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Why No Glass-Steagall II?

MANILA – Eighty years ago this month, Ferdinand Pecora, the cigar-chomping former assistant district attorney for New York City, was appointed chief counsel for the US Senate Committee on Banking and Currency. In subsequent months, the hearings of the Pecora Commission featured many sensational revelations about the practices that led to the 1930’s financial crisis.

More than that, the Commission’s investigation led to far-reaching reform – most famously, the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking. But Glass-Steagall didn’t stop there. It created federal insurance for bank deposits. With unit banking (in which all operations are carried out in self-standing offices) viewed as unstable, banks were now permitted to branch more widely. Glass-Steagall also strengthened regulators’ ability to clamp down on lending for real-estate and stock-market speculation.

The hearings also led to passage of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Securities issuers and traders were required to release more information, and were subjected to higher transparency standards. The notion that capital markets could self-regulate was decisively rejected.

The contrast with today is striking. Say what you will about the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, but it is weak soup by the standards of the 1930’s. In response to what is widely regarded as the most serious financial crisis in 80 years, it does much less to change the structure and regulation of the US financial system.