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Why Is Banking a Criminal Industry? Because Its Crimes Go Unpunished

The lack of criminal prosecutions, along with deregulation, has turned the financial services industry into cesspool of fraud.
 
 
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Consider just this month's news in financial services.

First, Barclay's has been manipulating the Libor, the main interest rate upon which most other interest rates and financial transactions are based, since 2005. Moreover, Barclay's traders were colluding with traders in many other banks to assist them in manipulating the Libor too, so that they could all profit from their bets on it.

Second, JP Morgan Chase is having a really great month. Recent reports describe how it is resisting Federal subpoenas related to price-fixing in U.S. electricity markets. It is also accused (by former employees among others) of deliberately inflating the performance of its investment funds to obtain business. And finally, JP Morgan's failed "London whale" trade, which has now cost over $5 billion, is being investigated to determine whether the loss was initially concealed from regulators and the public.

Third, HSBC is paying a fine because it allowed hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars of money laundering by rogue states and sanctioned firms, including some related to terrorist activities and Iran's nuclear efforts. But HSBC is only one of at least 12 banks now known to have tolerated, and in some cases aggressively courted, money laundering by rogue states, terrorist organizations, corrupt dictators, and major drug cartels over the last decade. Others include Barclay's, Lloyds, Credit Suisse, and Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo). Several of the banks created special handbooks on how to evade surveillance, created special business units to handle money laundering, and actively suppressed whistleblowers who warned of drug cartel activities.

Fourth, a new private lawsuit cites documents indicating that Morgan Stanley successfully pressured rating agencies into inflating the ratings of mortgage-backed securities it issued during the housing bubble.

Fifth, Visa and Mastercard have just agreed to pay $7 billion to settle a private antitrust case filed by thousands of merchants, who alleged that Visa and Mastercard colluded to fix fees and terms of service.

Just another month in financial services. Is it unusual? No, it's not. If we go back just a little further, we have UBS, HSBC, Julius Baer, and other banks actively marketing tax evasion services to wealthy U.S. and European citizens. We have senior executives of several banks (including JP Morgan Chase and UBS) strongly suspecting that Bernard Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme, but deciding to make money from him rather than turn him in. And then, of course, we have the financial crisis and everything that led to it. As I show in great detail in my book Predator Nation, we now possess overwhelming evidence of massive securities fraud, accounting fraud, perjury, and criminal Sarbanes-Oxley violations by mortgage lenders, investment banks, and credit insurers (including senior executives of Countrywide, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, AIG, and Lehman Brothers) during the housing bubble that caused the financial crisis. If we go back to the late 1990s, we have the massively fraudulent hyping of Internet stocks, and several banks (including Merrill Lynch and Citigroup) actively aiding Enron in committing its frauds.

So, July 2012 really isn't abnormal at all. The reason for this is very simple. Over the past two decades, the financial services industry has become a pervasively unethical and highly criminal industry, with massive fraud tolerated or even encouraged by senior management. But how did that happen?

Well, deregulation helped, of course. But something else was far more important. It is the one critical factor that unites all of the episodes cited above, including those of this month. This critical unifying factor is the total number of criminal prosecutions of major firms and senior executives as a result of all of these crimes combined.

And what is that number?

Zero.

Literally zero. A number that neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney shows the slightest interest in changing.

Consider the Obama administration's choices for the four most important positions in financial sector law enforcement. The attorney general (Eric Holder) and the head of the Justice Department's criminal division (Lanny Breuer) both come to us from Covington & Burling, a law firm that represents and lobbies for most of the major banks and their industry associations; indeed Breuer was co-head of its white collar criminal defense practice, and represented the Moody's rating agency in the Enron case. Mary Schapiro, the head of the SEC, spent the housing bubble in charge of FINRA, the investment banking industry's "self-regulator," which gave her a $9 million severance for a job well done. And her head of enforcement, perhaps most stunningly of all, is Robert Khuzami,who was general counsel for Deutsche Bank's North American business during the entire bubble. So zero prosecutions isn't much of a surprise, really.

In contrast, what do you think would happen to you if, as a lone individual, you were caught supporting Iran's nuclear program? Do you think that you would get off with a "deferred prosecution agreement" and a fine equal to a few percent of your annual salary? No?

But that's because you don't live right. You probably haven't been to the White House a dozen times since President Obama took office, or attended White House state dinners, like Lloyd Blankfein has. Nor have you probably overseen millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign donations, or hired senior administration officials, or sent your executives into the government in senior regulatory positions, or paid $135,000 for a speech by someone who later became chairman of the National Economic Council. And, well, you get the law enforcement that you pay for.

Charles Ferguson is director of the Wall Street documentary 'Inside Job' and author of 'Predator Nation'