Rethinking Bank Regulation: A Review of the Historical Evidence
32 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 1998
The debate over bank powers has taken on special urgency with the recent flurry of proposed mergers, such as the Citicorp-Travelers Group combination, that would break down the barriers between commercial and investment banking. After more than a decade of failed attempts to expand the scope of permissible bank activities, the House of Representatives recently voted for the first time in favor of a bill to end these Depression-era limitations. The issue will be taken up by the Senate this fall. Most of the rationales for regulating banks fall into two broad categories: (1) the need to control potential conflicts of interest stemming from banks' multiple roles as deposit-takers, lenders, securities underwriters, and investment advisers; and (2) the perceived need to protect against the possibility of bank panics and widespread financial instability. In reviewing the historical evidence compiled by banking and finance scholars over the years, this article finds remarkably little cause for concern and suggests the regulatory cure may be far worse than the disease. On the first issue, the article cites a number of recent studies suggesting that market forces deal more effectively than regulation with conflicts of interests that can arise when commercial banks are engaged in securities underwriting. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, investors during the pre-Glass-Steagall era appear to have been better off when they purchased securities from commercial banks rather than investment banks. Moreover, to enhance their credibility in the market, many commercial banks during this period chose to put some distance between their lending and underwriting activities by establishing separate securities affiliates, thereby creating voluntary "firewalls." In examining the issue of how the expansion of bank powers would affect economic stability, the second half of the article cites a large body of research-including studies of different historical periods and countries-attesting to the durability of commercial (and universal) banking systems. Indeed, one of the most important findings issuing from this research is that the regulatory safety net has often had the unfortunate impact of undermining rather than promoting financial stability.
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