Suisse Crime and Punishment

May 20, 2014

Credit Suisse is the first bank in decades to admit to criminal charges. It has pleaded guilty to helping Americans evade taxes and agreed to pay a $2.5 billion fine.

Credit Suisse’s reaction has been relatively relaxed – at least in public. Chairman Urs Rohner remarked that “personally, our hands are clean”. The bank says the settlement will have no material impact on its business. CEO Brady Dougan says clients haven’t seemed to mind: “Our discussions with clients have been very reassuring and we haven’t seen very many issues at all”. Investors seem to be mellow as well: the bank’s shares were up 1% today.

The key question is why the admission of criminal guilt, and why now. In 2009, UBS copped to similar accusations but got away with a $780 million fine and handing over 4,450 client names. UBS got off so much lighter than Credit Suisse, Reuters’ Aruna Viswanatha and Karen Freifeld report, because UBS had a bargaining chip to play, and a less motivated prosecutor across the table. The Swiss government allowed UBS to divulge client data, ordinarily a crime punishable by three years in prison under Swiss bank secrecy laws. No similar exception was made for Credit Suisse, forcing it to withhold the bank’s client names, and depriving it of the only negotiating leverage it had. That lack of leverage, along with the Justice Department’s desire to display that large banks are not “too big to jail”, appears to have ruled out a milder deal.

The WSJ’s Paul Davies thinks the episode shows banks’ guilty secret: criminal charges are not, in fact, a threat to the existence of an institution or the stability of the financial system. Floyd Norris wonders what the point of the whole exercise actually is: “The Justice Department has gone to great lengths to guarantee that convicted banks will not be treated as criminals”. Walter Russell Mead disagrees, calling the guilty plea an “exemplary punishment” that “sends signals to others in the industry”.

Fortune’s Stephen Gandel thinks the case shows that “justice for Wall Street is different than it is for the rest of us… Eventually, prosecutors are going to have to take the plunge and truly punish a bank”. Or as Kevin Roose puts it, the “guilty plea is actually pretty low stakes” and is more about “prosecutorial desperation” than atypical or particularly malicious wrongdoing. That may be part of prosecutors’ reasoning,according to Matt Levine. If you haven’t been assiduously following the story for months, seeing the words “bank” and “guilty” in the same headline is news, no matter the details. — Ben Walsh

On to today’s links:

Antibiotics as a mismanaged public good – Timothy Taylor
Responding to Larry Summers responding to Piketty – Ashok Rao

The rise of the global market for real estate – James Surowiecki

Man comes out 89 cents richer after a year of penny-rounding – CBC

Good Questions
Why does Microsoft sell the Surface tablet? – Jay Yarow
“What if bailed-out banks had been subjected to significant windfall profit taxes?” –Mohamed El-Erian

Goldman is selling its metal warehousing unit – Reuters

Urban Outfitters’ problem: “It’s a Spencer’s Gifts for internet teens” – John Herman

Capitalism, schizophrenia, and cat listicles – Dylan Matthews

A Russian oligarch’s $4.5 billion divorce settlement – WaPo

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