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Outrage: Some Banks Are Too Big to Prosecute

Attorney General Eric Holder admits that the biggest banks are not just too big too fail, but above the law.
 
 
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For years, the Obama Administration has been pummeled for failing to bring criminal charges against a single major Wall Street bank or a single leading Wall Street banker for what the FBI termed an “epidemic of fraud” that blew up the entire economy.  Investigations revealed the banks committed routine fraud in peddling mortgage securities they knew were garbage, trampled basic property laws, laundered money from Iran, Libya and Mexican drug lords, conspired to game the basic measure of interest rates and more.  Yet, time after time, the Justice Department and regulatory agencies settled for sweetheart deals, with no admission of guilt, no banker held accountable, and fines that were the equivalent in earnings of a speeding ticket to the average family.

Yesterday Attorney General Holder stated openly what was already apparent.  The Justice Department believes that Too Big to Fail Banks are Too Big to Jail.  Criminal indictments against banks or leading bankers might endanger the economy and thus were too big a risk.

Here’s what Holder said

“I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy,” he said. “And I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large.”

Holder was responding to questions by Republican Senator Charles Grassley about why the Justice Department brought no criminal charges against the large British bank HSBC after it admitted laundering money for parties in Iran, Libya and Mexican drug lords.  The Attorney General acknowledged that the sheer size of the big banks “has an inhibiting impact on our ability to bring resolutions that I think would be more appropriate.  That is something you (members of Congress) all need to consider.”

Foam the Runway

Allowing the big banks to operate above the law is at one with the philosophy that guided both the Bush and the Obama administrations during the financial collapse.  Tim Geithner, former head of the New York Federal Reserve bank under Bush and Treasury Secretary under Obama, would preach that it was necessary to “foam the runway” to protect the banks from total crackup.  That “foam” included literally trillions in the backdoor bailout of banks organized by the Federal Reserve, abandoning the underwater homeowners who were victimized by Wall Street’s wilding, while neutering any regulatory or criminal accountability.

 Above the Law

Holder’s outrageous admission means that bankers operate – and know they operate – above the law.  That renders all the argument about regulations and legal limits risible.  Bankers spend tens of millions lobbying to weaken regulations and starve regulators of authority and resources.  But when the action gets hot, the bubble starts to build, the music keeps playing, they can trample the laws, mislead the regulators and defraud their customers, bolstered by the confidence that the laws will not apply to them.

Holder’s argument, however, is indefensible.  There is no reason a bank with billions of assets could not survive the indictment of its CEO or CFO.  If the Fed and Treasury can “foam the runway” to protect otherwise insolvent banks from collapse, they surely could insure that a bank survives while its executives are held personally responsible for their crimes.  Putting a few bankers in jail and holding them personally accountable for their frauds would do much to bring sobriety back to Wall Street.

The Campaign for a Fair Settlement, of which the Campaign for America’s Future is a partner, has called on the president to repudiate Holder’s statement, and to direct the Justice Department to prosecute those who violated the law.  But Holder’s position forces a bigger issue.

Too Big to Be

So big banks operate above the law.  And as the conservative head of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank Richard Fischer and many others have argued, they are not disciplined by the market.  They know their losses are covered, while they pocket their winnings.  They have multi-million dollar personal incentives to leverage up, use other people’s money to make big bets on high risk operations that offer big rewards.  Their excesses blew up the economy, but they got bailed out and emerged bigger and more concentrated than ever.

And, of course, since investors know the big banks can’t fail, the big banks can attract money at much lower rates than smaller banks, a subsidy worth about $83 billion a year according to recent calculations by Bloomberg News.

Clearly, institutions that are above the law and beyond the discipline of the market cannot exist in their current form.  The Congress has only two choices.  The big banks can be nationalized and treated as public utilities.  The public would pocket their profits and cover their losses.  Or the big banks can be broken up, and be accountable to both the law and the market.

Senators Sherrod Brown and Jeff Merkley have spearheaded the drive to break up the big banks.  This takes remarkable courage.  Brown had to overcome torrents of big money poured into the effort to defeat him when he ran for re-election last year.

Now they are gaining unlikely allies.  George Will has called on conservatives to follow Brown to the barricades.  Republican Senator David Vitter has joined in calling for study of the subsidy big banks enjoy.  Retired bankers like John Reed, former president of Citibank have joined with Dallas Fed President Fischer and others to call for breaking up the banks.

Can the big banks be held accountable?  Wall Street is a leading source of funds for both parties.  The revolving door between Wall Street and Washington spins no matter what administration is in power.  The Obama administration has opposed every effort to break up the big banks.  Republicans in Congress have shamelessly offered themselves as Wall Street’s protectors in exchange for campaign money.

But Holder’s admission makes action – however improbable – imperative.  A nation of laws and markets cannot abide huge private financial institutions that are accountable to neither.

Robert L. Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future.