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Resurrecting Glass-Steagall

WASHINGTON, DC – A major shift in American politics has taken place. All three of the remaining mainstream Democratic presidential candidates now agree that the existing state of the financial sector is not satisfactory and that more change is needed. President Barack Obama has long regarded the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation as bringing about sufficient change. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Governor Martin O’Malley want to do even more.

The three leading Democratic candidates disagree, however, on whether there should be legislation to re-erect a wall between the rather dull business of ordinary commercial banking and other kinds of finance (such as issuing and trading securities, commonly known as investment banking).

This issue is sometimes referred to as “reinstating Glass-Steagall,” a reference to the Depression-era legislation – the Banking Act of 1933 – that separated commercial and investment banking. This is a slight misnomer: the most credible bipartisan proposal on the table takes a much-modernized approach to distinguishing and making more transparent different kinds of finance activities. Sanders and O’Malley are in favor of this general idea; Clinton is not (yet).

There are three main arguments against a modern version of Glass-Steagall. None is convincing.