Outside View: Averting another financial meltdown

By HARLAN ULLMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator  |  June 20, 2012 at 6:30 AM
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WASHINGTON, June 20 (UPI) -- Financial markets and global economies are far from recovered and remain vulnerable to massive disruption. Quantitative easing in the United Kingdom; elections in Greece; and the actions of the European Central Bank to put 1 trillion euros -- $1.26 trillion -- in play through its Long-Term Repurchasing Options to enhance liquidity are at best temporary palliatives. Stimulating growth and demand remains elusive and stock markets are, on a good day, volatile at best.

In the United States, broken government has been made worse by presidential elections that have added a political variant of polio to incapacitate an already crippled system. Aside from slogans and rhetoric, neither presidential candidate has produced a serious and specific economic plan to cure what is ailing a struggling economy. And the ideological deadlock over spending and taxes is unlikely to be broken certainly before and probably well after the November elections.

If the American public were able to make its views felt, clearly, major reform of the tax code and entitlement programs would have happened long ago. But that isn't the case. And political and ideological divides will be exacerbated if or when the U.S. Supreme Court negates any major provision of the Affordable Health Care Act.

That said, and if this country were serious about making effective reforms to its financial system, three actions will accomplish that aim. The first is to reinstate and modernize the Glass-Steagall Banking Act of 1933 that separated commercial and investment banking. Second is to regulate by limiting (or banning) credit default swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations. And third is to ensure that all publicly listed financial firms have an independent chairman who isn't an officer of the company.

About the first, after the 1929 stock market crash, U.S. Sen. Carter Glass, D-Va., a former Treasury secretary, and U.S. Rep. Henry B. Steagall, D-Ala., co-authored two banking laws. The second placed a "Chinese Wall" between merchant and commercial banks and those banks engaged in investment and securities. In other words, an investment bank was prevented from using the savings accounts of depositors in a commercial bank for any purpose.

Unfortunately, following the CitiBank acquisition of Salomon Smith Barney in 1998, clearly in violation of Glass-Steagall, a very successful lobbying operation produced the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 that voided the 1933 Banking Act and was signed into law by U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Regarding CDS's and CDO's, it is interesting that their equivalents had been banned by state laws in the aftermath of the October 1907 Banking Crisis. That crisis was caused by a combination of runs on several New York banks after the collapse of the Knickerbocker Trust, then the city's third largest, which lost a fortune in betting wrongly on the stock of the United Copper Company.

Since there was no Federal Reserve or formal banking system, that collapse forced regional banks to withdraw their cash from New York banks catalyzing the panic. Only the intervention of J. P. Morgan, who put up his own money, contained the crisis.

A further contributor was "bucket shops," so-called because money and paper were actually traded in buckets. These shops were betting parlors speculating on stocks and commodities through "swaps" and CDS-like instruments and had been in business since the 1820s. These were banned by the states in 1908 and the federal government two decades later. The Commodity Futures Marketing Act of 2000 ended these bans.

Permanently separating commercial and investment banking will limit the ability of "too big to fail" financial behemoths from using savings accounts to fortify balance sheets and apply excessive leverage in which huge debt positions in the form of CDS's and CDO's became financial weapons of mass destruction. Similarly a partial ban or very tight control of CDS's and CDO's will be further insurance against a repeat of the 2008 meltdown.

Finally, by mandating that an independent chairman of the board isn't chief executive officer, president or an executive of the company, oversight and protection of shareholders from faulty management decisions should be improved. The case of Lehman Brothers, whose chairman was also CEO, is a text book argument for this split.

One of the reasons that Lehman failed was the chairman's refusal to accept wiser counsel and reject warnings over the company's impossibly leveraged position. An independent chairman will make such breakdowns more difficult to occur.

About each of these actions, a colossal backlash from the banking and financial communities is predictable. One reason is that such steps will prevent Wall Street bankers from accumulating the fortunes so many made prior to the 2008 meltdown. And deep pockets will extend to lobbyists who will be very well compensated to convince Congress to reject such proposals.

But if we are serious about protecting our financial systems, we must learn from history -- or be damned to repeat it.


(Harlan Ullman is chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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