I have to admit, I am a bit puzzled by my friend Franklin Allen’s first entry in this debate. There simply is no evidence—none—in support of his statement that mixed systems of state and private banking tend to be a good idea. And his mention of China is doubly puzzling. China’s state-owned banks have been a disaster, fiscally, allocatively, and socially. They cost the Chinese people hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout costs a decade ago, and, according to most informed observers, may very well soon repeat a similar magnitude of losses. Allocatively, they are famously wasteful of resources, as they have been a political tool for propping up the unproductive state-owned sector, which explains their continuing huge losses (recognized and unrecognized). The internal corporate governance of these unwieldy institutions is a nightmare. The financing arrangements that have succeeded in attracting private capital are well understood to be a political deal between global banks and the Chinese government; global banks invest in the state-owned sector as part of the price they must pay for entry into the Chinese market. And these banks are the central nexus of corruption and influence peddling in Chinese society. China’s growth has occurred in spite of these banks’ distorted lending policies, not because of them.
Some observers have wondered how it was possible for China to grow despite the lack of a deep private formal lending sector. The answer is simple: If a country’s basic economic development is constrained for centuries, then when economic liberalization finally occurs, the marginal product of capital is huge and high returns can be generated from almost any reasonably well-managed enterprise. If retained earnings can reliably earn high annual returns irrespective of how they are invested, growth will be rapid even without a banking system. But that initial bank-independent growth is not sustainable. The Chinese government’s recent financial policy initiatives show that it is well aware that China’s continuing growth is highly dependent on its ability to develop the legal, political, and institutional foundations that will support increasingly selective, private, arms-length lending for productive investments. That transformation of the Chinese banking system is a future prospect, not a current reality, and it is by no means a certainty (see, for example, Minxin Pei’s book, China’s Trapped Transition, or the contributions to my edited volume, China’s Financial Transition at the Crossroads).