Breaking up the megabanks

Former Citigroup honcho Sanford I. Weill is widely seen as the man most responsible for the rise of “too big to fail” banks and, by extension, for the enormous federal bailouts they received in 2008 and 2009. This week, however, Weill shocked the financial industry when he said that megabanks should be broken into smaller pieces, separating the arms that take federally insured deposits from the ones making bets on Wall Street. Lawmakers resisted such a straightforward approach when they enacted the Dodd-Frank law to re-regulate the financial industry in 2010. But Weill’s hindsight should prompt them to consider again how best to protect Americans from a repeat of the last meltdown.

The New Deal-era Banking Act of 1933, better known as Glass-Steagall, created deposit insurance and, to prevent those newly insured funds from being put at risk on Wall Street, barred banks from owning stock brokerages. That ban was dropped in 1999 after an intense campaign by bank lobbyists, led by Weill, who was in the process of building Citigroup into one of the world’s largest financial institutions.

Wall Street’s epic collapse in 2008 led Congress to enact Dodd-Frank, imposing new restrictions and mandates aimed at reducing the risk of another catastrophic failure. Instead of forcing banks to sell their brokerages, however, it included a rule, named after former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, barring banks from using insured deposits to make bets on securities.


The banking industry, which has fought to weaken Dodd-Frank, nevertheless argues that the law is sufficient to guard against future bailouts. But Weill, who had little to say during the debate over Dodd-Frank, advocated a different approach Wednesday on CNBC, calling for the government to “split up investment banking from banking.”

That’s easier said than done, certainly. Nevertheless, the structural barrier that existed in Glass-Steagall has a distinct advantage over current law. Like the Volcker Rule, its goal is to stop banks from making bets on Wall Street with guaranteed deposits. But unlike the Volcker Rule and other key pieces of Dodd-Frank, it’s simpler and cannot be gamed or watered down in the rule-making process. Nor would it be subject to the whims of regulators or the administrations that hire them.

Ideally, the combination of Dodd-Frank and market forces will cause the largest banks to take on less risk and stop posing a threat to the broader economy. Since the law’s passage, however, they’ve only gotten bigger — and, as the recent JPMorgan Chase debacle indicated, continue to make risky multibillion-dollar gambles. Weill, who knows firsthand the pros and cons of megabanks, says it’s time to break them up. That’s a good reason for lawmakers to consider whether Dodd-Frank and the rules that implement it accomplish the task they meant to accomplish.