Glass–Steagall Act

The Glass-Steagall Act was passed by the U.S. Congress as part of the Banking Act of 1933. Sponsored by Senator Carter Glass, a former Treasury secretary, and Representative Henry Steagall, chair of the House Banking and Currency Committee, it prohibited commercial banks from participating in the investment banking business and vice versa. An emergency measure to counter the failure of almost 5,000 banks during the Great Depression. Glass-Steagall lost its potency in subsequent decades and was partially repealed in 1999. In the 21st century, however, another financial crisis has led to talk in political and economic circles of reviving the act.[1]

The Glass–Steagall legislation describes four provisions of the United States Banking Act of 1933 separating commercial and investment banking. The article 1933 Banking Act describes the entire law, including the legislative history of the provisions covered herein. As for the Glass–Steagall Act of 1932, the common name comes from the names of the Congressional sponsors, Senator Carter Glass and Representative Henry B. Steagall.

The separation of commercial and investment banking prevented securities firms and investment banks from taking deposits, and commercial Federal Reserve member banks from:

  • dealing in non-governmental securities for customers,
  • investing in non-investment grade securities for themselves,
  • underwriting or distributing non-governmental securities,
  • affiliating (or sharing employees) with companies involved in such activities.

Starting in the early 1960s, federal banking regulators' interpretations of the Act permitted commercial banks, and especially commercial bank affiliates, to engage in an expanding list and volume of securities activities. Congressional efforts to "repeal the Glass–Steagall Act", referring to those four provisions (and then usually to only the two provisions that restricted affiliations between commercial banks and securities firms), culminated in the 1999 The Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act (GLBA), which repealed the two provisions restricting affiliations between banks and securities firms.

By that time, many commentators argued Glass–Steagall was already "dead". Most notably, Citibank's 1998 affiliation with Salomon Smith Barney, one of the largest US securities firms, was permitted under the Federal Reserve Board's then existing interpretation of the Glass–Steagall Act. In November 1999, President Bill Clinton publicly declared "the Glass–Steagall law is no longer appropriate". Some commentators have stated that the GLBA's repeal of the affiliation restrictions of the Glass–Steagall Act was an important cause of the financial crisis of 2007–2008. Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz argued that the effect of the repeal was "indirect": "[w]hen repeal of Glass-Steagall brought investment and commercial banks together, the investment-bank culture came out on top". Economists at the Federal Reserve, such as Chairman Ben Bernanke, have argued that the activities linked to the financial crisis were not prohibited (or, in most cases, even regulated) by the Glass–Steagall Act.[2]

Another important provision of the act created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which insures bank deposits with a pool of money collected from banks. This provision was the most controversial at the time and drew veto threats from President Roosevelt. It was included at the insistence of Steagall, who had the interests of small rural banks in mind. Small rural banks and their representatives were the main proponents of deposit insurance. Opposition came from large banks that believed they would end up subsidizing small banks. Past attempts by states to instate deposit insurance had been unsuccessful because of moral hazard and also because local banks were not diversified. After the bank holiday, the public showed vast support for insurance, partly in the hope of recovering some of the losses and partly because many blamed Wall Street and big bankers for the Depression. Although Glass had opposed deposit insurance for years, he changed his mind and urged Roosevelt to accept it. A temporary fund became effective in January 1934, insuring deposits up to $2,500. The fund became permanent in July 1934 and the limit was raised to $5,000. This limit was raised numerous times over the years until reaching the current $250,000. All Federal Reserve member banks on or before July 1, 1934, were required to become stockholders of the FDIC by such date. No state bank was eligible for membership in the Federal Reserve System until it became a stockholder of the FDIC, and thereby became an insured institution, with required membership by national banks and voluntary membership by state banks. Deposit insurance is still viewed as a great success, although the problem of moral hazard and adverse selection came up again during banking failures of the 1980s. In response, Congress passed legislation that strengthened capital requirements and required banks with less capital to close.

The act had a large impact on the Federal Reserve. Notable provisions included the creation of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) under Section 8. However, the 1933 FOMC did not include voting rights for the Federal Reserve Board, which was revised by the Banking Act of 1935 and amended again in 1942 to closely resemble the modern FOMC.

Prior to the passage of the act, there were no restrictions on the right of a bank officer of a member bank to borrow from that bank. Excessive loans to bank officers and directors became a concern to bank regulators. In response, the act prohibited Federal Reserve member bank loans to their executive officers and required the repayment of outstanding loans.

In addition, the act introduced what later became known as Regulation Q, which mandated that interest could not be paid on checking accounts and gave the Federal Reserve authority to establish ceilings on the interest that could be paid on other kinds of deposits. The view was that payment of interest on deposits led to “excessive” competition among banks, causing them to engage in unduly risky investment and lending policies so that they could earn enough income to pay the interest. The prohibition of interest-bearing demand accounts has been effectively repealed by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. Beginning July 21, 2011, financial institutions became allowed, but not required, to offer interest-bearing demand accounts.[3]

See Also