Robert Reich: Why we should break up the banks

The JPMorgan Chase building (L) in midtown Manhattan.

OK, here's my prediction for this year's biggest bipartisan economic initiative: This is the year we break up Wall Street's biggest banks.

Why do I think so? First, they're far bigger than they were four years ago when they were considered 'too big to fail'. The five largest banks now have almost 44 percent of all U.S. bank deposits. That's up from 37 percent in 2007, just before the crash. A decade ago they had just 28 percent of deposits.

The biggest banks keep getting bigger because they can borrow more cheaply than smaller banks. That's because investors believe the government will bail them out if they get into trouble.

So it's dawning on many that there's no alternative to limiting their size and breaking up the biggest. A few months ago, Dan Tarullo, a Fed governor who specializes in bank regulation, proposed capping the size of the banks' balance sheets.

Some former titans of Wall Street are saying much the same thing. Even Sandy Weill, who created Citigroup, the nation's second-largest bank, is proposing the biggest banks be broken up.

The new Congress may be supportive of the idea. The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, has been a strong ally of small banks in their push to rein in their bigger rivals, and has expressed concern about the largest banks being too big to fail. It's not irrelevant that the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve Board, in Hensarling's home district, has also proposed breaking up the biggest banks.

Meanwhile, over in the Senate, Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, is a strong advocate for breaking up the big banks and is now on the Senate Finance Committee. And Elizabeth Warren, scourge of Wall Street, will sit on the Senate Banking Committee.

In other words, the timing is right. The oven is ready. All we need is another multi-billion-dollar banking loss -- like JPMorgan Chase's last year -- and the biggest banks are cooked.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

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