In 1933, in the wake of the Great Depression, as a way to prevent the kind of reckless speculation that drove that economic calamity, the Glass-Steagall Act was signed into law by FDR. Among other things, including the establishment of the FDIC, the Act prohibited commercial banks, which took customer deposits and issued loans, from practicing investment banking, or issuing securities. This law worked beautifully for 66 years, preventing risk-taking with customer deposits while allowing investment banks to generate securities and trade to their heart's content.
Beginning around 1980 the banking industry began lobbying for the repeal of Glass-Steagal. In 1987 the Congressional Research Office issued a report, which concluded that there was a significant conflict of interest between issuing credit (lending) and using credit (investing) within the same institution. The report further argued that depository lenders possessed enormous power in holding other people's money and they needed to be prudent in their activities using that money, while securities investment was a risky endeavor. Congress did not act on the repeal at that time.
But in 1999, the banks got their way. The impetus for repeal? Citigroup (a commercial bank) merged with Travelers (a conglomerate with investment activities) in 1998. According to law, Citigroup had to divest itself of the non-depository divisions within 2-5 years. But it took them less than two years to bribe Congress into repealing the act.
This figure displays what happened to our banking system in the wake of the repeal of Glass-Steagal. Within a single decade the commercial and investment banks had merged into four behemoths, which represent an enormous proportion of all banking activity in the United States.
At the same time, complex derivatives have become the stock and trade of these investment banks. Remember, these derivatives in the form of mortgage backed securities, crashed the global economy in late 2008. They're largely unregulated, often referred to as shadow banking. Banks make enormous fees for originating, selling, and managing new derivatives vehicles. This derivatives business has become unfathomably large.
Add to this the investment bank Goldman Sachs, and you've got 5 institutions that combined hold approximately $5 Trillion in assets. That's $5,000,000,000,000. That's a lot of money.That's more money than the yearly GDP of any country in the world save the U.S., China, and Japan. So where's the problem?
The trouble is in the derivatives market. In 1996 the derivatives market represented approximately $30 Trillion in investment exposure, which was about 4 times the entire U.S. GDP. According tot the Comptroller's Office, that investment exposure currently sits at $249 Trillion in the U.S. alone. Now here's the startling part - 96% of that risk is held by the 5 largest banks. $239 Trillion against $5 Trillion in assets. They're leveraged at nearly 48:1.
Now there's an financial trick known as bilateral netting, which essentially means that a bank holds a collateralized debt obligation (CDO) and then buys insurance against that CDO with a credit default swap (CDS). Therefore, presumably, their risk is minimized since they will not lose all of their investment. If the CDO fails, the CDS pays out. According to the same OCC report, bilateral netting currently covers approximately 90% of the exposure in the derivatives market. It doesn't matter. On the eve of the crash in 2008, bilateral netting covered 84% of all derivatives. It still brought down Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch. It destroyed AIG. But for a ton of bailout money and more Federal Reserve support, the largest insurer in the world would have vanished from the face of the earth. At that time the bulk of the risk was spread accross 12 banking institutions. Today it is concentrated in just 5.
So if Europe goes down the drain - and Europe is going down the drain - our 5 biggest banks' exposure to European banks, European sovereign debt, and European derivatives stands to bring these banks to their knees, again. And our economy with them.
The Dodd-Frank Act was passed as a bandaid for the hemorrhaging wound that is our banking system. It's done next to nothing. It is not protecting our citizens from the risk inherent in the combination of commercial and invsetment banks. It is not protecting our economy from the recklessness of these banks with derivaties ... remember how mortgage backed security derivatives brought down our economy in 2008? At that time our national exposure was approximately $180 Trillion. In just 3 years that figure has risen 38%. So rather than reining in the risk taking on Wall Street, things have continued to grow unabated.
Ready for another bailout? Ready for another recession? Ready for our current first world problems to look meaningless in the face of the second major financial crisis in less than a decade?
It's coming. Unless we act.