Wednesday, July 27, 2016

GLASS-STEAGALL | Bipartisan Support (Updated March 12, 2017)

Sen. Carter Glass, Feb. 1933
July 27, 2016—Andrew Ross Sorkin (New York Times, July 26, p. B1) considers it "an extremely odd political dovetail" that both Democratic and Republican platforms include planks calling for the restoration of the 1933 Banking Act, widely referred to as Glass-Steagall.

The GOP platform is not consistent. It has some anti-regulatory provisions diametrically opposed to a restored Glass-Steagall Act. But a coalition between Republicans and Democrats on major financial issues is not odd at all:
  • The coalition that brought down the Philadelphia-based Hamiltonian Second Bank of the United States united Old Republicans opposed to growing Federal power and Jacksonian Democrats opposed to the reining-in of bank lending.
  • The coalition that created the Federal Reserve in 1913 included Republican Senator Nelson Aldrich and several Wall Street bankers, who drafted a privately controlled plan at a "duck hunt" in November 1910, and Democratic Congressman Carter Glass of Virginia, who with President Woodrow Wilson added provisions for greater public control.
  • FDR's Republican Treasury Secretary, the unjustly forgotten Will Woodin, calmed the financial markets in 1933 and got both houses of Congress to agree in a single day to an Emergency Banking Act and then to the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act.
When I was working as a financial economist at the Federal Reserve Board in 1964-66, Bray Hammond's history of banking was still fresh in the minds of researchers there. Hammond had been Assistant Secretary to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System through 1950. He  wrote Banking from the Revolution to the Civil War (key chapter posted here) that won a Pulitzer for history in 1958.

Today's Main Street coalition has coalesced in reaction to the 2008 meltdown. It is broad and deep but it is the same coming-together that has stood the United States well since the Revolution.

Glass-Steagall was named after Sen. Glass, now chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and Rep. Henry Steagall of Alabama, chairman of the House counterpart committee. Working under pressure from FDR and Woodin, Glass and Steagall fashioned a law that was a powerful bargain. The banks originally got deposit insurance up to $2,500 per account holder from Steagall in return for strict regulations designed by Glass to separate insured from non-insured financial institutions.

Woodin and FDR were both fully aware of the hazard that investment bankers would try to get access to insured deposits to speculate with, which is why they deeply opposed deposit insurance unless accompanied by strong regulation of banks covered by such government-backed insurance.

Deposit insurance coverage was ultimately expanded. Depositors were allowed to have different insured accounts at the same bank (retirement, joint, etc.). Coverage was raised in steps to $40,000 and, in 1980–in a move that the FDIC itself opposed–to $100,000. The increase to $250,000 was in response to the 2008 meltdown and arguably encouraged the same disregard of risk that caused the meltdown. In practice, when a small bank gets into trouble the FDIC arranges a takeover. If the bank is too big the fail or be taken over, the 2008 Lehman takeaway is that the Fed is likely to finance the bank's losses to preserve the financial system.

Meanwhile, while the regulations installed by Carter Glass lasted more than half a century. Their erosion in steps through 1999 in the name of "modernization" paved the way for the 2008 crisis.