Put aside for a moment the populist pressure to regulate banking and trading. Ask the elder statesmen of these industries — giants like George Soros, Nicholas F Brady, John S Reed, William H Donaldson and John C Bogle — where they stand on regulation, and they will bowl you over with their populism.
They certainly don’t think of themselves as angry Main Streeters. They grew quite wealthy in finance, typically making their fortunes in the ’70s and ’80s when banks and securities firms were considerably more regulated.
While the younger generation, very visibly led by Lloyd C Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, lobbies Congress against such regulation, their spiritual elders support the reform proposed by Paul A Volcker and, surprisingly, even more restrictions. “I am a believer that the system has gone badly awry and needs massive reform,” said Bogle, the 80-year-old founder and for many years chief executive of the Vanguard Group, the huge mutual fund company.
Volcker, 82, signed up the support of nearly a dozen peers whose average age is north of 70 and whose pedigrees on Wall Street and in banking are impeccable. But while Volcker focuses on a rule that would henceforth prohibit a bank that takes deposits from also buying and selling securities for its own account — risking losses in the process — most of his prominent supporters see that as a starting point in a broader return to regulation. And most do not hesitate to speak up in interviews.
Listen to Nicholas Brady, a former treasury secretary and ex-chairman of Dillon Read, now extinct, but in its day a prestigious Wall Street house. “If you are a commercial bank,” he said, “and you wish the government to guarantee your deposits and bail you out if necessary, then you can’t be involved in speculative activity.”
Does that mean Brady, now 79, would tell commercial banks they could no longer trade securities for their customers? Volcker, who gained fame in the 1980s as chairman of the Federal Reserve, would permit this and so would President Obama, who has endorsed the Volcker restriction on proprietary trading, but not the broader ban on trading for customers. Brady just might take that extra step.
“I’d certainly look into it,” he said, arguing in effect that the current generation of bankers is so profit-oriented, it might well find a way to convert trading for a customer into surreptitiously trading for the bank itself, risking depositors’ money in the process.