Repeal of Glass-Steagall: Not a cause, but a multiplier
When the Titanic set sail from Southampton on April 10, 1912, bound for New York, it was called “unsinkable.” This was before that chance encounter in the North Atlantic with a large iceberg. You know how that movie ended.
Many people died, of course, because there were too few lifeboats. But even if the luxury liner had four times as many, the Titanic still would have ended up on the bottom of the ocean, done in by a captain more concerned with speed than safety — and that iceberg.
This simple reality, however, obscures a broader truth.
Before it sank, more than 700 passengers loaded onto the 20 lifeboats on board and escaped with their lives. More than 1,500 others died. The Titanic had the capacity for 64 lifeboats, which could each hold 65 people. Fully loaded, they could have carried more than 4,000 to safety — or every man, woman and child aboard. Thus, many more could have survived.
While the shortage of lifeboats didn’t cause the sinking, this insufficiency after the crash was a factor in the 1,502 deaths.
I was reminded of this recently after reading articles that argued over the role the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act played in the financial crisis. The Depression-era regulation that separated Main Street banks from Wall Street investment firms had a huge impact on the finance sector.
The repeal of Glass-Steagall may not have caused the crisis — but its repeal was a factor that made it much worse. And it was a continuum of the radical deregulation movement. This philosophy incorrectly held that banks could regulate themselves, that government had no place in overseeing finance and that the free market works best when left alone. This belief system manifested itself in damaging ways, including eliminating regulation and oversight on derivatives, allowing exemptions for excess leverage rules for a handful of players and creating dangerous legislation.