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The Glass-Steagall Act Explained

The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, passed during the Great Depression, prevented commercial banks from trading securities with their clients’ deposits and created the FDIC as a guard against bank runs. Passed in 1933 as the Banking Act, Glass-Steagall was chipped away over the years and eventually repealed during the Clinton Administration with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999. Some experts believe that the act’s repeal contributed to the 2008 financial crisis, and the law served as a basis for the Volcker Rule of the 2009 Dodd-Frank reform bill.


Definition: What is the Glass-Steagall Act?

The Banking Act, now known as Glass-Steagall, was sponsored by Senator Carter Glass (D-VA) and Representative Henry Steagall (D-AL) with the intent of forestalling bank runs and preventing future crises. The legislation had two main provisions:

1. Creation of the FDIC

The period from 1929 to 1933 saw a number of bank runs, which destabilized the American (and world) economy. Fearful that their banks would fail, people pulled their deposits out, which actually caused those banks to fail. To stop that self-perpetuating cycle, Glass-Steagall created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which guaranteed bank deposits up to a certain amount (initially $2,500, now $250,000).

2. Separation of Commercial and Investment Banking

As important as the FDIC’s creation was, the term Glass-Steagall usually refers to the set of rules that kept a savings-and-loan type bank from engaging in speculative, risky training with customers’ deposits. If a bank took deposits, it could not trade in anything other than government bonds; if it underwrote securities or engaged in market-making, it could not take deposits.

The motivation for this separation rested on alleged conflicts of interest. Glass and Steagall, as well as others, accused banks of partnering with affiliates which later sold securities to repay banks’ debts, or accepted loans from banks to buy securities. They also worried that banks engaged in risk-taking speculation, rather than investing in corporations to promote growth.

Five provisions of the Banking Act pertained to this separation:

  1. Section 19: Federally chartered banks could not buy or sell securities, unless they were investment securities, government bonds or trades made on behalf of a customer.
    1. Section 5(c): Glass-Steagall would also apply to state-chartered banks.
  2. Section 20: Banks could not be affiliated with firms whose primary purpose was trading securities.
  3. Section 21: If a bank did trade securities, it could not take deposits.
  4. Section 32: Officers and directors of commercial banks (banks part of the Federal Reserve System) were barred from holding advisory positions in companies whose primary purpose was trading securities.

Other notable but less well-known provisions include:

  1. The creation of the Federal Open Market Committee. The FOMC includes the Federal Reserve Board’s 7 members, 4 rotating members of the regional Federal Reserve Banks, and the president of the New York Fed. It establishes target interest rates to help increase employment and curb inflation.
  2. Regulation Q. Banks could not pay interest on demand deposit (business checking) accounts. Interest rates were capped on certain other deposit products, like savings and NOW accounts. Regulation Q is now repealed, but plays a key rolein the story of Glass-Steagall.

Precursors to Glass-Steagall

Senator Glass actually introduced numerous versions of what became Glass-Steagall between 1930 and 1932. These bills had common threads:

  1. Bringing more banks under the Federal Reserve’s supervision
  2. Separating commercial and investment banking
  3. Controlling speculative trading by banks

These versions, however, did not seek to establish an FDIC-like institution. Instead, Glass envisioned a federal agency that could buy a failing bank’s assets at a reasonable price, providing the capital to reassure or repay depositors. For example, if a bank had $1,000 in deposits (liabilities) that it used to make $1,000 in loans (assets), and its depositors feared it would collapse, the federal agency could buy that $1,000 in loans to essentially guarantee the bank’s solvency.

On the other hand, Representative Steagall and many other House members supported the creation of the FDIC. Despite opposition of both Glass and President Franklin Roosevelt, the provision was included in the reconciled House and Senate bills.

The firewall’s gradual weakening

Over the years, legislators and regulators chipped away at Glass-Steagall, culminating in its repeal in 1999.

1935: Glass tries to repeal his own bill

Presumably, separating commercial and investment banking would prevent the conflicts of interest that led banks to make risky loans or securities affiliates to make inefficient trades. However, a 1934 study found that securities underwritten by bank affiliates fared no better and no worse than those underwritten by non-affiliates.

In 1935, Glass introduced an amendment that would permit commercial banks to trade securities again. President Roosevelt spoke out against the amendment, and though it passed the Senate, it was tossed out during the House-Senate reconciliation process.

1963: OCC on the offensive

Following World War II, banks faced increasing competition from non-bank entities not subject to Glass-Steagall. General Motors, Sears and others began offering consumer credit, thus competing with banks for loans.

James Saxon, then the Comptroller of the Currency, feared that Glass-Steagall undermined commercial banks’ competitiveness, putting them at a disadvantage to non-banks. Under his guidance, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) issued regulations that would have watered down Glass-Steagall, allowing banks to:

  1. Offer commingled accounts, in which investors poll their funds to buy stocks and bonds (similar to a mutual fund)
  2. Buy and sell muni bonds

1966: Inflation exceeds interest rate cap on Reg. Q

Regulation Q, an often-forgotten provision of Glass-Steagall, capped interest rates paid on savings and other deposit accounts. When the rate of inflation surpassed the maximum interest yield, consumers pulled out their deposits in favor of bonds and other safe but better-paying products.

More and more, consumers turned to non-bank entities for their loans. By 1972, in fact, the nation’s three largest banks provided less credit than either the three largest retailers or the three largest manufacturers. Prime customers bypassed commercial banks, going straight to capital markets for their borrowing needs or to get a higher yield on their savings. Banks were left with the sub-prime customers that capital markets wouldn’t lend to.

1966: Interest Rate Adjustment Act passes

In the same year, the Federal Reserve allowed savings and loan associations (S&L’s, or thrifts) to pay higher savings account interest rates than commercial banks. They could also offer negotiable order of withdrawal (NOW) accounts, which function like checking accounts but are not subject to interest rate caps. S&L’s were not covered by Glass-Steagall.

1971: Investment Company Institute v. Camp

After 1963, the OCC’s relaxed rules wound their way through the justice system. Finally, in 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that the OCC had overreached. They argued that the new rules violated the spirit of Glass-Steagall, and struck them down.

1977: Merrill Lynch introduces the cash management account

Capping nearly a decade of deposit-account innovation, Merrill Lynch launched a “cash management account,” which allowed customers to write checks against funds held in a money management account. Cash management accounts were functionally similar to checking or savings accounts, but Merrill could use those deposits to trade securities, while banks couldn’t.

Increasingly, investment banks offered products typically seen in commercial banks, and at better rates. The FDIC and OCC declined to regulate these bank-like entities, however, so Glass-Steagall began to lose relevance.

1978: The birth of the mortgage backed security

Bank of America issued the first mortgage-backed security, in which it pooled mortgages and sold them to investors.

1980’s: Commercial acquires investment, and vice versa

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, commercial banks increasingly traded in over-the-counter derivatives, such as interest rate swaps. Moreover, during the Reagan and Bush administrations, the FDIC and OCC approved a number of mergers between commercial banks and securities firms:

  • 1982: The OCC allowed Citibank to offer a collective investment trust, essentially re-issuing Saxon’s directive.
  • 1982: The FDIC issued a policy statement allowing state-chartered, non-Federal Reserve banks to affiliate with securities firms, even if they had FDIC insurance.
  • 1983: The Federal Reserve authorized Bank of America to buy Charles Schwab, then the nation’s largest brokerage firm.
  • 1987: The Federal Reserve allowed Bankers Trust, Citigroup and JPMorgan to trade mortgage-backed securities, muni bonds and commercial paper.

1999: Gramm-Leach-Bliley

After numerous attempts to repeal Glass-Steagall spanning the Bush and Clinton administrations, President Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that repealed the provisions preventing banks from affiliating with security firms. Though the line between commercial and investment banking was already blurring, the passage of Gramm-Leach-Bliley accelerated the pace.

Commercial banks traded in increasingly risky and complex securities, continuing to buy and sell mortgages, collateralized debt obligations and other derivatives. Because of the instruments’ complexity and institutions’ vulnerable positions, many banks faced stark losses during the 2008 financial crisis. Commercial institutions received emergency loans from the Federal Reserve, and investment banks Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were actually designated as bank entities so they could take advantage of those loans. The vulnerability of commercial banks, revealed by the crisis, has resurrected the debate over Glass-Steagall.

Glass-Steagall and the 2008 crisis

Some argue that Glass-Steagall’s repeal contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. Joseph Stiglitz of the Roosevelt Institute, a Nobel Prize winner, contended:

Commercial banks are not supposed to be high-risk ventures; they are supposed to manage other people’s money very conservatively…Investment banks, on the other hand, have traditionally managed rich people’s money — people who can take bigger risks in order to get bigger returns.

When repeal of Glass-Steagall brought investment and commercial banks together, the investment-bank culture came out on top. There was a demand for the kind of high returns that could be obtained only through high leverage and big risk-taking.

Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and John McCain (R-AZ) advocated the return of Glass-Steagall as well:

So much U.S. taxpayer-backed money is going into speculation in dark markets that it has diverted lending capital from our community banks and small businesses.

The Volcker Rule: Watered-down Glass-Steagall

Check out our detailed explanation of the Volcker Rule here.

Given the difficulty in separating investment and commercial banks entirely, as some advocated, legislators instead passed the Volcker Rule, named after former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. The Volcker Rule prevented banks from speculation, or trading securities with the intent of making a profit. However, Volcker allows banks to hedge existing positions. Since the affected banks are so large and have such complex portfolios, critics argue that there is no way to differentiate a trade from a hedge.

Elizabeth Warren, former Harvard Law professor and de facto head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, argued strongly for the full re-implementation of Glass-Steagall:

[Determining trading and hedging] is the strongest argument for a modern Glass-Steagall. Glass-Steagall said in effect that hedge funds should be separated from commercial banking. If a big institution wants to go out and play in the market, that’s fine. But it doesn’t get the backup of the federal government.

However, the current fight centers on weakening even the Volcker Rule, not strengthening it.

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  • showme2

    Banks using deposits to trade securities is one of the reasons that small businesses cannot get loans to create jobs. Banks are using depositor funds to gamble on the stock market so there is no money available for business loans. People oppose regulation as stifling the economy but lack of regulation also stifles the economy.

    • David Williamson

      Republicans oppose regulation, but read my comment above. It was Clinton’s reducing of regulations that caused this mess.

      • Lorry frey

        I looked up GS and Clinton and you are not correct. You should look up Wikepedia and a couple of non partisan blog sites for a full review of how GS crumbled over the 40 years before BC finally signed the Gramm Leach Billey bill overturning the last 2rules left of the bill. It is also important to note that the banks were losing competition to all of the new bank like institutions and so turned to congress for relief. All of the GOP and large numbers of Democrats favored this last change in what had become a somewhat decapitated bill. If GS resurrects and I hope some form does it will need to address all the reasons it was amended over the years. So examine your narrow view of Clinton did it..blame him.

        • Atilla Thehun

          View in the context of the Community Reinvestment Act. It’s at Clinton’s feet for expanding this Jimmy Carter fiasco

          • MrsRealism

            Those damn lower income people ruin everything! LOL

        • David Williamson

          Yes there are all types of people that will tell you there is nothing linking the repeal and the crash. Yet, the crash resembles the exact thing the GS law was created to protect us from. Clinton also passed laws that allowed higher risk people to obtain mortgages. These loans were mostly adjustable rate loans that became impossible to afford when the rates went up. All of this mess came to a head during Bush’s administration, who couldn’t have done much about it without the Congress changing the law. Which they finally have by the way. These high risk loans were sold off around the world. When they started foreclosing it brought the worlds economy to it’s knees. Now how was Bush connected to loans made before he entered office? Clinton rode the wave of a better economy because of these loans. So my narrow view has looked at a wider spectrum than it appears

  • Distantstar9

    Do you think they are going to start closing banks, seizing all your savings in the process in order to pay their debts? I think it is likely.

    • JohnG911

      Banks are highly regulated and mostly run by democrat operatives. I think its highly unlikely they would close them but it is highly likely they will confiscate people’s retirement and personal investment accounts. But they’ll probably limit it to a certain amount to give the impression that they care about the middle class. To democrats, the middle class are the working poor and those who don’t qualify for food stamps or free Obamacare are rich!

      • Talis

        LOL mostly run by dem operatives? Get a grip bagger.

  • David Williamson

    During Clinton’s administration, the sub-prime loans became more numerous. This was due to a bill the administration pushed that would lower the down payment requirement needed to buy a home. This was done to get the poorer families a chance to get a home. Even though they couldn’t afford the home mortgage, banks started giving more and more of these sub-prime loans out. The banks, now allowed to trade investors money, started selling these sub-prime loans out world wide as investments. They looked good in an (artificially) exploding economy. But one thing they should of been prepared for, interest rates go up in a good economy. Since these loans where mostly adjustable rate, they were guaranteed to fail. Between the Glass-Steagall bill and the allowing of sub-prime loans to blossom, the Clinton administration rode the housing bubble to fame. But Bush was blamed when it burst. The only question about the housing crash from the beginning was when was it going to crash. Bush was no saint, but the blame for the crash wasn’t his, it belongs to the man that repealed the Glass-Steagall portions that allowed this to happen. Now along comes the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform act which repairs the damage Clinton did with his bills. So in the long run, Clinton passes the laws that destroy the worlds economy, but comes out smelling like roses for the housing bubble he rode. Then Obama comes out smelling like roses for saving the world from Clinton’s actions. Then we have Bush who actually had nothing to do with any of this and he gets all the blame. Where are the media outlets screaming about all this? Just wondering that’s all.

    • Jason Gorski

      Evidently you are not Aware that Bush eliminated the regulations for debt . net capital ? It was around 12:1 and many institutions had 30 or 40: 1 ratios after Bushs impactful mistakes…. So when they failed they failed HUGE…… So huge the taxpayers had to pay to bail them out… Nice way to just ignore a top 5 all time economic policy blunder

      • David Williamson

        So you’re saying that Bush is to blame for all the mortgages (sub-prime) that were there before he was in office? Even though they were going to crash the minute rates went up, that’s his fault? He might of made the crash worse, haven’t checked into that (thanks), but there was nothing he could of done to stop it. The crash was felt world wide because of the trading of the sub – prime loans that never should of been made in the first place, all allowed from the changes made in the Glass – Steagall repeal. No matter how Bush may have changed the ratio (please apply site), he couldn’t of stopped it. That is the cause of the crash and the change you say Bush made might of made it worse. So what we have is one president changed a law that was put in place to stop the Great Depression from ever happening. Then a president changes it, then the same thing happens again. Then the third president gets full blame because he changed the ratio. If he didn’t do that, we would of had a major crash, just not as bad? Then the last president signs a bill called Todd-Frank that put it all back together again.

        Just trying to figure out how Bush could be to blame for this?

        That law was put into place after the Great Depression to stop it from ever happening again. When Clinton changed it, it repeated itself, then they put it all back together again. If Clinton’s repeal had nothing to do with the geart crash (would of been huge no matter what Bush did), what does the following steps through history mean?

        1: Great depression happens and wipes out financial
        markets world wide.
        2: Glass – Steagall law is put on place to keep it from happening again
        3: Clinton changes it, and we repeat history
        3B: Clinton apologizes for listening to his advisors for the repeal.
        4: Now Congress comes out with Todd-Frank
        act that puts it back together.

        So we look at this and place the blame on the man that had nothing to do with any of this. I’m sorry but I can’t figure out how history repeats itself and the one that had nothing to do with it gets the blame?

        • MrsRealism

          I would say that Bush can be blamed for exploding our debt with his two unfunded wars… wouldn’t you agree?

          • David Williamson

            I’ll agree partially to that statement, But… There is always a But, isn’t there. Check into Clinton’s views of Saddam when he left office. He said that Saddam was a threat to his people, the region and the world. Clinton bombed Iraq, people forget this since our so called media doesn’t repeat this all the time. The world thought Saddam had or was trying to obtain Nuclear Weapons (part of the Weapons of Mass Destruction), remember the nuclear inspectors being kicked out of the country. Remember the no-fly zones, remember the sanctions, all this was done by Clinton, not Bush. Clinton said Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction. So 8 months and 11 days into office, the World Trade Center is attacked for the 2nd time (remember the first attack during Clinton’s presidency) and this time it succeeds. So Bush who is basically running off of the previous president’s intelligence, is to ignore all that Clinton said and did and not think of Saddam. In hindsight it is easy to point the finger. But during the hectic days of the event, do you think it was possible for misguided information leading to the attack of Iraq? Was Bush a saint in all this, no he made some huge blunders, but he isn’t responsible for all the mess you know about.

            You want to talk about financial blunders, OK. Again let’s look at the repeal of Glass-Steagal that Clinton did. We can talk about the real cause of the bank bail-out here. The repeal allowed Wall Street to deal in those Sub-Prime Mortgages that were a nightmare just waiting to happen. They were allowed to deal these Mortgages world wide, this ended up being the reason for the crash hitting the world so hard. They didn’t think the United States would be selling off mortgages that were Sub-Prime(definition of sub-prime is basically mortgages that shouldn’t of been made because of the high risk). Now Wall Street traded these mortgages using customers deposits. That means my money, yours and all the rest. When the markets crashed and Wall Street lost all the depositors money, it wasn’t bailed out. It was paid back 100% by our tax money, given by Uncle Sam. Why is that, well our deposits are what’s called guaranteed by the government. So when Wall Street tanked on all those poor sub-prime loans, the government had to pay that money back before anyone even thought of a bail-out. These things don’t get mentioned in your so-called media. For one reason only, it would make the Liberal Clinton look a lot worse than you think he is. Investigate these items out, but don’t go to your liberal press for guidance, go to government sites. The info is there, hard to dig up, but it’s there.

            I do not in any shape or form watch FOX NEWS. Watched once for about a grand total of 2 to 3 minutes, that’s the last I’ve ever seen FOX NEWS. Except in a commercial once in a while, but I usually mute those or turn the channel. I hear about something, then I investigate using mostly live video and/or government sites. If I can’t obtain info that way, I will go to the media sites, but only ones that give links to their sources so info can be verified. I think Brian Williams fall at NBC news proves my point about the media being trustworthy. Or look into the TWO TIMES 20-20 got busted for faking stories because they couldn’t get it to work the way they wanted to. Think shaving lugs to make SUV’s rollover and little bombs in trucks to make them blow up when hit. Twice they got busted and they weren’t far apart. Keep watching your media and believe what you want, then tell everyone you live in the Twilight Zone. Later!

  • Atilla Thehun

    Two words: Janet Reno

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  • John Szewczyk

    Changing the parameters for their liking………which is sheer greed…..!