Archive for March, 2018

The Real Law and Order Solution

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018

Large banks have paid out more than $87 billion in fines and settlements to resolve allegations about the sale of toxic securities in the period leading up to the financial meltdown a decade ago. Another $43 billion was paid out in connection with mortgage abuses.

It’s unclear whether these unprecedented penalties had any lasting deterrent effect. As has been made clear in the Wells Fargo scandal, bad bank behavior has hardly disappeared. And now the financial services industry is pushing to weaken the modest restrictions implemented under the Dodd-Frank Act.

Imagine how different things might be if the federal government had the tools and the inclination to hold top bank executives personally responsible for the reckless and fraudulent behavior of their institutions. What if, instead of making payouts that they regarded as a tolerable cost of doing business, financial CEOs found themselves behind bars?

This tantalizing prospect is made a bit more real in legislation recently introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren: The Ending Too Big to Jail Act.

One component of the bill would require top executives of banks with more than $10 billion in assets to certify annually that they have conducted due diligence and found no criminal conduct or civil fraud within their institution. This would make it easier to bring individual prosecutions when it turns out that such certifications were false.

Another portion of the bill would create a permanent investigative unit for financial crimes. Designed along the lines of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which brought successful cases against executives at smaller banks, it would be known as the Special Inspector General for Financial Institution Crime. Properly funded, this unit could take on expensive and complicated cases.

Finally, the bill would mandate judicial oversight of deferred prosecution agreements, or DPAs. Along with the failure to prosecute top executives, the Obama Justice Department also continued the dubious practice that started under Bush of making numerous deals with large corporations by which they escaped prosecution for their transgressions, on the condition that they paid a financial penalty and promised to end the offending behavior. Since 2003 about 140 DPAs have been created, along with a larger number of cases involving a variant, the non-prosecution agreement.

It is unclear how much effort the Justice Department put into enforcing the DPAs. Warren’s bill would give the courts the power to oversee compliance with these agreements. In fact, it would require courts to determine whether a proposed DPA is in the public interest.

Finally, the legislation would require the Justice Department to establish a searchable database of DPAs. Until that comes into existence, you can use Violation Tracker to find information on more than 300 DPAs and NPAs.

Warren’s bill would greatly advance the kind of law and order the country truly needs.

A Nirvana for Rogue Corporations

Thursday, March 15th, 2018

The SEC’s enforcement action against Theranos Inc. and its founder Elizabeth Holmes puts a new focus on the persistence of corporate crime in the healthcare sector after a period in which the business culprits getting the most attention were banks such as Wells Fargo and automotive companies such as Volkswagen and Takata.

Another reminder of the checkered history of health companies comes in a new report from Public Citizen on the trend in legal penalties imposed on pharmaceutical firms. The study, an update of three previous analyses on the subject done by the group, documents a disturbing trend: Although there is no reason to think that egregious drug company misbehavior has disappeared, aggregate criminal penalties against those firms have plunged.

Public Citizen finds that criminal penalties in 2016-2017 were just $317 million, down 88 percent from four years earlier. Combined federal criminal and civil penalties over the same period of time declined from $8.7 billion to $2.8 billion, a drop of more than two-thirds.

At the heart of this trend, the report finds, is a falloff in penalties from settlements of cases involving the unlawful promotion of prescription drugs. Those penalties are down by 94 percent from their peak in 2012-2013.

It is probably true that Big Pharma has toned down the brazen behavior that led to giant penalties such as the $3 billion imposed on GlaxoSmithKline, the $2.3 billion imposed on Pfizer, the $2.2 billion imposed on Johnson & Johnson, the $1.5 billion imposed on Abbott Laboratories, the $1.4 billion imposed on Eli Lilly, the $950 million imposed on Merck, etc.

One problem that has by no means disappeared is the improper distribution of opioids. Although Purdue Pharma was penalized $461 million in 2007  and various wholesalers and pharmacy chains have been hit with smaller fines since then, there is no indication that the misconduct is receding.

Part of the problem is that the president of the United States has directed little criticism against the drug industry while making inflammatory statements about illicit traffickers, including the suggestion of imposing the death penalty. He has also expressed his admiration for the extra-judicial executions of drug dealers in the Philippines.

The decline in drug industry fines is part of a larger tendency by the Trump Administration to scale back penalties against corporations in all industries. As I previously noted, the latest update to Violation Tracker through the end of Trump’s first 12 months shows a remarkable drop in penalties, especially for the very largest companies in the Fortune 100.

This can be seen as a form of stealth deregulation. Increasingly, Big Pharma and other industries benefit both from rolled-back rulemaking and from diminished financial consequences if they break the rules still on the books. It is truly a nirvana for rogue corporations.

The Other Problem Banks

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

Bipartisanship has returned to Washington, thanks to the overwhelming desire of Republicans and quite a few Democrats to roll back portions of the Dodd-Frank Act. Ten years after the onset of the financial meltdown and seven years after the law went into effect, the relentless efforts of the banking lobby seem to be paying off.

The legislation, S.2155, is being sold as much needed relief for smaller banks that were supposedly treated unfairly by Dodd-Frank. Some adjustment to the law might make sense for very small banks, but the bill has evolved into something that will benefit larger institutions that still merit close scrutiny.

Using relief for community banks as a stalking horse, proponents of the bill have added provisions that will reduce the degree of supervision that would be exercised on banks with assets up to $250 billion. Those with assets between $50 billion and $100 billion would benefit the most.

The two dozen banks (listed in a Congressional Research Service report) that would be affected by these provisions are hardly mom and pop financial institutions. And while the most harm to the economy was done by the likes of Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, these mid-sized banks have records that are far from spotless.

Take the case of  Credit Suisse, the Swiss bank whose U.S. operation has assets of about $215 billion. During the final days of the Obama Administration it had to pay $5.3 billion to settle a case involving the sale of toxic securities a decade ago. In 2014 it paid $1.8 billion in connection with criminal charges of helping U.S. taxpayers file false returns. In 2009 it paid $268 million to settle criminal allegations relating to economic sanctions. In all, Credit Suisse has more than $9 billion documented in Violation Tracker, ranking it tenth among all corporations.

Or consider Barclays, the British bank whose U.S. operation has assets of about $180 billion. In 2015 it pled guilty to criminal charges of conspiring to manipulate foreign exchange markets and was fined $710 million while also paying $400 million to settle related civil allegations. That same year it had to pay $325 million to settle a case brought by the National Credit Union Administration concerning Barclay’s sale of toxic securities a decade earlier. Its Violation Tracker total is more than $3 billion, putting it in nineteenth place among all corporations.

Other controversial foreign banks whose U.S. subsidiaries would benefit from S.2155 relaxed regulation include Deutsche Bank ($12 billion in Violation Tracker), BNP Paribas ($9 billion) and UBS ($5 billion).

Foreign banks are not the only bad actors on the list.  Atlanta-based SunTrust, with about $200 billion in assets, has racked up more than $1.5 billion in penalties, including one case in which it had to provide $500 million in relief to underwater borrowers to resolve allegations that it engaged in deceptive and illegal mortgage servicing practices.  Among the other items in its rap sheet is a $21 million payment to resolve allegations that it charged higher loan rates to black and Latino borrowers.

The S.2155 beneficiary list includes half a dozen additional domestic banks with $100 million or more in penalties: Ally Financial, American Express, Discover Financial Services, Fifth Third Bancorp, M&T Bank Corporation, and Regions Financial Corporation.

A bank does not have to be gigantic to be problematic. These culprits should not lumped together with community banks in deciding whether to tinker with Dodd-Frank.

Big Polluters and Big Penalties

Thursday, March 1st, 2018

At a moment when there is all too much talk in Washington about deregulation, a helpful counterpoint has arrived from the Political Economy Research Institute in the form of the latest edition of the Toxic 100, a compilation of the companies responsible for the highest volumes of industrial pollution.

The project, which has been providing this information since 2004, now has rankings on three kinds of pollution: air, water and greenhouse gases. The lists include environmental justice indicators that highlight the disproportionate effect on low-income and minority communities.

The companies on these lists represent some of the biggest threats to the physical well-being of the people of the United States.

The top tier of the air pollution list, which is based on data from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, contains the kind of industrial giants one might expect: DowDuPont, General Electric, Royal Dutch Shell  and Arconic (a spinoff of Alcoa). Yet number one is the less well known Zachry Group, an engineering company that operates dirty manufacturing facilities in North Carolina and Texas. Also in the top ten is Berkshire Hathaway by virtue of its ownership of companies such as Johns Manville, Pacificorp and MidAmerican Energy.

The top tier of the greenhouse gas list, based on other EPA data, is dominated by companies operating lots of fossil fuel power plants: Southern Company, Duke Energy, American Electric Power and NRG Energy. These are the companies Trump is aiding with his attack on the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Berkshire Hathaway is the only parent company in the top ten on both the air and greenhouse gas lists; it ranks 21st in water pollution.

I could not resist the temptation to check where the companies that rank high on the Toxic 100 lists show up in Violation Tracker. This is partly because Rich Puchalsky, who serves as the data management specialist for the Toxic 100, has also played an essential role in the construction and expansion of Violation Tracker.

Rich kindly created for me a spreadsheet combining rankings from the two projects. Looking first at the Toxic Air 100, I see there are unsurprising overlaps with the 100 most penalized companies in Violation Tracker—BP, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Phillips 66, etc. Yet there are some very large air polluters that have faced much smaller penalties, including the Zachry Group cited above and TMS International, a steel industry service company. The EPA should take note.

As for the Greenhouse 100, there are expected overlaps with the Violation Tracker top 100—such as Duke Energy, American Electric Power, FirstEnergy, etc. But there are some discrepancies. Large CO2 emitters such as Energy Future Holdings, Great Plains Energy, and OGE Energy have not received substantial penalties. The EPA might want to check these as well.

Beyond the specifics of individual companies, there is a broader issue here: what is the connection between fines and emissions? Although the releases reported in the Toxic 100 are technically not illegal, those companies are likely to be creating unsanctioned emissions as well. Fines could bring about reductions in both categories. Yet many big polluters treat the penalties as a tolerable cost of doing business and fail to do enough to clean up their facilities. That suggests the need for newer and more effective forms of enforcement. Deregulation is not one of them.