Last week, the New York Times reported that Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve Chairman and current head of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, is having a hard time within the administration selling his view that banks should be forced to separate their depository functions from their investment banking wings. “People say I’m old-fashioned and banks can no longer be separated from nonbank activity,” Volcker said. “That argument brought us to where we are today.”
One of the manifestations of that argument was the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, which from 1933 to 1999 prohibited a bank holding company from owning investment arms. The prohibition was repealed by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, after intense lobbying on the part of two companies that wanted to merge: Travelers (which owned the investment bank Salomon Smith Barney) and Citicorp. These two companies combined to create Citigroup.
Of course, Citigroup received $50 billion in TARP money, and is not likely to pay back anytime soon, which has evidently led to some soul-searching on the part of John Reed, the former Citi CEO whose “strenuous lobbying” helped lead to the Glass-Steagal repeal. Real Times Economics noted that Reed penned a letter to the New York Times saying that things were better the old way:
As another older banker and one who has experienced both the pre- and post-Glass-Steagall world, I would agree with Paul A. Volcker (and also Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England) that some kind of separation between institutions that deal primarily in the capital markets and those involved in more traditional deposit-taking and working-capital finance makes sense. This, in conjunction with more demanding capital requirements, would go a long way toward building a more robust financial sector.
As Noam Scheiber wrote, “Wow. Maybe the consensus on this really is starting to change.”
Many economists blame the repeal of Glass-Steagal for inciting a casino-like mentality in a previously staid banking industry. “The culture of investment banks was conveyed to commercial banks and everyone got involved in the high-risk gambling mentality. That mentality was core to the problem that we’re facing now,” said Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.
Of course, separating investment banking from deposit-taking wouldn’t have solved all of the ills in the financial sector. After all, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns would not have been any better off. At the end of the day, much stronger capital and leverage requirements and a resolution authority for unwinding any firm, no matter how complicated, will do a lot to ensure that a giant financial institution doesn’t need to be propped up in order to protect the wider economy.
That said, it’s surprising the extent to which the administration has ducked and dodged this question. At least, some discussion of a policy that ensures banks aren’t mixing risky with non-risky activities internally (even if it doesn’t amount to breaking the companies up) should be on the table.