It’s time to break up the big banks

Pushing to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act would be a smart move for Obama both politically and economically

Topics: Wall Street, Barack Obama, Occupy Wall Street,

It's time to break up the big banks (Credit: AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
This originally appeared on Robert Reich's blog.

Next week President Obama travels to Wall Street where he’ll demand – in light of the Street’s continuing antics since the bailout, as well as its role in watering-down the Volcker rule – that the Glass-Steagall Act be resurrected and big banks be broken up.

I’m kidding. But it would be a smart move — politically and economically.

Politically smart because Mitt Romney is almost sure to be the Republican nominee, and Romney is the poster child for the pump-and-dump mentality that’s infected the financial industry and continues to jeopardize the American economy.

Romney was CEO of Bain & Company – a private-equity fund that bought up companies, fired employees to save money and boost performance, and then resold the firms at a nice markups.

Romney also epitomizes the pump-and-dump culture of America’s super rich. To take one example, he recently purchased a $3 million mansion in La Jolla, California (in addition to his other homes) that he’s razing in order build a brand new one.

What better way for Obama to distinguish himself from Romney than to condemn Wall Street’s antics since the bailout, and call for real reform?

Economically it would be smart for Obama to go after the Street right now because the Street’s lobbying muscle has reduced the Dodd-Frank financial reform law to a pale reflection of its former self. Dodd-Frank is rife with so many loopholes and exemptions that the largest Wall Street banks – larger by far then they were before the bailout – are back to many of their old tricks.

It’s impossible to know, for example, the exposure of the Street to European banks in danger of going under. To stay afloat, Europe’s banks will be forced to sell mountains of assets – among them, derivatives originating on the Street – and may have to reneg on or delay some repayments on loans from Wall Street banks.

The Street says it’s not worried because these assets are insured. But remember AIG? The fact Morgan Stanley and other big U.S. banks are taking a beating in the market suggests investors don’t believe the Street. This itself proves financial reform hasn’t gone far enough.

If you want more evidence, consider the fancy footwork by Bank of America in recent days. Hit by a credit downgrade last month, BofA just moved its riskiest derivatives from its Merrill Lynch unit to a retail subsidiary flush with insured deposits. That unit has a higher credit rating because the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (that is, you and me and other taxpayers) are backing the deposits. Result: BofA improves its bottom line at the expense of American taxpayers.



Wasn’t this supposed to be illegal? Keeping risky assets away from insured deposits had been a key principle of U.S. regulation for decades before the repeal of Glass-Steagall.

The so-called “Volcker rule” was supposed to remedy that. But under pressure of Wall Street’s lobbyists, the rule – as officially proposed last week – has morphed into almost 300 pages of regulatory mumbo-jumbo, riddled with exemptions and loopholes.

It would have been far simpler simply to ban proprietary trading from the jump. Why should banks ever be permitted to use peoples’ bank deposits – insured by the federal government – to place risky bets on the banks’ own behalf? Bring back Glass-Steagall.

True, Glass-Steagall wouldn’t have prevented the fall of Lehman Brothers or the squeeze on other investment banks in 2007 and 2008. That’s why it’s also necessary to break up the big banks.

In the wake of the bailout, the biggest banks are bigger than ever. Twenty years ago the ten largest banks on the Street held 10 percent of America’s total bank assets. Now they hold over 70 percent. And the biggest four have a larger market share than ever – so large, in fact, they’ve almost surely been colluding. How else to explain their apparent coordination on charging debit card fees?

The banks aren’t even fulfilling their fiduciary duties to investors. Last summer, after Groupon selected Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Credit Suisse to underwrite its initial public offering, the trio valued it at a generous $30 billion. Subsequent accounting and disclosure problems showed this estimate to be absurdly high. Did the banks care? Not a wit. The higher the valuation, the fatter their fees.

Just last week Citigroup settled charges (without admitting or denying guilt) that it defrauded investors by selling them a package of mortgage-backed securities rife with mortgages it knew were likely to default, but didn’t disclose the hazard. It then bet against the package for its own benefit – earning fees of $34 million and net profits of at least $126 million. So what’s Citi paying to settle this outrage? A mere $285 million. Its CEO at time (Charles Prince) doesn’t pay a dime.

I doubt the President will be condemning the Street’s antics, or calling for a resurrection of Glass-Steagall and a breakup of the biggest banks. Democrats are still too dependent on the Street’s campaign money.

That’s too bad. You don’t have to be an occupier of Wall Street to conclude the Street is still out of control. And that’s dangerous for all of us.

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie "Inequality for All" is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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