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On financial reform, listen to Paul Volcker

October 23, 2009

Last week, Mervyn King, Britain's equivalent of Federal Reserve chairman, delivered a scathing speech calling for radical reform of the British financial system. Among his recommendations: break up the "too big to fail" banks and separate risk-taking investment banks from meat-and-potatoes commercial banking.

That's hardly Ben Bernanke's view. In fact, the only financial player in Washington who publicly agrees with King is Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman advising President Barack Obama, though Volcker's successor at the Fed, Alan Greenspan, recently startled observers by waxing favorably about busting up the banks. Reports, however, indicate that Volcker is mostly ignored within the Obama administration, where financial policy is largely guided by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and senior economic adviser Larry Summers, both highly sympathetic to Wall Street.

The Volcker position would resurrect the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act prohibiting commercial banks from engaging in brokerage activities. Why the ban? Because losses from the risky securities business could be covered by drawing from federally insured deposits. This gives high-rolling bankers incentive to behave recklessly, confident the feds would save them if they crapped out.

Glass-Steagall evaporated in the 1990s deregulation mania. The financial industry and its Washington friends – especially Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and then-Treasury Secretary Larry Summers (yes, that Larry Summers) – argued that for America to remain globally competitive, the Glass-Steagall firewall had to come down. In fact, this newspaper agreed at the time.

But not everyone was pleased with its demise. Sen. Byron Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat, prophesied: "I think we will look back in 10 years' time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past." Lo, here we are a decade later, clawing our way out of the worst economic crisis since the Depression.

It's too simplistic to blame Glass-Steagall's repeal alone for the crisis. And it isn't clear that bringing it back would help decisively (though note that China keeps investment banks separate from commercial banks and isn't doing badly on the economic front). Still, given how wrong Summers, Geithner other high priests of 1990s deregulation were to trust Wall Street's self-control, an experienced gray eminence like Volcker deserves a wider hearing.

Wall Street may be rebounding, but Main Street is still in a world of hurt. It's not mindless populism to expect that high-flying bankers will find their wings clipped lest they soar too close to the sun – and take us all down with them. As the authoritative Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf put it, "Open-ended insurance of weakly regulated institutions that take complex gambles is intolerable."

It really is that simple. Whether we get there through a reborn Glass-Steagall or some other means, we have to get there. The era of believing that what's good for Wall Street is automatically good for America is over."Anyone who proposed giving government guarantees to retail depositors and other creditors, and then suggested that such funding could be used to finance highly risky and speculative activities, would be thought rather unworldly. But that is where we now are.""The banks are there to serve the public, and that is what they should concentrate on. These other activities create conflicts of interest.""If they're too big to fail, they're too big. In 1911 we broke up Standard Oil – so what happened? The individual parts became more valuable than the whole. Maybe that's what we need to do."