Speaking on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” the 79-year-old Weill appeared to shock the show’s anchors when he said that consumer banking units should be split from riskier investment banking units. That would mean dismembering Citigroup as well as other big U.S. banks, like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.
It’s an idea that’s traditionally more in line with the banking industry’s harshest critics, not its founding fathers. It’s an ironic twist coming from an empire-builder who nursed Citigroup into a behemoth. And it’s directly opposed to the stance of the industry’s current leaders, like JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, who have been trying to convince regulators and lawmakers of just the opposite, that big banks do not need to be split.
Weill said the radical change is necessary if U.S. banks want to rebuild trust and remain on top of the world’s financial system. Weill also criticized banks for taking on too much debt and not providing enough disclosure about what’s on their balance sheets.
“Our world hates bankers,” he said.
Big banks have been villainized in the financial crisis and its aftermath. Critics blame them for risky trading that created a housing bubble and eventually led to global economic upheaval. In some circles, there’s still resentment that the government used taxpayer money to give bailout loans to the biggest banks, including Citigroup, because regulators believed that the financial system wouldn’t be able to handle their failure.
But standalone investment banks, Weill said, wouldn’t take deposits, so they wouldn’t be bailed out. Banks that have both investment banking and consumer banking say it’s necessary to keep them together because they balance each other, ensuring stability no matter the economy.
Investment banking, which offers services like trading stocks and packaging loans into securities, can be spectacularly profitable in the good times and spectacularly unprofitable in the bad. Consumer banking, the plain-vanilla business of making loans and accepting deposits, generally offers a steadier, if slower, way to make profits. Until the late ’90s, federal regulations kept them largely separated.