Weill recants to cynics' barbs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 10:46pm


When 79-year-old retired multimillionaire financier Sanford Weill gave his view last week that big banks should be broken up and strict laws separating commercial banking from more risky investment banking should be reintroduced, financial newspapers and media cleared their best front-page space to air his views.

They had good reason. Weill is not just any old banker in comfortable retirement given to musing on history. He led the movement to smash the United States' Glass-Steagall Act, which from the 1930s until 1999 forced a separation between commercial banking and the securities business.

Weill told CNBC: 'What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers, have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans, have banks do something that's not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that's not too big to fail.'

He joins a growing chorus of bankers, regulators and economists who say that the too-big-to-fail banks are putting the US and global economic and financial system at risk.

But for him and for others who advocate change, the biggest obstacle to breaking up the banks is entrenched politics.

Weill gave details to show that he had thought through his ideas. He proposed a leverage ratio of 12 to 15 times for commercial banks, which critics say is rather generous for banks not heavily involved in the trading business. He called for an end to off-balance-sheet activities, which would mean that credit card securitisations would have to be brought onto the balance sheet.

He also said that only exchange-traded products should be used for hedging purposes, and they should be marked to market.

Was this a Damascene conversion? In the 1990s, Weill's determination to merge Travelers Group, the old insurance company expanded through takeovers of Aetna Life and Casualty and Salomon Smith Barney, with Citicorp to create the mega bank Citigroup drove the final nail in the coffin of Glass-Steagall, the by then sickly law separating commercial from investment banking.

Weill's office has a wood etching of himself engraved with the words 'The Shatterer of Glass-Steagall'.

Supporters of the smashing of the old barriers claimed that it helped create a modern, sophisticated financial system that could serve the needs of multinational clients across the whole range of financial products.

Opponents claim that, apart from helping produce astronomical salaries for bankers, liberalisation also sowed the seeds of the near financial meltdown in 2008.

There was widespread general surprise, mixed in with a lot of cynicism, at Weill's latest pronouncement. One commentator in Huffington Post declared that Weill has 'an ego the size of the bank he created. People who know him say that he needs media attention like an alcoholic needs a drink, and he's gotten precious little of it since retiring from the banking business six years ago. Yesterday made him feel like the same old Sandy again.'

The younger Weill was certainly a restless, even turbulent, dealmaker. Yves Smith, in her Naked Capitalism blog, says Weill and Jamie Dimon, then his young protege and now head of JPMorgan Chase, did 1,100 deals. Weill abruptly sacked Dimon from Citi during an executive weekend retreat in 1998. Indeed, another cynic claims that one intention of the Weill interview was to cut Dimon down to size, because JPMorgan would be the biggest victim of any move to break up the too-big-to-fail banks. No, responds another, bigger, cynic, Weill is afraid that Dimon's final revenge for his sacking will be that JPMorgan will gobble up Citi.

The rich and powerful of Wall Street leapt to criticise Weill. William Harrison, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase before Dimon took over, claimed to Reuters that: 'It gets back to management and risk taking, and you can screw that up at a small bank or a large bank.'

That self-serving comment rather misses the point that if a small bank screws up, then it can more easily be picked up or allowed to fail without taxpayers suffering unduly. But when you have a JPMorgan gambling and losing US$5.8 billion - and counting - it is hard for any government not to be concerned.

The government fears that if any big bank fails, it would have a knock-on effect and would bring down the economy. That has made it easy for the banksters to continue business as usual, collecting big salaries if their bets pay off and letting the taxpayers pick up the bill if the gambles flop.

Weill's conversion means that there is now an impressive list of people who advocate breaking up the big banks. They include his co-architect of the Citi mega merger, John Reed, who said years ago that he had made a mistake in helping Weill put together the deal, as well as Richard Parsons, former chairman of Time Warner and later of Citigroup.

But the prevailing hostile wind to the banksters runs headlong into Politics and politics. There is deeply entrenched resistance among bankers on Wall Street, who earn megamillion-dollar pay packages and who are well connected to the ruling politicians in the White House and on Capitol Hill.


Number of deals the young Sandy Weill and prot?g? Jamie Dimon did at Citi, according to blogger Yves Smith