 0%-0.25% and is encouraging banks to use that facility to extend credit where needed to alleviate the current crisis.
It has been a hundred years since the first and only public bank was created in the United States, in North Dakota, but now there is renewed interest in starting more public banks. California passed a law last year allowing public banks. New Jersey and New York are not far behind. To explain why public banks are necessary and describe the growing movement for them, we speak with Ellen Brown of the Public Banking Institute. She discusses the benefits of public banks, how they save money and free up funds for necessary public projects and what the obstacles are. Brown also writes about financial issues. She talks about the current crisis in the repo market that is brewing in the United States and how it makes the economy precarious.
This past year, state and municipal lawmakers teamed up with community organizations to fight for—and win—a wide variety of policies and initiatives that will help foster a more democratic economy. New measures supporting public banking, worker co-ops, and community land trusts were launched across the country, continuing to grow a robust, cooperative economic ecosystem that builds community wealth. Here, we’ve highlighted some of the most exciting changes in local and state policy that happened in 2019. Public banks, unlike their private counterparts beholden to the profit demands of Wall Street shareholders, are owned by and accountable to the public. This year saw some important victories in the movement for these democratic financial institutions.
Through the first hundred years of the Bank’s existence, a fascinating pattern developed. The Bank raised its profile and took significant risks to help North Dakota through difficult times, then slipped below the radar when conditions improved, both because its job was temporarily done and to avoid calling undo attention to itself. Periods of progressivism tended to alternate with periods of retrenchment and retraction. After periods of intense activity, the Bank tended to embrace the least “exposed” and controversial profile, quietly doing its core work and accumulating capital and credibility, until the next time it was needed to prop up the state.
The credit system of the United States and the northern plains was not structured to meet the needs of North Dakota farmers in 1915. National banks could not lend money on farm mortgages. State banks could make farm loans, but they were under-capitalized, often dependent on money from out of state. Farmers were heavily dependent on store credit—buy food and hardware on credit now, pay for it after harvest—and insurance companies. Farmers needed money to purchase equipment, buy seed and livestock, and pay for such necessities of life as they could not produce for themselves on their farms.
It may not come as a surprise to hear that the majority of Americans don’t trust the banking system in this country. Only 27 percent of those surveyed in a 2016 Gallup poll said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the institution — less than half of the record high set in 1979. And the lack of trust is spread relatively evenly across the political spectrum — it’s not just liberals or those on the left: Almost everyone is fed up with the banks. And if banking institutions don’t exactly spark joy, their lead characters — morally bankrupt investment bankers whose greed and arrogance almost singlehandedly collapsed the entire country’s economy — certainly don’t spark joy either.
Black Business Review’s Marilyn Kai Jewett writes favorably of Pennsylvania’s public bank movement at both the state and municipal levels. A strong municipal public bank coalition has also developed in Pittsburgh, similar to Philadelphia's Neighborhood Networks; and Mike Krauss, chair of the state level Pennsylvania Public Bank Project, reports that efforts are underway to introduce legislation in the PA General Assembly for a state public bank modeled on the Bank of North Dakota. Kai writes in the local Philly paper Scoop USA that public banking is a “good idea.” Since 2014, Philadelphia Neighborhood Networks, founded by Stan Shapiro, has been leading the Philly movement for a public bank.
The US Green New Deal envisions funding with “a combination of the Federal Reserve [and] a new public bank or system of regional and specialized public banks,” which could include banks owned locally by cities and states. As Sylvia Chi, chair of the legislative committee of the California Public Banking Alliance. Local or regional public banks, says Chi, could help pay for the Green New Deal by making “low-interest loans for building and upgrading infrastructure, deploying clean energy resources, transforming our food and transportation systems to be more sustainable and accessible, and other projects.