History and Breaking up the Big Banks

There’s interesting history presented in this article about the results of banking regulation. Standard disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with everything I link to.

It’s then perhaps a mistake to refer to the 2008 Wall Street meltdown as a financial crisis, however, since it ended up critically damaging much of the economy’s other sectors. On Glass-Steagall, besides current Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s Orwellian doublespeak, there should be much more than it. Regulation is important, but beyond regulation, the capitalist system itself is what’s really important to address and alter.

Also, that three out of four of the big banks are even bigger than when bailed out is an ominous note for the future. The big banks must be broken up if there is to be a significant reduction in economic criminality and potential crash risk.

I view a significant economic downturn probably occurring within the next few years, for reasons that will be given elsewhere.

By November 1999, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that repealed the Glass-Steagall Act totally. The abusive marriages of gamblers and savers could once again be consummated.

And who doesn’t remember the result: the financial crisis of 2007-2008 that led to taxpayer-funded bailouts, subsidies, loans, and sweetheart fraud-settlement deals. Just as the Crash of 1929 had been catalyzed by the manufacturing of shady “trusts” stuffed with shady securities, this crisis was enabled by the big banks that engineered complex assets stuffed with subprime mortgages and other loans that were sold around the world.


Warren responded incredulously, “Tell me what twenty-first-century Glass-Steagall means if it doesn’t mean breaking up those two parts. It’s an easy question.”

Mnuchin replied, “It’s actually a complicated question… We never said we were in favor of Glass-Steagall. We said we were in favor of a twenty-first-century Glass-Steagall. It couldn’t be clearer.” Which, of course, couldn’t have been murkier.


As with the proverbial difficulty of chewing gum and walking at the same time, certain Democrats seem to find the very idea of supporting both Dodd-Frank and a new Glass-Steagall Act perplexing. Many of them have promoted the idea that no big bank actually failed in the Great Recession moment (which was true only because those banks got huge infusions of federal aid to remain solvent).

As a result, they avoided all responsibility for the way the repeal of Glass-Steagall allowed too-big-to-fail banks to come into existence in the first place.
In the process, they also conveniently ignored the way the big banks lent money to, or funded, the investment banks that did fail like both of my former employers, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. Without those loans or that funding, those outfits couldn’t have purchased the overload of toxic assets that, in the end, imploded the whole system.


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.


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.