After the Wall Street crash of 1929, Congress enacted Glass-Steagall, a law preventing banks from engaging in securities trading. In 1999 Congress repealed Glass-Steagall and Wall Street crashed nine years later.
A coincidence? Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) think not. They have quietly introduced legislation that would bring back the 1933 law that many credit for keeping the economy out of meltdown mode for 65 years.
What would it mean? It would prohibit the affiliation of Federal Reserve member banks with firms that engage principally in securities activities, and prohibit bank employees and Board members from working for securities firms.
It would mean that Bank of America couldn't own Merrill Lynch, as it does now. The bill would also prohibit depository institutions from engaging in insurance-related activities, like credit swaps and derivatives.
The immediate effect would be to require the large multi-function banks that were at the heart of last year's banking crisis and were the primary recipients of bailouts, such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo, to spin off their investment and insurance operations from their depository, commercial banking operations.
In other words, banks would be just banks. They would accept deposits and make loans, making their profits the old fashioned way. The bill immediately won backing from some consumer groups, including Demos.
"The American people shouldn't be subsidizing the risk-taking of Wall Street traders, but that's exactly what has happened since the repeal of Glass-Steagall," said Heather McGhee, Director of Demos' Washington office. "Separating speculation from government-supported banking is a prudent reform that would protect American taxpayers and restore competitiveness to the banking sector."
Consumer groups also say re-instating Glass-Steagall would help eliminate the "too big to fail" problem that Treasury and the Federal Reserve have yet to resolve. Under Glass-Steagall, they argue, a wall of separation between banking and securities trading would lead to a more stable environment.