Obama to Propose New Limits on Banks

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Jan 20, 2010 11:28 pm

janUARY 20, 2010, 11:05 P.M. ET

Obama to Propose New Limits on Banks


WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama on Thursday is expected to propose new limits on the size and risk taken by the country’s biggest banks, marking the administration’s latest assault on Wall Street in what could mark a return, at least in spirit, to some of the curbs on finance put in place during the Great Depression, according to congressional sources and administration officials.

The proposal represents a sharply different philosophical shift from the view of banking over the past decade, which saw widespread consolidation among large financial institutions to create huge banking titans. If Congress approves the proposal, the White House plan could permanently impose government constraints on the size and nature of banking.

Mr. Obama’s proposal is expected to include new scale restrictions on the size of the country’s largest financial institutions. The goal would be to deter banks from becoming so large they put the broader economy at risk and to also prevent banks from becoming so large they distort normal competitive forces. It couldn’t be learned what precise limits the White House will endorse, or whether Mr. Obama will spell out the exact limits on Thursday.

Mr. Obama is also expected to endorse, for the first time publicly, measures pushed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, which would place restrictions on the proprietary trading done by commercial banks, essentially limiting the way banks bet with their own capital. Administration officials say they want to place “firewalls” between different divisions of financial companies to ensure banks don’t indirectly subsidize “speculative” trading through other subsidiaries that hold federally insured deposits.

The proposal could have the biggest effect on Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., which control a large amount of U.S. deposits, as well as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup Inc., which have a large presence on Wall Street.

If the proposal took effect it would reshape Wall Street. Big banks would be forced to break off their investing banking units—which trade and underwrite securities and make their own bets on markets—from traditional businesses, which make loans and take deposits.

The investing banking units have grown dramatically in recent years, were far more profitable than the banking operations and were at the heart of the financial crisis. Bank of America, for example, could be forced to sell off its recently acquired Merrill Lynch brokerage business.

In addition, the limits on size could force breakups. The banking industry has undergone a major consolidation during the financial crisis, leaving the top four banks with an unprecedent market share in businesses such as deposit taking, credit cards and mortgages.

The rules could also keep banks out of the business of running hedge funds, investing in real estate or private equity, all businesses that have become important, profitable parts of these banks. The collapse of two highly leveraged hedge funds began the process that led to the collapse of Bear Stearns.

The changes could benefit American businesses by creating more competition on Wall Street, but potentially hurt them by limiting lending.

Messrs. Obama and Volcker are scheduled to meet tomorrow in advance of the White House announcement.

The White House’s proposal, one aide said, wouldn’t resurrect the exact limits put in place by the Depression-era Glass Steagall Act, which essentially walled off commercial banks from investment banks and was repealed in 1999. Instead, the White House proposal would seek to return the “spirit of Glass Steagall,” meant to limit large banks from becoming too big and complex that create enormous risk.