January 22, 2010


Glass-Steagall lite: Barack Obama proposes limiting the activities of big banks (The Economist, 1/22/10)

The first half of the plan concerns restrictions on the scope of activities. Banks that have insured deposits, and thus access to emergency funds from the central bank, would not be allowed to own or invest in private equity or hedge funds. Nor would they be able to engage in “proprietary” trading—punting their own capital—though they could continue to offer investment banking for clients, such as underwriting securities, making markets and advising on mergers.

The second part focuses on size. Banks already face a 10% cap on national market share of deposits. This would be updated to include other liabilities, namely wholesale funding. The aim is to limit concentration, which has increased greatly over the past 20 years, accelerating during the crisis as healthy banks bought sick ones. The four largest banks now hold more than half of the industry’s assets.

These proposals will be wrapped into a broader set of reforms that is grinding its way through Congress. A bill passed by the House of Representatives, but not yet taken up by the Senate, gives regulators the right to limit the scope and scale of firms that pose a “grave” threat to stability. The new plan goes further, requiring them to do so. It is also more radical than the increased capital charges for trading assets proposed by the Basel Committee of international bank supervisors.

The administration had until now seemed content to shackle the banks with tougher regulation, including higher capital ratios, rather than breaking them up or limiting what they could do. But it has warmed to the thinking of Paul Volcker, a former Federal Reserve chairman and Obama adviser, who has long advocated more dramatic measures—indeed, Mr Obama dubbed the latest reforms “the Volcker rule”.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 22, 2010 11:28 AM
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