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Glass-Steagall : The Morgans vs. the Rockefellers

Posted on August 23 2013 by secret santa


"Matt Yglesias draws some interesting lessons and hope (!) from my paper on The Separation of Commerical and Investment Banking: The Morgans vs. the Rockefellers (pdf). Yglesias offers a brief summary of the paper:

"The basic story is that the Depression led to a lot of public outrage about the financial system and the outrage was—as outrage tends to be—a little bit inchoate and not really focused on the fine-grained details of public policy. Meanwhile, the Rockefeller family and the Morgan family had some longstanding business conflicts between their respective empires. And the Glass-Steagall bill was essentially an effort by the Rockefellers to channel that inchoate public outrage in a direction that would harm the Morgans: "More than anyone else, Winthrop Aldrich, representative of the Rockefeller banking interests, was responsible for the separation of commercial and investment banking. With the help of other well-connected anti-Morgan bankers like W. Averell Harriman, Aldrich drove the separation of commercial and investment banking through Congress. Although separation raised the costs of banking to the Rockefeller group, separation hurt the House of Morgan disproportionately and gave the Rockefeller group a decisive advantage in their battle with the Morgans."

He then draws an interesting conclusion: "Tabarrok notes that when this kind of regulatory strategy is pursued in a given industry “the industry as a whole will shrink” even while one firm gains an advantage over its rivals. And here we have actually an answer to a question that’s troubled me for years: How, given political realities, can the financial sector ever be brought to heel?… It shows a way that smart and savvy would-be regulators can find ways to undermine sector-level political solidarity. Not just in ways that favor one firm against another (which would be pointless) but even in ways that shrink the sector as a whole."

Under certain conditions, free markets channel self-interest towards the social good – that is the meaning of the invisible hand theorem. Unfortunately, there is no invisible hand theorem for politics."

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