I try to avoid certain issues because they’re simply not that interesting. And I figure if they bore me – even though I’m a policy wonk, then they probably would be even more painful for everyone else.
But every so often, I feel compelled to address a topic simply because the alternative is to let the other side propagate destructive economic myths.
In this spirit, it’s now time to write about “Glass-Steagall,” which is the shorthand way of referring to the provision of the Banking Act of 1933 that imposed a separation between commercial banking and investment banking.
This regulatory barrier has been relaxed over the years, in part by the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (often known as Gramm-Leach-Bliley).
Our friends on the left are big fans of Glass-Steagall. They think the law fixed a problem that helped cause the Great Depression and they think its partial repeal is one of the reasons for the recent financial crisis.
Bernie Sanders, for instance, has made Glass-Steagall reinstatement one of his big issues, probably in part because Hillary Clinton’s husband signed the 1999 law that eased that regulatory burden.
That may or may not be smart politics for Senator Sanders, but it is based on economic illiteracy. Let’s look at what the experts say.
Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute, for instance, offers some very important insights about Glass-Steagall and the financial crisis.
The so-called “repeal” of Glass-Steagall in 1999…had absolutely nothing to do with the financial crisis. The 1999 changes in one sector of Glass-Steagall Act made only one change in existing law: it permitted affiliations between commercial banks and investment banks. But by the time of the 2008 crisis, none of the large investment banks (like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley or Lehman Brothers) had affiliated with any of the large commercial banks (like Citi, JP Morgan Chase or Bank of America). Commercial banks and investment banks had remained fierce competitors with one another right up to the time of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy. The simplest way to think about the financial crisis is that the largest investment banks and commercial banks got into financial trouble by acquiring and holding risky mortgages or mortgage backed securities based on these risky loans. This was permitted for both of them before Glass-Steagall was “repealed,” and it was permitted afterward. In other words, if Glass-Steagall had never been touched by Congress in any way, the financial crisis would have unfolded exactly as it did in 2008.
If the leftists are right and the partial repeal of Glass-Steagall was bad and destabilizing, shouldn’t they be able to point to some real-world evidence? To any real-world evidence? To a shred of real-world evidence?
Megan McArdle, writing for Bloomberg, also is baffled by the anti-empirical emotionalism of the Glass-Steagall crowd.
…those intrepid souls who continue to fiercely agitate for the return of the Glass-Steagall financial regulations…have become a powerful force in the Democratic Party. …there is a small problem… It’s very hard to think of the mechanism by which the repeal of this rule made any significant contribution to the meltdown. …The problems appeared first at Bear Stearns, and then Lehman Brothers, straight investment banks and lenders like Countrywide.
By the way, there’s a bipartisan consensus on this matter.
Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post certainly couldn’t be called a libertarian or conservative, yet she also is flummoxed by the fixation on Glass-Steagall.
the Glass-Steagall Act…’s become the left’s litmus test for whether a politician is “tough” on Wall Street. …But Glass-Steagall had nothing to do with the 2008 financial crisis. …If the repealed provisions of Glass-Steagall had still been on the books, almost none of the institutions at the epicenter of the crisis would have been covered by it. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were basically stand-alone investment banks. AIG was an insurance company. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were government-sponsored entities that bought and securitized mortgages. Washington Mutual was a traditional savings-and-loan. And so on. Glass-Steagall, or the lack thereof, is a red herring.
Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post – another columnist who has never been accused of being in love with free markets – is similarly baffled. And for the same reasons. The facts simply don’t match the left-wing narrative.
Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch — three institutions at the heart of the crisis — were pure investment banks that had never crossed the old line into commercial banking. The same goes for Goldman Sachs, another favorite villain of the left. The infamous AIG? An insurance firm. New Century Financial? A real estate investment trust. No Glass-Steagall there. Two of the biggest banks that went under, Wachovia and Washington Mutual, got into trouble the old-fashioned way – largely by making risky loans to homeowners. Bank of America nearly met the same fate, not because it had bought an investment bank but because it had bought Countrywide Financial, a vanilla-variety mortgage lender. Meanwhile, J.P. Morgan and Wells Fargo — two large banks with big investment banking arms — resisted taking government capital and arguably could have weathered the crisis without it.
The inescapable conclusion is that Glass-Steagall had nothing to do with the financial crisis.
Instead, the main causes of the 2008 meltdown were bad government policies, such as easy-money from the Fed and corrupt housing subsidies from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
But even if you’re a leftist and want to say that the crisis was caused by “greed,” the various institutions that got burned by “greed” were not giant investment bank/commercial bank conglomerates.
Let’s cover two more issues. First, my colleague Mark Calabria points out that one of the core beliefs of the left simply isn’t true. Commercial banking isn’t always a safe and boring line of business (which therefore has to be protected from the vagaries of investment banking).
…the bizarre implicit assumption behind Glass-Steagall: that somehow commercial banking is risk free. Anyone ever hear of the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s? No investment banking angle there. How about the 400+ small and medium banks that failed in the recent crisis? According to the FDIC, not one of them was brought down by proprietary trading.
Second, let’s dispel the notion that the Great Depression was caused by – or exacerbated by – the pre-Glass-Steagall mixing of commercial banking and investment banking.
Stephen Miller of the Mercatus Center debunks this myth.
The narrative justifying the Banking Act of 1933 always derived from myths that large securities dealing banks caused the banking crisis during the Great Depression. The myths hold that: (1) securities dealing banks were more unstable and contributed to the Great Depression, and (2) securities dealing banks pushed people to purchase what turned out to be low-quality assets that performed poorly during the Great Depression. However, both myths have been disproven. For instance, on the first myth, a 1986 Rutgers University study found that banks involved in securities dealing were less likely to fail. …none of the 5,000 banks that failed during the 1920s had securities dealing affiliates. From 1930 to 1933, more than 25 percent of all national banks failed, but the number of failures among those with securities dealing affiliates was less than 10 percent. On the second myth, …a 1994 study in the American Economic Review found evidence to the contrary — that the public understood this conflict of interest, which resulted in commercial banks that dealt securities prior to the Great Depression tending to underwrite high quality assets. These banks tended to do better during the Great Depression.
So here’s the bottom line.
Glass-Steagall is a meaningless distraction, but restoration of that law nonetheless attracts support from know-nothings who have a religious-type belief that financial markets are intrinsically evil.
P.S. Financial markets are imperfect, of course, but they’re only evil when investors and institutions want private profits and socialized losses.