banks and their social function
Banks aren’t ordinary corporations. In addition to being private, for-profit organizations, they also carry out important social economic functions. They’re the primary instrument the government uses to carry out national money policy. Through letters of credit, they also underpin the workings of the international trade of multinational firms that is increasingly important for economic growth.
This is why the major banks are considered “too big to fail.”
US banks have been on the brink of failure twice during the past hundred years–in the late 1920s and in 2007-09. Both times this has been the result of rampant speculative financial market activity coupled with reckless lending, both driven by the search for earnings per share growth.
Glass-Steagall, and its repeal
In the 1930s, Washington enacted legislation, including the Glass-Steagall Act that barred the banks from non-banking activities (like brokerage, proprietary trading and investment banking). The new laws ushered in a period of relative stability for the banks that lasted until the late 1990s, when their intense lobbying succeeded in getting Glass-Steagall repealed.
(An aside: yes, the banks manufactured periodic crises through imprudent lending to emerging economies–the Walter Wriston-led binge of the 1970s being a prime example–but these were relatively tame in comparison.)
Less than ten years later, many big banks were broke. World trade had come to a standstill as manufacturers refused to accept banks’ guarantees that shipped merchandise would be paid for (the worry was that the guaranteeing bank would file for bankruptcy while the goods were en route, reducing the shipper to being an unsecured creditor). The deepest peacetime period of world economic decline since the Great Depression began.
This, in turn, spawned Dodd-Frank, the 21st century equivalent of Glass-Steagall.
repeal again? so soon?
While it took more than half a century for the memory of the Depression to fade enough for Congress to consider removing restrictions on bank activity, we’re now less than a decade away from the 2007-09 collapse.
Despite this, despite campaigning on an anti-establishment platform, and despite warning that Hillary Clinton should not be elected because she would be a creature of the big banks, during his first few days in office Donald Trump is proposing to restore to the big banks the tools of self-destruction they have wielded to devastating effect twice before.