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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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Senator Kaufman Will Be Missed

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Ted Kaufman filled Joe Biden’s seat representing the state of Delaware in the United States Senate on January 15, 2009, when Biden resigned to serve as Vice-President.  Kaufman’s 22-month term as Senator concluded on November 15, when Chris Coons was sworn in after defeating Christine O’Donnell in the 2010 election.

Senator Kaufman served as Chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel – the entity created to monitor TARP on behalf of Congress.  The panel’s November Oversight Report was released at the COP website with an embedded, five-minute video of Senator Kaufman’s introduction to the Report.  At the DelawareOnline website, Nicole Gaudiano began her article about Kaufman’s term by pointing out that C-SPAN ranked Kaufman as the 10th-highest among Senators for the number of days (126) when he spoke on the Senate floor during the current Congressional session.  Senator Kaufman was a high-profile advocate of financial reform, who devoted a good deal of effort toward investigating the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.

On November 9, Senator Kaufman was interviewed by NPR’s Robert Siegel, who immediately focused on the fact that aside from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s civil suit against Goldman Sachs and the small fine levied against Goldman by FINRA, we have yet to see any criminal prosecutions arising from the fraud and other violations of federal law which caused the financial crisis.  Kaufman responded by asserting his belief that those prosecutions will eventually proceed, although “it takes a while” to investigate and prepare these very complex cases:

When you commit fraud on Wall Street or endanger it, you have good attorneys around you to kind of clean up after you.  So they clean up as they go.  And then when you actually go to trial, these are very, very, very complex cases.  But I still think we will have some good cases.  And I also think that if isn’t a deterrent, they will continue to do that.  And I think we have the people in place now at the Securities Exchange Commission and the Justice Department to hold them accountable.

We can only hope so   .  .  .

Back on March 17, I discussed a number of reactions to the recently-released Valukas Report on the demise of Lehman Brothers, which exposed the complete lack of oversight by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — the entity with investigators in place inside of Lehman Brothers after the collapse of Bear Stearns.  The FRBNY had the perfect vantage point to conduct effective oversight of Lehman.  Not only did the FRBNY fail to do so — it actually helped Lehman maintain a false image of being financially solvent.  It is important to keep in mind that Lehman CEO Richard Fuld was a class B director of the FRBNY during this period.  Senator Kaufman’s reaction to the Valukas Report resulted in his widely-quoted March 15 speech from the Senate floor, in which he emphasized that the government needs to return the rule of law to Wall Street:

We all understood that to restore the public’s faith in our financial markets and the rule of law, we must identify, prosecute, and send to prison the participants in those markets who broke the law.  Their fraudulent conduct has severely damaged our economy, caused devastating and sustained harm to countless hard-working Americans, and contributed to the widespread view that Wall Street does not play by the same rules as Main Street.

*   *   *

Many have said we should not seek to “punish” anyone, as all of Wall Street was in a delirium of profit-making and almost no one foresaw the sub-prime crisis caused by the dramatic decline in housing values.  But this is not about retribution.  This is about addressing the continuum of behavior that took place — some of it fraudulent and illegal — and in the process addressing what Wall Street and the legal and regulatory system underlying its behavior have become.

As part of that effort, we must ensure that the legal system tackles financial crimes with the same gravity as other crimes.

The nagging suspicion that those nefarious activities at Lehman Brothers could be taking place “at other banks as well” became a key point in Senator Kaufman’s speech:

Mr. President, I’m concerned that the revelations about Lehman Brothers are just the tip of the iceberg.  We have no reason to believe that the conduct detailed last week is somehow isolated or unique.  Indeed, this sort of behavior is hardly novel.  Enron engaged in similar deceit with some of its assets.  And while we don’t have the benefit of an examiner’s report for other firms with a business model like Lehman’s, law enforcement authorities should be well on their way in conducting investigations of whether others used similar “accounting gimmicks” to hide dangerous risk from investors and the public.

Within a few months after that speech by Senator Kaufman, a weak financial reform bill was enacted to appease (or more importantly:  deceive) the outraged taxpayers.  Despite that legislative sham, polling results documented the increased public skepticism about the government’s ability or willingness to do right by the American public.

On October 20, Sam Gustin interviewed economist Joseph Stiglitz for the DailyFinance website.  Their discussion focused on the recent legislative attempt to address the causes of the financial crisis.  Professor Stiglitz emphasized the legal system’s inability to control that type of  sleazy behavior:

The corporations have the right to give campaign contributions.  So basically we have a system in which the corporate executives, the CEOs, are trying to make sure the legal system works not for the companies, not for the shareholders, not for the bondholders – but for themselves.

So it’s like theft, if you want to think about it that way.  These corporations are basically now working now for the CEOs and the executives and not for any of the other stakeholders in the corporation, let alone for our broader society.

You look at who won with the excessive risk-taking and shortsighted behavior of the banks.  It wasn’t the shareholder or the bondholders.  It certainly wasn’t American taxpayers.  It wasn’t American workers.  It wasn’t American homeowners.  It was the CEOs, the executives.

*   *   *

Economists focus on the whole notion of incentives.  People have an incentive sometimes to behave badly, because they can make more money if they can cheat.  If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

And that’s why, for instance, in our antitrust law, we often don’t catch people when they behave badly, but when we do we say there are treble damages. You pay three times the amount of the damage that you do.  That’s a strong deterrent.

For now, there are no such deterrents for those CEOs who nearly collapsed the American economy and destroyed 15 million jobs.  Robert Scheer recently provided us with an update about what life is now like for Sandy Weill, the former CEO of Citigroup.  Scheer’s essay – entitled “The Man Who Shattered Our Economy” revealed that Weill just purchased a vineyard estate in Sonoma, California for a record $31 million.  That number should serve as a guidepost when considering the proposition expressed by Professor Stiglitz:

If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

What are the chances of that happening?


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