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New Glass-Steagall Is Needed to Protect Main Street From Wall Street: Ritholtz

Matt Nesto
New Glass-Steagall Is Needed to Protect Main Street From Wall Street: Ritholtz

It's called the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act and it's aimed at breaking up the country's 29 systemically important institutions, typically referred to as being "too big to fail."

Industry opposition to the proposed return of Glass-Steagall has been predictably strong, with most big players claiming any curtailment of the size and scope of their businesses would put them at a competitive disadvantage to their global peers. Critics also claim it will eliminate much-needed diversity in their business models that helps financial institutions survive when times get tough.

In spite of the arguments, Barry Ritholtz, the CEO of Fusion IQ and author of Bailout Nation, isn't buying it.

"You can't stop fraud but you can make the penalties so severe that most people won't engage in it," Ritholtz says in the attached video, adding "that's what we have moved away from over the past few decades."

The original law created in 1933 prohibited traditional banks from owning brokerage firms. "The idea behind Glass-Steagall was to create a firebreak," Ritholtz says, "so Wall Street can go through its occasional spasms and it shouldn't affect what takes place on normal Main Street."

He says once the law was put in place "we had 75 years without a major banking crisis" and points out that even during the Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s, the problems "did not spread throughout the entire system."

Notably, the founding fathers of modern-day Citigroup (C), Sandy Weill and John Reed, have both flipped on the idea of the mega-banks and have said they should be dismantled.

The legislation is being sponsored by incoming democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and veteran Arizona republican Senator John McCain, as well as Senators Angus King of Maine and Maria Cantwell of Washington. This comes at a time when the government itself is rethinking the long-term viability of taxpayers being on the hook for huge, too big to fail, diversified financials.

For now, as lawmakers and lobbyists chose sides and gear up for a fight, this dusted-off law from the Great Depression is being called everything from necessary to noisy. We'll soon see if this proposed legislation has enough bipartisan support for Congress to go back to the future in order to regulate the big banks.