Ending the Corporate Crime Wave

Stop Corporate CrimeThe top executives of giant corporations may still effectively be immune from criminal prosecution for their misdeeds, but the financial penalties imposed on their companies by regulators are beginning to be felt in the bottom line. The question is whether plunging profits are enough to get corporate malefactors to clean up their act.

In February, the Swiss bank UBS posted a quarterly loss of $2.1 billion (and an annual loss of more than $2.7 billion), largely reflecting the $1.5 billion it paid to resolve charges brought by U.S., Swiss and British prosecutors in connection with the bank’s role in manipulating the LIBOR interest rate index.

Recently, the British bank HSBC reported a 17 percent decline in profits brought about to a great extent by the $1.9 billion in penalties it had to pay to resolve allegations by U.S. regulators that its lax internal controls against money laundering aided customers with links to drug trafficking and terrorism.

Oil giant BP noted that its 2012 results were affected by a “net adverse impact” of more than $5 billion relating to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, for which the company had to pay $4 billion to resolve charges brought by U.S. prosecutors.

GlaxoSmithKline’s announcement of 2012 results noted that its net cash flow was depressed by the cost of legal settlements, including the $3 billion it had to pay the federal government to resolve allegations of illegal marketing of prescription drugs, withholding of crucial safety data and other abuses.  GSK went so far as to include a figure for cash flow “before legal settlements” similar to the way companies like to show results before interest, taxes and depreciation to make their performance look better.

It will be interesting to see how institutional investors regard these material financial impacts. Corporations have been breaking the law for a long time, and the penalties they incur have come to be seen as a routine cost of doing business. Many corporate critics thus tend to downplay their significance and instead press for more criminal prosecutions. That chorus has just intensified with a statement by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that some banks have grown so large that it is difficult to prosecute them.

It is worth noting, however, that all of the cases cited above contained criminal elements. A Japanese subsidiary of UBS pleaded guilty to a felony wire fraud charge. HSBC, the Justice Department said, “accepted responsibility for its criminal conduct and that of its employees” and was offered a deferred prosecution agreement. A BP unit pleaded guilty to felony manslaughter, environmental crimes and obstruction of Congress. GSK pleaded guilty to a three-count criminal information and consented to enter into a corporate integrity agreement with the federal government.

What was missing, of course, were criminal prosecutions of high-level executives in the firms, who presumably had ultimate responsibility for the misdeeds.

I agree that chief executives should be made to pay a stiff personal price for the anti-social practices of their organizations, but I’m not entirely convinced that putting some of them behind bars would be a foolproof deterrent against corporate misconduct. After all, plenty of businesspeople have gone to prison for insider trading, yet the practice never seems to end.

Financial sanctions may be more effective if the trend toward larger penalties is escalated even further. The wave of billion-dollar settlements may be causing some pain, but the companies—especially huge and highly profitable ones like BP—will easily recover. Penalties for serious offenses need to be raised to the point that they force the company to take drastic action, such as selling off major assets. Or the government could directly seize those assets, as some were urging in the wake of the BP disaster in the gulf.

There would undoubtedly be a major backlash from business interests to a policy of imposing penalties that threaten the survival of companies. Yet the alternative is to go on living amid a perpetual corporate crime wave.

Note:  My latest Corporate Rap Sheet is on HSBC, covering both the big penalty cited above and the other scandals surrounding the bank. It can be found here.

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