The Bank of North Dakota is the only state-owned bank in America—what Republicans might call an idiosyncratic bastion of socialism. It also earned a record profit last year even as its private-sector corollaries lost billions. To be sure, it owes some of its unusual success to North Dakota’s well-insulated economy, which is heavy on agricultural staples and light on housing speculation. But that hasn’t stopped out-of-state politicos from beating a path to chilly Bismarck in search of advice. Could opening state-owned banks across America get us out of the financial crisis? It certainly might help, says Ellen Brown, author of the book, Web of Debt, who writes that the Bank of North Dakota, with its $4 billion under management, has avoided the credit freeze by “creating its own credit, leading the nation in establishing state economic sovereignty.” Mother Jones spoke with the Bank of North Dakota’s president, Eric Hardmeyer.
Mother Jones: How was the bank formed?
Eric Hardmeyer: It was created 90 years ago, in 1919, as a populist movement swept the northern plains. Basically it was a very angry movement by a large group of the agrarian sector that was upset by decisions that were being made in the eastern markets, the money markets maybe in Minneapolis, New York, deciding who got credit and how to market their goods. So it swept the northern plains. In North Dakota the movement was called the Nonpartisan League, and they actually took control of the legislature and created what was called an industrial program, which created both the Bank of North Dakota as a financing arm and a state-owned mill and elevator to market and buy the grain from the farmer. And we’re both in existence today doing exactly what we were created for 90 years ago. Only we’ve morphed a little bit and found other niches and ways to promote the state of North Dakota.
MJ: What makes your bank unique today?
EH: Our funding model, our deposit model is really what is unique as the engine that drives that bank. And that is we are the depository for all state tax collections and fees. And so we have a captive deposit base, we pay a competitive rate to the state treasurer. And I would bet that that would be one of the most difficult things to wrestle away from the private sector—those opportunities to bid on public funds. But that’s only one portion of it. We take those funds and then, really what separates us is that we plow those deposits back into the state of North Dakota in the form of loans. We invest back into the state in economic development type of activities. We grow our state through that mechanism.
MJ: Clearly other banks also invest their deposits. Is the difference that you are investing a larger portion of that money into the state’s own economy?
EH: Yeah, absolutely. But we have specifically designed programs to spur certain elements of the economy. Whether it’s agriculture or economic development programs that are deemed necessary in the state or energy, which now seems to be a huge play in the state. And education—we do a lot of student loan financing. So that’s our model. We have a specific mission that was given to us when we were created 90 years ago and it guides us throughout our history.
MJ: Are there areas that you invest in that other banks avoid?
EH: We made the first federally-insured student loan in the country back in 1967. So that’s been a big part of what we do. It’s become almost a mission-critical thing. I don’t know if you have been following the student loan industry lately, but it’s been very, very interesting as many have decided to leave. We will not though.
MJ: So you are able to invest in certain areas because they provide a public good.
EH: Yeah, or a direction, whether it’s energy or primary sector type of businesses. We have specific loan programs that are designed at very low interest rates to encourage activity along certain lines. Here’s another thing: We’re gearing up for a significant flood in one of the communities here in North Dakota called Fargo. We’ve experienced one of those in another community about 12 years ago which prior to Katrina was the largest single evacuation of any community in the United States. And so the Bank of North Dakota, once the flood had receded and there were business needs, we developed a disaster loan program to assist businesses. So we can move quite quickly to aid with different types of scenarios. Whether it’s encouraging different economies to grow or dealing with a disaster.
MJ: What do private banks think of you?
EH: The interesting thing about the bank is we understand that we walk a fine line between competing and partnering with the private sector. We were designed and set up to partner with them and not compete with them. So most of the lending that we do is participatory in nature. It’s originated by a local bank and we come in and participate in the loan and use some of our programs to share risk, buy down the interest rate. We even provide guarantees similar to SBA to encourage certain activity for entrepreneurial startups. Aside from that, we also act as a bankers’ bank or a wholesale bank. So we provide services to banks, whether it’s check clearing, liquidity, or bond accounting safekeeping. There’s probably 20 other bankers' banks across the country. So we act in that capacity as kind of a little mini-fed actually. And so we service 104 banks and provide liquidity to them and clear their checks and also we buy loans from them when they have a need to overline, whether it’s beyond their legal lending limit or they just want to share risk, we’ll do that. We’re a secondary market for residential loans, so we have a portfolio of $500 to $600 million of residential loans that we buy.
MJ: So what’s the advantage of a publicly owned “bankers’ bank” instead of a privately owned one?
EH: Our model is we use our deposit base to help [other banks] with funding their loans, even providing fed funds lines with our excess liquidity—we buy and sell fed funds and act as a clearinghouse for check clearing activity. That would be the benefit or different model. We’re a depository bank and can bring that to bear.
MJ: If other states had a bank like yours, do you think they would have been more insulated from the credit crisis?