Saturday, November 14, 2009

Reinstate Glass-Seagall

Don't you think?

This week marks the tenth year anniversary of the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley or Financial Services Modernization Act, marking the moment when we were royally screwed by the banking system. Thank you to all those involved.

It's amazing how downright ebullient, President Bill Clinton was at that signing ceremony on November 12, 1999. an event introduced by then Treasury Secretary (now Obama advisor) Larry Summers, successor to Robert Rubin. Those restricting, anti-competitive Depression era, laws were finally behind us. Awesome.

Fast-forward to now and most of us know how devastatingly expensive that signature was for the American public. Yet, despite our government having deployed or made available over $14.1 trillion worth of federal subsidies to fix Wall Street, the banking landscape is less stable than it was before last year's crisis. And, despite national unemployment approaching double digits, and another record quarter of foreclosures, we stand farther away from the intent of Glass Steagall than ever.

Banks weren't handled with kid gloves then. They were treated like the spoiled, reckless, destructive beings they were. After the stock market crash in 1929, the country sunk into the throes of the Great Depression, characterized by 25% unemployment, bread lines, rampant foreclosures, and general despair. In 1932, the Pecora commission examined the shady banking practices that contributed to the devastation, all of which hinged on one thing - banks had used depositor capital and loans to speculate with. Exactly like the practices going on before and since last fall's financial calamity. The result of that speculation gone wrong tanked the economy. Glass-Steagall logically sought to ensure this wouldn't happen again. It divided up the banking landscape into two parts, commercial banks and investment banks. The federal government would back commercial banks and consumer deposits through establishing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). But, it wouldn't be Wall Street's investment bank bookie and bitch.

Over the decades, the financial sector, armed with cunning lobbyists and overpaid lawyers, took many swipes at Glass-Steagall, but none as devastating as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Since then, the banking sector's powerful ate its weak, amidst a wave of massive consolidation. Nearly half of the nation's biggest bank mergers took place just before or since that Act was passed. All these mega banks can thus churn deposits and loans into debt or capital to fund speculation, risk, and create a roller coaster of an economy that is defined simply on whether those bets, or asset creations, work or not, at any given moment. Heads they win, tails we lose.
What can we do?
Thus, whether we merge all regulators into one ginormous one, or have a council of them to deal with the hard issues of mega-collapse and crisis, or even place one inside the office of every top bank CEO, shadowing him like a probation officer (no that's not in one of the bills, it would just be fun to watch unfold), the beast remains out of the cage.

That's why we need to reinstate Glass-Steagall. Now. We need to dissect the speculative from the boring within our country's financial institutions. And yes, it's possible to achieve. Banks split off pieces of companies and move them around every day. Plus, the Glass Steagall Act didn't wave a magic wand that divided up bank divisions, it ingeniously used banks' own competitive desires against them, by giving banks a one-year period to dramatically reduce the portion of profit they made from investment banking activities to 10% of total profits. Banks were free to choose how to do this, knowing commercial banking got government backing, and investment backing didn't. Betting behaviors are more conservative when it's your own money, and not someone else's on the line. Stability follows.

We need to specifically reinstate section 16 of the Glass-Steagall Act that had restricted national commercial banks from engaging in most investment banking activities, up to a certain small percentage, coming from client directives, not their own proprietary trading. And, on the flip side, we need to reinstate section 21 that restricted investment banks from engaging in any commercial banking up to a certain percentage limit.

Doing these two things, would reduce the more systemically risky competitive desires between these two types of banks that spurs them to merge into institutions that are too big to exist without our help, or take the kinds of leveraged risks that drive short-term profits and bonuses, at the expense of long term financial system stability.

It's time to put the beast back in its cage, while taming it, by re-instating Glass Steagall, and keep it from inflicting even more danger on the rest of us. Meanwhile, we need to support all those in Washington that get this, and keep pressuring those who don't.
The right-wing wants less government control. But they are willing to sit by and allow the banks and investment companies to controll their money. They are also willing to sit by and allow the insurance companies to control the issue of coverage or payment. The right-wing really needs a good dose of reality. Go figure!

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