The Big Bank Fix

Premature rejection of bank nationalization when the financial crisis erupted in 2008 has left us with the same two alternatives that Franklin D. Roosevelt faced in 1933: break-up or regulation. What advocates of regulation miss is that the battle between the two approaches is a question of political power, not of technical financial economics.

LONDON – Two alternative approaches dominate current discussions about banking reform: break-up and regulation. The debate goes back to the early days of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which pitted “trust-busters” against regulators.  

In banking, the trust-busters won the day with the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which divorced commercial banking from investment banking and guaranteed bank deposits. With the gradual dismantling of Glass-Steagall, and its final repeal in 1999, bankers triumphed over both the busters and the regulators, while maintaining deposit insurance for the commercial banks. It was this largely unregulated system that came crashing down in 2008, with global repercussions.

At the core of preventing another banking crash is solving the problem of moral hazard – the likelihood that a risk-taker who is insured against loss will take more risks. In most countries, if a bank in which I place my money goes bust, the government, not the bank, compensates me. Additionally, the central bank acts as “lender of last resort” to commercial banks considered “too big to fail.” As a result, banks enjoying deposit insurance and access to central bank funds are free to gamble with their depositors’ money; they are “banks with casinos attached to them” in the words of John Kay.

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