Many wise people are now recognizing that the repeal of Glass-Steagall was one of the few saving graces of the current crisis. Let’s thank President Clinton (and Phil Gramm) for that wise bit of deregulation. The following potted history of the law, however, is all too typical:
Glass-Steagall was one of the many necessary measures taken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress to deal with the Great Depression. Crudely speaking, in the 1920s commercial banks (the types that took deposits, made construction loans, etc.) recklessly plunged into the bull market, making margin loans, underwriting new issues and investment pools, and trading stocks. When the bubble popped in 1929, exposure to Wall Street helped drag down the commercial banks….The policy response was to erect a wall between investment banking and commercial banking.
Given a history like this people wonder how repealing the law could have been a good thing. But a significant academic literature has investigated these claims and rejected them. Eugene White, for example, found that national banks with security affiliates were much less likely to fail than banks without affiliates. Randall Kroszner (now at the Fed.) and Raghuram Rajan found that (jstor) securities issued by unified banks were (ex-post) of higher quality that those issued by investment banks. A powerful book by George Benston went through the entire Pecora hearings which supposedly revealed the problems with unified banking and found them to be a complete sham. My colleague, Carlos Ramirez later showed that the separation of commercial and investment banking increased the cost of external finance (jstor). Finally, my own work (pdf) unearthed the real reasons for the separation in a titanic battle between the Morgans and Rockefellers.
Thus, the history of banking before Glass-Steagall and now our recent experience after is consistent, generally speaking unified banking is safer and repeal was a good idea.