Monday, May 6, 2019

The U.S. Department of Justice: Big Banks May Legitimately Be above the Law

The Financial Times reported in 2013 that lawmakers in the U.S. Congress were claiming that the Department of Justice had been “too soft on big banks and their executives by failing to bring criminal cases related to the financial crisis.”[1] In the five years following the financial crisis of 2008, no Wall Street executive was criminally charged with fraud. The U.S. Justice Department chose not to go after the bankers for their lack of due diligence regarding their purchases of sub-prime mortgages from mortgage originators. This in spite of the fact that at Citibank, for example, a manager in the bank’s due diligence department estimated that 50% to 80% of the approved mortgages did not meet the bank’s credit policy, and yet Robert Rubin, the CEO at the time, did not act on the manager’s email. This suggests that a criminal complaint could have been lodged against the bank itself, but then what would be the implications for the financial system should Citibank had gone under after being found criminally guilty? Does it even hold that a guilty verdict would mean bankruptcy? Simply stated, a company can be so large that its failure due to a guilty verdict could harm innocent third parties, including stockholders, employees, suppliers, and even the general public if the bankruptcy triggers a systemic collapse of the financial system. Such concerns are called collateral consequences. 
After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, systemic risk became a particularly salient concern for criminal prosecutors at the U.S. Department of Justice. Swayed by a desire to minimize the potential disproportionate harm to innocent parties from a verdict-triggered major bankruptcy, the prosecutors believed they were obligated to consider collateral consequences even if that meant that the really big banks would be immune from criminal prosecution. To such banks, this could be used as a competitive advantage because keeping within the constraints of law in making money would not apply. I contend, therefore, that the U.S. Government should not have taken collateral consequences into consideration. 

 Mythili Raman testifying before Congress.

Mythili Raman, Acting Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Division, argued that collateral factors as a group should be considered. Testifying before Congress on May 22, 2013, she cited “the disproportionate impact on innocent third parties, including the public at large,” as being entirely appropriate for prosecutors to consider.[2] Her reference to the general public means that systemic risk was among the legitimate factors in her view, and yet she also said, “the size of a corporation will never be a factor in and of itself and that no institution is too big to prosecute.”[3] Crucially, her position was that one particular consequence should never be the only factor. “A single collateral consequence cannot be the reason.” However, she added that “collateral consequences are issues that we must and do consider.”[4] Because banks too big to fail tend to have more than one significant collateral consequence (e.g., many stockholders and employees, as well as systemic risk), such banks may be too big to jail.
In testimony before Congress in March 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had admitted that the lawyers in his department were wary of the “negative impact” on the economy from prosecuting a large financial institution. “(I)t is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large.” Differing from Raman, he thought the size of large banks “has an inhibiting influence – impact on our ability to bring resolutions that I think would be more appropriate. . . . (a)nd I think that is something that we – you all – need to consider.”[5] I want to unpack this rather robust admission, for it is significant.
Firstly, the Attorney General was hinting at what Sen. Kaufman had observed while in office. Namely, it should not have been the F.B.I.’s concern whether the Wall Street banks continued as viable concerns. In other words, systemic risk or even collateral consequences more generally had no business being considered by prosecutors whose job it was to enforce the law. Including systemic risk among the collateral consequences thus further compromised the rule of law. As Sen. Charles Grassley put it, “It was stunning to hear the nation’s top prosecutor acknowledge that, from the justice department’s perspective, the big banks are too big to jail. This is worrisome for the fair application of justice in our country.”[6]
Secondly, the Attorney General was suggesting that Congress should reduce the size of the biggest banks—those with over $1 trillion in assets. This would have removed the specter of banks being too big to jail. Also, by implication, Holder had concluded that the Dodd-Frank Act would not be sufficient to solve the "too big to fail" problem. That law was premised in part on the theoretically beautiful but practically insufficient assumption that imposing disproportionate capital reserve requirements on the biggest banks would not only be enough to keep them sound even in a financial crisis, but would also prompt the banks' boards to reduce the size of their banks. Besides of cost-advantages in being so large, and getting even larger as the five biggest banks have since done, the psychology of empire-building, which had gripped Lehman's Dick Fuld so, can easily dismiss the disproportionate costs of retaining or enlarging size. 
Regarding the implications for the U.S. Department of Justice should the biggest banks have taken the bait and voluntarily reduced their respective sizes, it is clear that if no systemic risk (i.e., of being too big to fail without taking the whole financial system down) were to exist, then third-party collateral damage would not be disproportionate so the banks (and bankers) could be prosecuted. Accordingly, the Huffington Post observed at the time that lawmakers “may be encouraged to apply even more public pressure on efforts to crack down on big banks.” [7] Lawmakers having received campaign contributions from those banks, however, would hardly do so. In fact, those members of Congress would even defend the large sizes of the biggest banks. 
Exceptions admittedly existed. Rep. Sherman, the chair of the full committee, noted while Raman was testifying that the fact that the Department of Justice considered collateral consequences rather than simply enforced the law was enough justification to break up the big banks. Putting aside the issue of size for the conduct of banking (e.g., whether a gigantic sized bank is necessary to make huge loans or would a syndicate of banks do as good of a job and spread the risk), having powerful people and organizations de facto above the law is something that just cannot be permitted in a republic. So on this basis alone, the rationale goes, society had an overwhelming interest in braking up the largest U.S. banks. 
Unfortunately, being too big to fail has carried (and still carries) with it tremendous political power—muscle that could have been used all too easily to resist legislative proposals (or even public debate) oriented to seriously downsizing the mammoth banks. This has the real problem since economic power became so concentrated in large corporations and banks: can a republic resist the power of its most powerful for the good even of the economy, and the public societal good more generally? Were the big banks pulling the strings that led to Raman’s assertion that collateral consequences “must and should” be considered in deciding whether to prosecute? Whether Raman realized it or not at the time, the implication that the rule of law applied impartially should be compromised by the magnitude of the predicted collateral consequences from a corporate conviction is, euphemistically speaking, troubling.

See “The Untouchables,” Frontline, January 22, 2013 and Essays on the Financial Crisis: Systemic Greed and Arrogant Stupidity, available at Amazon.
1. Shahien Nasiripour and Kara Schannell, “Holder Says Some Banks Are ‘Too Large,” The Financial Times, March 7, 2013.
2 Congressional Hearing, “Who Is Too Big to Fail: Are Large Financial Institutions Immune from Federal Prosecution?” Financial Services Committee, Oversight and Investigations Sub-Committee, U.S. House of Representatives, May 22, 2013. See also the letter to sub-committee membersShahien Nasiripour, “Too-Big-To-Jail Dogs Obama’s Justice Department As Government Documents Raise Questions,” The Huffington Post, May 22, 2013.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Nasiripour and Schannell,  “Holder Says Some Banks Are ‘Too Large’,”
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.