The Baseline Scenario

More Banking Mystifications

By James Kwak

Apparently, both parties have platform planks calling for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, the law that separated investment banking from commercial banking until it was finally repealed in 1999 (after being watered down by the Federal Reserve beginning in the late 1980s). Bringing back Glass-Steagall in some form would force megabanks like JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Bank of America to split up; it would also force Goldman Sachs to get rid of the retail banking operations it started in a bid to get access to cheap deposits.

In his article discussing this possibility, Andrew Ross Sorkin of the Times slips in this:

“Whether reinstating the law is good idea or not, the short-term implications are decidedly negative: It would most likely mean a loss of jobs as part of a slowdown in lending from the biggest banks.”

I looked down to the next paragraph for the explanation, but he had already moved on to another unsubstantiated claim (that the U.S. banking industry would be at a competitive disadvantage). So, I thought, maybe it’s so obvious that Glass-Steagall would reduce lending that Sorkin didn’t think it was worth explaining. I thought about that for a while. I couldn’t see it.

In fact, basic intuitions about finance indicate that Glass-Steagall should have no effect on lending whatsoever. Banks should loan money to borrowers who are good risks: that is, those who pay an interest rate that more than compensates for the risk of default. (I’m simplifying a bit, but the details aren’t relevant.) Common sense tells you that whether the bank doing the lending is affiliated with an investment bank shouldn’t make a difference.

To dig a little deeper, banks should be making loans whose expected returns exceed the appropriate cost of capital. So, maybe Sorkin thinks that grafting an investment bank onto a commercial bank will lower its cost of capital. I can’t think of any obvious reason why this should be the case. Even if it does, however, we do NOT want the commercial bank to now start making more loans than it did before it was affiliated with the investment bank. Capital markets are supposed to direct funds to households and companies that can put them to their best use. Whether X (a house, a shopping mall, a factory, whatever) is a good use of capital does not depend whether some bank merged with some other bank. If a lower cost of capital causes banks to start making more loans, those are bad loans, not good ones.

Let’s look at this from another angle. Assume Commercial Bank has a cost of capital of 10% and Investment Bank has a cost of capital of 8%. (In practice it’s usually the other way around, but then the argument for a combination is even weaker.) Say they merge, and new Universal Bank has an overall cost of capital of 9%. This does not mean that the appropriate cost of capital for Commercial Bank (a subsidiary of Universal Bank) is now 9%. It’s still 10%. That’s because the cost of capital is based on the risk profile of a company’s business—and, once again, that business hasn’t changed. And, indeed, even after the merger, Commercial Bank and Investment Bank will continue to be run as two separate entities, with a few specific touchpoints (e.g., Commercial Bank will sell its loans to Investment Bank to be securitized, and Investment Bank will try to sell wealth management services to Commercial Bank’s customers). And in the executive suite, the CFO and treasurer will charge an internal cost of capital to each business, based on its intrinsic attributes.

Now, maybe Commercial Bank will want to issue more loans because Investment Bank wants to securitize them. (Does this story sound familiar?) But first, this shouldn’t happen. If demand from Investment Bank is causing Commercial Bank to increase its lending, then that should happen whether or not they happen to have the same parent (Universal Bank); Commercial Bank can already sell its loans to Investment Bank (or any of its competitors) without a merger. Second, even if it does happen—because, say, the CEO of Universal Bank orders Commercial Bank to increase its lending—those are loans we don’t want to exist. There is such a thing as too much credit, as we all should remember.

In sum, the idea that separating commercial and investment banking will result in fewer loans, and hence higher unemployment, seems like another of those industry talking points that, repeated often enough, become conventional wisdom. It’s one of those threats bankers like to make when politicians try to shrink their empires: Come after my bank, and look what happens to your economy. But in this case, it’s an empty threat.