Fortunately, there is another alternative. Wisconsin could draw down the fund by the small amount needed to meet pension obligations, and put the bulk of the money to work creating jobs, helping local businesses, and increasing tax revenues for the state. It could do this b y forming its own bank, following the lead of North Dakota, the only state to have its own bank -- and the only state to escape the credit crisis.
This could be done without spending the pension fund money or lending it. The funds would just be shifted from one form of investment to another (equity in a bank). W hen a bank makes a loan, neither the bank's own capital nor its customers' demand deposits are actually lent to borrowers. As observed on the Dallas Federal Reserve's website , "Banks actually create money when they lend it." They simply extend accounting-entry bank credit, which is extinguished when the loan is repaid. Creating this sort of credit-money is a privilege available only to banks, but states can tap into that privilege by owning a bank.
How North Dakota Escaped the Credit Crunch
Ironically, the only state to have one of these socialist-sounding credit machines is a conservative Republican state. The state-owned Bank of North Dakota (BND) has allowed North Dakota to maintain its economic sovereignty, a conservative states-rights sort of ideal. The BND was established in 1919 in response to a wave of farm foreclosures at the hands of out-of-state Wall Street banks. Today the state not only has no debt, but it recently boasted its largest-ever budget surplus. The BND helps to fund not only local government but local businesses and local banks, by partnering with the banks to provide the funds to support small business lending.
The BND is also a boon to the state treasury. It has a return on equity of 25-26%, and it has contributed over $300 million to the state (its only shareholder) in the past decade. This is a notable achievement for a state with a population less than one-tenth the size of Los Angeles County. In comparison, California's public pension funds are down more than $100 billion --that's billion with a "b"--or close to half the funds' holdings, following the Wall Street debacle of 2008. It was, in fact, the 2008 bank collapse rather than overpaid public employees that caused the crisis that shrank state revenues and prompted the budget cuts in the first place.
Seven States Are Now Considering Setting Up Public Banks
Faced with federal inaction and growing local budget crises, an increasing number of states are exploring the possibility of setting up their own state-owned banks, following the North Dakota model. On January 11, 2011, a bill to establish a state-owned bank was introduced in the Oregon State legislature ; on January 13, a similar bill was introduced in Washington State ; on January 20, a bill for a state bank was filed in Massachusetts (following a 2010 bill that had lapsed); and on February 4, a bill was introduced in the Maryland legislature for a feasibility study looking into the possibilities. They join Illinois , Virginia , and Hawaii , which introduced similar bills in 2010, bringing the total number of states with such bills to seven.
If Governor Walker wanted to explore this possibility for his state, he could drop in on the Center for State Innovation (CSI), which is located down the street in his capitol city of Madison, Wisconsin. The CSI has done detailed cost/benefit analyses of the Oregon and Washington state bank initiatives, which show substantial projected benefits based on the BND precedent. See reports here and here .
For Washington State, with an economy not much larger than Wisconsin's, the CSI report estimates that after an initial startup period, establishing a state-owned bank would create new or retained jobs of between 7,400 and 10,700 a year at small businesses alone, while at the same time returning a profit to the state.
A Bank of Wisconsin Could Generate "Bank Credit"
Many Times the Size of the Budget Deficit
Economists looking at the CSI reports have called their conclusions conservative. The CSI made its projections without relying on state pension funds for bank capital, although it acknowledged that this could be a potential source of capitalization.
If the Bank of Wisconsin were to use state pension funds, it could have a capitalization of more than $57 billion -- nearly as large as that of Goldman Sachs. At an 8% capital requirement, $8 in capital can support $100 in loans, or a potential lending capacity of over $500 billion. The bank would need deposits to clear the checks, but the credit-generating potential could still be huge.