Ritholtz: "Definancialize" The Economy

Would the Glass-Steagall Act have prevented the 2008 financial crisis and its fallout? Barry Ritholtz says no — but he says the crisis would likely have been far more manageable had the legislation not been repealed in the late 1990s.

“No, the repeal of Glass-Steagall was not a proximate cause of the crisis,” Ritholtz writes in his Washington Post column. “But its impact was both nuanced and complex.” He says that the repeal of the act was part of a broader deregulation push, and after the repeal, banks became more complex and more leveraged. And the banks contributed to non-banks like AIG and Bear Stearns “bulking up their subprime holdings” in a speculative and dangerous way, he says. “So we can say that Glass-Steagall’s repeal allowed the credit bubble to inflate much larger,” Ritholtz says. “It allowed banks to be more complex and difficult to manage. When it all came down, the crisis was broader, deeper and more dangerous than it would have been otherwise.”

Had Glass-Steagall still been in place, “there would not, could not, have been a Citi/Travelers merger, and competitors would not, could not have bulked up the way they did,” Ritholtz says. “Major money center banks most likely would have been smaller, more manageable, more easily wound down. Arguably, too big to fail might not have been the rule, and bailouts might not have been necessary.”

Ritholtz says the U.S. needs to “definancialize” its economy and reduce the amount of influence bankers have on the economy. One suggestion he offers: “No more Wall Street bankers as Treasury secretaries. It would be much better for the nation to find someone from industry who understands finance rather than finding someone from finance who understands industry.”