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General News    H3'ed 6/8/17

Nomi Prins, In Washington, Is the Glass(-Steagall) Half Empty or Half Full?

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Glass-Steagall's Bipartisan Past

Fortunately, current legislation is circulating in Congress that would promote the long-term stability of the financial system by restoring Glass-Steagall for real. H.R. 790 ("Return to the Prudent Banking Act of 2017") is one of two reinstatement bills in the House of Representatives. It has 50 co-sponsors from both parties and its passage is being spearheaded by Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.). The second bill, H.R. 2585, sponsored by Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), bears a close relationship to Senate bill S.881 (the "Twenty-First-Century Glass-Steagall Act of 2017"), sponsored by Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and nine cosponsors including John McCain (R-Ariz.), Maria Cantwell, and Angus King (I-Maine). Either of the bills, if enacted, would do the same thing: break up the banks.

In order to understand just why passage is so crucial, a little history is in order. Glass-Steagall, or the Banking Act of 1933, was signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. It represented a bipartisan effort and was even -- perhaps not surprisingly given the devastating nature of the collapse of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed -- actively promoted by some of Wall Street's most powerful bankers. In its 66 years as law, it effectively prevented systemic banking and economic collapse.

Even before Roosevelt began his first term, congressional Republicans had initiated an investigation into bankers' practices. In early 1933, as Roosevelt was preparing to take office with an incoming Democratic Senate, outgoing Senate Banking and Currency Committee chairman Peter Norbeck, a Republican from South Dakota, hired former New York Deputy District Attorney Ferdinand Pecora to lead the Senate Banking Committee in a new investigation.

Later known as the Pecora hearings, they would shed light on the kinds of financial manipulations by unscrupulous bankers that had led to the crash of 1929. They would also provide the new president with the necessary populist political capital to enact America's most sweeping financial reforms. No less crucial was the way banking leaders aligned themselves with Roosevelt's new program. Duty to country over balance sheets seemed then to be the order of the day, even on Wall Street. (It's not an attitude that lasted into the twenty-first century.)

Two days after his inauguration, for instance, Roosevelt invited incoming National City Bank Chairman James Perkins to the White House for a secret meeting. The next day, under Perkins' direction, his bank board passed a resolution splitting apart its trading and deposit-taking divisions. Chase National Bank chairman Winthrop Aldrich, a major financial power player, lent a hand as well. Both Perkins and he would back the new Glass-Steagall bill. (Lest you think that all was sweetness and light, they were also convinced that it would diminish the strength of their main competitor, the Morgan Bank.)

Three days after Roosevelt called Perkins to the White House, Aldrich's views on breaking up the banks hit the front page of the New York Times when he announced that Chase National Bank and Chase Securities Corporation would become separate entities, effectively enforcing the bill before it even became law. It wasn't simple -- the Chase Securities Corporation was the biggest of its kind in the world -- but it happened.

Aldrich then took part in a series of private meetings with the president at the White House about the pending legislation. Without the support of Aldrich and Perkins, it's possible that the bill wouldn't have passed. After all, a far weaker version proposed during the previous administration of Herbert Hoover hadn't.

The Glass-Steagall Act also created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to insure citizens' bank deposits. This left commercial banks with a choice to make. If they took deposits and made loans, they could not speculate with depositors' money. If they wanted to create and speculate, they were on their own. There's much to be said for protecting hard-working Americans in this fashion.

How the Walls Came Tumbling Down

In the 1980s, the walls between investment and commercial banking first began to crumble. The deregulation of the financial sector that followed would prove to be as bipartisan as the passage of Glass-Steagall had been. In 1982, as the Republican presidency of Ronald Reagan began, Congress passed the Garn-St. Germain Act, deregulating the kinds of investments that savings and loan banks could make to include riskier real estate loans. This had the effect of exacerbating the savings and loan debacle, which hit its pinnacle in the late 1980s. By 1989, more than 1,000 S&L banks in the U.S. would crash and burn. In total, the crisis wound up costing about $160 billion, $132 billion of which was footed by taxpayers. And the suppliers of risky S&L securities tended to be the big banks.

In 1987, still in the age of Reagan, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a past board member of JPMorgan, said that non-bank subsidiaries of bank holding companies could sell or hold "bank ineligible securities" -- that is, securities prohibited by Glass-Steagall, including mortgage securities, asset-backed securities, junk bonds, and other derivative products. The move exacerbated the S&L crisis, but it also offered an avenue for commercial banks to stock up on some of the securities at the heart of that crisis.

And so commercial banks began investing in hedge funds, whose very purpose in life is to gamble on securities, stocks, and commodities. In 1998, in an early warning of what the future might hold, one of them, Long Term Capital Management, crashed and nearly brought down the whole financial system with it. Fifty-five commercial banks had invested in it using depositors' money to back their bets. Only an emergency meeting of the presidents of the major banks at the Federal Reserve averted a larger economic meltdown, but because Glass-Steagall was still in place, they had to figure out how to save themselves. No government bailouts were forthcoming.

Having narrowly avoided disaster, Wall Street only plunged deeper into financial deregulation. In 1999, Glass-Steagall itself was repealed. On December 21, 2000, Congress passed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act deregulating derivatives trading. The big commercial banks then merged with investment banks, insurance companies, and brokerage firms. By 2007, the assets of those big banks had tripled. The four largest -- Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo -- by then controlled (and still control) more than half the assets of the banking system.

In the fall of 2007, that system finally started buckling because of the problems of Citigroup, not because of the investment banks, which would not have been covered by Glass-Steagall. The catastrophe that hit Citigroup makes it clear just how crucial the repeal of that act was to the financial meltdown to come. Citigroup would "require" a taxpayer-financed bailout of $45 billion, $340 billion in asset guarantees, and $2 trillion in near-0% Federal Reserve loans between the fall of 2007 and 2010. That in itself was staggering and Citigroup wasn't alone. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would later testify that, by 2008, 11 out of the 12 biggest commercial banks were "insolvent" and had to be bailed out. The entire banking system was rotten to the core and the massive buildup of bad paper, high leverage, and speculative bets (derivatives) that made disaster inevitable can be traced directly back to the repeal of Glass-Steagall.

Today, a fresh bubble is inflating. This time, it's not U.S. subprime mortgages at the heart of a budding banking crisis, but $51 trillion in corporate debt in the form of bonds, loans, and related derivatives. The credit ratings agency S&P Global Ratings has predicted that such debt could rise to $75 trillion by 2020 and the defaults on it are starting to increase in pace. Banks have profited by the short-term creation and trading of this corporate debt, propagating even greater risk. Should that bubble burst, it could make the subprime mortgage bubble of 2007 look like a relatively small-scale event.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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