This op-ed originally appeared at NYTimes.com.
Last week, in a CNBC interview, Sanford I. Weill, the former chairman of Citigroup, said that America should separate investment banking from commercial banking. This separation, of course, was the prime purpose of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, a piece of legislation that Mr. Weill and other bankers had successfully watered down, with Alan Greenspan’s support, before Mr. Weill helped engineer its official demise in 1999. Now, Mr. Weill, the creator of what was once the largest financial conglomerate in the world, suggests that Citigroup and others should be broken up. Banks can no longer “be too big to fail,” he told CNBC.
But what was most eye-catching was Mr. Weill’s claim that the conglomerate model “was right for that time.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Mr. Weill’s original business concept — the justification of financial conglomeration — was to provide one-stop shopping to any and all customers. This could now include clients for investment banking, stock research, brokerage and insurance. Then, with the 1998 merger of his Travelers Group with Citicorp, it could include savers, business borrowers and credit card users, too. But few, even among his own executives, ever believed the strategy would work.
Rather, conglomeration bred conflicts of interest in Mr. Weill’s firms, and others — the very conflicts that the original Glass-Steagall Act was designed to prevent. This inevitably led to investment in and promotion of risky, poorly run and, in some cases, deceitful companies that brought us the high-technology and telecommunications bubble of the late 1990s.
Indeed, Mr. Weill’s Citigroup was a primary underwriter of and one of the two largest lenders to the oil and futures trading firm Enron, whose accounting charade resulted in what was in 2001 the biggest bankruptcy of its time. Citigroup was a major underwriter for the telecommunications giants Global Crossing and WorldCom, which would later go bankrupt as a result of flagrant accounting deceptions. There were many other, if less visible, debacles.