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Analysis/Comment Last Updated: Feb 4, 2011 - 6:15 AM


Dr. Peter Morici: Fixing the Banks
By Professor Peter Morici
Jan 22, 2009 - 2:30 AM

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June 16, 1933: Washington, DC- President Franklin D. Roosevelt affixes his signature to the Glass-Steagall Bank Reform Act--deposit insurance measure, one of the last bits of legislation put through before Congress adjourned, at the end of the famous first 100 days of the Administration. Behind the President (l-r) are: Sen. Allen Barkley; Sen. Thomas Gore; Sen. Carter Glass; Comptroller of Currency J.F.T. Connors; Sen. William G. McAdoo; Rep. Henry S. Steagall; Senator Duncan U. Fletcher; Rep. Alan Goldsborough; and Rep. Robert Luce.

In addition to deposit insurance, this second Glass-Steagall Act, separated investment banking and commercial banking, which is why Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan are two different firms.

Commercial banks were seen as having taken on too much risk in share trading, with depositors' money, up to the October 1929 Crash.

The Glass-Steagall Act was repealed by Congress in November 1999, a measure that has been termed the "Citigroup Authorization Act." Robert Rubin had pushed for repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act as Treasury Secretary. He resigned in July 1999 and was succeeded by Lawrence Summers, now President Obama's head of the National Economic Council. President Clinton called Rubin the "greatest Secretary of the Treasury since Alexander Hamilton" - - President George Washington's Treasury Secretary - - and the former Cabinet officer, who had spent 26 years at Goldman Sachs before joining the Clinton Administration, took a senior position at Citigroup. Rubin who earned $17.0 million at Citi in 2008, was not aware of the detail of $55 billion of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and other subprime-related securities on the group's balance sheet. "The answer is very simple," he told Fortune Magazine. "It didn't go on under my nose."

The New York Times reported in November 2008 that in September 2007, Citigroup’s then chief executive, Chuck Prince, had learned for the first time that the bank owned about $43 billion in mortgage-related assets! On January 2, 2009, Citigroup said that Robert Rubin had resigned as a senior adviser and would not seek re-election as a board director. The Wall Street Journal says Rubin made $115 million in pay since 1999, excluding stock options. Rubin told the Journal his pay was justified and that there were higher-paying opportunities available to him. "I bet there's not a single year where I couldn't have gone somewhere else and made more," he said. Asked if he had any regrets, Rubin said: "I guess that I don't think of it quite that way," adding that "if you look back from now, there's an enormous amount that needs to be learned." - - Michael Hennigan - Finfacts Photo: © Bettmann/CORBIS  

Fixing the Banks: For every new president, campaign promises and inaugural idealism must give way to the hard choices that measure the mettle of their leadership.

Now Barack Obama must act pragmatically to fix the banks or the economy will sink under their weight.

Banks continue to suffer losses on bonds backed by failing mortgages, credit cards and auto loans, and questionable corporate debt. To assist, the Treasury has used TARP funds to purchase capital in healthy and deeply troubled banks alike; however, no one can calibrate how high bank losses will go, because no one knows how far housing prices will drop and how many loans will ultimately fail.

The Obama Treasury could put a floor under bank losses, through government guarantees on their bonds, or by creating an aggregator bank that purchases those securities from banks altogether.

Guarantees would give the banks profits on bonds whose underlying loans are mostly repaid, and shift to taxpayers losses from those bonds whose loans are mostly not repaid. That would require additional large subsidies from taxpayer to the banks.

An aggregator bank, however, could turn a profit. It could purchase all the commercial banks’ potentially questionable securities, at their current mark to market values, with its own common stock and funds provided by the TARP. Then the aggregator bank could balance profits on those securities whose loans pan out against losses on securities whose loans fail.

An aggregator bank could perform triage on mortgages. It could work out those whose homeowners can be saved with some adjustments in their loan balances, interest rates and repayment periods; foreclose on mortgages whose homeowners could not meet payments with reasonably concessions; and leave other loans alone.

Commercial banks acting alone cannot accomplish triage as effectively, because individually they can have little effect on how much housing values will fall. In contrast an aggregator bank, holding so many mortgages and working in cooperation with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, could have a salutary impact on housing values. It could put some breaks on falling home prices.

Beyond toxic securities, policymakers need to fix what got banks into this mess. The 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall permitted the creation of financial supermarkets, like Citigroup, that combined commercial banks with investment banks, brokerages, and the bizarre universe of hedge and private equity funds.

Those nonbank financial firms are run by salesmen and financial engineers that don’t understand long-term commitments as bankers to borrowers with solid incomes and sound business plans. Investment bankers, securities dealers and fund managers, essentially, get paid commissions on sales and for betting other peoples’ money on arbitrage opportunities. They put together people that have money with those that need money, and those people that can't bear risk with those that can.

Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He is a recognized expert on international economics, industrial policy and macroeconomics. Prior to joining the university, he served as director of the Office of Economics at the US International Trade Commission during the Clinton Administration.

In contrast, commercial bankers, historically, had skin in the game—bank capital and a fiduciary responsibility to depositors. They were paid salaries, not commissions on the volume of loans they wrote or bought from mortgage brokers to package into bonds. They expected to be fired if their loans prove imprudent.

To investment bankers and securities dealers, it does not matter how risky a loan is, because they can always bundle it into a bond to sell it off or insure it with a swap. That's nonsense, as we have learned. Adopting that thinking commercial banks got stuck with too many loan-backed bonds and buying swaps that were not backed by adequate assets.

Commercial banks need to be separate and more highly regulated. The ongoing process of breaking up Citigroup and placing its banking activities into a separate entity should be replicated at other Wall Street and large regional banks.

Freed from toxic assets and the complications of affiliations with financial institutions having other agendas, commercial banks could raise new private capital and make new prudent loans as President Obama’s stimulus package lifts consumer spending and business prospects.

Such approaches would disappoint those who champion unbridled free markets but Wall Street’s financiers have abused the opportunities offered them by deregulation to the peril of the nation.

President Obama needs to craft solutions that address the world as he finds it not as intellectuals tell him it should be.

Peter Morici,

Professor, Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland,

College Park, MD 20742-1815,

703 549 4338 Phone

703 618 4338 Cell Phone

pmorici@rhsmith.umd.edu

http://www.smith.umd.edu/lbpp/faculty/morici.html

http://www.smith.umd.edu/faculty/pmorici/cv_pmorici.htm

 

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