Cohn said to back separation of Wall Street business lines

GARY COHN, the director of the U.S. National Economic Council, surprised U.S. senators in a closed-door meeting by saying that it may be a good idea to bring back the restrictions of the Depression-era regulatory regime of the Glass-Steagall Act.
GARY COHN, the director of the U.S. National Economic Council, surprised U.S. senators in a closed-door meeting by saying that it may be a good idea to bring back the restrictions of the Depression-era regulatory regime of the Glass-Steagall Act. /BLOOMBERG NEWS PHOTO/ANDREW HARRER

WASHINGTON In a private meeting with lawmakers, White House economic adviser Gary Cohn said he supports a policy that could radically reshape Wall Street’s biggest firms by separating their consumer-lending businesses from their investment banks, said people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Cohn, the ex-Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive who is now advising President Donald Trump, said he generally favors banking going back to how it was when firms like Goldman focused on trading and underwriting securities, and companies such as Citigroup Inc. primarily issued loans, according to people who heard his comments.

The remarks surprised some senators and congressional aides who attended the Wednesday meeting, as they didn’t expect a former top Wall Street executive to speak favorably of proposals that would force banks to dramatically rethink how they do business.

Yet Cohn’s comments echo what Trump and Republican lawmakers have previously said about wanting to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era law that kept bricks-and-mortar lending separate from investment banking for more than six decades.

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In the years after the law’s 1999 repeal, banks such as Citigroup, Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. gobbled up rivals and pushed into all sorts of new businesses, becoming one-stop-shopping financial behemoths.

White House spokeswoman Natalie Strom didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Tempering changes

Many banking executives believed that the inclusion of former finance executives like Cohn in Trump’s White House would temper major changes such as a Glass-Steagall return. But his Wednesday remarks suggest he could be a wildcard should Congress get serious about reinstating the law.

“It just shows you the lack of consensus that exists among the people who are putting their comments into the hat on banking regulation,” said Christopher Wheeler, an analyst in London with Atlantic Equities LLP. “The uncertainty is immense, and what you have to believe is that things will continue as they are. You have to presume that nothing happens.”

A separation of investment and commercial banking would have a potentially bigger impact on global firms that have a big consumer banking unit, Brian Gardner, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette and Woods, said in a research note.

Goldman is an example of a firm that doesn’t do much consumer lending while its peers such as JPMorgan would be forced to make more dramatic changes.

Bob Doll, chief equity strategist at Nuveen, said Thursday on Bloomberg Television that Cohn’s comments were surprising. Though the financial crisis and bank bailouts led to criticism of companies that are considered too big to fail, regulation has increased substantially in recent years on everything from mortgage lending to derivatives.

“We need a healthy banking system,” he said. “That’s yes, of course, good for Wall Street, but it’s also really good for Main Street.”

White House officials haven’t said what an updated version of Glass-Steagall might look like. Getting Congress to pass any significant financial regulation legislation would be a high hurdle, as lawmakers are currently bogged down by other high profile issues including health care and taxes.

“We fully expect Glass-Steagall headlines to persist, but we see neither the political will nor the legislative capacity necessary for passage of legislation reshaping the nation’s banking framework,” said Isaac Boltansky, a financial regulation analyst at Compass Point Research & Trading.

Cohn’s remarks were prompted by a question from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of the finance industry’s most relentless critics, said the people who asked not to be named because Cohn’s meeting with Senate Banking Committee members was private.

The Massachusetts Democrat asked Cohn about his thoughts on Glass-Steagall. After Cohn answered, Sen. Robert Corker, a Tennessee Republican, pressed the White House official to clarify his views.

Spokesmen for Warren and Corker didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Dismantling the nation’s banking giants isn’t a partisan issue, which is one reason why Wall Street fears the idea could gain traction. Both political parties – and many voters – still resent that taxpayers had to rescue the industry with a $700 billion bailout during the 2008 financial crisis.

Bipartisan issue

Republicans included a return of Glass-Steagall in the party platform they approved in July during their national convention. Warren herself has proposed legislation with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. called the “21st Century Glass-Steagall Act.”

Advocates for bringing the law back say smaller banks could be allowed to fail without threatening the economy or needing bailouts. They also argue that a less powerful finance industry wouldn’t have as much influence over Washington policy. Wall Street executives counter that it would be impossible for broken-up lenders to compete with overseas mega-banks and that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act has made the industry much safer.

Wednesday’s Capitol Hill meeting with Cohn was arranged by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and included lawmakers from both political parties and their staffs. The discussion covered a wide range of topics, including financial regulations and overhauling the tax code, the people said.

A Crapo spokeswoman declined to comment.

Elizabeth Dexheimer is a Bloomberg News staff writer.

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