Once upon a time, banks did banking and brokers made people broker and ne’er the twain did meet. Ditto for insurers and S&Ls and all the other sub-sectors Wall Street has now euphemistically titled the “financial services” industry, an oxymoron akin to “airline food” or “Congressional ethics.”
Sometimes I find a particularly well-written article on a subject and say, “I couldn’t have written it any better myself.” Such was the case with a recent article by Sy Harding of Street Smart Report (see his free daily blog at www.streetsmartpost.com.) I’ve quoted much of it below, followed by my comments and ideas for possible purchases…
The Glass-Steagall Act was passed in the 1930’s to help prevent a recurrence of the 1929 market crash and the Great Depression. It provided strict separation of the activities of various types of financial firms, the overlapping of which had been significantly responsible for creating the late 1920’s market bubble and subsequent crash.
Under Glass-Steagall financial firms had to divest themselves of over-lapping operations and focus on their core business.
Basically, savings banks could take in deposits from customers and loan the money out in home mortgages, auto loans and other types of personal lending.
Commercial banks could handle deposits and checking accounts of businesses and make commercial loans.
Investment banks could provide investment banking services, including arranging for companies to go public, merger and acquisition activities, making bridge loans, etc.
Brokerage firms could handle investment services for investors.
Insurance companies provided insurance and annuities.
Real estate brokerage firms provided real estate services on a commission basis.
Mutual funds invested in stocks, bonds, or other assets and sold shares to the public to provide them with diversified portfolios.
The financial sector screamed and yelled, but the separations were made fairly quickly and enforced. And none of the dire consequences Wall Street firms warned would be the result if government set up such restrictions took place. All sectors of the financial system managed to flourish very well for the next 60 years under the separations and restrictions.
But in the late 1990’s, banks and insurance companies began looking over their walls in envy at the big profits that brokerage firms and mutual funds were making from the booming stock market. Brokerage firms looked over their wall at the profits that could be made from packaging home mortgages, auto loans, etc. into leveraged investment derivatives…
…in 1998 they began lobbying Congress, and bombarding the media with articles and interviews aimed at having the public accept the idea of tearing down the walls… Overnight the walls disappeared. Banks were suddenly in the brokerage business, introduced their own mutual funds, were neck deep in investment banking, had huge trading departments trading for their own profits, etc. Brokerage firms were providing home mortgages, packaging the mortgages of other lenders and selling them to investors, etc.
And we soon saw the results with the stock market bubble in 2000, and the subsequent real estate bubble just a few years later, and the near collapse of the entire financial system last year under the weight of all the toxic assets that had mushroomed on the balance sheets of all types of financial firms…
…Wall Street of course claims that the abolishment of Glass-Steagall in 1999 was a good thing, that it resulted in innovative investment changes that strengthened the economy and markets.
Huh? We’ve had two recessions and two severe bear markets since 1999, with buy and hold investors still way underwater over the last 10 years, consumers in worse trouble than they’ve been in since the great Depression, and the financial system near total collapse for the first time since the 1929 crash and its aftermath…
In the late 1990s, Congress and President Clinton embraced the campaign spearheaded by Sandy Weill, then head of Citicorp, to rescind Glass-Steagall. Weill and his ilk paid $200 million in lobbying fees for this endeavor in the 1997-98 election cycle alone (and contributed another $150 million directly to various Congressmen and other politicians during those months.) That was chump change to Wall Street – and, in fact, it came out of the pockets of Citicorp and other shareholders, without Weill or his cabal of cohorts having to put up a penny of their own to pull off this taxpayer heist. No matter the source, it was enough to buy respect, votes, or whatever. And we are still paying for it today.
(According to PBS's "Frontline," just days after the Treasury Department agreed to support the repeal, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin accepted the job as Weill's chief lieutenant at Citigroup. Weill and co-boss John Reed thanked President Clinton, whom Weill called in the middle of the night to keep the deal going, personally.)
There are only two times our elected representatives give a damn what we think – the first Tuesday in November in the years we elect our President and the first Tuesday in November two years hence. In fact, they still don’t care what we “think” even on these dates but they sure as hell worry about how we’ll vote. If enough of us tell them we will vote them out of office unless they restore Glass-Steagall, this is the year – these are the key months in which-- they will listen. Not because they care what we think, but because if we vote them out, they’ll have to find honest work somewhere (or become lobbyists, of course) and they’ll then be saddled with the same health care system and pension system they voted for the rest of us.
If we are successful in restoring Glass-Steagall, I would look at a number of regional banks like Wilmington Trust (NYSE:WL), Bank of Marin (NASDAQ:BMRC), Bank of Hawaii (NYSE:BOH), United Bankshares (NASDAQ:UBSI), Trustmark (NASDAQ:TRMK), Heartland Financial (NASDAQ:HTLF), Sterling Bancshares (NASDAQ:SBIB) and Capital City Bank Group (NASDAQ:CCBG) to do exceedingly well and recommend them for your further research. If we fail to reinstate Glass-Steagall, these banks might still do quite well, but more as takeover candidates by money-center banks Too Big Too Fail, Too Stupid to Succeed Without Regularly Reaching Into Our Pockets.
Write your Congresspersons, every one. Tell them you will vote them out in a flash if they don’t immediately reinstate Glass-Steagall. I live at Lake Tahoe in Nevada, 10 minutes from the People’s Republic border. If I believe we can vote out Harry Reid, the man who gave Congressional ethics its standing as an oxymoron – and I do – and his cohorts to the far left of us on the map – and I do -- your representatives should be easy!
Author's Disclosure: We and/or clients for whom it is appropriate are currently long WL, BOH, UBSI and CCBG, and are buyers of all the others at the right price as we free up funds from other sectors.
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