Wednesday :: Jan 6, 2010

Byron Dorgan Should Have Lawrence Summers' Job


by Turkana

With millions of people suffering the consequences of the lost decade, and the economy still staggering, it's surreal that the Senator who was right is leaving, while the White House adviser who so many times was wrong is staying. We have been warned.

One more time, from the November 5, 1999 New York Times, let us remember:

Congress approved landmark legislation today that opens the door for a new era on Wall Street in which commercial banks, securities houses and insurers will find it easier and cheaper to enter one another's businesses....

"Today Congress voted to update the rules that have governed financial services since the Great Depression and replace them with a system for the 21st century," Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers said. "This historic legislation will better enable American companies to compete in the new economy."

The decision to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 provoked dire warnings from a handful of dissenters that the deregulation of Wall Street would someday wreak havoc on the nation's financial system. The original idea behind Glass-Steagall was that separation between bankers and brokers would reduce the potential conflicts of interest that were thought to have contributed to the speculative stock frenzy before the Depression.

And let us appreciate the prescience:

"I think we will look back in 10 years' time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930's is true in 2010," said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota. "I wasn't around during the 1930's or the debate over Glass-Steagall. But I was here in the early 1980's when it was decided to allow the expansion of savings and loans. We have now decided in the name of modernization to forget the lessons of the past, of safety and of soundness."

In his Senate floor speech, Dorgan said:

I spoke earlier today about this legislation, which is called the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, and said then that I am probably part of a very small minority in this Chamber, but I feel very strongly that this is exactly the wrong bill at exactly the wrong time. It misses all the lessons of the past and, in my judgment, it creates definitions and moves in directions that will be counterproductive to our financial future.

What does this bill do? It would permit common ownership of banks, insurance, and securities companies, and to a significant degree commercial firms as well. It will permit bank holding companies, affiliates, and bank subsidiaries to engage in a smorgasbord of expanded financial activities, including insurance and securities underwriting, and merchant banking all under the same roof.

This bill will also, in my judgment, raise the likelihood of future massive taxpayer bailouts. It will fuel the consolidation and mergers in the banking and financial services industry at the expense of customers, farm businesses, family farmers, and others, and in some instances I think it inappropriately limits the ability of the banking and thrift institution regulators from monitoring activities between such institutions and their insurance or securities affiliates and subsidiaries raising significant safety and soundness consumer protection concerns.

When studies were done to determine what happened in the 1920s, one of the things they discovered was what you expect. If you have something called banks whose perception of safety and soundness is at the root of their stability and viability, when banks are fusing their activities with inherently risky activities--underwriting securities, for example--ultimately those kinds of risks, those bets that exist, overcome the perception and the reality of safety and soundness, and people begin getting worried and nervous and pulling their money out of banks and we have bank failures.

So the Congress in the 1930s passed a bill called Glass-Steagall which said: Learn the lessons; my gosh, let us not put activities together with banks that are so inherently risky. We should separate them forever.

So we did. And we prohibited certain kinds of investment and acquisition by banks and required that certain enterprises do business and compete in their own sphere. Banks were prohibited from being involved in most of the securities issues, underwriting securities and insurance and more.

Over the years that served this country pretty well. Banks have made the case in recent years--and they are right about this--everybody else has wanted to invade their territory. Everybody now wants to be a bank. If you are selling cars, you want to finance the cars; you want to be a bank. Everybody wants to create some sort of homogenized one-stop station where people can buy their insurance, buy their home, finance it. So banks say people are intruding on their turf and the only conceivable way we can compete is if we can compete on their turf as well. They want Glass-Steagall repealed.

Guess what? Here it is. The bill that sits on the floor of the Senate today repeals Glass-Steagall. It forgets apparently 60 or 70 years of history. It will all be all right. Don't you see, the economy is growing, unemployment is down, inflation is down, the stock market is up. Don't you understand, Senator DORGAN?

I guess not. Maybe I am hopelessly old fashioned. I think it is a fundamental mistake to decide to repeal Glass-Steagall and allow banks and all of the other financial industries to merge into a giant smorgasbord of financial services. Those who were around to vote to bail out the failed savings and loan industry, $500 billion of the taxpayers' money, are they going to want to be around 10 or 15 years from now when we see bailouts of hedge funds putting banks at risk? Or how about the banks not just bailing out a hedge fund but banks having the ownership of the hedge funds?

That is what we have now. This bailout of Long Term Capital Management says we have significant investments by some of the largest banks in these hedge funds.

Or how about derivatives? I am not an expert in this area, but I wonder how many Members of this body know about derivatives. How many know that banks in this country are trading in derivatives--not for customers, but in their own proprietary accounts? They could just as well set up a bingo parlor in their lobby. They could just as well decide to have a casino somewhere in their lobby. The kind of betting and wagering that is going on in proprietary trading of derivatives in an institution whose assets are guaranteed by the taxpayers of this country is just wrong. Someday somebody is going to wake up and say: Why didn't we understand that? Why didn't we understand the consequences of hundreds of billions of dollars or, yes, even trillions of dollars of wagers out there with deposits at risk? Why didn't we understand that did not make any sense?

But Dorgan will be gone, and Summers will remain. Again advising a Democratic president. While others are trying to fix what was destroyed, in 1999. As Meteor Blades wrote, just a few weeks ago:

Senator Maria Cantwell introduced legislation Wednesday to restore Glass-Steagall. Ironically, she was joined in this effort by Senator John McCain, one of whose presidential campaign advisers last year was Phil Gramm, the economist Senator who sponsored the repeal act a decade ago.

Nothing even vaguely radical in their bill. No conversion of the lemon socialism of the bailout into a sliver of the real thing. Just a return to a 75-year-old common-sense arrangement that was part of what FDR did, not to undermine capitalists but to rescue them.

If sanity were in charge instead of an oligarchy, the Cantwell-McCain Act ought to be slam dunk. But it won't be. What some people hopefully called the resurrection of the Pecora Commission, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission headed by Phil Angelides, the former California State Treasurer, should be greasing the skids. However, the commission, created by the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009 was signed into law in May and has yet to hold its first hearing. Its final report is due a year from now. And by then, you can be just about certain that Cantwell-McCain will be dead in the water.

Indeed.

Turkana :: 4:34 PM :: Comments (2) :: Digg It!