Bank takeovers would leave shareholders in the cold

The government's blueprints for the banking industry have a lot to say about protecting the taxpayer and the struggling homeowner. But they offer virtually nothing for the banks' shareholders, many of whom once planned to use those investments for dreams like college, retirement or down payments.

The White House insisted on Friday afternoon that it's not trying to take over banks like Citigroup or Bank of America. But rumors of possible government takeovers continue to dog the hobbled industry. And while it's unclear what any kind of potential takeover would look like, one thing is certain: Common shareholders would be wiped out, either completely or close to it.

Shareholders are angry that they're getting lost in the shuffle. But more than that, they say their destruction could deepen the financial crisis that legislators say they're trying to fix.

A government takeover of the banks is “the most badly thought-out plan I can imagine,” said Charles Elson, director of the University of Delaware's Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance. “The shareholders are taxpayers. They pay taxes on the sale of the stock; they pay taxes on the dividend. They're the ones funding the (government) capital. But if the stock collapses, there are no gains for them to pay taxes on.”

Nationalization would also jar shareholders' trust and make them loathe to invest even when the financial crisis is over. “If (the government) sticks it to the shareholders like this, you'll never raise equity again,” said Elson, who holds Bank of America shares. “The shareholders were damaged by bad management, and now they're going to be damaged by bad government.”

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