Nostalgia for Glass-Steagall

Yesterday Elizabeth Warren and John McCain unveiled the “21st Century Glass-Steagall Act” that would restore the separation of investment banking and commercial banking, along with a few new restrictions on the things commercial banks with access to deposit insurance can invest in.

I really don’t get the nostalgia for Glass-Steagall.  I really don’t.  What’s next?  High Button Shoes for the 21st Century?  Radio tubes for the 21st Century?

Smarter people than McCain and Warren (a bar that a snail could jump, I admit) have pumped for the restoration of Glass-Steagall.  Luigi Zingales is a prominent example. I expressed my criticisms of Zingales’s advocacy of Glass-Steagall a little more than a year ago, and nothing I’ve seen since changes my mind. Certainly the bloviations of Warren and McCain don’t.

The essence of the argument for a restoration of Glass-Steagall, as well as “ring fencing” regulations in Europe, appears to be that deposit insurance creates a moral hazard: banks with access to insured deposits take on too much risk.  Preventing such banks from engaging in risky investment banking activities supposedly improves the safety of the banking system, and limits taxpayer exposure, by reducing that moral hazard.

There are only two problems with that.

First, access to deposit insurance is obviously not a necessary condition to induce risk taking.  None of the stand-alone IBs that took on leverage out the wazoo in the 2000s, and took exposures to highly risky real-estate related securities-Bear, Lehman, Merrill, Morgan Stanley and even, yes, Goldman-had access to deposit insurance.  And that was in  fact the problem.  Nor did they have statutory access to Fed support in the same way banks do.  They all relied on very fragile wholesale funding that ran like Usain Bolt when things started to look dodgy.

Second, Glass-Steagall-like restrictions on permitted activities/investments are not sufficient, by a long shot, to prevent commercial banks from taking on risks that threaten their solvency, and the stability of the financial system.  Look at all the banking problems in the 70s, 80s, and 90s that occurred despite Glass-Steagall.  Sovereign lending to Latin America.  The S&L crisis.  Lending to Asia before its 1997-1998 crisis.  Commercial lending to the energy industry.  Need I remind everyone that the phrase “too big to fail” was coined to describe Continental Bank, which became insolvent the old fashioned way: engaging in high risk commercial lending in the era of Glass-Steagall?

The “quiet period” of US banking the 50s and 60s was the result of a dense nexus of costly restrictions on banking activity.  Glass-Steagall was a part of that, but not the entire story by a long shot.  It just gets the most press, and the best press.  The complex web of restrictions on banks and financial intermediation during that period-restrictions that imposed substantial costs-is too hard to explain.  So Glass-Steagall has become the poster child for that era. People like Warren and McCain think that Golden Age can be restored by reviving Glass-Steagall.  As if.

I am deeply skeptical of restrictions on the activities of financial intermediaries; I am also skeptical of mandated impositions of market structure (e.g., clearing mandates).  The underlying incentives remain the same, and these Byzantine restrictions induce attempts to circumvent them.  It is better to operate at the level of incentives, through capital requirements, for instance.  Yes, there will be attempts to circumvent these too, but at least they provide some incentive for those with the information to internalize the risk-return trade-offs.  Structural restrictions, not so much.  At all.

Yes, moral hazard induced by deposit insurance matters.  But it matters a lot less than other things.   Breaking up universal banks will still leave large investment banks reliant on wholesale funding with incentives to lever up, and large commercial banks who can blow themselves up just fine, thank you, by making loans.  So the revivification of Glass-Steagall won’t materially reduce systemic risk, but it will induce costly efforts to circumvent the separation, and will sacrifice the synergies between investment and commercial banking activities.

When your diagnosis is wrong, the prescription is likely to be wrong too.  And with financial doctors like Warren and McCain, we should have no illusions that they’ve screwed up both.

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About Craig Pirrong 238 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

Visit: Streetwise Professor

1 Comment on Nostalgia for Glass-Steagall

  1. Dr. Pirrong:
    While reading your article above I thought, this guy sounds like one of the University of Chicago throng. I then read your bio and confirmed my thought.

    i disagree with your logic, but more importantly than that I would urge you to get back in touch with your undergraduate years. I’ll bet that your Freshman English class spent some time on sentence structure. It might be time for a review.

    On another note, I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you don’t hold a political office on the national level.

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