Observers of the corporate crime scene have been waiting to see when the regulators and prosecutors of the Biden Administration would announce a mega-case of the sort that had largely disappeared during the lackluster enforcement period of the Trump years. That case has arrived, and the target is not exactly a household name in the United States: the German financial services corporation Allianz.
The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission have announced that Allianz and its investment management arm, Allianz Global Investors (AGI), will pay more than $6 billion to resolve criminal and civil allegations relating to what the SEC called a “massive fraudulent scheme.” The victims of that scheme included public employees participating in pension funds that were misled about the riskiness of complex financial products marketed by AGI. The true extent of the risk became evident during the COVID-related market volatility of 2020, when the pension funds and other investors suffered catastrophic losses.
The $6 billion settlement ranks among the 20 largest penalties recorded in Violation Tracker for the period since January 2000. More than half of those cases involve financial services corporations.
Allianz, whose Violation Tracker penalty total until now was $182 million, joins the 30 banks and other financial services companies that have each paid more than $1 billion in aggregate penalties. These include 13 European banks, among which are two from Germany: Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank.
There are a couple of encouraging aspects of the AGI case that go beyond the substantial monetary penalty. First, the SEC announced that AGI, because of its guilty plea in the DOJ case, will be disqualified from providing advisory services to US-registered investment funds for the next ten years, and will exit the business of conducting these fund services. This contrasts with other cases in which financial services companies have avoided these sorts of consequences in criminal cases by arranging for the guilty plea to be submitted by a minor subsidiary—or by getting a waiver.
In addition, criminal charges were brought not only against the company but also against several individuals, including Gregoire Tournant, the chief investment officer of AGI. Tournant was charged with securities fraud and investment fraud as well as obstruction of justice. The latter related to allegations that Tournant and the other defendants made multiple, ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to conceal their misconduct from the SEC, including, the agency stated, “false testimony and meetings in vacant construction sites to discuss sending their assets overseas.”
The charges against Allianz were all the more appropriate in that the company’s U.S. operations have been involved in several other investor deception cases. For example, in 2004, three of its subsidiaries were fined $50 million by the SEC. Another subsidiary paid $18 million to settle a case with the New Jersey Attorney General. Yet another unit was fined $5 million by the industry regulator FINRA. Allianz’s U.S. insurance subsidiaries have also been fined numerous times by state regulators.
Let’s hope that the Allianz matter is a sign that the Biden Administration is serious about cracking down on corporate crime and that recidivists will be made to pay a significant price for their ongoing transgressions.