Glass-Steagall never saved our financial system, so why revive it?
© Getty Images

The Banking Act of 1933 was passed in an environment of crisis. In March of that year, all of the nation’s financial institutions were closed in the so-called “bank holiday,” which followed widespread bank runs over the prior months.

Sen. Carter Glass (D-Va.), a chief author of the bill and senior member of the Committee on Banking and Currency, was determined not to “let a good crisis go to waste.” Though he did not like Chairman Henry Steagall’s (D-Ala.) proposal for federal deposit insurance, he agreed to support it on the condition that the legislation include Glass’ own pet idea that commercial banking be separated from much of the securities business.

ADVERTISEMENT

It was poor policy from the start, but it took more than six decades to get rid of it. Now some political voices want to revive it. Financial ideas — like financial markets — have a cycle. Reviving Glass-Steagall would be an action with substantial costs, but no benefits. Its primary appeal seems to be as a political slogan.

 

Not having Glass-Steagall had nothing to do with the housing bubble or the resulting financial crisis of 2007 to 2009, except that being able to sell failing investment banks to big commercial banks was a major advantage for the regulators. And not having the law, in fact, had nothing to do with the crises of Glass’ own time, including the banking panic of 1932 to 1933 and the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, having Glass-Steagall in force did not prevent the huge, multiple financial busts of 1982 to 1992, which caused more than 2,800 U.S. financial institution failures, or the series of international financial crises of the 1990s.

While Glass-Steagall was in place, it required commercial banks to act, under Federal Reserve direction, as “the Fed’s assistant lenders of last resort,” whenever the Fed wanted to support floundering securities firms. This happened in the 1970 collapse of the commercial paper market, which followed the bankruptcy of the giant Penn Central Railroad, and in the “Black Monday” collapse of the stock market in 1987.

The fundamental problem of banking is always, in the memorable phrase of great banking theorist Walter Bagehot, “smallness of capital.” Or, to put the same concept in other words, the problem is “bigness of leverage.” So-called “traditional” commercial banking is, in fact, a very risky business, because making loans on a highly leveraged basis is very risky, especially real estate loans. All of financial history is witness to this.

Moreover, making investments in securities — that is, buying securities, as opposed to being in the securities business — has always been a part of traditional commercial banking. Indeed, it needs to be, for a highly leveraged balance sheet with all loans and no securities would be extremely risky and entirely unacceptable to any prudent banker or regulator.

You can make bad loans and you can buy bad investments, as many subprime mortgage-backed securities turned out to be. As a traditional commercial bank, you could make bad investments in the preferred stock of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which created large losses for numerous banks and sank some of them.

Our neighbors to the north in Canada have a banking system that is generally viewed as one of the most stable, if not the most stable, in the world. The Canadian banking system certainly has a far better historical record than does that of the United States.

There is no Glass-Steagall in Canada: all the large Canadian banks combine commercial banking and investment banking, as well as other financial businesses, and the Canadian banking system has done very well. Canada thus represents a great counterexample for Glass-Steagall enthusiasts to ponder.

In Canada, there is now a serious question of a housing bubble. If this does give the Canadian banks problems, it will be entirely because of their “traditional” banking business of making mortgage loans — the vast majority of mortgages in Canada are kept on banks’ own balance sheets. If the bubble bursts, they will be glad of the diversification provided by their investment banking operations.

To really make banks safer, far more pertinent than reinstating Glass-Steagall, would be to limit real estate lending. Real estate credit flowing into real estate speculation is the biggest cause of most banking disasters and financial crises. Those longing to bring back their grandfather’s Glass-Steagall should contemplate instead the original National Banking Act, which prohibited real estate loans altogether for “traditional” banking.

Among his other ideas, Glass was a strong proponent of the “real bills” doctrine, which held that commercial banks should focus on short-term, self-liquidating loans to finance commercial trade. His views were reflected in the Federal Reserve Act, which, as Allan Meltzer has described it, had “injunctions against the use of credit for speculation” and an “emphasis on discounting real bills.” This approach which does not leave a lot of room for real estate lending.

If today’s lawmakers want to be true to Sen. Glass, they could more strictly limit the risks real estate loans create, especially in a boom, and logically call that “a 21st century Glass-Steagall.”

Alex J. Pollock is a distinguished senior fellow at the R Street Institute (@RSI). He was a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute from 2004 to 2015, after serving as president and chief executive officer of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago from 1991 to 2004.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.