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The Too-Big-to-Fail banks have a notorious track record of avoiding, evading or eliminating nearly all of Washington's attempts to bring them to heel.
So skeptics can be forgiven for thinking that the recently proposed new Glass-Steagall Act won't change anything on Wall Street.
As the moniker "Too-Big-to Fail" implies, such banks are not easy to push around.
"No bank will ever get out of a profitable line of business, unless they're forced to, or there's a huge loss that threatens the perception of the banks' risk management, or some scandal forces a mea culpa and an exit," said Money Morning Capital Wave Strategist Shah Gilani, who as a former hedge fund trader understands how Wall Street thinks.
Yet the Too-Big-to-Fail banks have recently pulled back in one area – physical commodities trading – as a result of regulatory pressure from several directions.
That's good news for proponents of the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act, introduced on July 11 by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, John McCain, R-AZ, Maria Cantwell, D-WA, and Angus King, I-ME.
But the story of the Big Banks reversing course on the physical commodities trading also proves that it takes a lot of effort, and sustained effort at that, to curb such risky behavior.
Why Physical Commodities Trading at the Banks is Allowed
Banks only started to trade physical commodities – oil, metals, agriculture – following the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed key provisions of the original Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, and a 2003 letter from the U.S. Federal Reserve that allowed Citigroup to keep its just-acquired Phibro unit, which traded in the physical energy markets.
The original Glass-Steagall and Federal Reserve rules had prohibited banks from engaging in "non-financial activities" such as physical commodities trading.
When Citigroup got the green light on Phibro, it opened the door for banks not just to trade commodities on paper as they had done for years (via derivatives), but to own the underlying physical commodities and to own the infrastructure used in storing and transporting those commodities.
"Congress, regulators, and the public need to understand what has happened in the 14 years since the financial floodgates were opened, and reconsider what we want banks to do," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH.
About the Author
David Zeiler, Associate Editor for Money Morning at Money Map Press, has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including 18 spent at The Baltimore Sun. He has worked as a writer, editor, and page designer at different times in his career. He's interviewed a number of well-known personalities - ranging from punk rock icon Joey Ramone to Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Over the course of his journalistic career, Dave has covered many diverse subjects. Since arriving at Money Morning in 2011, he has focused primarily on technology. He's an expert on both Apple and cryptocurrencies. He started writing about Apple for The Sun in the mid-1990s, and had an Apple blog on The Sun's web site from 2007-2009. Dave's been writing about Bitcoin since 2011 - long before most people had even heard of it. He even mined it for a short time.
Dave has a BA in English and Mass Communications from Loyola University Maryland.