Busted: Bankers and The Global Economy

July 31, 2010

SEC Lets Citi Execs Go Free After $40 Billion Subprime Lie

The following news analysis was written by AlterNet.org’s economics editor Zach Carter.

What is the penalty for bankers who tell $40 billion lies? Somewhere between nothing and a rounding-error on your bonus.

The SEC just hit two Citigroup executives with fines for concealing $40 billion in subprime mortgage debt from investors back in 2007. The biggest fine is going to Citi CFO Gary Crittenden, who will pay $100,000 to settle allegations that he screwed over his own investors. The year of the alleged wrongdoing, Crittenden took home $19.4 million. That’s right. Crittenden will lose one-half of one percent of his income from the year he hid a quagmire of bailout-inducing insanity from his own investors. That’s it. No indictment. No prison time. Crittenden doesn’t even have to formally acknowledge any wrongdoing.

In 2007, as financial markets were freaking out about the subprime situation, Citi repeatedly told its investors that it owned just $13 billion in subprime mortgage debt. It was true – if you didn’t count an additional $40 billion in subprime debt that the company was also holding onto.

Citi’s CEO at the time, Chuck Prince, has not been charged with anything. As Yves Smith emphasizes, all of the top financial officers of every major corporation are responsible for the accuracy of their quarterly financial statements. Lying on those statements is a federal crime. This is the sort of thing that securities fraud cases are built around.

The SEC’s own statements about what went on at Citi are damning. If the agency can make this kind of information public, they ought to be pursuing criminal prosecutions. The SEC says that senior Citi management had been collecting information about the company’s subprime situation as early as April 2007, but repeatedly cited the $13 billion figure to investors over the next six months, waiting to acknowledge the additional $40 billion in subprime debt until November 2007. The SEC also says that Crittenden knew the “full extent” of Citi’s subprime situation by September at the latest, but the company continued to cite $13 billion in earnings reports through October.

Citi’s subprime shenanigans had consequences for taxpayers, pushing the company to the brink of total collapse and prompting one of the biggest bailouts of 2008.

Phil Angelides and the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission deserve a lot of credit for highlighting the absurdity of Citi’s actions in a hearing on April 7 of this year (the key passage starts on page 368 of this pdf transcript). Angelides’ line of questioning revealed that even Citi’s board knew that the subprime exposure was much greater than what the company was claiming in public. Citi’s board at the time included Robert Rubin, former Treasury Secretary and architect of much of the deregulation that lead to the current crisis who took home $120 million for his work at Citi.

Either the SEC or the Justice Department could be pursuing criminal cases against Citi executives. What does it take to get the Justice Department’s attention on a financial fraud case? You have to launder $380 billion in drug money, and even then, DOJ lets you off with a slap on the wrist. The DOJ caught Wachovia doing just that, and the bank is getting off with a minor fine that won’t even make a dent in it’s second-quarter profits.

The Citi settlement is worse than a get-out-of-jail free card for Crittenden, Prince and their cohorts. The SEC actually fined Citi’s shareholders $75 million for the alleged wrongdoing of their executives. For some varieties of corporate misconduct, like Wachovia’s drug money laundering, hitting shareholders with the fine is appropriate. Wachovia’s money laundering operations directly enriched the company and its shareholders. This was not the case with Citi’s subprime scandal. Citi’s executives were hurting their own shareholders. Instead of meting out serious punishment to those executives, the SEC is fining Citi’s shareholders, the very people wronged in the incident.

This deference to the elites who wrecked the economy just keeps playing out. When Bank of America lied to its shareholders about billions of dollars in bonus payments it was about to make, the SEC decided to fine BofA shareholders and let the firm’s executives off the hook. The decision-makers at Wachovia, who allowed the firm to funnel drug money despite repeated warnings by whistleblowers, have not been indicted. Nobody at Washington Mutual has been indicted despite clear evidence of rampant mortgage fraud at the firm. Lehman Brothers’ repo 105 accounting scam is going unpunished, as are similar schemes at other banks including Bank of America. After much public relations flogging, the SEC let Goldman Sachs off easy.

More than 1,100 bankers went to jail in the aftermath of the savings and loan crisis. Massive financial crises simply do not occur without widespread fraud. The failure to prosecute that fraud poses systemic risks for the global economy. With too-big-to-fail behemoths dominating the financial landscape, the prospect of prison is the only serious check on executives interested in cannibalizing the economy for personal gain. If the SEC and the Department of Justice continue to let executives get away with outrageous acts without even taking the case to court, our financial system is doomed to repeat the same excesses and abuses we’ve seen over the past decade. If Crittenden did what the SEC claims he did, he screwed over his own investors and scored a huge bonus in the process. Everybody on Wall Street understands the implications: breaking the law is a great way to make a lot of money. When a class of elites can thumb its nose at the law with impunity, the result is not only a threat to the efficiency of our economy, but a threat to the basic functioning of our democracy.

You can read Mr. Carter’s news analysis in context here: blogs.alternet.org/speakeasy/2010/07/30/where-are-the-prosecutions-sec-lets-citi-execs-go-free-after-40-billion-subprime-lie/ Mr. Carter is a fellow at Campaign for America’s Future, and a frequent contributed to The Nation magazine.

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February 22, 2010

Bank of America Fined

Filed under: banking, economy — Tags: , , , , , , , — digitaleconomy @ 10:47 am

A federal judge has reluctantly approved a $150 million settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission stemming from the bank’s merger with investment firm Merrill Lynch at the height of the financial crisis. In the months before the deal closed, Bank of America failed to disclose that hefty bonus payouts or the mounting losses that eventually led to a second government bailout of $20 billion for Bank of America.

The New York judge admitted that the fine is a slap on the wrist, but was the second settlement that the SEC had cobbled together that he felt was reasonable. While Bank of America had failed to adequately disclose the bonuses and the losses, the judge agreed that circumstances were unclear, uncertain as whether the lack of disclosure resulted from negligence or fraudulent intent.

November 7, 2009

Wall Street Justice Obama Style

corrupt bankers prisonOver and over again, Americans see the same debacle unroll before their eyes, that is, if they are paying any attention. Earlier this year, billions in bonuses were paid to Merrill Lynch executives as the firm was failing. An agreement was made that Bank of America would pick up the pieces of Merrill Lynch with the support of the American taxpayer and later, BofA was bailed out as well. After a dance with the SEC, no wrongdoing was admitted.

After an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Banking wunderkind JPMorgan agreed to a $722 million settlement. Why? It all rises from a risky derivatives deal that drove Alabama politics to the brink of bankruptcy. As part of the settlement, JPMorgan neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing despite overwhelming evidence that the financial group did actually engage in acute wrongdoing.

What passes for justice on Wall Street? Regulators give a banking institution that they back a fine that taps the corporate bottom line for wrongdoing. The banks are eager to quickly forget the whole thing by paying a modest fine and getting on with business as usual. There is no admission to wrongdoing and business continues. The government gets a fine to pad their already overbloated budgets that the American taxpayer is already floating. We must be stupid because we keep doing the same thing over and over.

No one admits to corruption, much less to making a mistake. Meanwhile, nobody pays back the taxpayer, much less actually pays off a debt of any kind.  Reality is a round robin of funny money, usury and blatant dishonesty. Where is the outrage? Nowhere, because we are too wrapped in our small lives and/or afraid of reprisals or perhaps the boogeyman. Perhaps by our collective refusal to stand up against politicians and bankers, we are admitting that any American would do exactly the same thing; that not one American is any better. What do you say? Probably very little.

January 16, 2009

Treasury Bails Out Bank of America

rainy day for B of A

rainy day for B of A

Since the beginning of economic contraction, Bank of America, has been buying up banks and assets from failed institutions such as Merrill Lynch. Now is a rainy day for Bank of America, a toxic debt laden bank in danger of failure.

After taking recent value write offs on toxic debts, the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation are providing protection against unusually large losses on approximately $118 billion of loans, securities backed by residential and commercial real estate loans and related faulty assets. (more…)

August 8, 2008

Bankers Seek to Buy Out Uncle Sam on Fraud

Regulators have been investigating Wall Street firms for their role in the sales and marketing of auction-rate investments.

Wall Street agreed to buy back more than $17 billion in securities that they fraudulently sold to retail customers paving the way for other banks and brokerage firms to do the same.

Merrill Lynch jumped ahead of regulator investigatory scrutiny, announcing that they will buy back about $10 billion in auction-rate investments that it sold to retail investors.

Citigroup reached a settled with state and federal regulators, agreeing to buy back about $7.3 billion of auction-rate securities that it sold to retail customers. As recompense for misconduct, Citigroup will pay a $100 million fine for its misconduct. The securities are essentially worthless, even though the buyers were told that the securities were safe and easy to cash in.

Even Bank of America is under attack with subpoenas related to securities sales. Taking on responsibility of bank instruments in bank bailouts has likely posed an additional headache.

At this time, institutional investors are still out in the cold, but both firms claim to be working on a resolution on problems with institutional investors in the hopes of avoiding more heat and gaining brownie points from the federal government. A rush of settlements are expected in the next few months as Wall Street aims to absolve itself.

Regulators are starting to pile on in a sort of informational and investigational bankers bloodletting. The Securities and Exchange Commission has elected to stay out the recent penalties as they expect to weigh in on their own investigation. From all appearance, Wall Street’s troubles have only just begun. Bankers know their guilt. Can they distract the investigations to avoid the embarassment as the propensity of their fraud is exposed to the nation? Seeking to buy out authorities may be seen as an easy way out as the financial onslaught on Wall Street and for banking in general continues.

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