Top economists, financial experts and bankers say that the big banks are too large … and their very size is threatening the economy. They say we need to break up the big banks to stabilize the economy. They say that too much interconnectedness leads to financial instability.
But – as shown below – the big banks are getting bigger and bigger … and getting into ever more interconnected markets.
Indeed, big banks aren’t even really acting like banks anymore. Big banks do very little traditional banking, since most of their business is from financial speculation. For example, we noted in 2010 that less than 10% of Bank of America’s assets come from traditional banking deposits.
The big banks are manipulating every market. They’re also taking over important aspects of the physical economy, including uranium mining, petroleum products, aluminum, ownership and operation of airports, toll roads, ports, and electricity.
A 2-year bipartisan probe by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has shined a light on this problem, culminating in a new 400-page report.
Senator Levin – the Chair of Subcommittee – summarizes the findings from the investigation:
“Wall Street’s massive involvement in physical commodities puts our economy, our manufacturers and the integrity of our markets at risk,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the subcommittee’s chairman. “It’s time to restore the separation between banking and commerce and to prevent Wall Street from using nonpublic information to profit at the expense of industry and consumers.”
“Banks have been involved in the trade and ownership of physical commodities for a number of years, but have recently increased their participation in new ways,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “This subcommittee’s hearing is an opportunity to examine that involvement, determine whether it gives rise to excessive risk, and identify potential causes for concern that warrant further oversight by Congress and financial regulators.”
One focus for the subcommittee is the management of Detroit-area metal warehouses run by Metro Trade Services International, the largest U.S. warehouse company certified to store aluminum warranted by the London Metal Exchange for use in settling trades. Since Goldman bought Metro in 2010, Metro warehouses have accumulated up to 85 percent of the U.S. LME aluminum storage market.
Since Goldman took over the warehouses, the wait to withdraw LME-warranted metal has increased from about 40 days to more than 600 days, reducing aluminum availability and tripling the regional premium for storage and delivery costs.
The investigation revealed a number of previously unknown details about these deals: that Goldman’s warehouse company paid metal owners to engage in “merry-go-round” deals that shuttled metal from building to building without actually shipping aluminum out of Metro’s system; that the deals were approved by Metro’s board, which consisted entirely of Goldman employees; and that a Metro executive raised concerns internally about the appropriateness of such “queue management.”
Goldman didn’t just store aluminum; it was involved in massive trades of aluminum at the same time its warehouse operations were affecting aluminum availability, storage costs, and prices. After Goldman bought Metro, it accumulated massive aluminum holdings of its own, and in 2012, added about 300,000 metric tons of its own aluminum to the exit queue at its warehouses. …
Of course, the Federal Reserve – instead of regulating the banks, encouraged them to buy all of these physical assets. As Reuters notes:
[The Senate report] also points the finger at the Federal Reserve, saying the central bank has taken insufficient steps to address the risks taken by financial holding companies gathering physical commodities. The Fed in some cases was unaware of the growing risk, the report said.
Pam Martens points out:
Adding to the hubris of the situation, the Wall Street banks’ own regulator, the Federal Reserve, gave its blessing to this unprecedented and dangerous encroachment by banking interests into industrial commodity ownership and has effectively looked the other way as the banks moved into industrial commerce activities like owning pipelines and power plants. …