Monday, December 15, 2014

What does "breaking up the banks" mean?

After the recent drama about the 2015 spending bill in Congress, a lot of people are talking about the "disarray" amongst Democrats. I was particularly intrigued by what Greg Sargent wrote about that today.
There is broad Democratic agreement that the party must come up with a more comprehensive response to stagnating wages and the failure of the recovery to achieve widespread, more equitable distribution. Dems mostly agree on a range of policy responses, such as a minimum wage hike, pay equity, expanded pre-K education, and big job-creating investments in infrastructure.

But there are clear divisions, too. Democrats like Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Bernie Sanders favor some form of breaking up big banks and back expanding Social Security; Sanders wants major reform to trade policies; and some Democrats oppose the big trade deals now being negotiated.
I'm going to leave Social Security and trade deals alone for today. That's because, based on what I wrote earlier about the difference between commercial banks and global financial institutions, I got curious about what people like Warren, Brown and Sanders mean when they talk about "breaking up the banks."

Just two days ago Sen. Sanders announced that he will introduce legislation in the next Congress to break up the banks. He doesn't give any specifics there or in the agenda he announced recently for a potential presidential run. So I guess we'll have to wait and see.

The legislation Sen. Warren introduced in July 2013 was basically a revival of what used to be known as Glass-Steagall - which would separate traditional commercial banking from financial investment firms. While this might be a reasonable step, it would neither break up nor further regulate the "too big to fail" investment firms (i.e. Lehman and AIG) that were at the heart of the Great Recession. In that sense, I think the public is a bit misled when its referred to as "breaking up the banks."

Sen. Sherrod Brown wins the door prize for proposing legislation that would actually "break up the banks."
The legislation would place sensible limits on the amount of debt that a single financial institution could take on relative to the entire productive economy. No bank could have non-deposit liabilities valued greater than two percent of U.S. GDP, and no investment bank could have non-deposit liabilities exceeding three percent of GDP. This would only affect the six largest megabanks, which would be given three years to comply by drawing up their own proposals to meet this goal.
After reading about Sen. Brown's legislation, this tweet from WaPo's Congressional reporter a few days ago makes perfect sense.

My question for Senator Brown would be to ask how his proposed legislation would affect wage stagnation and job creation. Anything that destabilizes financial institutions could seriously disrupt the positive trends we're beginning to see there. Overall, when it comes to income inequality, I tend to support efforts to build up from the bottom rather than tear down at the top. But I'm open to being persuaded that both might be necessary.

In the end though, it doesn't surprise me that the deep work on an issue like this is coming from someone who tends to be out of the limelight of our hysteria-based media. Keep your eye on Sen. Sherrod Brown!


  1. I'm proud to say Senator Brown represents me. He's a perfect example of a progressive (in a purple-ish to red state) who knows how to get things done. He is also very concerned about jobs and employment, so I'm sure his support of breaking up the banks was well thought out. He's a very smart man and truly enjoys the process of government. His wife is Connie Schultz, a former columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer who won a Pulitzer several years ago for her reporting. You might enjoy a couple of her books which are compilation of her columns to get a feel for where she and her husband are coming from. One of the books is called "And His Lovely Wife".

  2. I tend to support efforts to build up from the bottom rather than tear down at the top.


    I agree with this approach


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