February 17, 2010 in Business

State-owned bank drawing interest

North Dakota’s socialist experiment has new appeal
Dale Wetzel Associated Press
 
Associated Press photos photo

Eric Hardmeyer, president of the Bank of North Dakota, in Bismarck, stands in the bank’s lobby on Friday. The bank is the only state-owned bank in the nation, and officials in other states are studying whether a state-owned bank could help improve their states’ economies. Associated Press photos
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

BISMARCK, N.D. – It has no automatic tellers or drive-up windows, doesn’t issue credit cards, and tends only a few thousand checking and savings accounts. Its only location is a glass, steamboat-shaped headquarters near the Missouri River, where the business moved from its original 1919 home in a former auto assembly plant.

The Bank of North Dakota – the nation’s only state-owned bank – might seem to be a relic. It was the brainchild of a failed flax farmer and one-time Socialist Party organizer during World War I.

But now officials in other states are wondering if it is helping North Dakota sail through the national recession.

Gubernatorial candidates in Florida and Oregon and a Washington state legislator are advocating the creation of state-owned banks in those states. A report prepared for a Vermont House committee last month said the idea had “considerable merit.” Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore promotes the bank on his Web site.

“There’s a lot of hurt out there, a lot of states that are in trouble, and they’re tying the Bank of North Dakota together with this economic success that we’re having right now,” said the bank’s president, Eric Hardmeyer.

Hardmeyer says he’s gotten “tons” of inquiries about the bank’s workings, including questions from officials in California, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio and Washington state. North Dakota has the nation’s lowest unemployment rate at 4.4 percent, soaring oil production and a robust state budget surplus – but Hardmeyer says the bank isn’t responsible for the prosperity.

“We are a catalyst, perhaps, or maybe a part of it,” he said. “To put this at our feet is flattering, but it frankly isn’t true.”

The Bank of North Dakota serves as an economic development agency and “banker’s bank” that lessens the loan risks of private banks and helps them finance larger projects. It offers cheap loans to farmers, students and businesses.

The bank had almost $4 billion in assets and a $2.67 billion loan portfolio at the end of last year, according to its most recent quarterly financial report. It made $58.1 million in profits in 2009, setting a record for the sixth straight year. During the last decade, the bank funneled almost $300 million in profits to North Dakota’s treasury.

The bank has the advantage of being the repository for most state funds, which can be used for loans and occasional relief for private banks that need a jolt of cash during sluggish credit markets.

“We think of ourselves as kind of a little mini-Federal Reserve,” Hardmeyer said.

The state earns roughly 0.25 percent less interest than state agencies would get from a commercial institution. The bank also pays no state or federal taxes and has no deposit insurance; North Dakota taxpayers are on the hook for any losses.

The Bank of North Dakota was a cornerstone of the agenda of the Nonpartisan League, a farmers’ political insurgency spawned by anger about outside control of North Dakota’s credit and grain markets.

Founded in 1915 by A.C. Townley, who became a Socialist Party organizer after he went broke raising flax in western North Dakota, the NPL advocated state-owned banks to provide low-interest farm loans, along with state flour mills, grain elevators, meatpacking houses and hail insurance.

Supporters gained control of the legislature and the governorship within five years. The movement’s power quickly waned, but two of its state-owned businesses survived – the Bank of North Dakota and a state flour mill and grain elevator in Grand Forks.

From the 1940s until the early 1960s, the bank served mostly as a public funds depository and municipal bond buyer, said Rozanne Enerson Junker, author of a 1989 history of the bank. Its economic development activity has greatly expanded since.

Gary Petersen, president of the Lakeside State Bank of New Town, a community on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in northwestern North Dakota, said the state bank is often willing to take a stake in local development projects.

“In my experience, you make a contact with the (Bank of North Dakota), and their question is, ‘How do we get this done?’ ” Petersen said. “They’re not looking at ways to knock it down.”

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