Jul 26 2012

“Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

In 1998, then Citigroup Chairman and CEO Sanford “Sandy” Weill orchestrated the merger of Travelers Group and Citibank in what was, at the time, considered the largest merger in history. The merger was technically illegal because still in existence was a law known as Glass-Steagall,  a 66-year-old law that had separated commercial banking from investment banking. That merger and the repeal of the  Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, Mr. Weill now says were a mistake. He made this stunning pronouncement on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers, have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans, have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not too big to fail,” Weill told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

He added: “If they want to hedge what they’re doing with their investments, let them do it in a way that’s going to be mark-to-market so they’re never going to be hit.”

He essentially called for the return of the Glass-Steagall Act, which imposed banking reforms that split banks from other financial institutions such as insurance companies.

“I’m suggesting that they be broken up so that the taxpayer will never be at risk, the depositors won’t be at risk, the leverage of the banks will be something reasonable, and the investment banks can do trading, they’re not subject to a Volker rule (the Volcker rule explained), they can make some mistakes, but they’ll have everything that clears with each other every single night so they can be mark-to-market,” Weill said.

Some of the reactions to Mr. Weill’s about face were not so kind, feeling that this took a lot of “chutzpah” on his part as the prime architect at shattering Glass – Steagall,  “helping create monstrously large institutions that appear impossible to regulate, manage and, in recent years, value

{..}This is rich coming from the man who hung a portrait with the words “The Shatterer of Glass-Steagall” in his office. Nor did he shoulder any of the blame for creating a mega-bank that stumbled from crisis to crisis before sucking down a $45 billion taxpayer bailout.

Such chutzpah may make his message easy to dismiss. But the point has been resonating for a while across the political spectrum. For critics like Paul Krugman, smaller financial institutions would wield far less political influence. Others lament that the financial reforms of the Dodd-Frank Act don’t do enough to protect the financial system from another calamity. Meanwhile, some conservatives are starting to think that a more radical split might be preferable to the mess of new regulations coming down the pike, such as the Volcker Rule.

As Charles Gasparino, Fox Business News contributor, formerly with CNBC, and author of “The Sellout“, observed:

It’s a shame it took mountains of sleaze, tremendous shareholder losses, a financial crisis and taxpayer bailouts for Weill to see the light because there are many valid reasons to break up the banks. We had a financial crisis (and subsequent taxpayer bailouts) largely because of enormous risk taking at the mega-banks like Citigroup, which led others to blindly copy the firm’s risk taking model until the entire system blew up in the fall of 2008.

Even so, it’s hard to take Weill seriously. First this is a man with an ego the size of the bank he created. People who know him say he needs media attention like an alcoholic needs a stiff drink, and he’s gotten precious little of it since retiring from the banking business six years ago. Yesterday made him feel like the same old Sandy again.

Then there’s his record as a banker, which should banish him from ever dispensing advice on the business he helped destroy.

Over at naked capitalism, Yves Smith sees the real significance of the Weill’s flip a bit differently:

It’s a reminder that talk of reform is cheap and without consequence. Would any of these former Big Names who would love to be hauled out of mothballs (ex John Reed, who never liked the limelight and I believe in genuine) be serious about advocating change if they thought it really might happen? This isn’t a sign of a break in the elites, this is at best pandering to the 99%, or adopting a faux provocative position to get some media play. Look at how the British regulators, who have been at least willing to talk tough about banking and pushed hard for a full split between depositaries and trading firms, are in deer in the headlights mode over the Libor scandal. This isn’t just being caught out at having missed a big one; there is an astonishing inability to leverage what should be seen as a God-given opportunity to put reform back on the front burner.

When I see someone like Weill or Dick Parsons putting a big chunk of their ill-gotten gains to fund lobbying or a think tank promoting tough-minded financial services reform, I’ll give the backers their due for making a sincere and serious effort to undo the considerable damage they have done. But absent that, this career death-bed conversion is a hollow and insulting gesture.

Yes, breaking up these big banks that are too hard to regulate is the right thing to do but I suspect, damn near impossible unless it all comes crashing down taking the banksters with it.

1 comment

  1. TMC

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