White House economic adviser Gary Cohn said he backed bringing back the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that would revamp Wall Street banks by splitting their consumer-lending businesses from their investment arms.
The National Economic Council director, also a former Goldman Sachs president, expressed support to lawmakers for a banking system where firms would focus primarily on trading and underwriting securities or issuing loans.
Big banks have strongly opposed such a move that would fundamentally overhaul their business. Reinstating the law, which was repealed in 1999, has not attracted significant attention in Congress, but advocates in the White House and both parties now argue it would provide critical safeguards to prevent another financial crisis.
Critics of that approach say it lacks nuance and would not have prevented the last financial meltdown.
The fact Cohn, widely viewed as one of Wall Street's own, was willing to push that position spooked big banks' representatives in Washington.
The White House confirmed Cohn's remarks in a private meeting with lawmakers on Wednesday. A spokesperson said he was "simply discussing the President's previously stated position" in favor of a "21st century Glass-Steagall."
Cohn's remarks were first reported by Bloomberg.
The Trump administration has indicated support for a return to Glass-Steagall. The White House has stuck by the idea since it was included in the Republican Party platform during the presidential campaign, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin expressed interest in a modernized version of the law.
When asked on Thursday when large financial institutions should begin to worry about Glass-Steagall becoming a reality, one industry representative said, "Right now."
However, any legislation establishing such a firewall faces long odds in the current Congress. The heads of the House and Senate banking committees have indicated support for alternative approaches, and efforts to move Glass-Steagall legislation in prior years have garnered little support.
"A new Glass-Steagall would require legislation, and it simply isn't a priority issue in Congress," wrote Ian Katz, a financial policy analyst for the research firm Capital Alpha Partners, in a note to clients.
In the meeting which was arranged by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, Cohn was asked by Senator Elizabeth Warren about Glass-Steagall. Cohn responded favorably, noting that the Republican Party platform supports the idea, according to sources familiar with the meeting. The meeting included lawmakers from both parties and their staff.
Bringing back Glass Steagall would likely have a significant impact on banks like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup that have large highly intertwined commercial lending and investment banking operations, say analysts.
It would impact Goldman Sachs Group and Morgan Stanley to a lesser degree although, they would likely have to revert to being standalone investment banks and shed their deposit funding.
Here are some details about the law, called the Glass-Steagall Act:
What is Glass-Steagall: Originally passed as part of the U.S. Banking Act of 1933, Glass-Steagall established a firewall between commercial and investment banking activity. The law was whittled away over time as banks gained permission to engage in more trading activity, and was repealed altogether in 1999 with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.
Who supports it?: Since the 2008 financial crisis, Glass-Steagall has become a calling card for politicians eager to crack down on Wall Street. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren frequently invokes it, and Senator Bernie Sanders made it a major part of his presidential campaign. President Donald
Trump also seized on the policy during his campaign.
What does the White House say?: The Trump administration has not backed away from his campaign stance, but there are questions about how aggressively the president will push for a new law. The issue only tends to come up when officials are asked about it. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he supported a modern version of Glass-Steagall in response to a
question during his confirmation hearing. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the White House supports the proposal when asked by reporters. Cohn responded favorably when asked by Warren at a private meeting with senators.
What would a new Glass-Steagall look like?: There are number
of ideas to create what some refer to as a "21st Century Glass-Steagall." Warren has proposed splitting commercial and investment banking, and also barring depository institutions from using modern financial instruments like derivatives. Thomas Hoenig, the vice chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation, has proposed a similar split, and would subject banks to a higher, 10 percent capital requirement. Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, would force big banks to take on so much capital they would prefer to split into smaller institutions.
Could it happen?: Although many Wall Street critics have seized on Glass-Steagall, efforts to change the law have garnered very little support. Warren's proposal received just a handful of legislative co-sponsors. And because Congress and the White House are still consumed with complex fights over health care and tax reform, there seems to be little appetite for a
broad, controversial overhaul of the financial system.
Are there risks for banks?: Big U.S. lenders including JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup would be most impacted, because their commercial lending and investment banking operations are closely
intertwined, say analysts. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley might be less impacted, although they would likely have to revert to being standalone investment banks and shed their deposit funding. But even if Glass-Steagall does not become law, the industry may have to spend money, time and
energy lobbying against the idea, when they would rather focus on rolling back existing rules.