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Tribune Deal Reminds Us of Banks' Power

The Volcker Rule, part of Dodd-Frank, aims to reinstate some of the Glass Steagall prohibition, but it has yet to be enacted and remains subject to intense lobbying. Other efforts to limit the power of banks, such as legislation sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohiol) and David Vitter (R-La.), look like a long shot.

Meanwhile, banks continue to hold large ownership stakes in several important industries. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, for example, retain extensive commodities business interests, which "threaten to undermine the fundamental policy objectives that underlie the principle of separating banking from commerce," according to a 2012 paper entitled "The Merchants of Wall Street: Banking, Commerce, and Commodities," by University of North Carolina law school professor Saule Omarova. The paper argues such laws are essential to "ensuring the safety and soundness of the U.S. banking system, maintaining a fair and efficient flow of credit in the economy, protecting market integrity, and preventing excessive concentration of economic power."

Still, before we get too freaked out about banks' wide-ranging ownership interests, we should note that it is natural for banks to acquire all sorts of property in exactly the way JPMorgan ended up owning 9% of Tribune Co. Banks are creditors, after all, and creditors often end up owning assets when the owners can't pay their debts.

On the other hand, it isn't very clear when banks should be required to sell these assets, whether regulators are paying attention to this issue, or, assuming they are, whether they have enough power for it to make a difference.

A Tribune spokesman referred questions to JPMorgan Chase, where a spokeswoman did not respond to a call or an e-mail message. A Federal Reserve spokesman declined to comment.

-- Written by Dan Freed in New York.

Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.
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