Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bring Back Glass-Steagall

It's a case I've made here plenty of times before, but Dean Baker is very good at articulating the specifics of why:
The ending of Glass-Steagall removed the separation between investment banks and commercial banks, raising the possibility that banks would make risky investments with government-guaranteed deposits. In principle, even after the ending of Glass Steagall banks were supposed to keep a strict separation between their commercial banking and the risky bets taken by their investment banking divisions, but this depends on the ability of regulators to enforce this restriction.

The Volcker Rule provision in Dodd-Frank was an effort to re-establish a Glass Steagall type separation but the industry is making Swiss cheese out of this regulation in the rule-writing process. Serious people cannot believe that this will keep the Wall Street banks from using their government-guaranteed deposits as a cushion to support their speculative game playing.    
If anyone questions how this story is likely to play out in practice, we need only go back a few years to the financial crisis of 2008-2009. At that time, most of the major banks, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, almost surely would have failed without government support.

In fact, some of the top economic advisors in the Obama administration wanted to let them fail and have the government take them over, as the FDIC does all the time with insolvent banks. However Larry Summers managed to carry the day by arguing that such a move would be far too risky at a time when the financial markets were so unsettled. As a result, the big banks got their government money and were allowed to consolidate so that they are now bigger than ever.

This was primarily a problem of banks that are too big and too interconnected to fail, not just a problem of commercial banks merging with investment banks. But these mergers certainly help banks to reach too-big-to-fail status.

Some may argue that the crisis of 2008-2009 involved extraordinary circumstances. However when banks fail it is generally because the economy faces a crisis. They do not typically fail in good times. And it is a safe bet that there will always be a smart and belligerent Larry Summers on the scene aggressively arguing the case against anyone who wants to subject the banks to market discipline.

What is striking about the argument on re-instating Glass-Steagall is that there really is no downside. The banks argue that it will be inconvenient to separate their divisions, but companies sell off divisions all the time.
The arguments against bringing back Glass-Steagall seem to always come down to some form of how those advocating for it don't understand the complexities of the modern banking system and blah blah blah. I genuinely don't care. There is no reason a rule that worked will for a ton of years can't work again if designed properly. Bring it back and let the banks cry all they want while the deal with the consequences. As Dean Baker says, there really is no downside.

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