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Another Slap On the Wrists

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In case you might be wondering whether the miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis might ever be prosecuted by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless – don’t hold your breath.  At the close of 2010, I expressed my disappointment and skepticism that the culprits responsible for having caused the financial crisis would ever be brought to justice.  I found it hard to understand why neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Justice Department would be willing to investigate malefaction, which I described in the following terms:

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products – who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

During that same week, former New York Mayor Ed Koch wrote an article which began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

“Accountability” is a relative term.  If you believe that the imposition of fines – resulting from civil actions by the Justice Department – could provide accountability for the crimes which led to the financial crisis, then you might have reason to feel enthusiastic.  On the other hand if you agree with Matt Taibbi’s contention that some of those characters deserve to be in prison – then get ready for another disappointment.

Last week, Reuters described plans by the Justice Department to make use of President Obama’s Financial Fraud Task Force (which I discussed last January) by relying on a statute (FIRREA- the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act) which was passed in the wake of the 1980s Savings & Loan crisis:

FIRREA allows the government to bring civil charges if prosecutors believe defendants violated certain criminal laws but have only enough information to meet a threshold that proves a claim based on the “preponderance of the evidence.”

Adam Lurie, a lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft who worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division until last month, said that although criminal cases based on problematic e-mails without a cooperating witness could be difficult to prove, the same evidence could meet a “preponderance” standard.

On the other hand, William K. Black, who was responsible for many of the reforms which followed the Savings & Loan Crisis, has frequently emphasized that – unlike the 2008 financial crisis – the S&L Crisis actually resulted in criminal prosecutions against those whose wrongdoing was responsible for the crisis.  On December 28, Black characterized the failure to prosecute those crimes which led to the financial crisis as “de facto decriminalization of elite financial fraud”:

The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis.  While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders.  The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.

What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long?  The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.

This isn’t (just) about revenge.  Bruce Judson of the Roosevelt Institute recently wrote an essay entitled “For Capitalism to Survive, Crime Must Not Pay”:

In effect, equal enforcement of the law is not simply important for democracy or to ensure that economic activity takes place, it is fundamental to ensuring that capitalism works.  Without equal enforcement of the law, the economy operates with participants who are competitively advantaged and disadvantaged.  The rogue firms are in effect receiving a giant government subsidy:  the freedom to engage in profitable activities that are prohibited to lesser entities.  This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle (like the growth of WorldCom from a regional phone carrier to a national giant that included MCI), so that inequality becomes ever greater.  Ultimately, we all lose as our entire economy is distorted, valuable entities are crushed or never get off the ground because they can’t compete on a playing field that is not level, and most likely wealth is destroyed.

Does the Justice Department really believe that it is going to impress us with FIRREA lawsuits?  We’ve already had enough theatre – during the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings and the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal.  It’s time for some “perp walks”.


 

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Goldman Sachs In The Crosshairs

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Last December, I expressed my disappointment and skepticism that the culprits responsible for having caused the financial crisis would ever be brought to justice.  I found it hard to understand why neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Justice Department would be willing to investigate malefaction, which I described in the following terms:

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products – who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

Fortunately, the tide seems to have turned with the recent release of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee report on the financial crisis.  The two-year, bipartisan investigation, led by Senators Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) has given rise to new hope that the banks responsible for causing the financial crisis – particularly Goldman Sachs – could face criminal prosecution.  Tom Braithwaite of the Financial Times put it this way:

The Senate report criticised rating agencies, regulators and other banks.  But Goldman has drawn particular focus.  Eric Holder, attorney-general, said this month the justice department was looking at the report “that deals with Goldman”.

Will Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless initiate criminal proceedings against President Obama’s leading private source of 2008 campaign contributions?  I doubt it.  Nevertheless, the widespread meme that no laws were violated by Goldman or any of the other Wall Street megabanks, is coming under increased attack.  Matt Taibbi recently wrote an excellent piece for Rolling Stone entitled, “The People vs. Goldman Sachs”, which took a humorous jab at those who deny that the financial crisis resulted from illegal activity:

Defenders of Goldman have been quick to insist that while the bank may have had a few ethical slips here and there, its only real offense was being too good at making money.  We now know, unequivocally, that this is bullshit.  Goldman isn’t a pudgy housewife who broke her diet with a few Nilla Wafers between meals – it’s an advanced-stage, 1,100-pound medical emergency who hasn’t left his apartment in six years, and is found by paramedics buried up to his eyes in cupcake wrappers and pizza boxes.  If the evidence in the Levin report is ignored, then Goldman will have achieved a kind of corrupt-enterprise nirvana.  Caught, but still free:  above the law.

Taibbi focused on the easiest case to prosecute:  a perjury charge against Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein for his testimony before the Levin-Coburn Senate Subcommittee.  Blankfein denied under oath that his firm had a “short” position, betting against the very Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) that Goldman had been selling to its customers.  As Taibbi pointed out, this conflict of interest was the subject of a book by Michael Lewis entitled, The Big Short.  At issue is the response Blankfein gave to the question about whether Goldman Sachs had such a short position:

“Much has been said about the supposedly massive short Goldman Sachs had on the U.S. housing market.  The fact is, we were not consistently or significantly net-short the market in residential mortgage-related products in 2007 and 2008.  We didn’t have a massive short against the housing market, and we certainly did not bet against our clients.”

As Tom Braithwaite explained in the Financial Times, Senator Levin expressed concern that Blankfein could defend a perjury charge, based on his use of the words “consistently or significantly” in the above-quoted response.  Levin’s concern is that those words could be deemed significantly equivocal as to prevent the characterization of Blankfein’s response as a denial that Goldman had such a short position.  Nevertheless, the last sentence of the response is an unqualified, compound statement, which could support a perjury charge:

We didn’t have a massive short against the housing market, and we certainly did not bet against our clients.

I would be very amused to watch someone make the specious argument that Goldman’s $13 billion short position was not “massive”.

Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is moving ahead to pursue an investigation concerning the role of the Wall Street banks in causing the financial crisis.  Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times provided this explanation of Schneiderman’s current effort:

The New York attorney general has requested information and documents in recent weeks from three major Wall Street banks about their mortgage securities operations during the credit boom, indicating the existence of a new investigation into practices that contributed to billions in mortgage losses.

*   *   *

It is unclear which parts of the byzantine securitization process Mr. Schneiderman is focusing on. His spokesman said the attorney general would not comment on the investigation, which is in its early stages.

*   *   *

The requests for information by Mr. Schneiderman’s office also seem to confirm that the New York attorney general is operating independently of peers from other states who are negotiating a broad settlement with large banks over foreclosure practices.

By opening a new inquiry into bank practices, Mr. Schneiderman has indicated his unwillingness to accept one of the settlement’s terms proposed by financial institutions – that is, a broad agreement by regulators not to conduct additional investigations into the banks’ activities during the mortgage crisis.  Mr. Schneiderman has said in recent weeks that signing such a release was unacceptable.

*   *   *

It is unclear whether Mr. Schneiderman’s investigation will be pursued as a criminal or civil matter.

Are the banksters running scared yet?  John Carney of CNBC’s NetNet blog, noted some developments, which could signal that some potential “persons of interest” might be seeking cover:

A Warning Sign:  CFOs Resigning

The chief financial officers of both Wells Fargo and Bank of America recently resigned.  JPMorgan Chase replaced its CFO last year.  While each of these moves has been spun as benign news by the banks, it could be a warning sign that something is deeply amiss.

Hope springs eternal!


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Justice Denied

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A recent article written by former New York Mayor Ed Koch began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

Most of us assumed that the Enron scandal had set a precedent for the prosecution of corporate financial crime.  A few Enron executives received prison sentences and the CEO, Ken Lay, died while serving time.  Enron’s auditor, Arthur Andersen & Company, was forced out of business.  In the wake of the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late 1980s, Charles Keating and a few of his associates were indicted by the State of California.  Keating eventually received a ten-year prison sentence for fraud, racketeering and conspiracy.  Keating’s prosecution resulted from pressure brought by William Black, former litigation director for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.  At one point during Black’s investigation, Keating issued a written memo to one of his minions, with this directive:  “If you can’t get Wright and Congress to get Black . . .  Kill him dead.”

These days, William Black has been doing quite a bit of speaking and writing about the need to initiate criminal proceedings against the culprits responsible for causing the financial crisis.  On December 28, Black characterized the failure to prosecute those crimes as “de facto decriminalization of elite financial fraud”:

The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis.  While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders.  The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.

What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long?  The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.

*   *   *

Our best bet is to continue to win the scholarly disputes and to continue to push media representatives to take fraud seriously. If the media demands for prosecution of the elite banking frauds expand there is a chance to create a bipartisan coalition in Congress and the administration supporting prosecutions.  In the S&L debacle, Representative Annunzio was one of the leading opponents of reregulation and leading supporters of Charles Keating.  After we brought several hundred successful prosecutions he began wearing a huge button:  “Jail the S&L Crooks!”  Bringing many hundreds of enforcement actions, civil suits, and prosecutions causes huge changes in the way a crisis is perceived.  It makes tens of thousands of documents detailing the frauds public.  It generates thousands of national and local news stories discussing the nature of the frauds and how wealthy the senior officers became through the frauds.  All of this increases the saliency of fraud and increases demands for serious reforms, adequate resources for the regulators and criminal justice bodies, and makes clear that elite fraud poses a severe danger.  Collectively, this creates the political space for real reform, vigorous regulators, and real prosecutors.

Hedge fund manager, David Einhorn (author of  Fooling Some of the People All of the Time) was recently interviewed by Charlie Rose.  At one point during the interview, Charlie Rose asked Einhorn to address the argument that regulators lacked the tools necessary for preventing the financial crisis.  Mr. Einhorn gave this response:

I would actually disagree with that.  I think that the problem was that the laws were not enforced.  After Enron you had Sarbanes Oxley.  And there have been hardly any prosecutions under Sarbanes Oxley.  You put in a tough anti-fraud law.  The CEO has to sign there is no fraud.

The CFO has to sign that the financial statements are correct.  If it’s not, there are going to be criminal consequences to all of this.  And the result was that effectively you passed a law but then they didn’t enforce the law.

And once the bad guys figured out that the law wasn’t being enforced, it effectively provided cover because everybody said, look we have the tough antifraud law.  The fraud must have gone away.

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products — who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

While many people have been getting excited about the “insider trading” investigation currently underway, I have been sitting here, wearing my tinfoil hat, viewing the entire episode as a diversionary tactic to direct public attention away from the crimes that caused the financial crisis.  Fortunately, I am not the only cynic with such an outlook.  Jesse Eisenger recently wrote a piece for the DealBook blog at The New York Times entitled, “The Feds Stage a Sideshow While the Big Tent Sits Empty”.  Here is some of what Eisenger had to say about the “insider trading” investigation:

In fact, plenty of people on Wall Street are happy about the investigation.  The ones with clean consciences like the idea that the world of special access to favorable tips is being cleaned up.

But others are pleased for a different reason:  They realize the investigation is a sideshow.

All the hype carries an air of defensiveness.  Everyone is wondering:  Where are the investigations related to the financial crisis?

John Hueston, a former lead Enron prosecutor, wonders, “Have they committed the resources in the right place?  Do these scandals warrant apparent national priority status?”

Nobody from Lehman, Merrill Lynch or Citigroup has been charged criminally with anything.  No top executives at Bear Stearns have been indicted.  All former American International Group executives are running free.  No big mortgage company executive has had to face the law.

There’s an old saying:  “Justice delayed is justice denied.”  The government has demonstrated that it is in no hurry to bring any significant criminal charges against the perpetrators of the crimes that caused the financial crisis.  With the passing of time, it becomes increasingly obvious that those crimes will go unpunished.  The cause of justice is simply no match for the ability of certain individuals to operate “above the law”.  In fact, it never has been.


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