It has become an article of faith for many on the left and some from other political precincts that the 1999 repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banks from Wall Street, is directly responsible for our current dire financial plight. Its repeal, argued journalist Robert Kuttner in testimony before Congress last year, enabled "super-banks ... to re-enact the same kinds of structural conflicts of interest that were endemic in the 1920s."
Kuttner may be right about the conflicts, but it's awfully hard to see how they brought on the current mess. In fact, Bank of America's takeover of Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan Chase's of Bear Stearns underscored a truth that was already becoming apparent on Wall Street super-banks (more commonly known as universal banks) are, for all their flaws, a lot more stable and secure than un-super investment banks.
"If you didn't have commercial banks ready to step in, you'd have a vastly bigger crisis today," says Jim Leach, a Republican former Congressman from Iowa (and current Barack Obama supporter) whose name is on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that repealed Glass-Steagall. Leach is no neutral observer, and there can be no proving that Glass-Steagall repeal has made the world safer. But amid the predictable debate now underway about how much new financial regulation is needed, it just doesn't make a very convincing scapegoat for the crisis.
Also unconvincing is the claim made by some conservatives that the Clinton Administration's 1995 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) regulations, which pushed banks to lend in poor communities, caused the subprime mortgage lending binge that sparked the current troubles. It's certainly conceivable that Washington's long-held obsession with fostering home ownership helped fuel the housing bubble. But when the subprime lending binge really took off from 2003 to 2006, financial institutions subject to CRA weren't the ones leading the way. Neither were government-sponsored behemoths Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
No, starting in 2003, as a long boom in house prices and mortgage lending that had at least some foundation in economic reality (lower interest rates, higher incomes) gave way to an orgy of ever-sharper price increases fueled by ever-dodgier loans, the folks in the drivers' seat were the mortgage brokers that made the loans and the Wall Street investment banks that packaged them into private-label mortgage-backed securities.
And these people were barely regulated at all, at least not in the sense that bankers are regulated. "You had a regulatory mechanism that was targeted very narrowly to prudential regulation of the banking industry," says Gene Ludwig, who as Comptroller of the Currency oversaw the nation's big banks from 1993 to 1998. What that did, Ludwig explains, was to motivate banking companies to move activities to their less-regulated affiliates, and give a leg up to competitors (stand-alone investment firms, hedge funds, mortgage brokers, you name it) that weren't being watched by banking regulators at all.