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 Stagall 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.