US President Barack Obama’s administration has moved to quash rumors that troubled US banks will be nationalized as the shares of financial institutions took another beating in the market.
“This administration continues to strongly believe that a privately held banking system is the correct way to go,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Friday amid speculation that Bank of America and Citigroup are among banks facing imminent nationalization.
The US Treasury Department also rejected the market speculation that sent shares deeper into six-year lows on Friday.
“There are a lot of rumors in the market, as always, but you should not regard these as any indication of the policy of this administration,” said a Treasury spokesman.
He recalled that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had made clear that the administration would work to keep the embattled financial system in private hands.
Gibbs also stressed that the banking system, shaken by a home mortgage meltdown at the epicenter of global turmoil, would be “regulated sufficiently by this government.”
The administration’s reassurance appeared to allay somewhat Wall Street fears that sent banking stocks plunging to new lows after their rout a day earlier, which had pulled down the key Dow stock index to its worst level in six years.
“It seems that commentary from the Obama administration on the potential nationalization of privately held banks has eased some fears on Wall Street,” said Joseph Hargett of Schaeffer’s Investment Research.
Senator Christopher Dodd, who heads the Senate banking committee, also said the Democratic administration was seeking to avoid nationalizing banks but did not rule out a short-term state takeover.
“I don’t welcome that at all, but I could see how it’s possible it may happen,” the Democrat said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. “I’m concerned that we may end up having to do that, at least for a short time.”
The commentary from Washington sparked a pullback by the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which recovered more than 153 points, or about 2.1 percent, at one stage, Hargett said.
In fact, the Dow briefly hit positive territory before breaching into negative territory again, closing down 100.28 points, or 1.34 percent, at 7,365.67.
Shares in Citigroup plummeted 22.31 percent to close at US$1.95 and Bank of America dropped 3.56 percent to US$3.79.
The market capitalization of the two banks had eroded so rapidly this week that it has been eclipsed by state funds injected into them, giving the government de facto control of the institutions, analysts said.
“The two banks are implicitly nationalized, which is what is rocking investors in the financial sector,” said Gregori Volokhin, a strategy chief at Meeschaert New York.
The US government has injected US$45 billion each into Citigroup and Bank of America to prevent their collapse in exchange for preferred stocks, without voting rights.
The government said it would conduct “stress tests” on ailing financial institutions ahead of any further capital injections and removal of “toxic” assets from their strained balance sheets.
Given the battering their shares took early Friday, the capitalization of Citigroup is hardly more than US$10 billion, while that of Bank of America is US$17 billion, well below the federal government’s holdings.
For Volokhin, it is “creeping nationalization.”
But the banks dismissed allegations of financial troubles.
A Citigroup spokesman highlighted the bank’s high Tier 1 capital ratio, a measure of financial strength and said it continues to cut assets on its balance sheet, reduce expenses and streamline its businesses for future “profitable growth.”
Scott Silvestri, a spokesman at Bank of America, echoed the view.
“We see no reason to nationalize a bank that is profitable, well capitalized and actively lending,” he said.