banking

Should the big banks be downsized?

It could also have an impact on retail investors and their individual retirement accounts with the bank and what investment options they might have, Turner says.

Indeed, a bill introduced in 2011, called the Return to Prudent Banking Act of 2011, goes further than the original Glass-Steagall Act. While the bill has little chance of passing, it would prohibit deposit-taking banks from being affiliated with any broker/dealer, investment adviser or investment company. In contrast, the Glass-Steagall Act allowed banks to trade in securities as long as it was on the orders of a customer.

If something like the Prudent Banking Act would pass, banks likely would have to spin off their investment management operations or sell them off to other companies. Either way, their customers who had formerly done all their financial activities in one place may no longer be able to do so and could be shuffled around in a subsequent wave of corporate reorganization.

Some benefits for consumers

A more complete breakup of the big banks could have some upsides for consumers, says Dean Baker, economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

With market power spread around to more banks, consumers could see modest improvements in loan rates and savings yields as more and smaller institutions competed with each other.

"I think you would see some increased competition, some positive impact on prices," Baker says. "I don't think people would suddenly notice you can get a much better rate on savings or checking. I don't think there would be huge changes that way. There would be marginal ones that maybe we would be able to detect in the economic data."

Change not likely at the moment

Whatever the impact on consumers, a government-driven breakup of the big banks is unlikely at the moment, Baker says.

"There's no powerful actor in either the Democratic or the Republican Party that's really pushing it at this point," he says.

Ely agrees. "Big banks aren't going to get broken up. There's no legal foundation now, and I doubt Congress will act to create one," Ely says. "What I think we'll see instead is more market-driven restructuring -- banks voluntarily pulling out of certain markets."

Still, there is one thing that could move a bank breakup plan beyond cable news shows and onto a congressional docket, Baker says.

"The set of events that might get you to a Glass-Steagall or a breakup of the banks would be another catastrophic event. It would be like the London Whale, but one that actually brought down a major bank and forced a bailout," he says. "That could happen, but I don't think it's very likely."

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