Archive for the ‘Banking’ Category

Replacing Pinstripes with Prison Jumpsuits

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

Goodwin-1-e1440025102463-225x300We’ve just been treated to the rare sight of a corporate executive pleading guilty to criminal charges stemming from actions that harmed the public. This outcome was particularly satisfying given that the case was one that symbolized much of what is wrong with U.S. business and regulatory practices.

The culprit is Gary Southern, who was at the center of an incident last year in West Virginia whose details, I wrote at the time, sounded a parody: the company responsible for a toxic chemical leak into the Elk River that contaminated the water supply of hundreds of thousands of people and sickened many turned out to be named Freedom Industries and had been cofounded by a two-time convicted felon.

That felon was Carl Lemley Kennedy II, who was apparently no longer active in the company by the time the spill occurred. The man who had taken over was Southern, who is now a felon as well thanks to his plea on charges of violating the federal Clean Water Act. Five other Freedom executives had earlier admitted guilt and negligence in connection with an accident that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin (photo) called “completely preventable.” Southern faces up to three years in prison.

Goodwin had rejected calls to focus on restitution to the community and insisted on seeking prison time for Southern et al. “Executives are used to writing checks,” he said. “It sends a stronger message if they have to trade their three-piece suits for a prison jumpsuit.”

A similar get-tough-on-business-crime attitude was recently displayed by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who brought manslaughter charges against two construction managers (and the companies they worked for) in connection with the death of a worker earlier this year in an accident that occurred after the managers had, Vance alleged, ignored repeated warnings from inspectors about unsafe conditions on the site.

Let’s hope Goodwin’s message also gets through to prosecutors bringing cases against companies with a much bigger footprint than that of Freedom Industries and the New York construction firms. For a long time, large corporations and their top executives seemed to be immune from criminal prosecutions, no matter how serious the offense.

The Justice Department has started to give in to the pressure and get some big companies to plead guilty to criminal offenses, as occurred in May in a case involving allegations against Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase and other large banks in connection with the manipulation of foreign exchange markets.

Now it’s time for prosecutors to take the next step and bring individual criminal charges against Fortune 500 top executives involved in serious misconduct.

There’s no guarantee that a criminal conviction will completely reform a wayward businessperson. The Wall Street Journal has a piece about an accounting executive who, after being convicted of embezzlement and banned for life from the accounting profession, altered his name slightly (changing Stephen to Steven and adopting a different middle name) and went on providing accounting services with bogus credentials. The SEC eventually caught on and is going after him in court.

Yet we need to see whether individual prosecutions of top executives works. One way or another, we’ve got a find a way to bring an end to the corporate crime wave.

Business Crime Simple and Complex

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

thumbonscaleMuch of the corporate misconduct of the past decade has involved complicated schemes involving the likes of mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps. A recent announcement by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a reminder that old-fashioned business thievery is still very much with us.

Citizens Bank will pay $18.5 million to settle CFPB allegations that it routinely pocketed the difference when customers mistakenly filled out deposit slips for amounts lower than the sums actually transferred. Taking advantage of the carelessness of others added up for the bank: $11 million of the payment by Citizens will consist of refunds, with the rest representing penalties imposed by the CFPB under its powers granted by the industry-vilified Dodd-Frank Act.

The under-crediting attributed to Citizens is the flip side of the overcharging that is surprisingly common among large retailers. Whole Foods is facing a shareholder lawsuit and sinking sales in the wake of allegations by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs that its local stores were systematically and egregiously overcharging customers for pre-packaged foods. The agency found that: “89 percent of the packages tested did not meet the federal standard for the maximum amount that an individual package can deviate from the actual weight, which is set by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The overcharges ranged from $0.80 for a package of pecan panko to $14.84 for a package of coconut shrimp.” The company admitted it had made “mistakes.”

In February, Target paid $3.9 million to settle allegations by half a dozen district attorneys in California that prices charged at the register were higher than those posted in the aisles.

In April, Wal-Mart was hit with a proposed class action lawsuit alleging that the company overcharged customers at its vision centers by inflating insurance co-pay amounts.

Earlier this month, Genuine Parts agreed to pay $338,000 to settle allegations by the San Diego District Attorney that its several of its NAPA Auto Parts stores were overcharging customers.

Cases such as these belie the notion that “thumb on the scale” types of simple cheating are mainly to be found among small businesses. Large companies are apparently inclined to engage in both simple and complex misdeeds.

Citizens Bank symbolizes the link between the different types of misconduct. The company is a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has been deeply involved in a variety of complex financial scandals.

Earlier this year, it pleaded guilty to criminal charges of conspiring to fix foreign currency rates, along with three other major banks. RBS was fined $395 million (and another $274 million by the Federal Reserve) and put on probation for three years. The SEC gave it a waiver from a rule that would have barred it from remaining in the securities business.

In 2013 RBS had to pay $153 million to settle charges that it misled investors in a 2007 offering of subprime residential mortgage-back securities. That same year, it paid $612 million to settle civil and criminal charges that it was involved in the manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index.

Whether simple or complex, corporate wrongdoing needs to be prosecuted aggressively.

Convictions Without Consequences

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

get_out_of_jail_freeIn the years following the financial meltdown, corporate critics complained that the big banks were not facing serious legal consequences for their misconduct. They were being allowed to essentially buy their way out of jeopardy through financial settlements under which they admitted no wrongdoing.

In 2012 the Justice Department gave in to the pressure and extracted a guilty plea, but it was made by an obscure subsidiary of a foreign bank, Switzerland’s UBS, to resolve a charge of felony wire fraud in connection with the long-running manipulation of LIBOR benchmark interest rates. The plea seemed to do little to impede UBS’s operations. The bank dodged one serious consequence when it received an exemption from the Labor Department from a rule that should have disqualified it from continuing to serve as an investment advisor for pension funds.

Things would be different, critics said, when a criminal conviction involved a parent company. Last year, that happened when another Swiss bank, Credit Suisse, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges of assisting U.S. taxpayers in dodging taxes by filing false returns with the Internal Revenue Service. Subsequently, Credit Suisse applied for its own exemption from the Labor Department; a decision is pending but is likely to go in the bank’s favor.

Now, at last, the Justice Department has gotten major two major U.S. banks — Citicorp and JPMorgan Chase — to plead guilty to something, which turned out to be felony charges of conspiring to manipulate foreign exchange markets. Two foreign banks — Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland — also agreed to guilty pleas in the case.

The four financial institutions will together pay criminal fines of just over $2.5 billion. Additional fines were assessed by their regulator, the Federal Reserve.

It’s not clear they will suffer much more than those easily affordable financial penalties. Along with likely exemptions from the Labor Department, the banks have already been granted waivers from SEC rules barring criminals from engaging in the securities business. The banks will be on probation for three years, but keep in mind that BP was on probation at the time of the Gulf of Mexico disaster.

A somewhat higher hurdle may be faced by UBS, which the Justice Department announced has entered a new guilty plea (this time by the parent company) after being found to be in breach of the 2012 non-prosecution agreement it signed when the Japanese subsidiary pleaded guilty.

While newly designated criminals such as Citibank and JPMorgan can claim they will never break the law again, UBS is already found to have violated its commitment to be law-abiding by participating in the foreign exchange conspiracy and engaging in other forms of misconduct.

Taken together, all these developments illustrate the farce that is law enforcement when large corporations are involved. For years they were freed from serious consequences through the use of deferred- and non-prosecution agreements. The size of the financial settlements they had to pay rose into the billions, but these were still affordable costs of doing business.

Now corporations are starting to plead guilty to felony charges, but the practical implications of those convictions are being undermined by regulatory agencies. Having a criminal record is not pleasing to corporations, but if they can continue to do business as usual, they will learn to live with that stigma.

When street crime was on the rise a few decades ago, public officials fell over themselves to enact harsh punishments. Now is the time for a serious discussion of how to get tough on crime in the suites.

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New in Corporate Rap Sheets: Peabody Energy. The “Exxon of Coal” fights CO2 regulation and pushes climate denial.

Bailouts and Bad Actors

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

moneybagsontherunNewly released transcripts of the 2009 meetings of the Federal Reserve’s open market committee show that monetary policymakers were still agonizing over whether they were doing enough to stabilize the teetering global financial system.

These documents have a special interest for me because, as I discussed in last week’s Digest, my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First recently collected a great deal of data about the Fed’s special bailout programs in 2008 and 2009 as part of the extension of our Subsidy Tracker database into the federal realm. The Fed’s info is part of the more than 160,000 entries we have amassed from 137 federal programs of various kinds. Subsidy Tracker 3.0 will go public on March 17.

In last week’s post I mentioned that the Fed programs involved the outlay of some $29 trillion (yes, trillion) and that the totals for several large banks (Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase ) each exceeded $1 trillion. I pointed out that these totals referred to loan principal and did not reflect repayments (information on which is not readily available).

What I also should have pointed out is that some of the Fed lending consisted of relatively short-term loans that were often rolled over. In other words, the actual amount outstanding at any given time was considerably lower than the eye-popping trillion dollar figures. That’s not to say that the amounts were chicken feed. It’s safe to say that the loan totals were in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and here again company-specific amounts are not available.

This is still high enough to justify the point I was making about the bailout amounts far outstripping the sums these banks have been paying out in settlements with the Justice Department to resolve allegations about investor deception in the sale of what turned out to be toxic securities in the run-up to the financial meltdown. And the amounts still justify anger at the current crusade by the big banks to weaken the Dodd-Frank regulatory safeguards adopted by the same government that bailed them out.

What is also worth pointing out is that the bad actor-bailout recipients are not limited to the big U.S. banks. Large totals also turn up for major European banks that have been involved in their own legal scandals in recent years. The biggest foreign recipient of Fed support turns out to be Barclays, which has an aggregate loan amount (including rollover loans and excluding repayments) of more than $900 billion. Next is Royal Bank of Scotland with more than $600 billion and Credit Suisse with more than $500 billion.

In 2012 Barclays had to pay $450 million to U.S. and European regulators to settle allegations that it manipulated the LIBOR interest rate index. The following year Royal Bank of Scotland had to pay $612 million to settle similar allegations. In 2014 Credit Suisse had to pay $2.6 billion in penalties to settle Justice Department charges that it conspired to help U.S. taxpayers dodge federal taxes. This was a rare instance in which a large company actually had to plead guilty to a criminal charge.

The frustrating truth is that the global financial system is dominated by big banks that seem to have little respect for the law and for financial regulation, but they do not hesitate to turn to government when they need to be rescued from their own excesses.

Banks Bite the Hand that Rescued Them

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

moneybags_handoutInvestment bank Morgan Stanley has disclosed that it will pay only $2.6 billion to settle U.S. Justice Department allegations that it deceived investors in the sale of toxic securities in the run-up to the financial meltdown.

I say “only” because the amount is substantially lower than the figures paid by Bank of America ($16.7 billion), JPMorgan Chase ($13 billion) and Citigroup ($7 billion) in similar cases. Thanks to the efforts of groups such as U.S. PIRG, we know that these amounts are less onerous than they appear because the companies are often allowed to deduct the payouts from their corporate income tax obligations.

My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have been assembling data that does more to put the payouts in perspective. As part of an expansion of our Subsidy Tracker database to the federal level, we obtained information on the massive bailout programs implemented by the Federal Reserve in 2008 to stabilize the teetering financial system by purchasing toxic assets on the books of financial institutions and by serving as a lender of last resort.

These programs, with esoteric names such as the Term Auction Facility, the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility and the Term Securities Lending Facility, are not as well known as the Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, but the amounts involved are eye-popping. A 2011 paper by James Fulkerson of the University of Missouri-Kansas City estimates that the Fed made bailout commitments worth a total of more than $29 trillion. Yes, that’s trillion with a t.

We’ve been going through the recipient lists the Fed (reluctantly) made public for 11 bailout programs to match the entities to their parent companies. We’re not quite done with that process, but it appears that the totals for a few large banks, including Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase as well as Morgan Stanley, will end up being in excess of $1 trillion each (excluding repayment amounts). Our final figures will be released March 17, both in what we are calling Subsidy Tracker 3.0 and in an accompanying report.

It’s already clear that the settlement amounts paid by the banks (especially in after-tax terms) have been easily absorbed as costs of doing business. The Fed bailout data shows that another reason the banks have been little fazed by their legal expenses is that they received government assistance worth a thousand times more during their time of grave vulnerability in 2008 and 2009 — vulnerability that was largely of their own making due to reckless securitization of subprime mortgages and consumer loans.

After Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, the Fed was apparently willing to spare no expense in rescuing the other big financial players. Its efforts ensured the survival of the big banks that are riding high today. Perhaps the top executives of these banks should keep this fact in mind before criticizing the modest regulations put in place to save them (and us) from their excesses.

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New in Corporate Rap Sheets: Entergy, the utility that has bet heavily on nukes and engages in creative billing.

Another Chance to Punish HSBC

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

swissleaksIt’s reassuring that the Justice Department is reportedly pushing a group of big banks, including Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, to plead guilty to felony counts in connection with their brazen manipulation of the foreign currency market.

Yet Justice also needs to undo the damage done by its ill-advised 2012 decision to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement with HSBC, which was allowed to pay $1.9 billion in settlements  rather than having to plead guilty to charges that it helped drug traffickers and terrorist groups evade money-laundering restrictions. Those practices had been detailed in a 300-page report by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, whose chair at the time, Sen. Carl Levin, called HSBC’s compliance culture “pervasively polluted for a long time.” A subsequent Matt Tiabbi Rolling Stone article about HSBC’s misdeeds quoted former Senate investigator Jack Blum as saying: “They violated every goddamn law in the book.”

The key prosecutor in the 2012 case was Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York and now President Obama’s choice to succeed Eric Holder as Attorney General. The deal is back in the news in connection with extraordinary revelations about the role of HSBC’s Swiss private banking unit in abetting widespread tax evasion by thousands of wealthy individuals from around the world.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), working in concert with news organizations around the world, adds another major dimension to the misconduct at HSBC. What ICIJ calls its Swiss Leaks project is based on a vast amount of internal bank data that former HSBC technology employee Hervé Falciani provided to tax authorities in various countries in 2010. A French official later re-leaked the data to Le Monde, whose staffers realized they had more information that they could possibility research on their own and so enlisted ICIJ and others, including 60 Minutes in the U.S., to join in the fun.

All this amounts to one of the most remarkable examples ever of collaborative investigative journalism on a global scale. The ICIJ site has links to investigations published not only in Western Europe but also in countries ranging from Ecuador and Argentina to Egypt and India. The geographic diversity stems from the fact that the leaked data relates to more than 100,000 HSBC clients in some 200 countries.

ICIJ takes pains to point out that there may be legitimate reasons for these people to have accounts in Switzerland, but it is clear that a substantial number of the clients were using them to conceal income from tax collectors. They also included individuals involved in unsavory pursuits such as arms trafficking, blood diamonds and bribery.

Some of the governments that received the data from Falciani have already begun bringing cases against individuals, but the revelations are also causing crises for some governments themselves. This is especially so in Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron is under fire for having chosen a former HSBC executive to serve as a minister.

Even more precarious is the position of HSBC itself, which stands accused of not just allowing rich people to open the secret accounts but also of actively assisting their tax dodging. The Guardian, for instance, is reporting that HSBC contacted clients to market techniques that would allow them to evade a system under which the bank was supposed to collect a sort of withholding tax on the secret accounts on behalf of European Union revenue authorities.

This brings things back to Loretta Lynch, who is not yet confirmed by the Senate but who is already facing pressure from the likes of Elizabeth Warren to come down harder on HSBC this time around. She should give in to those pressures.

Holder’s departure from the Justice Department creates an opportunity to end the shameful practice of letting unscrupulous large companies buy their way out of serious legal jeopardy with payments, which despite growing in size still do little to deter ongoing corporate crime.

Also see my updated Corporate Rap Sheet on HSBC.

The 2014 Corporate Rap Sheet

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

gotojailThe bull market in corporate crime surged in 2014 as large corporations continued to pay hefty fines and settlements that seem to do little to deter misbehavior in the suites. Payouts in excess of $1 billion have become commonplace and some even reach into eleven figures, as seen in the $16.65 billion settlement Bank of America reached with the Justice Department to resolve federal and state claims relating to the practices of its Merrill Lynch and Countrywide units in the run-up to the financial meltdown.

This came in the same year in which BofA reached a $9.3 billion settlement with the Federal Housing Finance Agency concerning the sale of deficient mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and in which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ordered the bank to pay $727 million to compensate consumers harmed by deceptive marketing of credit card add-on products.

The BofA cases helped boost the total penalties paid by U.S. and European banks during the year to nearly $65 billion, a 40 percent increase over the previous year, according to a tally by the Boston Consulting Group reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Among the other big banking cases were the following:

  • France’s BNP Paribas pleaded guilty to criminal charges and paid an $8.9 billion penalty to U.S. authorities in connection with charges that it violated financial sanctions against countries such as Sudan and Iran.
  • Citigroup paid $7 billion to settle federal charges relating to the packaging and sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities.
  • U.S. and European regulators fined five banks — JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS — a total of more than $4 billion after accusing them of conspiring to manipulate the foreign currency market.
  • Credit Suisse pleaded guilty to one criminal count of conspiring to aid tax evasion by U.S. customers and paid a penalty of $2.6 billion.
  • JPMorgan Chase paid $1.7 billion to victims of the Ponzi scheme perpetuated by Bernard Madoff to settle civil and criminal charges that it failed to alert authorities about large numbers of suspicious transactions made by Madoff while it was his banker.

Banks were not the only large corporations that found themselves in legal trouble during the year. The auto industry faced a never-ending storm of controversy over its safety practices. Toyota was hit with a $1.2 billion criminal penalty by U.S. authorities for concealing defects from customers and regulators. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined General Motors $35 million (the maximum allowable) for failing to promptly report an ignition switch defect that has been linked to numerous deaths. Hyundai and its subsidiary Kia paid $300 million to settle allegations that they misstated the greenhouse gas emissions of their vehicles.

Toxic dumping. Anadarko Petroleum paid $5.1 billion to resolve federal charges that had been brought in connection with the clean-up of thousands of toxic waste sites around the country resulting from decades of questionable practices by Kerr-McGee, now a subsidiary of Anadarko.

Pipeline safety. The California Public Utilities Commission proposed that $1.4 billion in penalties and fined be imposed on Pacific Gas & Electric in connection with allegations that the company violated federal and state pipeline safety rules before a 2010 natural gas explosion that killed eight people.

Contractor fraud. Supreme Group BV had to pay $288 million in criminal fines and a $146 million civil settlement in connection with allegations that it grossly overcharged the federal government while supplying food and bottled water to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.

Bribery. The French industrial group Alstom consented to pay $772 million to settle U.S. government charges that it bribed officials in Indonesia and other countries to win power contracts. Earlier in the year, Alcoa paid $384 million to resolve federal charges that it used a middleman to bribe members of Bahrain’s royal family and other officials to win lucrative contracts from the Bahraini government.

Price-fixing. Japan’s Bridgestone Corporation pleaded guilty to charges that it conspired to fix prices of anti-vibration rubber auto parts and had to pay a criminal fine of $425 million.

Defrauding consumers. AT&T Mobility had to pay $105 million to settle allegations by the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission that it unlawfully billed customers for services without their prior knowledge or consent.

The list goes on. Whether the economy is strong or weak, many corporative executives cannot resist the temptation to break the law in the pursuit of profit.

Note: For fuller dossiers on some of the companies listed here, see my Corporate Rap Sheets.

Bankers Gone Wild (Again)

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

get_out_of_jail_freeThere seems to be no end to the chutzpah of the big banks. They brazenly break the law and then pay growing but still quite affordable penalties to get out of their legal jeopardy.

The latest examples have just been reported by the New York Times. The front page of the newspaper has a blood-boiling story on how the likes of JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup intimidate people who have gone through personal bankruptcy into paying back debts that have been discharged in court. Although the debts are not legally collectable, the banks keep the obligations alive on credit reports, meaning that borrowers are faced with a choice between paying and having their credit rating ruined. Such a tactic makes loan sharks look good by comparison.

According to the Times, the practice is being investigated by the Justice Department. Before long we will read of a settlement, and the banks will move on to a new way of cheating their customers.

JPMorgan and Citi are also involved in a settlement just announced by U.S. and European regulators involving another sleazy banking practice: the manipulation of foreign currency markets. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission ordered five banks to pay more than $1.4 billion in penalties, including $310 million each from JPMorgan and Citi. Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority fined the five banks (which also include HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS) another $1.7 billion, including around $350 million each for JPMorgan and Citi. Swiss regulators hit UBS with an additional $138 million penalty.

In foreign exchange markets, the daily setting of rates is known as the fix. Evidence released by regulators made it abundantly clear that traders at the five banks saw to it that the fix was fixed (i.e. manipulated) by colluding rather than competing.

These settlements involved civil charges. The Justice Department is reportedly investigating criminal misconduct by the banks. That’s good news, but there is a strong possibility that these probes will result in something disappointing.

The Justice Department has a long track record of allowing large corporations to evade serious criminal charges by offering miscreants the option to enter into deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements that amount to get-out-of-jail-free cards. And even when token criminal charges are enforced, as happened in the Credit Suisse tax case last May and the UBS interest-rate-manipulation case before that, the consequences are hardly devastating.

This failure of corporate prosecution is the subject of a new book called Too Big to Jail by Brandon Garrett, a professor of the University of Virginia School of Law. In an interview with the Corporate Crime Reporter, Garrett says: “There are a number of ways to punish a company. The concern is that none of those ways are being taken seriously enough.” Garrett proposes a system in which corporations plead guilty and are put on probation – hopefully a more rigorous form than the probation BP was on (because of its 2007 case involving an explosion at its Texas City refinery) at the time of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Garrett’s notion that having a judge (rather than just a monitor) involved in these cases is laudable, but it is not clear that would be enough to rein in corporate lawlessness.

Note: Garrett has posted a handy list of more than 300 deferred and non-prosecution agreements on his website.

 

Slapping Corporate Wrists a Little Harder

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

moneybagsontherunGovernments will go to ridiculous lengths to punish criminals. States that cling to the death penalty now resort to back-alley methods for obtaining the drugs used in lethal injections, leading to grotesque results such as the recent botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma.

When it comes to corporate crime, a very different standard is applied. Prosecutors go out of their way to soften the impact on offenders. Criminal charges are often not filed, and when they are companies are offered deferred prosecution agreements that allow them to pay fines and make promises not to sin again.

Federal prosecutors are now feeling pressure to take a harder line, especially with global banks that may have flouted U.S. laws relating to tax evasion and international sanctions. The New York Times reports that the Justice Department is pushing to get guilty pleas from Credit Suisse, which has faced charges of helping wealthy Americans dodge taxes through secret bank accounts, and BNP Paribas, which is being investigated for violating U.S. economic sanctions against countries such as Sudan and Iran.

Getting a guilty plea from a major bank (rather than from one of its obscure subsidiaries, as happened in the LIBOR-manipulation case involving UBS) would be an important step in affirming that these institutions are not above the law. The problem is that the Justice Department does not seem to want to impose the kind of penalties that normally go along with a criminal conviction.

According to the Times, prosecutors are meeting with banking regulators “about how to criminally punish banks without putting them out of business and damaging the economy.”

We would never hear such a statement made about, say, an illegal gambling ring. There is no concern that going after such an operation would eliminate jobs and harm the economy.

As for banks, even when they are found to have engaged in egregious behavior, they are treated as legitimate institutions that must be preserved. It is true that not every employee may have been involved in criminal misconduct, but that is no reason why the continued survival of the bank in its existing form has to be regarded as an essential component of any resolution of criminal charges.

Corporate crime will not disappear until prosecutors are willing to consider truly punitive penalties for companies that engage in serious misbehavior. By this I mean consequences that go well beyond fines that a company can easily afford (and can often deduct from its taxes).

It’s often said that bringing criminal charges against corporations is pointless, since a company cannot be put in prison. Leaving aside the question of the feasibility of putting corporate executives behind bars, this view fails to acknowledge the other ways in which a firm’s liberty can be restricted.

We see such an example in the current scandal involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who is being fined $2.5 million and banned for life by the National Basketball Association for making racist statements but who also may be forced to sell the team. Why is the Justice Department not talking about forcing banks such as Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas to divest themselves of the operations in which the prohibited practices took place? I would prefer to see such criminal enterprises confiscated outright, but that may be too much to hope for.

Prosecutors have to weigh the economic impact of cases that might, for instance, lead to the revocation of a bank’s license to operate, which is considered the corporate equivalent of the death penalty. This is apparently behind the caution being exhibited in the Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas negotiations.

The lesson that prosecutors seem to have taken from the 2002 conviction of Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm that abetted Enron’s frauds, is that putting a company out of business is a big mistake. I don’t understand why.

The demise of Andersen and Enron and Drexel Lambert did not bring about economic calamity. In fact, the economy was probably better off without these corrupt institutions. We might also be better off if today’s miscreants met a similar fate, or at least had to undergo radical restructuring. And that would send a clear message to other corporations that they have to clean up their act.

 

Note: For an analysis of an industry that has a lot to clean up, including widespread wage theft, see the report just issued by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United and other groups on the National Restaurant Association and its members. I contributed the Rogues Gallery section.

J. Ponzi Morgan

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

morgan_madoffIt’s bad enough that for years JPMorgan Chase failed to alert federal authorities about the suspicious transactions being conducted by its customer Madoff Securities in what would later be revealed as a massive Ponzi scheme.

What’s equally damning in the criminal case the bank just resolved with federal prosecutors is that at times JPM seemed to want to get in on Madoff’s action.

The Statement of Facts to which JPM stipulated tells an interesting story about how, beginning in 2006, the bank began investing substantial sums (initially $343 million) of its own money in Madoff feeder funds in addition to issuing derivates tied to those funds and selling them to investors. In 2007 this business seemed so appealing that JPM’s London branch sought to write more than $1 billion in Madoff-linked derivatives.

This move had to be approved by the bank’s chief risk officer, who in 2007 nixed the plan after being told by a colleague that there is a “well-known cloud over the head of Madoff and that his returns are speculated to be part of a Ponzi scheme.” While he was unwilling to risk $1.3 billion under such circumstances, the officer did allow the Madoff exposure to remain up to $250 million.

The JPM London trading desk subsequently became more uneasy about Madoff Securities. It pulled out of the Madoff feeder funds, and in 2008 it filed a report with UK regulators expressing concerns that Madoff’s returns were probably “too good to be true.” JPM failed to do the same in the United States, and that turned out to be an expensive oversight.

JPM’s messy history with Madoff illustrates an interesting point about the relationship between individual white-collar crime and collective corporate crime. There’s long been a tendency to see corruption for self-enrichment (such as embezzlement) as being separate from misconduct by groups of people to enrich corporations (for example, price-fixing conspiracies).

In the case of Madoff and JPM, the two were closely connected. Madoff, who was working through his firm but was essentially running a one-man Ponzi operation, created conditions that were exploited (up to a point) by JPM to enhance the profits of the bank’s derivatives business. Even when that opportunity was deemed too risky by JPM, the bank failed to warn U.S. regulators and went on doing profitable banking business with Madoff.

In other words, the individual fraud being committed by Madoff was a source of profit for JPM, which in a sense became his co-conspirator.

The distinction between individual crime and corporate misbehavior is also a matter of perennial debate when it comes to punishment. Business apologists like to claim that corporations cannot really commit crimes and that only individuals should be prosecuted, knowing full well that such cases are much harder to prove.

What’s needed is a more aggressive approach toward the prosecution of both corporations and the higher-level executives responsible for their misconduct.

The JPM-Madoff case shows the limitations of the current system. No individuals were charged, and the bank was able to take advantage of the kind of deferred prosecution agreement that the Justice Department uses in almost every corporate case. Neither JPM nor the stock market seems to be fazed by the $2.6 billion payout. In fact, this is just the latest in a series of large settlements that JPM has made with prosecutors. Just two months ago, it agreed to pay $13 billion to resolve a variety of federal and state charges relating to the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities.

Madoff himself was not able to buy his way out of a criminal conviction and prison time (150 years of it). There was a broad consensus that he deserved every penalty that could be imposed, to ensure that he could never defraud again.

We’re still waiting for a system of punishment that provides that kind of definitive treatment for rogue corporations such as J. Ponzi Morgan.