How Wall Street’s Bankers Stayed Out of Jail

The Atlantic William D Cohen September 2015

The probes into bank fraud leading up to the financial industry’s crash have been quietly closed. Is this justice?

On May 27, in her first major prosecutorial act as the new U.S. attorney general, Loretta Lynch unsealed a 47-count indictment against nine FIFAofficials and another five corporate executives. She was passionate about their wrongdoing. “The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” she said. “Today’s action makes clear that this Department of Justice intends to end any such corrupt practices, to root out misconduct, and to bring wrongdoers to justice.”

Lost in the hoopla surrounding the event was a depressing fact. Lynch and her predecessor, Eric Holder, appear to have turned the page on a more relevant vein of wrongdoing: the profligate and dishonest behavior of Wall Street bankers, traders, and executives in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. How we arrived at a place where Wall Street misdeeds go virtually unpunished while soccer executives in Switzerland get arrested is murky at best. But the legal window for punishing Wall Street bankers for fraudulent actions that contributed to the 2008 crash has just about closed. It seems an apt time to ask: In the biggest picture, what justice has been achieved?

Since 2009, 49 financial institutions have paid various government entities and private plaintiffs nearly $190 billion in fines and settlements, according to an analysis by the investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. That may seem like a big number, but the money has come from shareholders, not individual bankers. (Settlements were levied on corporations, not specific employees, and paid out as corporate expenses—in some cases, tax-deductible ones.) In early 2014, just weeks after Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, settled out of court with the Justice Department, the bank’s board of directors gave him a 74 percent raise, bringing his salary to $20 million.

After the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s, more than 1,000 bankers were jailed.

The more meaningful number is how many Wall Street executives have gone to jail for playing a part in the crisis. That number is one. (Kareem Serageldin, a senior trader at Credit Suisse, is serving a 30-month sentence for inflating the value of mortgage bonds in his trading portfolio, allowing them to appear more valuable than they really were.) By way of contrast, following the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s, more than 1,000 bankers of all stripes were jailed for their transgressions.

At an event at the National Press Club last February, Holder said the virtual absence of convictions (or even prosecutions) this time around did not result from a want of trying. “These are the kinds of cases that people come to the Justice Department to make,” he said. “The inability to make them, at least to this point, has not been as a result of a lack of effort.” Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, made a similar argument to me. The evidence, he said, does not show clear misconduct by individuals. It’s possible that Bharara is correct about that: Wall Street bankers make it their daily business to figure out ways to abide by the letter of the law while violating its spirit. And to be sure, much of the behavior that led to the crisis involved recklessness and poor judgment, not fraud. But even so, in light of various whistle-blower allegations—and the size of the settlements agreed to by the banks themselves—this explanation strains credulity. The Justice Department’s ethos regarding Wall Street, and the way the department went about its business, appear to be a large part of the story.
Any narrative of how we got to this point has to start with the so-called Holder Doctrine, a June 1999 memorandum written by the then–deputy attorney general warning of the dangers of prosecuting big banks—a variant of the “too big to fail” argument that has since become so familiar. Holder’s memo asserted that “collateral consequences” from prosecutions—including corporate instability or collapse—should be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute a big financial institution. That sentiment was echoed as late as 2012 by Lanny Breuer, then the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, who said in a speech at the New York City Bar Association that he felt it was his duty to consider the health of the company, the industry, and the markets in deciding whether or not to file charges.

In the aftermath of the crash, the Justice Department did not refrain from prosecutions altogether. In 2009, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York tried two Bear Stearns hedge-fund managers—Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin—who had effectively run their $1.6 billion fund into the ground in the spring of 2007, an event that many believe was the canary in the coal mine of the financial crisis. But a jury acquitted the two men in November 2009. Added to the general fear that the economy was extraordinarily fragile, the unexpected acquittal seemed to put a deep freeze on Wall Street prosecutions for close to three years.

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