Too Big to Jail: Our Banking System's Latest Disgrace

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You can be forgiven if you watched the Department of Justice’s announcement yesterday of a $1.92 billion settlement with HSBC with a sense of disappointment--and déjà vu. The event checked all the boxes in a theatrical routine that has become all too familiar.

Descriptions of breathtaking misconduct involving the facilitation of massive drug trafficking and transactions with rogue terror-sponsoring nations? Check.

Broad boasts about the "historic" nature of the settlement that will certainly end the type of criminal misconduct alleged? Check.

Mea culpas from the offending institution with promises that it has really learned its lesson this time and will never ever engage in dastardly conduct again? Yep, that too. 

Nothing, however, was quite as it appeared. Sure, HSBC paid a record fine, but there was something vitally important missing from yesterday's press conference: actual criminal charges for obvious criminal conduct.

Some perspective: HSBC sent more than $800 million in bulk cash from Mexico to the United States, a good chunk of which apparently represented proceeds from some of the most notorious Colombian drug cartels. As someone who tried the first narcotics money laundering case involving extradition from Colombia, let me assure you that this is a lot of money, the discovery of which usually generates vigorous prosecutions and lengthy prison sentences. And it wasn’t HSBC’s only dirty business: There were also hundreds of millions of more dollars of illegally disguised transactions with rogue nations such as Iran and Sudan.

Why no criminal charges? Why instead only some remedial measures and a "historical" fine that can be measured in weeks -- not years -- of earnings? It certainly wasn’t for lack of evidence. No, instead the government determined that HSBC is not only too big to fail, but also too big to jail. As the New York Times first reported, even though there were strong voices within DOJ pushing for criminal charges, the big banks' best friends within the government (the Treasury Department, of course, and other unnamed regulators) were too fearful that an indictment could destabilize the global financial system. Yes, it's 2008 all over again. In the name of systemic stability, a megabank again escapes accountability for its actions, rescued by compliant officials.  

In some aspects, DOJ's surrender is understandable. Notwithstanding regulatory reform efforts in the U.S. and the UK, the largest banks are in many ways even more systemically dangerous today than when we bailed them out in 2008. This indirect acknowledgment that we have failed to fix the too-big-to-fail problem has potentially dire consequences.  

One of the reasons why we have a criminal justice system, of course, is to deter criminal behavior. If you know that you will be punished for putting your hand in the cash register at your local supermarket (or illegally stripping out information from a monetary transaction that identifies the source nation as Iran), you are less likely to do so. But if the government offered a blanket waiver from criminal accountability for a certain group -- let's say all left-handed people over six feet tall or a handful of banks deemed so large and so significant that their indictment could destroy the global financial system -- we would expect that those exempted would no longer be deterred from committing criminal acts. And although lefty giants may otherwise lack a predisposition for boosting cash, in recent years the largest banks have demonstrated an unbridled zeal for pushing the boundaries of the law as part of their relentless pursuit of profits. DOJ's actions with regards to HSBC are beyond unfair: They are downright terrifying for weakening the general deterrence for megabanks, both foreign and domestic, which could rationally interpret yesterday's actions as a license to steal.

The enduring presumption of bailouts in our banking system already drives the largest banks to take on too much risk with too little disclosure and too much leverage, a toxic cocktail that will inevitably lead to another financial crisis. Yesterday's action now spikes the punch with a new toxin, confirmation that criminal penalties are off the table, leaving a worst-case scenario of a fine totaling far less than even a single quarter's earnings. Given the potential profits of criminal behavior and the unlikelihood of personal consequences for the executives directing it, the message is clear: Crime pays. This will inevitably lead to more reckless risk-taking that will further undermine systemic stability and lead to an even greater financial meltdown down the road.

There is, of course, a solution for our emerging two-tier system of justice. The largest banks need to be broken up, the only realistic way to truly end both too big to fail and too big to jail. But since our government has demonstrated a reluctance to do so, perhaps the next time a megabank presents HSBC's argument that it should not be criminally charged because it would destabilize the financial system, instead of capitulating to this threat, DOJ should require at a bare minimum that in return for allowing the bank to survive, it must break itself up, ensuring that it could never hold the justice system hostage again. Otherwise, we can look forward to many more press conferences that are long on drama but short on impact.

Neil Barofsky was the Special United States Treasury Department Inspector General to oversee the Troubled Assets Relief Program from 2009 until his resignation in February 2011. He is currently a senior fellow at the NYU School of Law and is the author of Bailout (Free Press, 2012).

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