Before the last presidential election, I tried for a year to get both Congress and the administration to deal with the fact that the banks weren’t lending because they were still jittery about the economy, and worried about the regulators coming down on them for bad loans still on the books. It’s not much better now. Banks still have more than $2 trillion in cash uncommitted to loans.
So I suggested that the federal government set aside—not spend—$15 billion of the TARP money and create a loan-guarantee program that would work exactly the way the Small Business Administration does. Basically, the bank lends money to a business after the federal government guarantees 75 percent of it. Let’s say that the SBA fund has about a 20-to-1 loan-to-capital ratio, and it’s never come anywhere near bankruptcy. If we capitalized this more conservatively at 10-to-1, we could guarantee $150 billion in loans and create more than a million jobs. We should start with buildings we know will stay in use: most state and local government buildings, schools, university structures, hospitals, theaters, and concert halls. We could include private commercial buildings with no debt. Even if many are strapped for cash, allowing the costs of the retrofits to be paid only from utility savings means the building owners won’t be out any cash. It’s a “just say yes” system.