Sunday, August 26, 2012

Too Big To Fail, Never Again

I'm tired of hearing about the "onerous and oppressive regulations being imposed upon the financial services industry". They are specifically referring to the "Volcker rule" that is part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Now, I'm not here to argue the benefits or weaknesses of the specifics of the Volcker Rule. I haven't read it's 300 pages, as I'm not in that industry, it may very well be a flawed piece of legislation.

I'm here to point out that the banking industry has only themselves to blame for this situation. First, they lobbied for, and successfully got key provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act repealed, allowing commercial and investment banks to merge and share assets and liabilities. These provisions were repealed as part of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) in 1999. This was strongly supported by Alan Greenspan, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the financial services industry, and particularly, by Sanford Weill, CEO of Citicorp, which later became the largest bank (Citigroup) when it merged with Travelers Group, and many others in Congress and the banking industries.

After passage and several mega-mergers of commercial and investment banks, they began engaging in the practice of making high risk sub-prime mortgages, funding the "housing bubble" of escalating prices, sold mortgage-backed-securities (MBS) to other investors assigning them a AAA rating, while simultaneously making investments that those MBS would go down in value. In short, they engaged in manipulation of the market for their own enrichment, at a cost of many hundreds of billions to millions of homeowners, and trillions to the overall economy. Only a massive USD$700 billion bailout saved them from bankruptcy.

And then there is the still pending possibility of another financial crisis from the "derivatives" market they created, a crisis that could very well be larger than the problems so far.

So, in summary, they lobbied for deregulation, got it, then proceeded to engage in risky, and possibly fraudulent practices that resulted in a loss of hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars to people who we not part of the investment scheme. And now, they want to complain about the new regulations being imposed upon them. They haven't even admitted fault for causing the problem, and none have been held financially or legally accountable for these practices. They were in effect, gambling with "our" money, and indeed, the entire US and world economy.

Sorry, but until they take responsibility for their actions and the damage they've done, anything they say about how "onerous and oppressive" these new regulations are will fall on deaf ears. They've demonstrated that they aren't trustworthy to self-regulate, nor hold themselves accountable for their manipulations. I, and I suspect most of the US public, have no sympathy for them, and no trust in their categorization of these new regulations.

Many of the primary backers of the repeal of Glass-Steagall, including Alan Greenspan, Sanford Weill, and others have since said it was a mistake, that "the big banks should be broken up", that "too big to fail" is too big a risk to the economy and the country, and that self-interest and self-regulation can not be relied upon in keeping the industry in line.
“I was an advocate of the deregulation movement and I made -- along with a lot of other smart people -- a fundamental mistake, which is that deregulation works fine in industries which do not pervade the economy,”
- Retired Federal Judge Richard Posner
"I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interest of organisations, specifically banks, is such that they were best capable of protecting shareholders and equity in the firms ...."
- Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve when the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed in 1999 and he supported it's repeal, testifying to Congress on the banking crisis in Oct 2008.
“What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking,” Mr. Weill, the former chief executive of Citigroup, told CNBC. “Have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not going to be too big to fail.”
- Sanford Weill, former CEO Citigroup and one of the primary advocates for the passage of GLBA, quoted in the NYTimes article below.
They created this situation, now they have to deal with the consequences. And until they accept responsibility for it, nothing they say about the new regulations carries any weight. If and when they take responsibility for, or are held accountable for, their actions, there will be room to discuss what level of regulation is appropriate and necessary. But until then, they're simply not believable.

I'll conclude with a quote from a NYTimes article:
"In 2009, John S. Reed, who with Mr. Weill forged the megamerger that created Citigroup, apologized for creating a lumbering giant that needed multibillion-dollar bailouts from the government. Philip Purcell, the former chief executive of Morgan Stanley and David H. Komansky, the onetime leader of Merrill Lynch, two other main figures in the fight to repeal Glass-Steagall, have echoed similar concerns about deregulation."
- NYTimes
Update: 2015-10-17
Banks (including investment/financial services) occupy a special place in an economy. They have a unique capacity to boost, or collapse entire economies, based upon the actions of a few. It's fundamentally a risk to everyone to allow a private bank to become a significant part of any economy/market. For this reason, the restrictions on banking should be even more limited than anti-trust/monopoly laws for other industries, but the same principles should apply. See my post about free-markets for some thoughts on limits on market share in general, keeping in mind that more stringent limits should be applied to banks.

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