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frequently asked questions

What is a public bank?

A public bank is a bank with a depository bank charter that the public owns through their representative government and that works to benefit local communities. A public bank’s charter enables it to hold the state or city’s deposits and revenues. It has a mandate to serve the public good and reflect the values and needs of the public it represents. Public banks can exist at all levels, from local to state to national or even international. Any governmental body which can meet local banking requirements may, theoretically, create such a financial institution. Public banks can fund public projects at reduced cost, generate profits for the local government, and create low-cost credit for the local community.

In existing and proposed U.S. public bank models, skilled bankers, not politicians, make bank decisions and provide accountability and transparency for how public funds are used.

Privately-owned banks, by contrast, are mandated to put short-term profits for their shareholders as their highest priority.

See our At-A-Glance Infographic for more details. 

How long have public banks existed in the U.S.?

Public banking was an ideal of the Founding Fathers, first tested in the colony of Pennsylvania. It had several models, both successful and unsuccessful, in the 19th century.

At the state level, the Bank of North Dakota has existed for a century and provides an excellent example of the power of public banking.

Since 2010, over half of U.S. states and many cities have introduced legislation to create public banks. This surge in legislation shows a growing awareness of the benefits of local control made possible through public banks. 

What's the difference between a public bank and other banks?

Public banks have a mandate dedicated to the public’s interest. Privately-owned banks have shareholders who demand short-term profits as their highest priority. Public banks, on the other hand, work to improve the Main Street economy and can return their profits if needed to the general fund of the state or the city, which can then be used to fund other projects or reduce taxes. The costs of infrastructure projects can be reduced, because public banks can charge low interest rates. Eliminating high interest has been shown to reduce the cost of such projects by up to half. 

See our At-A-Glance Infographic for more details.

Aren't public banks a form of socialism?

The Constitution of the United States lists a number of services that the government is required to provide, for example, a military, a postal service, etc. These services are not based on economic philosophy (capitalism, socialism, etc.); rather, they are sovereign requirements. The Constitution grants Congress the power “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof…” This, too, is a sovereign requirement, and should not be characterized as an economic philosophy. It’s also worth noting that the states are forbidden to issue “bills of credit” (currency), which implies only Congress may do that.

In the 18th Century, when the Constitution was written, coins were the most prevalent form of money. Today, most money comes from bank credit. Regulating the value of money can only be done today by regulating bank credit, which should properly be seen as a public utility. All of our money today is backed only by the full faith and credit of the United States. The credit of the United States is an asset of the people. It should be dispensed and administered through publicly-owned banks using sovereign currency as legal tender.

Who benefits from public banks?

Taxpayers will benefit from both the profits the bank makes and the services the bank provides. Those services depend on the model the state or city chooses to follow, but possibilities include:

  • Affordable financing to municipalities for public projects.
  • Access to credit lines, loans, and other forms of finance to help local businesses succeed and grow.
  • Affordable loans for students to attend college.
  • Affordable loans on reasonable mortgage terms for home buyers.
What problems do public banks solve?

City and state governments pay billions of dollars in interest to banks and investors for loans issued to fund public projects. Fifty percent of the cost of infrastructure, on average, goes to interest. Public banks can make low interest loans to state and local governments, saving them millions or even billions of dollars.

Without that alternative, state and city governments today routinely cut programs that benefit low-income citizens and students to close “budget gaps” that appear on a regular basis, leaving many unmet needs for roads, bridges, public transit, energy, housing, education, water, and telecommunications services. If interest payments on infrastructure, housing, economic development, and student loans were going to the public instead of private shareholders, we could lower taxes and create the money to meet basic needs.

Public banks can also reduce the interest paid by consumers and businesses on student loans, home loans and business loans, and they can potentially provide banking services to the unbanked and underbanked.

Won't politicians use a public bank to fund pet projects and their pockets?

Recent studies have shown that public banks are actually less corrupt – and more profitable – than private banks. They can be structured in their charter to ensure that they are run free of influence from legislators and other high public offices.

Will a public bank compete with local banks?

A public bank on the Bank of North Dakota model would not compete with local banks. It would accept deposits only or principally from state and municipal governments—not individuals, organizations or businesses.

Public banks following the lead of the Bank of North Dakota would partner with local and regional banks, allowing them to make loans and take deposits that normally would be out of reach because of their small size. North Dakota (home of the only publicly-owned bank in the United States) has more local community banks per capita than any other U.S. state.

Rather than competing with local private banks, public banks thus help create adverse, robust private banking system that truly serves the public.

Why are some banks opposed to public banks?

The banks that oppose public banking tend to be large, multinational institutions that provide banking services to city and state governments and invest their funds in out of state projects, such as the Keystone XL pipeline and the tar sands in Canada. Government deposits are a cheap source of liquidity for these banks and help to bolster their credit ratings.

For local community banks, on the other hand, the high collateralization requirements for government deposits make them of little use; and partnering with a public bank has many benefits. This is evidenced by the fact that the North Dakota Bankers Association endorses the Bank of North Dakota.

How could a public bank help an economically struggling city or state?

A public bank can help protect the local economy during larger economic crises by providing the city or state government with money in the form of low- or no-cost credit to inject into the economy to maintain essential services and stimulate production and commerce. The Bank of North Dakota supported North Dakota’s economy in this way during the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the recent lockdown crisis.

Can't cities and states just deposit their funds in a credit union? Wouldn't that amount to the same thing

Credit unions contribute to the economic strength of the communities they serve by returning their profits to local members rather than to out-of-state investors. But they are too small by law to handle the banking needs of a city or state. A public bank also differs from a credit union in that its profits go to the public — all the residents and taxpayers of a city or state — for public use.

Would a public bank require a city or state to raise new funds through taxes?

No. Nearly all city, county, and state governments have the money required to capitalize a public bank in the form of existing financial assets. If new money is needed, the local government can issue a commercial bond, repayable over time from bank profits.

Who will set the policy for public banks? Who decides whether to approve loans? How are decision makers insulated from bribes and pressure from politicians and business interests?

The success of the Bank of North Dakota shows that a public bank can and must be run free of influence from legislators and other high offices.

Elected government lawmakers or policy makers determine the policies that govern the activities of a public bank , or in other words, the bank’s mission or “charter.” Policy makers can do this with the help of an informed advisory committee. Day-to-day decisions about credit worthiness and lending, on the other hand, are made by professional bankers. These decisions are governed by the bank’s charter and subject to transparency and administrative review.

In the case of the Bank of North Dakota, a three-member “State Industrial Commission” oversees the bank’s activities. The commission is made up of the Governor, the Attorney General and the Commissioner of Agriculture. The Bank of North Dakota also has a seven-member “Advisory Board” appointed by the governor, the members of which must be knowledgeable about banking and finance. The Advisory Board reviews the Bank’s activities and makes recommendations about the bank’s management, services, policies and procedures to the Industrial Commission.

Public banks have a mandate to be fiscally conservative, balancing their requirement to lend in the public interest with careful considerations of the risks involved in lending. Public banks are more cautious in their lending than Wall Street banks. The major credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s consistently awards the Bank of North Dakota an “A” rating, indicating the highest possible levels of confidence in the bank’s standards, practices and credit worthiness. According to North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, “The [2013] S&P review of the bank confirmed that it is well-managed and supports the economic needs of North Dakota . . . The report recognized BND for its conservative management strategy.”

Wouldn't this put state funds in a significant amount of risk? And wouldn't political interests end up forcing the state bank to make bad loans?

No. The Bank of North Dakota is staffed by a professional banking staff, not an economic development agency, and a state bank would be run based on prudent financial policies, not high risk practices.

The primary assets of a state bank based on the BND model are participation loans, where the loan originator is a local community bank. This not only avoids competition between public band private banks but also provides market-driven checks and balances against manipulation by political actors.

No loan portfolio is immune to loan failures. As with other banks around the world, a state bank would have a loan loss provision and would follow prudent banking practices. The Bank of North Dakota’s allowance for loan loss ratio (allowance for loan loss / total loans) in 2019 was 2.1%.

In its 2020 Annual Report, after that crisis year, BND still reported a profit of $141.2 million and a return on investment of 15%.

Each year, BND returns a portion of profits to the state general fund. The amount fluctuates depending on the state tax collections and health of the state’s economy. In 2019, BND returned $80.1 million. In 2020, the amount was $135.6 million. Since its inception, BND has generated a cumulative profit of $2.1 billion and returned $1.2 billion to the state. See the S&P Global Ratings for BND and BND annual reports

A state bank would work hand in hand with state bank regulators to evaluate its loan portfolio, risk exposure, and profitability, and would be required to meet safety and soundness criteria in order to access its own liquidity sources to manage liquidity and interest rate risk (e.g., S&P ratings).

Don't we already have economic development programs that do these things?

A state bank is NOT an economic development program, and does not replace current state ED efforts. There is still a need for economic development programs and individuals to put together deals and work with businesses; a state bank can simply be a source of revenue to fund these programs as well as liquidity to help underwrite those deals. And because a state bank has the power to leverage funds (10 to 1 as a rule of thumb), it can increase the state’s ability to fund economic development, along with helping to support community banks, consumers and businesses across the lending industry.

The state treasurer already gets a good return on the investment pools we use, why change that?

A state bank is NOT a substitute for an investment manager. It’s expected that the treasurer would retain these functions. For example, in North Dakota, BND does not manage the state pension fund investments.

How much money is needed to start a bank?

Start-up capital requirements vary by state, are determined by state (and potentially federal) regulatory agencies, and depend on the bank’s business plan.

Capital, in general, should be 10% of assets (loans), so capital requirements increase with the size of the loan portfolio. CSI analysis shows that even after accounting for debt service obligations due to start-up capital, a state bank would be profitable after a few years and a strong economic tool for a state.

A recent 100-page white paper published in September 2019 by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit nonpartisan public policy organization, included the strong recommendation to “attempt to capitalize the bank as much as possible”:

“States might be tempted to provide only a small amount of funding for a bank to both save money and to see if the bank can grow itself to a larger size. But, this path is not advisable because it will limit the impact of the bank. Each of the NEMW states has immediate problems which a public bank is in a unique position to solve, but only if it has sufficient funding. Shortchanging the bank will mean it will take exponentially longer for the bank to contribute to solving these problems. …

More funding means more dividends for the state. In all cases, this increased funding at the initial stage is more than offset by dividend returns twenty years after the bank’s establishment. In a large state like New York this funding difference can mean more than $1 billion being returned to the state in dividends over twenty years, or $50 million a year more in dividends to the state. This more than cancels the $400 million difference between the .5% and .1% [of the state’s yearly budget expenses] funding options for the state. In fact, it pays this difference off in under 8 years. …

Unless the state does not have the funds … or the political will to invest more money in the bank’s capitalization, it should attempt to capitalize the bank as much as possible. The more invested in the present, the greater the returns in the future both to the state and for the whole state community as the bank’s impact expands.”

The business plan for any new bank must show the ability not only to get the bank started but also to keep it going to support a growing loan portfolio. These variables of size, loan portfolio assets, as well as bank objectives, operational platforms, and staffing needs are some of the key considerations for answering this question in any specific case.

Where would the capital come from to start the bank?

The likely sources of state bank start-up capital are the state General Fund, General Obligation Bonds, or other dedicated state funds

Isn't setting up a bank just too complex?

While setting up a state bank is more complex than, for example, establishing a single revolving loan fund, and there is only two such banks in the country, there are thousands of banks in operation in the U.S. and new private banks are formed every year. In many ways a state bank would be more straightforward to set-up than a private bank. We expect that a state bank would have one location, no marketing, very little direct lending and a single source of deposits (the state). A reliance on participation loans would also reduce the need for bank loan officers and loan brokers.

Sure, a state bank works for North Dakota, but isn't my state completely different, both economically and politically?

Every state does have a unique political and economic environment, but local control, local power, and local benefits are important across the political spectrum. The Bank of North Dakota has enjoyed the support of both Democratic and Republican administrations and legislators. 

A recent 100-page white paper published in September 2019 by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit nonpartisan public policy organization, concluded by recommending that “all Northeast and Midwestern states adopt a public bank.” The paper describes the major models of public banking around the world and in the United States and explains how the issues faced by states in the region can be solved through the creation of a state bank.

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