Money laundering. Price fixing. Bid rigging. Securities fraud. Talking about the mob? No, unfortunately. Wall Street.
These days, the business sections of newspapers read like rap sheets. GE Capital, JPMorgan Chase, UBS, Wells Fargo and Bank of America tied to a bid-rigging scheme to bilk cities and towns out of interest earnings. ING Direct, HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank facing charges of money laundering. Barclays caught manipulating a key interest rate, costing savers and investors dearly, with a raft of other big banks also under investigation. Not to speak of the unprecedented wrongdoing that precipitated the financial crisis of 2008.
Evidence gathered by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission clearly demonstrated that the financial crisis was avoidable and due, in no small part, to recklessness and ethical breaches on Wall Street. Yet, it’s clear that the unrepentant and the unreformed are still all too present within our banking system.
A June survey of 500 senior financial services executives in the United States and Britain turned up stunning results. Some 24 percent said that they believed that financial services professionals may need to engage in illegal or unethical conduct to succeed, 26 percent said that they had observed or had firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace, and 16 percent said they would engage in insider trading if they could get away with it.
That too much of Wall Street remains unchanged is not surprising. Simply stated, the banks and their leaders have paid no real economic, legal or political price for their wrongdoing and thus have not felt compelled to change.
On the economic front, the financial sector has rebounded nicely from its brush with death, thanks to an enormous taxpayer bailout. By 2010, compensation at publicly traded Wall Street firms had hit a record $135 billion.
Last year, the profits of the nation’s five biggest banks exceeded $51 billion, with their chief executives all enjoying pay increases. By 2011, the 10 biggest U.S. banks held 77 percent of the nation’s banking assets.
On the legal front, enforcement has been woefully inadequate. Federal criminal financial fraud prosecutions have fallen to a two-decade low. Violations are settled for pennies on the dollar – the mere cost of doing business, with no admission of wrongdoing and with the bill invariably picked up by insurers or shareholders. (When it’s shareholders, that’s not someone else far away, that’s your 401(k), pension fund or mutual fund.)
When Goldman Sachs was charged with failing to set policies to prevent insider trading, it was fined $22 million, an amount the bank collects in about seven hours of trading. Goldman’s record $550 million penalty for securities fraud in 2010 amounted to less than 2 percent of that year’s revenue.
On the political front, after a brief stint in the penalty box, the big banks have resumed the political muscling that got them two decades of deregulation.
To block reform, the financial industry has spent more than $317 million on lobbying in Washington over the past two years and more than $230 million in federal political contributions in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.
It’s been to good effect. Two-thirds of the regulations called for in the financial reform law passed two years ago are still not in place. And the House Republicans, the banks’ sturdiest allies, have slashed at the budgets of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission to impede their ability to investigate wrongdoing.
Clearly, the present order is unsustainable. We need to demand fundamental changes now, breaking up the big banks to snap their stranglehold on our markets and our democracy, ensuring that the newly minted financial reform laws are implemented, and wringing out rampant speculation.
But true reform can only occur if we root out the corruption that has distorted our banking system and undermined the productive work of the many good people in the financial sector.
The system of financial law enforcement is clearly broken. Think of it this way: If someone robbed a 7-Eleven of $1,000 but could settle a few days later for $25 and no admission of guilt, would they do it again?
Only enforcement with real consequences will work. That means vigorous pursuit of criminal cases against individuals involved in wrongdoing, the surest method to deter malfeasance.
It means enforcement agencies eschewing weak settlements in civil cases and seeking remedies with teeth such as civil penalties, restitution and executives forfeiting their jobs. And, it means tougher financial fraud laws. In that regard, the bipartisan proposal by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to increase fines for securities fraud is a place to start.
To make any of this a reality, the U.S. Department of Justice and the federal regulators must have the will and the resources to do the job. President Obama has asked for additional funds for the Department of Justice, the SEC and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission.
Giving these agencies the tools to detect and prosecute wrongdoing will more than pay for itself – the Commodities Futures Trading Commission’s fine against Barclays for interest rate manipulation alone will pay for almost an entire year of that agency’s budget.
None of these changes will come easily, but this much is clear: We cannot allow Wall Street to continually flout our sense of right and wrong, to erode faith in our legal and political systems, and to put our financial system and economy in jeopardy.
Phil Angelides, former state treasurer of California, was the chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which conducted the nation’s official inquiry into the financial crisis. Send your feedback to us through our online form at www.sfgate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1.