Volcker and Banks

Published on Real-World Economics Review Blog, by Peter Radford, February 15, 2012.

We have reached a crucial point in our attempt to bottle up the banks. It looks as if they will win. That means the economy will lose, and the likelihood of a new crisis immediately jumps. Read your Minsky. And weep … //  

… As I said – banking matters. We need sound banks. Which means we need to reform our current banks because they are not sound. Or, at least, sound enough.

This is why trading should never, ever, co-mingle with banking.

Which is why a hard and fast ban on proprietary harding is essential as we re-build our banking system.

At the moment the bankers are pressing back against the implementation of the so-called ‘Volcker Rule’, named after Paul Volcker the former Fed chief. His rule would carve out trading from banking in a manner similar to the old Glass-Steagall Act. The banks are throwing up all sorts of dust in order to distract politicians, and are getting serious help from big business and foreign governments all of whom seem to fear a loss of market access.

Those fears are palpably nonsense.

I don’t recall big business and foreign governments having a hard time getting access to US money markets back in the Glass-Steagall era. Indeed I recall all too vividly some banks regretting being involved in sovereign lending. Nor do I recall big business being hamstrung by a lack of credit. On the contrary big business was a center of financial innovation as it developed all sorts of new funding devices to expand its way into direct market access. It was the banks fearing losing market share, not big business fearing tight credit, that drove, in part, the fight against Glass-Steagall.

This debate over the Volcker Rule is emblematic of the power struggle that sits at the heart of our economic recovery. This is a fight that we cannot lose. To do so condemns us to continued subsidy of the banking system, and to heightened risk of economic collapse in the near future. The big banks are preposterously sized with respect to even the US economy. They are grotesque giants capable of sinking us with one incorrect derivative decision. Their power has not been eroded sufficiently to rein them in. Only breaking them up will accomplish that task. Even with a full implementation of the Volcker Rule, behemoths like JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Citibank will continue to lurch about the economic landscape supported by our subsidy which enables them top raise money much more cheaply and in much larger quantities than they could were they truly private organizations. Their quasi-public status allows them to make poor decisions – which they do with alarming frequency – and offload the consequences onto us. All while their managers benefit from rotten bonus incentives and lead the continued march towards greater income inequality.

This anti-social behavior has to stop. It is undermining democracy. It is ruining our economy.

Full application of the Volcker rule is urgently needed. But it is only a first step. Our bureaucrats may think they can devise subtle plans to deal with future bank failures. They cannot. All their clever plans will dissolve at first contact with a ‘too-big-to-fail’ event. The panic will force accommodation. The bankers will re-surface to pillage us again. Only breaking the banks into smaller chunks will prevent them from being the danger they became after deregulation.

The Volcker Rule is a beginning. It is not an end. (full text).

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