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Unlikely political bedfellows Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) have put their voices together to call for a 21st century version of the Glass-Steagall Act, also known as the Banking Act of 1933.
This proposed regulation will rebuild the “wall” between investment banking and commercial banking, and prohibit large banks from taking speculative steps – bets, really – with depositors’ assets.
There will still be a place for the big bad boys of banking to bet, to make the moves that make big money, but it will not be your money – or mortgage, or 401(k), or IRA – that they will play with.
According to Senator Warren, until Glass-Steagall was passed in 1933, American banks reeled drunkenly through cycles of rapid expansion and collapse about every 15 years since the late 18th century.
Glass-Steagall, though, threw up a brick wall around investment banking and commercial banking. Among other things, it prevented banks from making big bets with customer deposits.
The financial system of the United States toddled along quite happily under this regime, and the bank failures that were once a regular feature of life became extremely rare – although they did happen from time to time. They were generally isolated from “infecting” the entire American, or global, financial system.
This stability and rationality took on rapid momentum. Decades of near-relentless prosperity followed, the middle class especially, with rising standards of living, generally increasing personal wealth, and all the benefits that derive from banks being unable to play with depositors’ money.
And it was good.
But that changed toward the end of the Clinton Administration when in 1999 President Clinton declared the law was “no longer appropriate,” while Congress – at the behest of Salomon Smith Barney, Citibank, and numerous other mega-banks – passed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999. The act repealed the provisions in Glass-Steagall that kept banks’ investment and commercial activities walled off from each other.
Once those walls came down, it took barely 10 years for banks’ reckless, nigh drunken, behavior to bring about complete financial collapse.
As the dust of the Great Collapse settled, the Dodd-Frank Act with its “Volcker Rule” was seen as the solution to keep banks from the “proprietary trading” that helped precipitate the devastation.
The problem is that, like most modern legislation, Dodd-Frank is shot through with loopholes, exceptions, anemic enforcement, Byzantine regulations, incomprehensible language… nearly anything that can go wrong with legislation did in this case.
And all the while banks have continued and in some cases even accelerated, the activities that led to the Great Collapse.
Regulation, as we know it in the United States, is not always the answer. Especially when special interests write the laws and regulations, and when the regulations are so inflexible or compromised as to be meaningless wastes of paper.
But we cannot continue to go undefended against these kinds of banking activities.
Regulation can be effective at protecting us from excesses. For a roundabout example, we can see that de-regulation of the electricity markets ended up – despite industry assurances to the contrary, and so much hot air about “free markets” – resulting in vastly higher prices for basically the same service.
And we can see that de-regulation of the banking industry helped bring about the Great Collapse.
Just like the energy barons did, the bankers will swear up and down that loose regulations will help the economy, generate wealth, generate income, and on and on in a dreary, tedious list of self-serving lies.
Don’t believe a word of it. And while you’re at it, think back on the decades when banks and Wall Street, fully subject to the law, were actually well-regulated and actually helped create and safeguard wealth.
If our way of life is to be protected, we need to seriously consider regulations like a 21st century Glass-Steagall Act. You may find regulation to be onerous, but the alternative is to simply lie down and let banks become the masters of us all, once and for all. Does that sound like a free-market alternative?
It’s worth listening to creative ideas, such as Senators Warren and McCain have proposed, if we’re really going to put the Great Collapse behind us and grow once again.
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