Despite Weill's Words, Breaking Up Banks Won't Be Easy
Law360, New York (July 25, 2012, 8:10 PM ET) -- Former Citigroup Inc. CEO Sanford "Sandy" Weill on Wednesday joined the chorus calling for breaking up the biggest banks, but reform advocates say that even with the high-profile push, it may take another financial crisis for Washington to cut down the biggest banks.
In an interview with CNBC early Wednesday morning that sent shock waves from New York to Washington, Weill said it was time to go back to the model that existed prior to the moment Congress eradicated portions of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which barred investment banks from being affiliated with commercial banks. That 1999 change allowed for the creation of the gargantuan, one-stop financial conglomerates that dominate the financial landscape today.
"I'm suggesting that [the banks] be broken up so that the taxpayer will never be at risk," Weill said in the interview. "The depositors won't be at risk ... and the investment banks can do trading."
Despite the energy Weill's comments engendered, as well as those from other former Wall Street titans like former Citigroup Chairman John Reed, it is unlikely that Washington will move forward with the necessary package of laws to break up the big banks, said Ken Marlin, the founder and managing partner of boutique investment firm Marlin & Associates.
"If very little changed after all the publicity in '08 and '09, I think it's highly unlikely that anything is significant is going to change now," Marlin, a loud critic of the big banks, said.
The issue of whether banks are too big to fail has been one of the biggest debates in Washington and on Wall Street since the 2008 financial crisis and the federal government's unprecedented $787 billion bailout of the country's largest banks. Financial reform advocates have been urging regulators to cut down the biggest banks so that the failure of one would not destroy the financial system.
Weill famously pushed for Congress to ease the restrictions on affiliations between commercial banks and their investment banking cousins with the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which allowed for the merger of insurer Travelers Group Inc. and what was then known as Citicorp. So his statement could be the death knell for proponents of the banks, according to Akshat Tewary of Occupy the SEC.
"He knows better than anyone how banking operated under Glass-Steagall, as well as after it was dismantled partly by his hand," Tewary said. "As a result, few people are in a better position to objectively assess the merits of Glass-Steagall. He has seen the obvious risks that overconcentration in the banking industry can pose to the economy at large."
But with members of Congress seemingly in thrall when a financial CEO like JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s Jamie Dimon comes to testify, even after a calamitous loss, and with the vast amounts of Wall Street cash floating around Washington, the incentive to make change is not there, Marlin said.
"Congress is just not going to pass the laws that meaningfully restrict the activities that the big banks can engage in, nor is the White House going to push for such laws," he said.
Many financial industry professionals have been calling for large, institutional shareholders to break up banks. In fact, Weill's major reasoning for breaking them up is that there is more value in the individual units than in the conglomerates as a whole, he said during his bombshell interview.
But shareholder action is as likely to happen as movement in Washington, according to Marlin.
"The institutional shareholders are not going to stop the big banks from proprietary trading, as long as it's making money," he said, referring to one of the activities that financial reform activities want to see stopped at federally backed financial institutions.
Still, even with cold water being thrown on the idea, Weill's comments did invigorate the debate over what to do with giant banks, experts said.
"We need to reduce the complexity of the megafinancial institutions," said former FDIC Chairman William Isaac, who applauded Weill's stand. "It is not clear to me that reinstating the Glass-Steagall law of 1934 will do that or is even feasible. But we really need to have an intelligent discussion of these issues, which [the Dodd-Frank Act] did not come close to doing."
And even those who are most disillusioned with Washington say that a change will come.
"If we have a meltdown of the financial system of the western world, we'll see all kinds of things," Marlin said. "But before that, no."