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The Business of America

Politicians Vs. Bankers

June 2024
5min read

It took until late last year to undo the damage Congress wreaked on the banking system in the 1930s

Democracy is usually a slow and almost always a messy business. Not infrequently, good politics trumps good policy in the process. Such was the case with America’s main banking law until Friday, November 12, 1999, when President Clinton signed the Financial Services Modernization Act to replace it. The new legislation allows banks, insurance companies, and brokerage houses to compete with great freedom across state lines and merge with one another to form financial conglomerates. In ten years the bank at the corner will be as likely to be owned by Merrill Lynch or Aetna as by Chase Manhattan. It will be possible for a family to get only one monthly statement that covers its cash deposits, investments, life insurance, and other monetary assets.

The law that makes this new American financial world possible took decades to achieve, and there was much blood on the floor in Washington before it passed. Indeed, the bill is the most recent of nearly a dozen serious attempts to overhaul banking law since the last major change in the depths of the Great Depression, but it is the only one to make it all the way through.

When you think about it, that is a monument to the power of the status quo in a democracy. The large city banks and brokerage houses long pushed for change, but the small country banks and S&Ls naturally preferred things as they were in their protected local markets. And Thomas Jefferson’s hatred of banks and commerce still reverberated in the halls of Capitol Hill despite two hundred years of Industrial Revolution.

The banking law that was finally replaced, the Glass-Steagall Banking Act, was equally the product of a messy process, but not, for once, a slow one. In fact, it was only one of the last of many bills enacted during the so-called Hundred Days at the start of the New Deal.

While only time will tell whether politics trumped policy in the new banking act, there is no doubt that it did in the last one. Glass-Steagall greatly weakened the country’s strongest banks while protecting the weakest ones from market forces by maintaining restrictions on competition.

Few alive today are old enough to remember the American banking system before Glass-Steagall. There were already many large and powerful banks in the United States, including J.P. Morgan & Co., arguably the most powerful bank that has ever existed, but most American banks were little one-branch affairs located in small towns. In 1921 there were no fewer than 30,456 of them, more banks than in the rest of the world put together.

But small, one-branch banks are ipso facto weak banks. During the 1920s, when the apparent prosperity was confined largely to the cities, these small banks failed at a rate that averaged 550 a year. When the Great Depression struck, the failure rate rose sickeningly, to a terrifying 5,700—more than 25 percent of all the banks in the country—in 1932 alone. With each bank failure the hopes and security of hundreds or thousands of families failed too, and the psychology of depression deepened its grip on the land.

Meanwhile, the great Wall Street banks, which had ridden so high in the 1920s and were still financially sound despite the Depression, had seen their reputations sullied by revelations of wrongdoing during the boom years. With the advent of the New Deal, a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency began holding hearings to investigate, in Roosevelt’s words, “all the ramifications of bad banking.” The subcommittee’s counsel, Ferdinand Pecora, took on the task with relish, at least with regard to the large banks.

What he found made headlines over and over. To give just one example out of dozens, he uncovered the actions of Albert H. Wiggin, who was president and chairman of the board of Chase National Bank (a forerunner of today’s Chase Manhattan) in the 1920s. From mid-September through mid-December of 1929, Wiggin shorted his bank’s stock to the extent of forty-two thousand shares. This was at the time perfectly legal, but of course it put his own interests 180 degrees around from those of the stockholders. To add insult to injury, he had taken out a large loan to finance the short sale from . . . Chase National Bank.

With many of the small country banks still deep in financial disarray and the great money-center banks deeply politically wounded by the Pecora hearings, Congress set about to write a new banking law to put the system in order. And thus three men largely shaped the American financial landscape for decades.

President Roosevelt, an Eastern aristocrat with exquisitely sensitive political instincts but few ideological or economic convictions, had little use for the small-town bankers, most of whom were politically well connected with Congress and, outside the South, Republican. The President favored a national banking system that would effectively put these bankers and their financially weak but politically strong banks out of business.

Steagall was right that deposit insurance would end runs on banks; FDR was right about the moral hazard.

Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia was an advocate of limited government (he opposed most of the New Deal) and a firm friend of Wall Street. He, too, favored developing a national banking system with institutions strong enough to survive bad times. When he was first elected to the House, in 1902, and assigned to the House Committee on Banking and Currency, he had been ignorant of both economics and banking. However, he was a very quick study. In 1913, by then chairman of the House banking committee, Glass was responsible for the legislation creating the Federal Reserve. From then on he took pride in being called the father of the Federal Reserve System.

Appointed to a vacant seat in the Senate in 1920, he would remain there for the rest of his life. But while friendly with Wall Street, he recognized the reality of the Street's reputation in 1933. Racist even by the standards of the Jim Crow South, he once wise-cracked that “one banker in my state attempted to marry a white woman and they lynched him.”

The third major force was Rep. Henry B. Steagall, who had practiced law in Ozark, Alabama, before moving into politics. Elected to Congress in 1914, he was deeply concerned with protecting the interests of people, and bankers, in such areas as his own native, and deeply rural, Dale County, Alabama. His main interest was in ending the runs that had devastated so many small banks and the small towns they served.

His proposed means for doing so was deposit insurance. The idea was that if depositors were sure their money was not at risk should the bank fail, they would not rush to withdraw their funds at the first rumor of trouble, giving weak banks time to get their affairs in order and sparing sound banks the devastating effects of a run.

Deposit insurance was opposed by many, including the American Bankers Association, Senator Glass, and President Roosevelt himself. The bankers opposed the idea because they would have to pay insurance premiums, but Roosevelt opposed it because of the moral hazard such insurance created. He thought that insuring deposits put a premium on sloppy banking and penalized good banking.

But if Roosevelt personally opposed deposit insurance, his political antennae, picking up every whisper of public opinion, persuaded him to go along with it. Steagal, with the help of a flood of supporting letters and the Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, was thus able to make the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation one of the major provisions of the Glass-Steagal bill. He was certainly right that it would cure the problem of bank runs—there has not been a serious one since—but Roosevelt was also right about the moral hazard. Much enlarged and extended, deposit insurance would be a leading cause of the S&L debacle of the late 1980s.

The concept of deposit insurance created another problem besides moral hazard, however. The biggest banks were usually both depository banks and investment banks. In other words, they were in the securities business as well as the banking business. And while deposit insurance was very popular, no one wanted to insure the securities affiliates of these banks.

The only solution was to command the separation of deposit and investment banking. The big banks fought this tooth and nail. The Morgan Bank pointed out that the already enacted Securities Act of 1933 had corrected most of the poor practices that investment banks had used in the 1920s, such as concealing loans to companies and countries whose bonds they underwrote. It was also argued that investment banks without commercial banking would be capital poor and thus vulnerable in bad times. This often turned out to be the case.

But no one was listening to bankers, especially big bankers, right then. As the Morgan partner Russell Leffingwell explained, “There is so much hunger and distress that it is only natural for the people to blame the bankers and to visit their wrath on the greatest name in American banking.”

That great name in American banking, J.P. Morgan and Company, had to spin off Morgan, Stanley under the new law. It was never quite the same again. Meanwhile, thousands of small institutions that dotted the landscape survived, ensuring that the American banking system would remain the most trouble-prone in the world, even as the American economy reached new heights.

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