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Citigroup's Simple Recipe for Breaking Laws and Getting Away with It

Citigroup is heavily integrated with other dominant institutions in American and international society, which helps explain why the bank can break so many laws and get away with it.

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In the second quarter of 2013, the third-largest U.S. bank by assets, Citigroup, posted a 42% increase in profits which CEO Michael Corbat praised as a “well balanced” result of  “cost cutting” programs, including the firing of 11,000 workers.

This big bank has a sordid history of predatory profiteering and criminal activity, not unlike all the other large banks. In the early 20th century, what was then National City Bank was the main bank for the Rockefeller Standard Oil interests. Over ensuing decades and mergers it eventually came to be Citibank, and in the late 1990s, Citigroup. At that time, the bank was dealing with accusations that it had aided in the laundering of roughly  $100 million in payoffs by Mexican drug cartels.

In 2000, the mega-bank was accused of abusing borrowers and clients  through predatory lending practices. The bank aroused further controversy by helping Enron evade financial rules which allowed the company  to hide its real financial reporting from government regulators. In 2005, Citigroup paid a $2 billion settlement to Enron investors who had filed a class-action lawsuit against the bank for helping Enron  hide billions of dollars in debt.

A 2005 report by Citigroup created the term ‘plutonomy’ to describe the modern state capitalist system in which there is only the rich “and everyone else”; an economy in which the rich increasingly become the consuming class, driven to a significant degree by “disruptive technology-driven productivity gains, creative financial innovation, [and] capitalist friendly cooperative governments.”

Referencing the United States, the U.K., Australia and Canada as modern plutonomies, Citigroup global strategist Ajay Kapur noted, “The Plutonomy is here, is going to get stronger, its membership is swelling,” and while the “risks” of plutonomies include “war, inflation, financial crises, the end of the technological revolution and populist political pressure,” Kapur noted that “the rich are likely to keep getting even richer, and enjoy an  even greater share of the wealth pie over the coming years.” Indeed, Citigroup would ensure that this was the case.

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin helped to deregulate Wall Street and allow for massive mergers and the proliferation of dangerous financial instruments in the derivatives market, which helped create the future housing crisis. After leaving the White House, Rubin became an adviser to Citigroup, and ultimately the bank’s chairman, where he helped push the mega-bank further down the path taken by Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs to build up an unprecedented housing bubble. When the inevitable happened, Citigroup owned tens of billions of dollars in bad debts. Meanwhile, Robert Rubin was appointed as an  economic adviser to the transition team for President Obama.

Citigroup was subsequently bailed out by the federal government, that is, the U.S. taxpayer, and became the largest single recipient of bailout funds totaling some  $476.2 billion in cash and guarantees. Citigroup was essentially put into receivership by the government, which decided to reward the bank after its highly effective and efficient participation in the destruction of the economy. The U.S. Treasury eventually  sold the last of its shares in Citigroup in 2010.

Since that time, the bank has been quietly settling civil complaints and lawsuits, further proving that criminal activity by major financial institutions comes down to a cost-benefit analysis: if the cost of committing massive crimes is less than the benefit of engaging in such criminal activity, there is little incentive to obey the law rather than pay comparably lower fines after breaking it.

Between 2003 and 2011, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) accused Citigroup of securities fraud five separate times, with the bank agreeing to pay settlements in each case, amounting to a slap on the wrist from the SEC. As a Bloomberg report stated bluntly, for Citigroup “ obeying the law is too damn hard.” Or rather, simply, it is unnecessary.