Call it the loophole that destroyed the world. It's 1999, the tail end of the Clinton years. While the rest of America obsesses over Monica Lewinsky, Columbine and Mark McGwire's biceps, Congress is feverishly crafting what could yet prove to be one of the most transformative laws in the history of our economy – a law that would make possible a broader concentration of financial and industrial power than we've seen in more than a century.
But the crazy thing is, nobody at the time quite knew it. Most observers on the Hill thought the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 – also known as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act – was just the latest and boldest in a long line of deregulatory handouts to Wall Street that had begun in the Reagan years.
Wall Street had spent much of that era arguing that America's banks needed to become bigger and badder, in order to compete globally with the German and Japanese-style financial giants, which were supposedly about to swallow up all the world's banking business. So through legislative lackeys like red-faced Republican deregulatory enthusiast Phil Gramm, bank lobbyists were pushing a new law designed to wipe out 60-plus years of bedrock financial regulation. The key was repealing – or "modifying," as bill proponents put it – the famed Glass-Steagall Act separating bankers and brokers, which had been passed in 1933 to prevent conflicts of interest within the finance sector that had led to the Great Depression. Now, commercial banks would be allowed to merge with investment banks and insurance companies, creating financial megafirms potentially far more powerful than had ever existed in America.