‘Wall Street’ No Longer Exists

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on September 23, 2008

With Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley becoming commercial banks, and the other three big investment banks/brokerage houses being acquired by commercial banks, politicians and the press won't have Wall Street to kick around anymore. Headlines now shout about a $700 billion "Bailout for Wall Street." Yet strictly speaking, Wall Street as we knew it no longer exists.

The conversion or absorption of all five of Wall Street's big investment banks into commercial banks raises several intriguing issues.

First of all, the financial storms over the past year have -- before last week -- been largely confined to securities markets and to interbank loans among commercial and investment banks. Bank loans to commercial and industrial business, real estate and consumers continued to expand nearly every month. Commercial and industrial loans exceeded $1.5 trillion this August, up from less than $1.2 trillion a year earlier. Real-estate loans exceeded $3.6 trillion, up from less than $3.4 trillion a year ago. Consumer loans were $845 billion, up from $737 billion. Credit standards are tougher, which is surely a good thing, but interest rates for creditworthy borrowers remain low.

The ongoing slow but steady availability of bank credit helps explain the much-remarked contrast between Wall Street and Main Street -- the shaky condition of exotic financial markets compared with relatively benign statistics for industrial production, retail sales, employment and the rest of the nonhousing economy. Most people go about their business without depending on investment banks or exotic varieties of commercial paper.

Second, recent events highlight the absurdity of the attempt by several pundits to blame recent problems on "financial deregulation." That complaint was aimed at the Financial Modernization Act of 1999, which passed the House by a vote of 362-57 and the Senate by 90-8, yanking the last brick out of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act's regulatory wall between commercial banks and investment banks.

If it was somehow possible in today's world of global electronic finance to the rebuild such a wall, that would mean J.P. Morgan could not have bought Bear Stearns, Bank of America could not have bought Merrill Lynch, Barclays could not buy most of Lehman, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley could not become bank holding companies. It is hard to imagine how things would have worked out in that situation, but it surely would not have been an improvement.

Since the 1933 regulatory wall has collapsed as definitively as the Berlin Wall, all the giant financial conglomerates now face oversight and regulation by the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Innocents who seek security in regulation need to recall, however, that not one of those august agencies exhibited timely foresight or concern about the default risk among even prime mortgages in some locations, or about any lack of transparency with respect to bundling mortgages into securities. People do not become wiser, more selfless or more omniscient simply because they work for government agencies.

Wall Street was always a metaphor, of course, but so are words like "bailout" and "toxic" debt. Nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was a bailout for creditors (who received windfall gains), not for stockholders or executives. The federally enforced shotgun marriage between J.P. Morgan and Bear Stearns at the initially ridiculous price of $2 a share was no bailout for Bear. The 11.3% federal loan to AIG, contingent on the potential expropriation of 80% of shareholder value, is no bailout either.

By contrast, what was done to stop a run on the money-market funds is a real bailout which could encourage them to hold risky paper and also make it tougher for commercial banks to attract deposits. The proposal to buy up mortgage-backed securities is a bailout too, though the beneficiaries are not just the tattered remains of Wall Street. The bailout consists of shifting the risk of loss to taxpayers. Actual losses could not reach $700 billion unless the securities were literally worthless, which would mean the value of the underlying real estate fell to zero.

What was "toxic" for investment banks is not equally toxic for the Treasury Department because the government does not even bother to keep a balance sheet, much less abide by mark-to-market accounting rules. A powerful motive for converting investment banks into commercial banks is to get around those onerous balance-sheet rules that required fire-sale pricing of securities that were virtually unmarketable during a panicky scramble for liquidity. Strict adherence to those rules made patience a vice and a "buy and hold" approach impossible. This confirms what many of us have long been saying about the foolishness of letting arbitrary bookkeeping rules dominate economic reality.

Turning Wall Street into a bunch of commercial banks is a solution of sorts to a problem aggravated by foolish mark-to-market regulations, not by the inevitable demise of the 1933 wall between investment banks and commercial banks. Something good may yet come out of all this, because that wall never made much sense in the first place.