Bipartisan Stupidity: Restoring Glass-Steagall
Both parties officially favor a restoration of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era banking regulation that persisted until repealed under the Clinton administration in 1999. When both Parties agree on an issue, they are likely wrong, and that is the case here.
The homage paid to Glass-Steagall is totem worship, not sound economic policy. The reasoning appears to be that the banking system was relatively quiescent when Glass-Steagall was in place, and a financial crisis occurred within a decade after its repeal. Ergo, we can avoid financial crises by restoring G-S. This makes as much sense as blaming the tumult of the 60s on auto companies’ elimination of tail fins.
Glass-Steagall had several parts, some of which are still in existence. The centerpiece of the legislation was deposit insurance, which rural and small town banking interests had been pushing for years. Deposit insurance is still with us, and its effects are mixed, at best.
One of the parts of Glass-Steagall that was abolished was its limitation on bank groups: the 1933 Act made it more difficult to form holding companies of multiple banks as a way of circumventing branch banking restrictions that were predominant at the time. This was perverse because (1) the Act was ostensibly intended to prevent banking crises, and (2) the proliferation of unit banks due to restrictions on branch banking was one of the most important causes of the banking crisis that ushered in the Great Depression.
The contrast between the experiences of Canada and the United States is illuminating in this regard. Both countries were subjected to a huge adverse economic shock, but Canada’s banking system, which was dominated by a handful of banks that operated branches throughout the country, survived, whereas the fragmented US banking system collapsed. In the 1930s, too big to fail was less of a problem than to small to survive. The collapse of literally thousands of banks devastated the US economy, and this banking crisis ushered in the Depression proper. Further, the inability of branched national banks to diversify liquidity risk (as Canada’s banks were able to do) made the system more dependent on the Fed to manage liquidity shocks. That turned out to be a true systemic risk, when the Fed botched the job (as documented by Friedman and Schwartz). When the system is very dependent on one regulatory body, and that body fails, the effect of the failure is systemic.
The vulnerability of small unit banks was again demonstrated in the S&L fiasco of the 1980s (a crisis in which deposit insurance played a part).
So that part of Glass-Steagall should remain dead and buried.
The part of Glass-Steagall that was repealed, and which its worshippers are most intent on restoring, was the separation of securities underwriting from commercial banking and the limiting of banks securities holdings to investment grade instruments.
Senator Glass believed that the combination of commercial and investment banking contributed to the 1930s banking crisis. As is the case with many legislators, his fervent beliefs were untainted by actual evidence. The story told at the time (and featured in the Pecora Hearings) was that commercial banks unloaded their bad loans into securities, which they dumped on an unsuspecting investing public unaware that they were buying toxic waste.
There are only two problems with this story. First, even if true, it would mean that banks were able to get bad assets off their balance sheets, which should have made them more stable! Real money investors, rather than leveraged institutions were wearing the risk, which should have reduced the likelihood of banking crises.
Second, it wasn’t true. Economists (including Kroszner and Rajan) have shown that securities issued by investment banking arms of commercial banks performed as well as those issued by stand-alone investment banks. This is inconsistent with the asymmetric information story.
Now let’s move forward almost 60 years and try to figure whether the 2008 crisis would have played out much differently had investment banking and commercial banking been kept completely separate. Almost certainly not. First, the institutions in the US that nearly brought down the system were stand alone investment banks, namely Lehman, Bear-Sterns, and Merrill Lynch. The first failed. The second two were absorbed into commercial banks, the first by having the Fed take on most of the bad assets, the second in a shotgun wedding that ironically proved to make the acquiring bank–Bank of America–much weaker. Goldman Sachs and Morgan-Stanley were in dire straits, and converted into banks so that they could avail themselves of Fed support denied them as investment banks.
The investment banking arms of major commercial banks like JP Morgan did not imperil their existence. Citi may be something of an exception, but earlier crises (e.g., the Latin American debt crisis) proved that Citi was perfectly capable of courting insolvency even as a pure commercial bank in the pre-Glass-Steagall repeal days.
Second, and relatedly, because they could not take deposits, and therefore had to rely on short term hot money for funding, the stand-alone investment banks were extremely vulnerable to funding runs, whereas deposits are a “stickier,” more stable source of funding. We need to find ways to reduce reliance on hot funding, rather than encourage it.
Third, Glass-Steagall restrictions weren’t even relevant for several of the institutions that wreaked the most havoc–Fannie, Freddie, and AIG.
Fourth, insofar as the issue of limitations on the permissible investments of commercial banks is concerned, it was precisely investment grade–AAA and AAA plus, in fact–that got banks and investment banks into trouble. Capital rules treated such instruments favorably, and voila!, massive quantities of these instruments were engineered to meet the resulting demand. They way they were engineered, however, made them reservoirs of wrong way risk that contributed significantly to the 2008 doom loop.
In sum: the banking structures that Glass-Steagall outlawed didn’t contribute to the banking crisis that was the law’s genesis, and weren’t materially important in causing the 2008 crisis. Therefore, advocating a return to Glass-Steagall as a crisis prevention mechanism is wholly misguided. Glass-Steagall restrictions are largely irrelevant to preventing financial crises, and some of their effects–notably, the creation of an investment banking industry largely reliant on hot, short term money for funding–actually make crises more likely.
This is why I say that Glass-Steagall has a totemic quality. The reverence shown it is based on a fondness for the old gods who were worshipped during a time of relative economic quiet (even though that is the product of folk belief, because it ignores the LatAm, S&L, and Asian crises, among others, that occurred from 1933-1999). We had a crisis in 2008 because we abandoned the old gods, Glass and Steagall! If we only bring them back to the public square, good times will return! It is not based on a sober evaluation of history, economics, or the facts.
An alternative tack is taken by Luigi Zingales. He advocates a return to Glass-Steagall in part based on political economy considerations, namely, that it will increase competition and reduce the political power of large financial institutions. As I argued in response to him over four years ago, these arguments are unpersuasive. I would add another point, motivated by reading Calamaris and Haber’s Fragile by Design: the political economy of a fragmented financial system can lead to disastrous results too. Indeed, the 1930s banking crisis was caused largely by the ubiquity of small unit banks and the failure of the Fed to provide liquidity in such a system that was uniquely dependent on this support. Those small banks, as Calomaris and Haber show, used their political power to stymie the development of national branched banks that would have improved systemic stability. The S&L crisis was also stoked by the political power of many small thrifts.*
But regardless, both the Republican and Democratic Parties have now embraced the idea. I don’t sense a zeal in Congress to do so, so perhaps the agreement of the Parties’ platforms on this issue will not result in a restoration of Glass-Steagall. Nonetheless, the widespread fondness for the 83 year old Act should give pause to those who look to national politicians to adopt wise economic policies. That fondness is grounded in a variety of religious belief, not reality.
*My reading of Calomaris and Haber leads me to the depressing conclusion that the political economy of banking is almost uniformly dysfunctional, at all times and at all places. In part this is because the state looks upon the banking system to facilitate fiscal objectives. In part it is because politicians have viewed the banking system as an indirect way of supporting favored domestic constituencies when direct transfers to these constituencies are either politically impossible or constitutionally barred. In part it is because bankers exploit this symbiotic relationship to get political favors: subsidies, restrictions on competition, etc. Even the apparent successes of banking legislation and regulation are more the result of unique political conditions rather than economically enlightened legislators. Canada’s banking system, for instance, was not the product of uniquely Canadian economic insight and political rectitude. Instead, it was the result of a political bargain that was driven by uniquely Canadian political factors, most notably the deep divide between English and French Canada. It was a venal and cynical political deal that just happened to have some favorable economic consequences which were not intended and indeed were not necessarily even understood or foreseen by those who drafted the laws.
Viewed in this light, it is not surprising that the housing finance system in the US, which was the primary culprit for the 2008 crisis, has not been altered substantially. It was the product of a particular set of political coalitions that still largely exist.
The history of federal and state banking regulation in the US also should give pause to those who think a minimalist state in a federal system can’t do much harm. Banking regulation in the small government era was hardly ideal.