Would a Big Bank Breakup Lead to a 3rd Rate U.S.?
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The Fiscal Times
July 30, 2012

“What we should do is split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers, have banks make … loans, have banks do something that's not going to be too-big-to-fail.”

Paul Volcker? Barack Obama? Tim Geithner? Academic Simon Johnson, author of 13 Banks? Nope – as you probably know by now, that comment last week came from none other than Sandy Weill, the former chairman of Citigroup (C) who in the years prior to the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had mandated the separation of investment and commercial banking, was the single largest public advocate of creating today’s megabanks.

Is Weill suggesting that everything he sought to create can’t be managed without him? Has Weill just lost his marbles? Or has he just found retirement too boring? “If Sandy’s serious, if I thought he was serious, I’d be puzzled and disappointed, because he knows banking too well; he knows that what he’s suggesting is almost impossible,” says one former colleague.

Still, the very fact that Weill now appears to believe that the banks he helped spawn are both too big to manage and too big to be allowed to fail has given renewed impetus to banking’s critics.

Adding an element of the piquant to the whole debate is the fact that one of the fiercest defenders of that megabank concept is Jamie Dimon, now CEO and chairman of JPMorgan Chase (JPM). Dimon, of course, was Weill’s protégée, working with him as he built Citigroup before a bitter parting of the ways led to Dimon’s firing in 1998. But while Weill, in his retirement, has pondered what he believes is amiss with banking, Dimon is still a believer in the megabank philosophy once espoused so ardently by his mentor.

If the United States wants to become a third-rate power and give up the dollar as a reserve currency, then by all means, let’s break up the big banks.

The problem? Both – and neither – are right in their respective diagnoses and prescriptions. It’s unquestionably true that big banks are tricky to manage – and even more difficult to regulate. But that doesn’t mean life is any easier for smaller banks, argues analyst Richard X. Bove of Rochdale Securities. Indeed, as Bove says, they collapse far more frequently than their behemoth brethren. “If the United States wants to become a third-rate power and give up the dollar as a reserve currency, then by all means, let’s break up the big banks and turn them into (savings and loan institutions in Dubuque and Phoenix),” he says.

RELATED: Are the Banks Too Big to Fail, Manage and Regulate?

The problem is that splitting up commercial banking and investment banking is a fancifully simple solution to a complex problem. It’s true that even the best-run banks today are tough to manage, as JPMorgan Chase’s London Whale fiasco demonstrated. But had Dimon’s bank been a smaller institution, there’s no guarantee that it would have been immune to a rogue trader of some kind – and had it been smaller, the Whale may well have swamped the bank, just as Nick Leeson did to Barings back in the mid-1990s.

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Would splitting up the banks help manage or oversee risk? Nope, says Robert Albertson, a partner at Sandler O’Neill + Partners, a New York-based investment bank specializing in financial services: “You will be concentrating capital markets risk in institutions that are focused purely on capital markets – and that’s not helpful.” Also, Albertson says, if regulators have to keep tabs on what a score of medium-sized institutions are up to from one minute to the next, “you’d probably have less regulatory ability to focus on risk than you do now.”

In fact, as securities lawyer Bob Kurucza, a partner at Goodwin Procter, points out, the only way to address the dangers of the systemic risk created by the size of financial institutions is “to manage it via appropriate regulation.” It would be an exercise in futility to “try to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube, and wrong from a policy perspective,” he says.

Could the big banks cleanly be broken up along the lines Weill – and others – have suggested? Certainly, says M&A veteran David Hendee, a partner at Cascad-e, a firm that designs and markets software aimed at smoothing the integration process following mergers and acquisitions. But anyone trying to do it should be careful, as the same missteps that doom so many mergers across every industry are likely to rear their heads if banks attempt any large-scale unwinding.

Business journalist Suzanne McGee spent more than 13 years at The Wall Street Journal before turning to freelance writing. Author of the book Chasing Goldman Sachs, she has written for Barron’s, The Financial Times, and Institutional Investor.