Is Glass-Steagall The Answer? Maybe Not, Says Zweig

While many have been clamoring for the reinstitution of the Glass-Steagall Act as a way to address some of the financial sector’s problems, Jason Zweig is skeptical.

In his Intelligent Investor column for The Wall Street Journal, Zweig says that when it was in effect, Glass-Steagall wasn’t the powerhouse that many are portraying it to be. “For all of the rhapsodizing about the halcyon days of Glass-Steagall, the statute was far weaker than its advocates care to admit,” he writes. “That law did help stamp out much of the self-dealing and skulduggery that had corrupted banking in the 1920s. But it was shaped by special interests from the start, riddled with loopholes and powerless to stop banks from committing many financial abuses. By the time Congress repealed it in 1999 … the much-vaunted law had been an empty husk for decades.”

As for the bank break-ups that Glass-Steagall advocates seek, Zweig says there are significant questions about whether they would unlock value for investors. “Today’s giant banks are so convoluted that insiders themselves can be mistaken about what their complex assets are worth,” he says. “It isn’t realistic for outsiders to think they can do better.”

Zweig says that more than a Glass-Steagall reinstatement is needed. He says the real problem in the financial sector is that under the current setup, taxpayers are left on the hook for huge, failed risks by companies. One way to address that, he says: Decrease deposit insurance limits, he says, which would make consumers — and thus banks — more diligent about assessing risk.

“Even if, by some legislative miracle, banks are cleft in two, they will find infinitely crafty ways to get risks back onto their balance sheets,” Zweig concludes. “And the additional ‘capital buffers’ that regulators are demanding now are likely to make banks safer for society, but less lucrative for investors. Your capital already is at risk as a taxpayer. Why risk it as an investor, too?”