Michael Lewis hit it on the head when he called the IPO of Salomon Brothers the "beginning of the end of Wall St". Goldman CEO Blankfein almost suggested we go back to the old Wall Street of private partnership in an FT article yesterday.
Let's face it. We screwed up by dismantling Glass-Steagall, a lesson learned the hard way during the Great Depression but thrown away when complacency and greed got the better of us. Basel II is a joke. The European model of combined commercial and investment banks creates way too much systemic risk. Heck, people on the two sides don't even like each other. Commercial banks serve too much social function (taking deposits and making loans) to be aggressive profit seekers. They must be closely and prudently managed and regulated. Investment banks (including capital markets), on the other hand, must be aggressive profit seekers and risk takers in order to serve their social function, which is to keep the capital markets somewhat efficient and fair. But institutions playing such a pivotal social role cannot be public.
Why? Because public ownership is a farce. The concept of "ownership" is a mirage for most modern companies big enough to pass the IPO threshold. But it's like a CDO Squared backed by mirages when it comes to investment banks. I've written specifically about this before so I'll not repeat it here.
But I'd like to stress another point here: regulation alone cannot possibly be adequate for a beast like investment banking. Two reasons:
1. Regulation by definition is rigid and static, while investment banking by nature must be nimble, innovative, and flexible. The result is you end up with either too little regulation, too much, or the wrong kind. Most likely you end up with D) All of the above.
2. Regulators cannot possibly understand the going-ons at investment banks even if they are honest, earnest, and have the authority. There's just too much going on, too fast, that is too complex. There's no way the regulatory bodies can compete with investment banks for high-quality talent without severely corrupting the process, thus defeating its purpose.
While some regulation on investment banking is necessary, it takes the watchful eyes of private partners to keep the beast from hurting itself and taking the society with it. Only private partners have the power, the incentive, and the capability to do so.
So separate commercial banks from investment banks, nationalize the latter, set up RTC for the latter, and then auction off investment banks to private partners. Out of the ashes of the Wall Street everyone loves to hate today, we'll have a lean and nimble Old Wall Street back in no time.
Without costing nearly as much taxpayer money.
Furthermore, not only should we re-enact Glass-Steagall, we should insist on making it an international standard to level the playing field and avoid future contagion. If someone refuses to adopt the standard, they would not be allowed to compete in the member markets.