The Repeal of Glass Steagall
In the background of the go-go economy, the feeling grew among some economists and the financial community that Glass-Steagall hampered America’s financial competitiveness. Among the many voices favoring this was Alan Greenspan along with former Goldman Sachs partner Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary. In a 1995 speech and testimony to Congress Rubin signaled the Clinton Administration was ready to repeal Glass-Steagall:
“The banking industry is fundamentally different from what it was two decades ago, let alone in 1933.” He said the industry has been transformed into a global business of facilitating capital formation through diverse new products, services and markets. “U.S. banks generally engage in a broader range of securities activities abroad than is permitted domestically,” said the Treasury secretary. “Even domestically, the separation of investment banking and commercial banking envisioned by Glass-Steagall has eroded significantly.”
Anyone who thinks the repeal of Glass-Steagall was forced on an unwilling Bill Clinton need only read Rubin’s testimony. A year later Sandy Weill set in motion the forces that would finally end Glass-Steagall.
Weill proposed the most audacious financial merger of in American history: he would merge one of the largest insurance companies (Travelers), one of the largest investment banks (Salomon Smith Barney), and the largest commercial banks (Citibank) in America. The problem was the merger was illegal in terms of Glass-Steagall. Independent Community Bankers of America CEO Kenneth Guenther captured the audacity of the deal in an interview with Frontline:
Here you have the leadership — Sandy Weill of Travelers and John Reed of Citicorp — saying, “Look, the Congress isn’t moving fast enough. Let’s do it on our own. To heck with the Congress. Let us effect this.” And so they move towards effecting it, and they get the blessing of the chairman of the Federal Reserve system in early April, when legislation is pending.
I mean, this is hubris in the worst sense of the word. Who do they think they are? Other people, firms, cannot act like this. … Citicorp and Travelers were so big that they were able to pull this off. They were able to pull off the largest financial conglomeration — the largest financial coming together of banking, insurance, and securities — when legislation was still on the books saying this was illegal. And they pulled this off with the blessings of the president of the United States, President Clinton; the chairman of the Federal Reserve system, Alan Greenspan; and the secretary of the treasury, Robert Rubin.
And then, when it’s all over, what happens? The secretary of the treasury becomes the vice chairman of the emerging Citigroup.
Weill convinced Greenspan, Robert Rubin and Clinton to sign off on a merger that was illegal at the time, with the expectation that Congress would repeal Glass-Steagall. Charles Geisst, a professor of finance at Manhattan College adds in a Frontline Interview:
Part of [Weill's] deal with the Federal Reserve was to get rid of all Glass-Steagall violations in the new Citigroup within two years. Otherwise, he would have been faced with a divestiture of a company which had just been put together, because of an old law which is still on the books. So it clearly behooved him, and many other people in the financial services industry who wanted to accomplish essentially the same sort of thing in the future, to push to get Glass-Steagall repealed.
So they pushed hard?
Pushed very hard. … They pushed so hard that the legislation, HR10, House Resolution 10, which became the Financial Services Modernization Act, was referred to as “the Citi-Travelers Act” on Capitol Hill. ..