Repeal of Glass-Steagall Caused the Financial Crisis

The repeal of the law separating commercial and investment banking caused the 2008 financial crisis.

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James Rickards is a hedge fund manager in New York City and the author of Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis from Portfolio/Penguin. Follow him on Twitter at @JamesGRickards.

The oldest propaganda technique is to repeat a lie emphatically and often until it is taken for the truth. Something like this is going on now with regard to banks and the financial crisis. The big bank boosters and analysts who should know better are repeating the falsehood that repeal of Glass-Steagall had nothing to do with the Panic of 2008.

In fact, the financial crisis might not have happened at all but for the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall law that separated commercial and investment banking for seven decades. If there is any hope of avoiding another meltdown, it's critical to understand why Glass-Steagall repeal helped to cause the crisis. Without a return to something like Glass-Steagall, another greater catastrophe is just a matter of time.

History is a good place to begin. After the Depression of 1920-21, the United States embarked on a period of economic prosperity known as the Roaring Twenties. It was a time of innovation, especially in consumer goods such as automobiles, radio, and refrigeration. Along with these goods came new forms of consumer credit and bank expansion. National City Bank (forerunner of today's Citibank) and Chase Bank opened offices to sell securities side-by-side with traditional banking products like deposits and loans.

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As the decade progressed, the stock market boomed and eventually reached bubble territory. Along with the bubble came market manipulation in the form of organized pools that would ramp up the price of stocks and dump them on unsuspecting suckers just before the stock collapsed. Banks joined in by offering stocks of holding companies that were leveraged pyramid schemes and other securities backed by dubious assets.

In 1929, the music stopped, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began. It took eight years from the start of the boom to the bust. Subsequent investigations revealed the extent of the fraud that preceded the crash. In 1933, Congress passed Glass-Steagall in response to the abuses. Banks would be allowed to take deposits and make loans. Brokers would be allowed to underwrite and sell securities. But no firm could do both due to conflicts of interest and risks to insured deposits. From 1933 to 1999, there were very few large bank failures and no financial panics comparable to the Panic of 2008. The law worked exactly as intended.

In 1999, Democrats led by President Bill Clinton and Republicans led by Sen. Phil Gramm joined forces to repeal Glass-Steagall at the behest of the big banks. What happened over the next eight years was an almost exact replay of the Roaring Twenties. Once again, banks originated fraudulent loans and once again they sold them to their customers in the form of securities. The bubble peaked in 2007 and collapsed in 2008. The hard-earned knowledge of 1933 had been lost in the arrogance of 1999.

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The bank supporters' attacks on this clear-as-a-bell narrative deserve a hearing to show how flimsy they are. One bank supporter says you cannot blame banks for fraudulent loan originations because that was done by unscrupulous mortgage brokers. This is nonsense. The brokers would not have been able to fund the loans in the first place if the banks had not been buying their production.

Another apologist says the fact that no big banks failed in the crisis proves they were not the cause of the problem. This is also ludicrous. The reason the big banks did not fail was because they were bailed out by the government. Clearly the banks would have failed but for the bailouts. Bank balance sheets were neck-deep in liar loans and underwater home equity lines of credit. The fact that banks did not fail proves nothing except that they were too big to fail.

Yet another big bank spokesman says that nonbanks such as Lehman and Bear Stearns were more to blame for the crisis. This ignores the fact that nonbanks get their funding from banks in the form of mortgages, repurchase agreements, and lines of credit. Without the big banks providing easy credit on bad collateral like structured products, the nonbanks would not have been able to leverage themselves.

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It is true that the financial crisis has enough blame to go around. Borrowers were reckless, brokers were greedy, rating agencies were negligent, customers were naïve, and government encouraged the fiasco with unrealistic housing goals and unlimited lines of credit at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Yet, the fact that there were so many parties to blame should not be used to deflect blame from the most responsible parties of all—the big banks. Without the banks providing financing to the mortgage brokers and Wall Street while underwriting their own issues of toxic securities, the entire pyramid scheme would never have got off the ground.

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It was Glass-Steagall that prevented the banks from using insured depositories to underwrite private securities and dump them on their own customers. This ability along with financing provided to all the other players was what kept the bubble-machine going for so long.

Now, when memories are fresh, is the time to reinstate Glass-Steagall to prevent a third cycle of fraud on customers. Without the separation of banking and underwriting, it's just a matter of time before banks repeat their well-honed practice of originating garbage loans and stuffing them down customers' throats. Congress had the answer in 1933. Congress lost its way in 1999. Now is the chance to get back to the garden.

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