Last weekend, the New York Times magazine profiled former Citigroup CEO Sandy Weill, in whose office “hangs a hunk of wood — at least 4 feet wide — etched with his portrait and the words ‘The Shatterer of Glass-Steagall.’”
Of course, the repeal of Glass-Steagall — the Depression-era law that separated investment and depository banking — allowed Travelers and Citibank to combine and form Citigroup. The merger actually occurred in 1998, one year before Glass-Steagall was removed, but at the time Weill said that “we have had enough discussions to believe this will not be a problem.” And thanks to lobbying from Weill and Citibank CEO John Reed, it wasn’t.
While Weill remains unrepentant about his role in dismantling Glass-Steagall, there is a growing push among economists and elected officials to take a look at reviving the law and breaking investment banking away from deposit taking. Reed himself has concluded that some sort of separation “makes sense.”
And today that movement gained one more voice — Kansas City Fed President Thomas Hoenig:
Responding to a suggestion made by University of Maryland Professor Carmen Reinhardt, Hoenig said “dismembering firms is a fair thing to consider.” He said regulators “have people who are experts who understand what’s going on inside institutions” who could figure out how to “carve out” some parts of a financial institution if they are taking undue risks with taxpayer backing.
“We do need to consider some activities that are in these largest institutions that probably should not be trading for their account, gambling,” he said. “That portion probably does need to be separated out.”
Hoenig has been a consistent critic of the government’s handling of the banking system, slamming Treasury for “drifting into a situation where institutions are being nationalized piecemeal with no resolution of the crisis,” and pushing for a takeover and dissolution of the very biggest failed banks.
Thus far, Treasury has not been receptive to a reexamining of Glass-Steagall, with one official saying that it would be akin to “going back to the Walkman.” But how much longer can it continue to poo-poo an idea that many smart people are taking quite seriously?