A lot of blame has sloshed around for the sub-prime meltdown, from greedy borrowers to greedy mortgage brokers to Alan Greenspan, but if you want the real culprit, it was the repeal of the Glass-Stegall Act. On November 12, 1999, the champagne must have been shooting from the walls at Citigroup, which had worked behind the scenes for over 30 years to get the act overturned. After recovering from their hangover, they and their banking buddies went on a sub-prime lending orgy. But what was Glass-Steagall and how did it used to protect us?
Glass-Steagall was passed under the Roosevelt administration in 1933 in direct response to the Wall Street shenanigans that ushered in the Great Depression where banks shoved their own depositors into buying the stocks the banks were dealing. The basic idea was to keep banks from speculating with the savings that American citizens were entrusting within their vaults.
Its repeal, under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, drafted and passed by a Republican congress, and signed by Billiam Jefferson Clinton, allowed commercial banks to merge with investment banks. For instance, Citigroup merged with Traveler’s Insurance (although this merger was announced in 1998, before the act was passed, at the time Citigroup CEO Sanford I. Weill said that he spoke with the Feds and, “that over that time the legislation will change…we have had enough discussions to believe this will not be a problem.”).
Now, on the one side they could sell mortgages to homeowners, and then invent fancy investment structures which they sold on Wall Street. Because they were “covered” on both ends, banks felt free to sell increasingly dicey mortgages, just so long as another sucker was picking up the garbage. This sucker was picking it up because he had a plan to repackage it and sell it to another sucker, and so on. Eventually we end up with no-doc stated income interest-only option-ARM no money down mortgages being repackaged as “sound investments” being sold as “stable assets” for city pension plans to park their money in. (See “Subprime Meltdown As Told By Stick Figures“).
We can only imagine the level of machination exerted over those 30 years, but we do know this. Robert Rubin was Secretary of Treasury, which had oversight over Glass-Steagall regulation. Days before he resigned, Glass-Steagall was repealed. Just over a year later, he became chairman of the Citi executive committee, with an annual compensation of $40 million, a position he still holds, despite Citigroup’s $24 billion in subprime-related losses.
(Photo: Joy Of The Mundane)