I have been keeping an eye on various proposals to "reinstate" Glass-Steagall for quite some time. Sometime I ought to post a more comprehensive list as to who is in favor (and in what sense) and who is opposed. Clearly the folks at New Economic Perspectives (from Kansas City and Beyond) are so inclined. So too Nouriel Roubini, as reported by Tech Ticker, 4/11:
Roubini supports the 'Volcker Rule' which would force banks to stop proprietary trading. "Why should you use taxpayer money to essentially subsidize risky prop trading?," he asks.
Roubini goes even further, saying Congress should reinstate Glass-Steagall which separated commercial banking from investment banking. "If Goldman Sachs wants to be a hedge fund, so be it, but there should be a level playing field," he argues. "Other hedge funds don't borrow at zero rate with the guarantee of the government."
Paul Krugman's ideas seem to differ a bit, and seem to be where the Obama Administration is trying to lead Congress. Here's Krugman, Financial Reform 101, 4/1:
It's easy to see where concerns about banks that are "too big to fail" come from. In the face of financial crisis, the U.S. government provided cash and guarantees to financial institutions whose failure, it feared, might bring down the whole system. And the rescue operation was mainly focused on a handful of big players: A.I.G., Citigroup, Bank of America, and so on.
This rescue was necessary, but it put taxpayers on the hook for potentially large losses. And it also established a dangerous precedent: big financial institutions, we now know, will be bailed out in times of crisis. And this, it's argued, will encourage even riskier behavior in the future, since executives at big banks will know that it’s heads they win, tails taxpayers lose.
The solution, say people like Mr. Volcker, is to break big financial institutions into units that aren’t too big to fail, making future bailouts unnecessary and restoring market discipline.
It's a convincing-sounding argument, but I'm one of those people who doesn’t buy it.
Here's how I see it. Breaking up big banks wouldn’t really solve our problems, because it’s perfectly possible to have a financial crisis that mainly takes the form of a run on smaller institutions. In fact, that’s precisely what happened in the 1930s, when most of the banks that collapsed were relatively small — small enough that the Federal Reserve believed that it was O.K. to let them fail. As it turned out, the Fed was dead wrong: the wave of small-bank failures was a catastrophe for the wider economy.
The same would be true today. Breaking up big financial institutions wouldn’t prevent future crises, nor would it eliminate the need for bailouts when those crises happen. The next bailout wouldn’t be concentrated on a few big companies — but it would be a bailout all the same. I don’t have any love for financial giants, but I just don’t believe that breaking them up solves the key problem.
So what's the alternative to breaking up big financial institutions? The answer, I'd argue, is to update and extend old-fashioned bank regulation.
And this is exactly what the Senate is now doing. Sort of. Economics of Contempt (EoC) is generally OK with regulatory reform that doesn't get too bizarre. On the other hand, EoC is particularly against the Sen. Blanche Lincoln's "Section 106" proposal as per derivatives. To EoC, 5/8:
Bloomberg has an excellent story on the origins of Blanche Lincoln's disastrous swaps proposal (the infamous "Section 106") — Bloomberg: How ‘Hard to Fathom’ Derivatives Rule Emerged in U.S. Senate. Short version:
The idea arose from a mix of policy debate, campaign politics and personal relationships -- and little consideration of the business or economic implications, according to interviews with Senate aides, administration officials and industry lobbyists.Read the whole article. Oh by the way, Paul Volcker has now also come out against Section 106. Sheila Bair penned a letter to Lincoln sharply criticizing Section 106 last week, and the Fed circulated a memo on the Hill a couple weeks ago arguing that Section 106 should be deleted. …
The whole point is that Section 106 doesn't distinguish between prop trading and market-making. It bans banks from doing both. [Robert] Reich clearly has no clue what Lincoln's Section 106 proposal is even about — and yet he's already declared that failing to support it would be "pandering to Wall Street."
Look, this isn't difficult. Swaps are a critical part of modern banking. Just like normal commercial lending requires banks to serve as intermediaries between savers and borrowers, the swaps market also requires intermediaries (known as dealers, or market-makers). These intermediaries borrow short and lend (through swaps) long; they are susceptible to runs; and their disorderly failure can cause severe collateral damage to the real economy. Pretending that swap dealers aren't engaged in an important banking function by refusing to call them "banks" is not just delusional, it's also dangerous. And yet this is what Blanche Lincoln's Section 106 proposal aims to do.
Maybe Section 106 won't last long. According to one source, 5/12 "Reuters was reporting Monday that … Section 106, is going to get excised, perhaps this week."