When banks face criminal charges

By Felix Salmon
January 29, 2013
question raises itself: what is the point of filing criminal charges against a bank -- not a bank's executives or employees, but the bank itself?

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Once again the question raises itself: what is the point of filing criminal charges against a bank — not a bank’s executives or employees, but the bank itself? The WSJ today says that the US wants RBS to plead guilty to such charges, in addition to paying the inevitable fine over Libor fixing. But only, it seems, insofar as such an admission wouldn’t have any visible practical consequences:

As part of UBS’s settlement last month, the Swiss bank’s Japanese unit pleaded guilty to wire fraud, a felony. Justice Department officials were heartened by the lack of a negative reaction in the markets and among regulators around the world to UBS’s guilty plea. Before the settlement deal, some officials had worried it could destabilize the bank. That has emboldened officials to pursue similar actions against banks like RBS.

Does “banks like RBS”, here, mean all of the banks which are going to settle Libor-rigging charges in the future? If so, it almost certainly includes US banks. And that in turn means that shareholders in such banks should be worried about potentially owning stock in a self-admitted criminal enterprise. On the other hand, maybe shareholders care only about the share price, and can take solace in the fact that Justice only seems to want to file criminal charges insofar as there’s a “lack of a negative reaction in the markets”.

The spectre everybody’s afraid of here is that of Arthur Andersen, which was prosecuted for obstruction of justice in the wake of the Enron scandal, went out of business as a result, and only later saw its conviction overturned by the Supreme Court. By that point it was too late: 25,000 jobs had been lost, and the accounting industry had become even more consolidated than it was before.

As a result, Justice seems to be treading very carefully here, prosecuting UBS — and, now, probably RBS as well — only with respect to activities in far-flung Asian outposts that no one cares much about. Think of it as the diametric opposite of the way that prosecutors went after Aaron Swartz: the US in this case is being minimally rather than maximally aggressive.

The problem is that this m.o. seems to violate a basic principle of justice — the principle that where there is a crime, there should be a punishment. Put the fines to one side: they will happen anyway, whether the bank admits to criminal activity or not. The criminal prosecution, in these cases, seems to be little more than a CYA move on the part of the administration, which can now have a slightly straighter face when saying that it’s being tough on the banks.

Still, maybe the markets should be more worried about such admissions than they’ve shown themselves to be until now. If a bank with a substantial US retail operation — JPMorgan Chase, say — admits to criminal misconduct, that doesn’t just open itself up to lawsuits from people who bought instruments linked to Libor, but also hands a whole new ammunition clip over to the opponents of big banks generally. Remember that most of the Dodd-Frank law still has yet to be written, including the details of the Volcker Rule; the worse the light the big banks are seen in, the tougher that regulators are going to allow themselves to get.

And then there’s the question of local prosecutors and regulators. The Justice Department might be very solicitous here, but that doesn’t mean that aggressive state attorneys general will follow suit. Once a bank has admitted criminal wrongdoing, its banking license in New York or any other state could surely be in jeopardy. And once a bank loses its banking license in New York, it’s basically dead in the water.

Justice, then, needs to ask itself what exactly it’s trying to achieve with these criminal admissions. In principle, I’m all in favor of holding criminal organizations to account for their actions. But only if doing so does more good than harm.

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