A Roosevelt Moment for America’s Megabanks?

WASHINGTON, DC – Just over a hundred years ago, the United States led the world in terms of rethinking how big business worked – and when the power of such firms should be constrained. In retrospect, the breakthrough legislation – not just for the US, but also internationally – was the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

The Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Bill, which is about to pass the US Senate, does something similar – and long overdue – for banking.

Prior to 1890, big business was widely regarded as more efficient and generally more modern than small business. Most people saw the consolidation of smaller firms into fewer, large firms as a stabilizing development that rewarded success and allowed for further productive investment. The creation of America as a major economic power, after all, was made possible by giant steel mills, integrated railway systems, and the mobilization of enormous energy reserves through such ventures as Standard Oil.

But ever-bigger business also had a profound social impact, and here the ledger entries were not all in the positive column. The people who ran big business were often unscrupulous, and in some cases used their dominant market position to drive out their competitors – enabling the surviving firms subsequently to restrict supply and raise prices.