The Man Who Invented “Too Big to Fail” Banks Finally Recants

I’m in Alaska, amid moose and bear, trying to steal some time away from the absurdities of American politics and economics. But even at this remote distance I caught wind of Sanford Weill’s proposal this morning on CNBC that big banks be broken up in order to shield taxpayers from the consequences of their losses. Forget the bear and moose for a moment. This is big game.

If any single person is responsible for Wall Street banks becoming too big to fail it’s Sandy Weill. In 1998 he created the financial powerhouse Citigroup by combining Traveler’s Insurance and Citibank. To cash in on the combination, Weill then successfully lobbied the Clinton administration to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era law that separated commercial from investment banking. And he hired my former colleague Bob Rubin, then Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury, to oversee his new empire.

Weill created the business model that Wall Street uses to this day — unleashing traders to make big, risky bets with other peoples’ money that deliver gigantic bonuses when they turn out well and cost taxpayers dearly when they don’t. And Weill made a fortune – as did all the other executives and traders. JPMorgan and Bank of America (BAC) soon followed Weill’s example with their own mega-deals, and their bonus pools exploded as well.

Citigroup (C) was bailed out in 2008, as was much of the rest of the Street, but that didn’t alter the business model in any fundamental way. The Street neutered the Dodd-Frank act that was supposed to stop the gambling. JPMorgan (JPM), headed by one of Weill’s protégés, Jamie Dimon, just lost $5.8 billion on some risky bets. Dimon continues to claim that giant banks like his can be managed so as to avoid any risk to taxpayers.

Sandy Weill has finally seen the light. It’s a bit late in the day, but, hey, he’s already cashed in. You and I and millions of others in the United States and elsewhere around the world are still paying the price.

What’s the betting that one of the presidential candidates will take up Weill’s proposal?

About Robert Reich 547 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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