Does the 2007-2008 crisis show that the universal banking experiment has failed?

The Anglo-American universal banking experiment started in 1986 with Britain’s Big Bang which was quickly followed by regulatory policies in the US that would lead to the formal repeal of Glass Steagall a decade or so later. The question that needs to be asked is whether the 2007-2008 crisis is evidence of the failure of this quarter-century of experimenting with universal banking.

In Germany universal banking has been successful over the long-run, but Germany has a civil, not a common law legal system and a social structure that ensures that companies are managed in the interests of many participants in addition to those of shareholders/management. When universal banking is combined with Anglo-American law and social norms, it is possible that it generates pathological behavior that is not evidenced by the German economy.

A standard objection to the claim that universal banking is the underlying source of the crisis is that the only banks that were allowed to fail were not universal banks, but investment banks. This objection ignores that the whole investment banking industry had been reshaped over the decades preceding the crisis by the need to compete with the universal banks, so the fact that it was the investment banks that failed tells us nothing. Furthermore there is significant evidence that one or two of the universal banks did not fail only because the government considered them too big to fail.

John Quiggin recently argued that Wall Street isn’t worth it and that we should put an end to the universal banking experiment:

The only remaining option is to separate these markets entirely from the socially useful parts of the financial system, then let them fail. Publicly guaranteed banks should be banned from engaging in all but the most basic financial transactions, such as issuing loans and bonds and accepting deposits. In particular, banks should be prohibited from doing any business with institutions engaged in speculative finance such as trade in derivatives. Such institutions should be required to raise all their funds directly from investors, on a “buyer beware” basis, and should never be bailed out, directly or indirectly, when they get into trouble.

Matthew Yglesias critiques this view arguing that “it’s a very hard concept to operationalize.” And then limits his focus to derivatives regulation. He writes:

But while it’s easy to say “we should allow derivatives trading for the purpose of hedging but not for the purpose of speculating” (certainly that’s what I think), it’s a lot harder to write precise legislative and regulatory language that accomplishes that goal. If you look at something like the Harvard interest-rate-swap fiasco, it’s difficult to say precisely where this crossed the line from a reasonable hedge to just gambling with endowment money.

Yglesias’ critique, however, misses Quiggen’s point: commercial banks shouldn’t be engaged in market making or in trading on financial markets at all. The difficulty of implementing the Volcker rule is that it’s trying to draw a line between trading that’s okay (e.g. market making) and trading that’s not okay (proprietary trading). Quiggen is stating that commercial banks should not be engaged in either of these activities. This is a much easier policy to implement (see Glass-Steagall).

This may leave open some room to allow commercial banks to be end-users of financial contracts like interest rate swaps for hedging purposes, but drawing this distinction is much less difficult than Yglesias implies. The distinction between the use of derivatives for hedging or for speculating is precisely the same distinction that is drawn in insurance markets between an insurable interest and the absence of one. Given that we know that drawing the distinction is not an insuperable problem in insurance markets, it’s far from clear why the problem suddenly becomes insuperable when the label “derivative” is placed on the financial contract.

[In addition the whole point of Felix Salmon’s post on the Harvard IRS fiasco is that it was clearly gambling at the time the swaps were entered into. Salmon states with barely veiled sarcasm “Larry was certain of two things: firstly that his beloved Allston project was a go — despite the fact that he hadn’t raised the funds for it, and secondly that interest rates would rise by the time construction started. Therefore, he decided to lock in funding costs by using forward swaps.” In short Salmon is stating that the contracts represents two gambles, first, on the future need for the funds, and, second, on the future path of interests rates. While ex post we know that in 2008 Harvard would have been better off holding on to its side of the bet rather than buying itself out of the contracts, the post is crystal clear about the fact that these swaps were never a “reasonable hedge.”]

While we can certainly debate whether or not the 2007-2008 crisis demonstrates that the Anglo-American experiment with universal banking has failed, arguments that it’s just too hard to reverse the experiment only play into the interests of the universal banks and probably should not be given much weight. If policies that were implemented at the tail end of the last century completely destabilized our financial system, it is clearly worth the effort to find a way to reverse those policies.

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