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Why Should I Care: Nationalization

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Like shooting finance in a barrel.

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Just thinking about the post office can give you the willies: Its mind-numbingly drab interior, the lines upon lines of automatons shuffling blankly along, hoping that the edgy folks on the other side of the counter don't give credence to that whole "going postal" idea.

Now, if you will, imagine you're waiting in that same line to withdraw money from the bank.

Yikes.

Nationalization is a creepy concept in this country, especially when the most common contact we have with a state-run institution is, for the fortunate, the US Postal Service; for the unfortunate, it's the IRS.

Nationalization is a simple idea really: It's when the government takes ownership of an industry or other private assets.

Take the Department of Homeland Security, for example: After September 11, the airport-safety industry was relieved of its responsibility to keep the skies free of maniacal would-be terrorists. To be sure, there hasn't been another attack, but flying is downright miserable thanks to long lines, redundant inspections and queues of unmanned metal detectors on light travel days like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and 4th of July weekend.

Recently, with the near-collapse of the banking and automotive sectors, the subject of nationalization has once again reared its controversial head.

Advocates of the free market argue that General Motors (GM), Chrysler and Ford (F) should be allowed to fail, if that is indeed their destiny. Others contend the government should seize control of the firms, toss out their incompetent management teams, and start making cars people actually want to drive.

The question, of course, is whether fire-breathing bureaucrats would succeed where private businessmen failed.

We may never know, as the current course of action seems to be a bastardized version of nationalization, in which government offers up tens of billions of dollars in cheap loans in exchange for some miracle turnaround strategy that may or may not materialize. Meanwhile, it offers gentle suggestions of exactly what kind of cars these "private" corporations should make.

The banking system, which some say has already been effectively nationalized, is even trickier.

And the problem extends beyond choosing a name for this would-be all-American bank (Bank of America (BAC), US Bancorp (USB) and BankUnited (BKUNA) are all taken). Today's financial institutions are so exceedingly complex that it's doubtful politicians -- most of whom couldn't explain the difference between a CD that plays and a CD that pays -- could manage banks successfully.

Last September, however, things got so bad in the mortgage market that the Treasury Department nationalized Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE), by far the 2 biggest home lenders in the country. To be fair, Fannie and Freddie had been half-breed not-quite-private-not-quite-public entities for years - but ballooning losses as the housing market collapsed made their nationalization downright inevitable.
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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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