Why Do Banks Get Away With Murder?
Big banks have copped to heinous crimes that have cost citizens billions of dollars. And it just keeps happening. Daniel Gross on why the madness never ends—and no one goes to jail.
We’re 53 months removed from the Lehman Brothers meltdown. The U.S. bailouts have essentially been wound down at a profit. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is hovering near 14,000, and global bond markets are as calm as the Sargasso Sea. At the World Economic Forum last month, bankers like Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America, strode around proudly, their places and share prices largely restored. To a large degree, we have moved on.
But as William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
He could have been writing about the banks. Day after day, our largest financial institutions continue to be revealed as unreformed, largely unrepentant bad actors. Regulators, prosecutors, and plaintiffs in lawsuits continue to unearth scandalous behavior from before, during, and after the credit boom. Bankers conspired with their colleagues, with their counterparts at other banks, and at ratings agencies to milk money through plainly illicit and unkosher means. When caught, frequently indicted by their own emails and instant messages, the banks agree to pay big fines, utter pro forma apologies, and move on. A few people may lose their jobs, and a lot of people may lose their bonuses. But nobody goes to jail.
Why? Prosecutors fear that indicting a highly leveraged, highly indebted institution would trigger a cascade of unwanted outcomes—capital flight, bank runs, disruptions in vital markets. “The greatest triumph of the banking industry wasn’t ATMs or even depositing a check via the camera of your mobile phone,” notes Barry Ritholtz, a money manager and author of Bailout Nation. “It was convincing Treasury and Justice Department officials that prosecuting bankers for their crimes would destabilize the global economy.
The crime without punishment is as predictable as it is infuriating.