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Jul 30, 2012

Weill calls to break up the big 'supermarket' banks

One can’t help but marvel at the hide of Sanford I. Weill, better known as Sandy Weill -- creator of Citigroup.

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One can’t help but marvel at the hide of Sanford I. Weill, better known as Sandy Weill — creator of Citigroup and destroyer of the Glass-Steagall Act. Last week, Weill admitted that “supermarket” banks, of which his own Citigroup was the first, should be broken up.

Weill, a former member of the Forbes 400, told CNBC that “what we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers … have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans and have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not too big too fail.”

Weill, for possibly the first time, was completely correct. It’s just a shame that his monstrous creation of Citigroup in 1999 led to those very taxpayer dollars being spent on a bailout — all $US45 billion of then.Weill was named by Time magazine as one of the “25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis“.

While Citi’s collapse did little for Weill’s reputation on Wall Street, he had fortunately long ago received $US300 million from Citigroup in 2003 to buy back some of his shares, and by 2006 had managed to amass $US1.5 billion, according to Forbes. Weill has since dropped off the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans but certainly won’t be lining up for food stamps. He owns several mega estates, including this one in Greenwich, Connecticut and a $US31 million California vineyard. Last year Weill sold his upper west-side New York apartment to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $US88 million.

Weill’s performance at Citi (which was created by the merger of Weill’s Traveller’s group and Citibank) is best shown in the group’s share price. Under his successor, Chuck Prince, Citi’s share price fell from $US55 to be currently $US2.70 (it split 10:1 in May 2011). In addition to the $US45 billion bailout, the US taxpayer was also forced to step in an provide a guarantee for $US300 billion. (While some claim that the US government made a “profit” on the bailout, in reality, that was not the case as that profit was created through lending money to the bank at zero percent and paying it a 3.7% rate in return.)

Before Weill and his lobbyists convinced US lawmakers to pass the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, US investment banks, commercial banks and insurers were not able to housed in one institution — the act was the legislative confirmation of too big to fail. (Another indirect beneficiary of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act was Enron, which happened to count Phil Gramm’s wife, Wendy, as one of its directors.)

Weill’s comments are all the more surprising as he certainly didn’t recoil from his role in removing Glass-Steagall — his office allegedly contained a plaque that dubbed Weill “the Shatterer of Glass-Steagall”.

Weill’s comments come not long after his former deputy turned rival, Jamie Dimon, was severely embarrassed by a multibillion dollar “hedging” loss at the now largest financial supermarket, JPMoganChase. JPMorgan’s claims that the loss was due to hedging rather the proprietary trading was, of course, pure bunkum, as the entire purpose of a hedge is to limit exposure to risk, not create billions of dollars of profits (or as JPMorgan would find out, losses).

Weill’s comments also followed those of former Morgan Stanley chief Phil Purcell, who also claimed that breaking up the largest banks would make them better investments, and come as Congress continues to debate the Volcker Rule, which intended to prevent banks from any form of proprietary trading.

Fortunately for the large banks and their teams of highly paid lobbyists, Congress will not pass any legislation to that seriously curtails proprietary trading (sizeable campaign donations will see to that). Any legislation that is eventually enacted will no doubt be riddled with exceptions that will allow bankers to continue risking shareholder and taxpayer dollars to generate lofty bonuses — just like Sandy’s.

Adam Schwab —

Adam Schwab

Business director and commentator

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