March 31st, 2009

Glass Steagall: looking backwards, looking forwards

Most of us are unfamiliar with the details of the world of finance that led us into the current crisis. Except for those in the business, whoever heard of tranches and derivatives, of the uptick rule and the quants, until recently?

Certainly not me. And not most of us, either. So how are we voters to evaluate whether any of the Obama administration’s solutions are likely to help or hurt? Especially when the supposed experts disagree?

As with all complex systems, the worldwide economy is difficult to understand and virtually impossible to control. We try to intervene in certain ways and come up against the fact that we probably haven’t identified most of the variables involved. The law of unintended consequences continues to rear its ugly little head.

And yet it’s crisis, crisis, crisis, so something must be done—right? The option of doing nothing—or doing less—and letting matters run their course seems so very passive.

In this crisis, people tend to see what they’re looking to see. Those who are laissez-faire capitalists can point to government regulation that backfired and helped lead to the current problems. Those who want government to intervene more can point to areas where uncontrolled profit-hungry capitalists chose short-term gain and sacrificed long-term stability.

Ever since September, I’ve had to give myself a crash course in finance. My knowledge of these things is still rather spotty to say the least, but I have come to the conclusion that the problem is not too much or too little regulation per se, but regulation of the wrong type, plus the difficulty of figuring out what the right type would be.

For example, take Glass-Steagall. When it was repealed in 1999, I certainly didn’t notice—did you? I only first learned a bit about it this September, right at the beginning of the crisis, when people said that the bill’s repeal was part of the reason the current meltdown happened. Many said that if the Glass-Steagall firewall between investment and commercial banks enacted during the Great Depression had remained in place, it would have protected us from the magnitude of the crisis.

I hadn’t heard much about Glass-Steagall since, and I was wondering what had happened to the idea of putting some version of it back in place. When I Googled “bring back Glass-Steagall,” I discovered that Paul Volcker had recently suggested doing just that.

Who was in favor of repealing Glass-Steagall in the first place, and why? It turns out that it was a hugely popular and bipartisan decision, although there was a small minority against it. That minority happened to have been mostly, although not entirely, composed of Democrats.

The votes were as follows: 90 to 8 in the Senate and 362 to 57 in the House. The bill’s passage was highly praised by none other than Larry Summers, who was then Clinton’s Treasury Secretary. It was considered to be a move for modernization, a casting off of old shackles that were no longer needed.

There were a few voices of warning. But there was no reason to believe they were anything but fearmongering by those too backward-thinking to enter the Brave New World of modern finance (the following is from a NY Times article written in 1999):

The opponents of the measure gloomily predicted that by unshackling banks and enabling them to move more freely into new kinds of financial activities, the new law could lead to an economic crisis down the road when the marketplace is no longer growing briskly.

”I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930’s is true in 2010,” said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota. ”I wasn’t around during the 1930’s or the debate over Glass-Steagall. But I was here in the early 1980’s when it was decided to allow the expansion of savings and loans. We have now decided in the name of modernization to forget the lessons of the past, of safety and of soundness.”

Note that Senator Dorgan even gets the time-frame eerily right: “I think we will look back in ten years’ time…”. It doesn’t sound so very backward-looking today, does it?—unless looking at history can be considered backward-looking. If so, count me in as being backwards.

Ah, but if only it were so simple. Many people, Volcker included, think that Glass-Steagall should be reinstated in some manner. But there’s by no means agreement on that, even today, and the details of what might be necessary are unclear as well. You see, there were valid reasons the bill was repealed and that it had such strong bipartisan support. Here are a few, from the same contemporaneous Times article (note that the people talking it up are Democrats, as well):

Supporters of the legislation rejected those arguments. They responded that historians and economists have concluded that the Glass-Steagall Act was not the correct response to the banking crisis because it was the failure of the Federal Reserve in carrying out monetary policy, not speculation in the stock market, that caused the collapse of 11,000 banks. If anything, the supporters said, the new law will give financial companies the ability to diversify and therefore reduce their risks. The new law, they said, will also give regulators new tools to supervise shaky institutions.

”The concerns that we will have a meltdown like 1929 are dramatically overblown,” said Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska.

Others said the legislation was essential for the future leadership of the American banking system.

”If we don’t pass this bill, we could find London or Frankfurt or years down the road Shanghai becoming the financial capital of the world,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. ”There are many reasons for this bill, but first and foremost is to ensure that U.S. financial firms remain competitive.”

Kerrey’s statement seems laughable today, of course, but that’s only with the benefit of hindsight. It is Schumer’s that is more important: the bill was seen as necessary to keep up with the rest of the world. Perhaps it was, at the time.

The real question for us today—probably as unanswerable as ever—is whether the repeal of Glass-Steagall really was instrumental in causing the current crisis, and whether its reinstatement would help to prevent future ones from occurring. Here’s one “expert” who disagrees with Volcker and says it wouldn’t make a bit of difference:

Glass-Steagall would not have stopped the current crisis. For starters, many institutions that have had trouble were not commercial banks. Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch were investment banks; the American International Group is an insurance company…Any institution that is too big to fail, even if it is not in the utility end of banking, requires some sort of regulation.

Now, of course, lots of commercial banks have also gotten into trouble…So it is appealing to think that they would have been safe if only they had not mingled the casino with the utility.

This again oversimplifies the issue. True, these “universal” banks lost money in the casino. But they also lost lots of cash through bad lending…What the current crisis has shown is that the management of risk has been woeful across the board.

So the solution is not to pick on one particular banking activity — like proprietary trading — label it as risky and quarantine it in some half-regulated purgatory. The better approach is to improve risk management across the industry.

I’m no banker, but it seems to me it’s not an either/or proposition. Why not reinstate some form of Glass-Steagall, and also change the leverage requirements so that they resemble the more stringent ones of yesteryear? After all, since most of the world has gone down with us, the competition is no longer as fierce.

Yes, the result would be that we wouldn’t have the astronomical growth we had during the last decade. But since that growth has turned out to be a bubble, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

19 Responses to “Glass Steagall: looking backwards, looking forwards”

  1. vanderleun Says:

    I told you about the fool on the hill,
    I tell you man he living there still.
    Well here’s another place you can be,
    Listen to me.

    Fixing a hole in the ocean
    Trying to make a dove-tail joint-yeah
    Looking through a Glass-Steagall

  2. cb Says:

    The only 5 bulge bracket investment banks that were not owned by commercial banks either failed, converted to commercial banks, or were forced into a shotgun marriage w/ a commercial bank.

  3. Sal Says:

    Glass-Steagall really had nothing to do with it and reinstating it would actually cause further harm to our banking system. The two real causes of the crisis were:

    1) The implicit backing of the Fed. Gov’t. and the Sub-prime mortgage enforcement issued by Fannie and Freddy which required banks to issue bad loans. Since they were implicitly guaranteed by the gov’t, all banks (commercial and investment) used them as investment vehicles, and the investment banks more so.

    2) The current bank insolvency crisis was more related to the easing of bank capital requirements in 2004 than to Glass-Stegall. By not requiring banks to maintain a certain amount of capital, it put them dangerously close to insolvency because of paper assets which have now turned out to be worthless.

    I don’t see how Glass-Steagall would have stopped the crisis, nor how reinstating it would do anything but further harm to our banking system.

  4. Hong Says:


    Would you be able to tell me more what this ‘rating’ system that pressured banks into giving more risky loans? I hear nothing about it from the mass media. I too wonder whether Glass-Steagall is the root cause of this mess.

  5. T Says:


    You wrote:

    “I have come to the conclusion that the problem is not too much or too little regulation per se, but regulation of the wrong type. . . .”

    I agree heartily, but let’s get even more basic than Glass-Steagall. There are two popular sore spots with the various crises of today: 1) too big to fail; and 2) outrageous executive compensation for leaders of failing companies.

    The first is controlled by enforcement of anti-trust legislation. When was the last time the govt brought anti-trust action? (Microsoft doesn’t count, because it was not about breaking up the company, but about the ubiquity of its internet explorer). One must go back to 1984 and the AT&T breakup to find anything meaningful. Keeping a business smaller allows for their failure to be absorbed by the economy (it also puts more people to work, because services are duplicated from company to company) and provides the consumer with more actual competitive choice thus encouraging a drive for quality.

    On the other hand executive compensation is controlled not by laws or presidential fiat limiting pay, but by demanding that boards of directors actually serve as the corporate overseers they were intended to be. The corporate world has become too inbred; one finds the same people siting of various boards, and many have social, political and business connections to one another. So if Neo is sitting on the board of “T, Inc.” and T is sitting on the board of “Neo, Inc.” is it any wonder that T and Neo can run unchecked as corporate executives?

    I am in the financial business, and I see time and time again that business and congress want to deal with treating the symptoms rather than the disease. Crises are not pleasant, but they are a normal and necessary part of the capitalist process; if prices didn’t go down and the weakest players weren’t eliminated, then prices would never go up and quality of products and services would suffer. I suspect that Detroit has realized this too late in the game.

  6. gcotharn Says:

    I have a problem with the term “regulate”. It is too innocuous a description of what Congress does. “Regulate” equals “man caused disaster” terminology for, just to pick one RANDOM example: Congress’ terrorism of the U.S. Auto Industry via CAFE standards. Holman Jenkins in 9/10/08 WSJ Online:

    Look at gallons consumed, miles driven, barrels imported or emissions emitted: CAFE has had no significant impact on energy consumption. Its sole practical effect has been to inflict on Detroit the need to produce, with high-cost U.S. labor, millions of small cars designed to lose money.

    CAFE has to be the most perverse exercise in product regulation in industrial history.
    Had CAFE not existed, there is no reason the Big Three today could not be competitive. As businesses do, they would have allocated capital to products capable of recovering their costs. Investments in fuel efficiency would still have taken place — to the extent consumers valued those investments. That is, if they were profitable.

    If Washington found this unsatisfactory, it could have done as the Europeans do and raised fuel taxes to coax the public to make different choices. Politically inexpedient? Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean CAFE is an effective substitute. It isn’t and never was.

    “When exposed to the piercing light of economic analysis, the alleged benefits of more stringent CAFE standards burn away,” Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution wrote here last year. “Too bad these proposals will not be subjected to economic scrutiny before they become law.”
    Having squandered the domestic auto industry’s capital on millions and millions of cars that lost money, now Congress will squander the taxpayer’s capital.

    Thanks for your patience as I vented off topic.

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    Sal: I think this crisis was multiply-determined. The two things you mentioned were certainly a big part of it, as I’ve written before in other posts.

    The point of this particular post is—just taking the single issue of Glass-Steagall—to show how difficult it is to determine how important a factor it was, and what to do about it now. Volcker certainly disagrees with you; he thinks it was a big factor. Personally, I feel I don’t have enough knowledge to come to a conclusion. But I wonder whether anyone does. And that’s a much bigger problem.

  8. zhombre Says:

    Poor Santayana. Didn’t have a clue. Whether you remember the past or not, you will relive it, because some other SOB doesn’t.

  9. Dan Says:

    Well researched and reasoned, as usual, Neo. Of course now Obama has made a big move toward nationalizing an industry. What will he do next? Tell GM, Ford and Chrysler how many models of hybrids to produce and for what price? Are we talking Soviet style socialisim here?

  10. expat Says:

    I posted this link at Sigmund, Carl, and Alfred, but I’ll post it here in case you missed it (via Powerline):

    It talks about European mistakes.

  11. Don Janousek Says:

    neo-neocon: I think you are correct in saying that this current mess has multiple causes – some more direct than others, but multiple nonetheless. Having practiced law in the area of securities for several years in the past, I am familiar with the need for, and importance of, both due diligence and disclosure in the process of assessing risk when making an investment decision. IMHO, one of the major causes of the financial disaster we are experiencing is that both sellers and buyers of securities consisting of bundles of mortgages began discounting “risk,” based upon an almost quasi-religious belief that housing prices would continue to go up forever and ever, much like the tulip speculators did once in Holland. Therefore, if a mortgage bundle contained a few “toxic” mortgages, the upward spiral in the value of the “non-toxic” mortgages in the bundle would minimize or completely eliminate the factor of “risk.” Then the housing bubble popped and “toxicity” overwhelmed the bundles. One of the original ideas behind Glass-Steagall was to minimize the “risk” to depositors in commercial banks by excluding such banks from the “risky” ventures for which investment banks, supposedly, were more prepared. Lesson? Investments carry risk, even if people choose to close their eyes and make themselves believe that they don’t, or, as the old adage says, “If it’s too good to be true (housing prices will ALWAYS keep going up) – it probably isn’t.

  12. Ronald Hayden Says:

    Very good post, Neo.

    On the call in the comments for more anti-trust actions…I used to believe that (as many do) as well, and thought that anti-trust actions at the turn of the last century were critical.

    However, economic historians have pointed out a couple of things. When the anti-trust fervor was at its height back in the Teddy Roosevelt days, the price of goods from the “trusts” were going down, not up. To my knowledge, no one has ever been able to prove actual consumer damage from large companies, only theoretical damage. This isn’t as counter-intuitive as one might think…after all, if large companies are raising prices or keeping products off the shelves, then they create a competitive vacuum that gives other companies a level to get into their market. The only way for a big company to stay big is to keep consumers happy, and raising prices (in the medium to long-term) doesn’t do that.

    Second, large companies tend to self-destruct on their own. At one time it seemed critical to go after IBM…and they are still a huge company, but who would bother today?

    Microsoft was ruling the world, and they still play a critical part, but who cares about them in “trust” terms today? They are, in fact, too big to control the market. Their smaller more agile competitors are setting the agenda, the marketing, and the product mix, and Microsoft keeps trailing along, feebly trying to respond. When they do something overly controlling, they open an avenue for their competitors. When was the last time Microsoft was driving the agenda?

    However, there is one case where large companies pose a danger: When they are backed by government-imposed monopolies. Then they can indeed engage in all the things we’ve always worried about with trusts, because they don’t have the competition to worry about.

  13. West Says:

    I have heard the argument about the relative soundness of commercial banks versus investment banks, and as far as I can tell, it seems to be suported by the facts, so the Glass-Steagall argument loses much, if not all of it’s relevance.

    Let’s see, now just how can we improve risk management? Maybe by leaving the risk in place, instead of mitigating it with bailouts?

    Nah. Makes far too much sense.

    As far as I am concerned, for all the noise about financial crisis’, there have been far too few bankers and fund managers taking the fateful leap for me to believe it.

    Put the risk back in, and when the house of cards starts to topple, just let it.

    THEN you will see some real ‘risk management’.

  14. Don Janousek Says:

    West: You are exactly right! All investments carry risk and the investor does all possible, or should do all possible, to manage the risk, e.g. a secured creditor wants the collateral to equal or exceed the debt secured thereby. But, sometimes, due to the ever present risk, investments fail. This is the way a market sorts itself out. Bailouts are meant to void the consequences of risk and, thus, prevent or forestall a market from sorting itself out and are merely a tactic of pouring money into a market mistake, much like shoveling dirt into an ever-deepening hole. Admit the loss and go on and let the free market work as it should and will.

  15. West Says:

    Thanks for the concurrance, Don.

    Just as an aside, I do not hold the banks alone culpable. I have personally heard many relatives, aquaintances, friends & friends of friends complaining about the beating they have taken in the market upheavals. I then politely ask them if they had any diversification – you know, some investments in muni’s, some in ‘stable’ commodities (gold, silver, etc), and then the rest in the higher risk/higher gain investments, and almost universally I get back a hangdog look & a grudging “No”.

    The entire culture has been besotted with the high gains available in the riskiest of investments, and everyone thinks that it is not their fault OR responsibility when one or more of these sectors take a hit. The irresponsibility has been a cultural pandemic, affecting everyone involved.

    There is really only one scapegoat here, and it has been essentially all of us collectively. And as I see it, we are going to collectively pay for it, too, even those of us who through circumstance or plan have not been directly involved.

    My personal feeling that the massive heaping of band-aids on an arterial wound is only going to make the eventual correction much worse when the piper comes to call.

  16. virgil xenophon Says:

    Everyone here is forgetting also that re-introducing Glass-Steagall would only make our remaining financial institutions even LESS competitive in relation to foreign competitors (often govt backed/subsidized) than prior to repeal of the act. If other nations no not format their financial institutions congruent with our own, re-instituting the act will not only be pointless, it will do great harm vis a vie our competitive edge with foreign financial institutions and see the only “industry” we have left–the financial one–move offshore.

  17. Chris Says:

    West, “relative soundness of commercial banks”? Not sure I agree with letting banks use things like goodwill, the present value of future tax write-offs and risky assets insured by AIG as safe capital. But lets not forget their influence on the rule book, either. Neo’s greatest omission, IMO, was the ~200mm spent by banks in lobbying the democrats to come out in number in support of the bill. Gramm, Leach, Bliley damaged transparency, moral hazard and gave us the consequences of a myopic incestuous focus on quarterly profit, but there are too many legacy political relationships for something so draconian as the seperation of investment and commercial banking to take place. The G20 are willing. Watch what the US does.

  18. Aaron Says:

    I’m a laissez-faire capitalist and I think it is important to understand that we have had a “mixed economy” for about 100 years in this country (since the creation of the Federal Reserve and the Income Tax Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). Sure various presidents have moved from a relatively free system like Reagan to a more controlled system like Obama but they have really been very similar.

    So I admit that from by current viewpoint, our current economic situation should be blamed on our mixed system and having too much government interference in the economy. Blaming scapegoats like speculators, mortgage brokers, or Wall Street is easy.

    I recommend looking into the Austrian School critique of central banking for the real root cause of the financial crisis. They do a very commendable job. Murray Rothbard’s “America’s Great Depression” is very good.

    This is just my two cents.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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