Thursday, April 6, 2017

Cohn Backs Wall Street Split Of Lending, Investment Banks

Senators ask about Glass-Steagall return in private meeting; Trump’s top economic adviser said he supports separation.

By Elizabeth Dexheimer
April 6, 2017

In a private meeting with lawmakers, White House economic adviser Gary Cohn said he supports a policy that could radically reshape Wall Street’s biggest firms by separating their consumer-lending businesses from their investment banks, said people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Cohn, the ex-Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive who is now advising President Donald Trump, said he generally favors banking going back to how it was when firms like Goldman focused on trading and underwriting securities, and companies such as Citigroup Inc. primarily issued loans, according to the people, who heard his comments.

The remarks surprised some senators and congressional aides who attended the Wednesday meeting, as they didn’t expect a former top Wall Street executive to speak favorably of proposals that would force banks to dramatically rethink how they do business.

Yet Cohn’s comments echo what Trump and Republican lawmakers have previously said about wanting to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era law that kept bricks-and-mortar lending separate from investment banking for more than six decades.

In the years after the law’s 1999 repeal, banks such as Citigroup, Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. gobbled up rivals and pushed into all sorts of new businesses, becoming one-stop-shopping financial behemoths.

White House spokeswoman Natalie Strom didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Tempering Changes

Many banking executives believed that the inclusion of former finance executives like Cohn in Trump’s White House would temper major changes such as a Glass-Steagall return. But his Wednesday remarks suggest he could be a wildcard should Congress get serious about reinstating the law.

White House officials haven’t said what an updated version of Glass-Steagall might look like.

Cohn’s remarks were prompted by a question from Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the finance industry’s most relentless critics, said the people who asked not to be named because Cohn’s meeting with Senate Banking Committee members was private.

The Massachusetts Democrat asked Cohn about his thoughts on Glass-Steagall. After Cohn answered, Senator Robert Corker, a Tennessee Republican, pressed the White House official to clarify his views.

Spokesmen for Warren and Corker didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Dismantling the nation’s banking giants isn’t a partisan issue, which is one reason why Wall Street fears the idea could gain traction. Both political parties -- and many voters -- still resent that taxpayers had to rescue the industry with a $700 billion bailout during the 2008 financial crisis.
Bipartisan Issue

Republicans included a return of Glass-Steagall in the party platform they approved in July during their national convention. Warren herself has proposed legislation with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona called the “21st Century Glass-Steagall Act.”

Advocates for bringing the law back say smaller banks could be allowed to fail without threatening the economy or needing bailouts. They also argue that a less powerful finance industry wouldn’t have as much influence over Washington policy. Wall Street executives counter that it would be impossible for broken-up lenders to compete with overseas mega-banks and that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act has made the industry much safer.

Wednesday’s Capitol Hill meeting with Cohn was arranged by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, and included lawmakers from both political parties and their staffs. The discussion covered a wide range of topics, including financial regulations and overhauling the tax code, the people said.

A Crapo spokeswoman declined to comment.

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