Friday, October 30, 2009

Robert Reich Nails It!!

Robert Reich

Posted: October 26, 2009 09:49 PM

cross-posted from Robert Reich's blog

Breaking Up the Big Banks, and Why Congress Won't Do It

And now there are five -- five Wall Street behemoths, bigger than they were before the Great Meltdown, paying fatter salaries and bonuses to retain their so-called"talent," and raking in huge profits. The biggest difference between now and last October is these biggies didn't know then that they were too big to fail and the government would bail them out if they got into trouble. Now they do. And like a giant, gawking adolescent who's just discovered he can crash the Lexus convertible his rich dad gave him and the next morning have a new one waiting in his driveway courtesy of a dad who can't say no, the biggies will drive even faster now, taking even bigger risks.

What to do? Two ideas are floating around Washington, but only one is supported by the Treasury and the White House. Unfortunately, it's the wrong one.

The right idea is to break up the giant banks. I don't often agree with Alan Greenspan but he was right when he said last week that "[i]f they're too big to fail, they're too big." Greenspan noted that the government broke up Standard Oil in 1911, and what happened? "The individual parts became more valuable than the whole. Maybe that's what we need to do." (Historic footnote: Had Greenspan not supported in 1999 Congress's repeal of the Glass Steagall Act, which separated investment from commercial banking, we wouldn't be in the soup we're in to begin with.)

Former Fed Chair Paul Volcker, whose only problem is he's much too tall, last week told the New York Times he'd like to see the restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act provisions that would separate the financial giants' deposit-taking activities from their investment and trading businesses. If this separation went into effect, JPMorgan Chase would have to give up the trading operations acquired from Bear Stearns. Bank of America and Merrill Lynch would go back to being separate companies. And Goldman Sachs could no longer be a bank holding company.

But the Obama Administration doesn't agree with either Greenspan or Volcker. While it says it doesn't want another bank bailout, its solution to the 'too big to fail' problem doesn't go nearly far enough. In fact, it doesn't really go anywhere. The Administration would wait until a giant bank was in danger of failing and then put it into a process akin to bankruptcy. The bank's assets would be sold off to pay its creditors, and its shareholders would likely walk off with nothing. The Treasury would determine when such a "resolution" process was needed, and appoint a receiver, such as the FDIC, to wind down the bank's operations.

There should be an orderly process for putting big failing banks out of business. But this isn't nearly enough. By the time a truly big bank gets into trouble -- one that poses a "systemic risk" to the entire economy -- it's too late. Other banks, competing like mad for the same talent and profits, will already have adopted many of the excessively-risky banks' techniques. And the pending failure will already have rocked the entire financial sector.

Worse yet, the Administration's plan gives the big failing bank an escape hatch: The receiver might decide that the bank doesn't need to go out of business after all -- that all it needs is some government money to tide it over until the crisis passes. So the Treasury would also have the authority to provide the bank with financial assistance in the form of loans or guarantees. In other words, back to bailout. (Historical footnote: Summers and Geithner, along with Bob Rubin, while at Treasury in 1999, joined Greenspan in urging Congress to repeal Glass-Steagall. The four of them -- Greenspan, Summers, Rubin and Geithner also refused to regulate derivatives, and pushed Congress to stop the Commodity Futures Trading Corporation from doing so.)

Congress is cooking up a variation on the "resolution" idea that would give the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation authority to trigger and handle the winding-down of big banks in trouble, without Treasury involvement, and without an escape hatch.

Needless to say, Wall Street favors the Administration's approach -- which is why the Administration chose it to begin with. If I were less charitable I'd say Geithner and Summers continue to bend over bankwards to make Wall Street happy, and in doing so continue to risk the credibility of the president, as well as the long-term financial stability of the system.

Wall Street could live with the slightly less delectable variation that Congress is coming up with. But Congress won't go as far as to unleash the antitrust laws on the big banks or resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act. After all, the Street is a major benefactor of Congress and the Street's lobbyists and lackeys are all over Capitol Hill.

The Street obviously detests the notion that its behemoths should be broken up. That's why the idea isn't even on the table. But it should be. No important public interest is served by allowing giant banks to grow too big to fail. Winding them down after they get into trouble is no answer. By then the damage will already have been done.

Whether it's using the antitrust laws or enacting a new Glass-Steagall Act, the Wall Street giants should be split up -- and soon.


my comment -

You said it, Robert Reich! Great post, and right to the point. I couldn't have said it any better. I'm saving this post and using it as a template to measure the future regulations proposed by Obama and the Congress (I have faint hope that the recommendations you cite that we NEED will be implemented given the hold Wall St. has over the admin. and Congress via lobbying and campaign contribution funds. Until and unless we have public financing of campaigns or elect incorruptible officials, we are stuck with this plutocratic, undemocratic, corrupt disaster.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Obama admin. fights against breaking up TBTF casino banks/financial houses

The Obama admin. is going against Paul Volker, who is advising them.

The administration is resisting reinstating Glass-Steagall, (undoing the main culprit in our current economic disaster The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999), meaning reinstating the firewall between investment banks and commercial banks (breaking up the too-big-to-fail behemoths), the repeal of which law in 1999 set off the casino capitalism on Wall St. and led to the meltdown we're now in, worldwide:

Read - from thinkprogress .org and from The New York Times -

Geithner and Summers are Wall St. casino colluders and enablers of the worst sort, and are making the next crash inevitable, when they should be doing everything they can to prevent another one. Obama cannot be ignorant of this. He is a plutocratic corporatist through his endorsement of his economic team, and must be spoken out against.

Obama admin. resists reinstating Glass-Steagall separation of commerical and investment banks

Citigroup Chairman Who Pushed For Glass-Steagal Repeal: Put It Back

AP070613044364Last week, the New York Times reported that Paul Volcker, the former Federal Reserve Chairman and current head of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, is having a hard time within the administration selling his view that banks should be forced to separate their depository functions from their investment banking wings. “People say I’m old-fashioned and banks can no longer be separated from nonbank activity,” Volcker said. “That argument brought us to where we are today.”

One of the manifestations of that argument was the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, which from 1933 to 1999 prohibited a bank holding company from owning investment arms. The prohibition was repealed by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, after intense lobbying on the part of two companies that wanted to merge: Travelers (which owned the investment bank Salomon Smith Barney) and Citicorp. These two companies combined to create Citigroup.

Of course, Citigroup received $50 billion in TARP money, and is not likely to pay back anytime soon, which has evidently led to some soul-searching on the part of John Reed, the former Citi CEO whose “strenuous lobbying” helped lead to the Glass-Steagal repeal. Real Times Economics noted that Reed penned a letter to the New York Times saying that things were better the old way:

As another older banker and one who has experienced both the pre- and post-Glass-Steagall world, I would agree with Paul A. Volcker (and also Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England) that some kind of separation between institutions that deal primarily in the capital markets and those involved in more traditional deposit-taking and working-capital finance makes sense. This, in conjunction with more demanding capital requirements, would go a long way toward building a more robust financial sector.

As Noam Scheiber wrote, “Wow. Maybe the consensus on this really is starting to change.”

Many economists blame the repeal of Glass-Steagal for inciting a casino-like mentality in a previously staid banking industry. “The culture of investment banks was conveyed to commercial banks and everyone got involved in the high-risk gambling mentality. That mentality was core to the problem that we’re facing now,” said Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Of course, separating investment banking from deposit-taking wouldn’t have solved all of the ills in the financial sector. After all, AIG, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns would not have been any better off. At the end of the day, much stronger capital and leverage requirements and a resolution authority for unwinding any firm, no matter how complicated, will do a lot to ensure that a giant financial institution doesn’t need to be propped up in order to protect the wider economy.

That said, it’s surprising the extent to which the administration has ducked and dodged this question. At least, some discussion of a policy that ensures banks aren’t mixing risky with non-risky activities internally (even if it doesn’t amount to breaking the companies up) should be on the table.


October 21, 2009

Volcker Fails to Sell a Bank Strategy

Listen to a top economist in the Obama administration describe Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who endorsed Mr. Obama early in his election campaign and who stood by his side during the financial crisis.

“The guy’s a giant, he’s a genius, he is a great human being,” said Austan D. Goolsbee, counselor to Mr. Obama since their Chicago days. “Whenever he has advice, the administration is very interested.”

Well, not lately. The aging Mr. Volcker (he is 82) has some advice, deeply felt. He has been offering it in speeches and Congressional testimony, and repeating it to those around the president, most of them young enough to be his children.

He wants the nation’s banks to be prohibited from owning and trading risky securities, the very practice that got the biggest ones into deep trouble in 2008. And the administration is saying no, it will not separate commercial banking from investment operations.

“I am not pounding the desk all the time, but I am making my point,” Mr. Volcker said in one of his infrequent on-the-record interviews. “I have talked to some senators who asked me to talk to them, and if people want to talk to me, I talk to them. But I am not going around knocking on doors.”

Still, he does head the president’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, which makes him the administration’s most prominent outside economic adviser. As Fed chairman from 1979 to 1987, he helped the country weather more than one crisis. And in the campaign last year, he appeared occasionally with Mr. Obama, including a town hall meeting in Florida last fall. His towering presence (he is 6-foot-8) offered reassurance that the candidate’s economic policies, in the midst of a crisis, were trustworthy.

More subtly, Mr. Obama has in Mr. Volcker an adviser perceived as standing apart from Wall Street, and critical of its ways, some administration officials say, while Timothy F. Geithner, the Treasury secretary, and Lawrence H. Summers, chief of the National Economic Council, are seen, rightly or wrongly, as more sympathetic to the concerns of investment bankers.

For all these reasons, Mr. Volcker’s approach to financial regulation cannot be just brushed off — and Mr. Goolsbee, speaking for the administration, is careful not to do so. “We have discussed these issues with Paul Volcker extensively,” he said.

Mr. Volcker’s proposal would roll back the nation’s commercial banks to an earlier era, when they were restricted to commercial banking and prohibited from engaging in risky Wall Street activities.

The Obama team, in contrast, would let the giants survive, but would regulate them extensively, so they could not get themselves and the nation into trouble again. While the administration’s proposal languishes, giants like Goldman Sachs have re-engaged in old trading practices, once again earning big profits and planning big bonuses.

Mr. Volcker argues that regulation by itself will not work. Sooner or later, the giants, in pursuit of profits, will get into trouble. The administration should accept this and shield commercial banking from Wall Street’s wild ways.

“The banks are there to serve the public,” Mr. Volcker said, “and that is what they should concentrate on. These other activities create conflicts of interest. They create risks, and if you try to control the risks with supervision, that just creates friction and difficulties” and ultimately fails.

The only viable solution, in the Volcker view, is to break up the giants. JPMorgan Chase would have to give up the trading operations acquired from Bear Stearns. Bank of America and Merrill Lynch would go back to being separate companies. Goldman Sachs could no longer be a bank holding company. It’s a tall order, and to achieve it Congress would have to enact a modern-day version of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which mandated separation.

Glass-Steagall was watered down over the years and finally revoked in 1999. In the Volcker resurrection, commercial banks would take deposits, manage the nation’s payments system, make standard loans and even trade securities for their customers — just not for themselves. The government, in return, would rescue banks that fail.

On the other side of the wall, investment houses would be free to buy and sell securities for their own accounts, borrowing to leverage these trades and thus multiplying the profits, and the risks.

Being separated from banks, the investment houses would no longer have access to federally insured deposits to finance this trading. If one failed, the government would supervise an orderly liquidation. None would be too big to fail — a designation that could arise for a handful of institutions under the administration’s proposal.

“People say I’m old-fashioned and banks can no longer be separated from nonbank activity,” Mr. Volcker said, acknowledging criticism that he is nostalgic for an earlier era. “That argument,” he added ruefully, “brought us to where we are today.”

He may not be alone in his proposal, but he is nearly so. Most economists and policy makers argue that a global economy requires that America have big financial institutions to compete against others in Europe and Asia. An administration spokesman says the Obama proposal for reform would result in financial institutions that could fail without damaging the system.

Still, a handful side with Mr. Volcker, among them Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics at Columbia and a former official in the Clinton administration. “We would have a cleaner, safer banking system,” Mr. Stiglitz said, adding that while he endorses Mr. Volcker’s proposal, the former Fed chairman is nevertheless embarked on a quixotic journey.

Alan Greenspan, the only other former Fed chairman still living, favored the repeal of Glass-Steagall a decade ago and, unlike Mr. Volcker, would not bring it back now. He declined to be interviewed for this article, but in response to e-mailed questions he cited two recent public statements in which he suggested that the nation’s largest financial institutions become smaller, so that none would be too big to fail, requiring a federal rescue.

Taking issue implicitly with the Volcker proposal to split commercial and investment banking, he has said: “No form of economic organization can fully contain bouts of destructive speculative euphoria.”

For his part, Mr. Volcker is careful to explain that he supports 80 percent of the administration’s detailed plan for financial regulation, including much higher capital requirements and “guidelines” on pay. Wall Street compensation, he said in a recent television interview, “has gotten grotesquely large.”

Before the credit crisis, the big institutions earned most of their profits from proprietary trading, and those profits led to giant bonuses. Mr. Volcker argues that splitting commercial and investment banking would put a damper on both pay and risky trading practices.

His disagreement with the Obama people on whether to restore some version of Glass-Steagall appears to have contributed to published reports that his influence in the administration is fading and that he is rarely if ever in the small Washington office assigned to him.

He operates from his own offices in New York, communicating with administration officials and other members of the advisory board mainly by telephone. (He does not use e-mail, although his support staff does.) He travels infrequently to Washington, he says, and when he does, the visits are too short to bother with the office. The advisory board has been asked to study, amid other issues, the tax law on corporate profits earned overseas, hardly a headline concern.

So Mr. Volcker scoffs at the reports that he is losing clout. “I did not have influence to start with,” he said.

NYTIMES - October 21, 2009