Ten years ago last month, then-President Bill Clinton, Fed boss Alan Greenspan and a bipartisan majority in Congress freed the big New York banks to mix lending risk, with investment and trading risk.
Result: an inflated housing market, whose failure froze credit markets and stalled the U.S. economy.
Last week, Sens. John McCain R-AZ and Maria Cantwell D-WA wrote a bill that would reverse Clinton, revive the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, and force commercial banks to sell their Wall Street operations, and vice versa.
Obama, advised by Clinton's old Treasury aides led by Lawrence Summers, is against this. House Democrats have already passed a gentler proposal by Rep. Paul Kanjorski D-PA that would allow - not require - regulators to split up banks that are so big, so complex, or so risky, that the nation would hurt if they failed.
But a full-fledged movement to bring back the Glass-Steagall ban could "pick up steam in the Senate" and the House in the next few weeks, Paul J. Miller Jr., a former Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia bank examiner who's now bank analyst at FBR Capital Markets Corp., Washington, DC (location corrected), told clients in a report last week.
Separation would force Citi, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Bank of America Corp. - the three banks that dominate U.S. corporate and retail banking and lead US banking abroad - to choose between investment-and-trading banking or business-and-consumer banking.
Who would gain from their discomfort? Ironically, "Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley," investment banks that would no longer have to worry about that competition - especially now that they, too, are allowed for the first time to borrow cheap from the Fed, Miller wrote.