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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Banksters busted again

The Rising Cost of Bad Business
Phil Mattera in the Dirt Diggers Digest

Eleven billion dollars. That’s the latest figure being leaked about the amount JPMorgan Chase could end up paying to resolve federal charges concerning the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the financial crisis. The word is that Attorney General Eric Holder personally rejected a $3 billion offer from the bank.

This is turning out to be an expensive period for JPMorgan. Earlier this month, it and Assurant Inc. had to pay $300 million to settle accusations that they forced homeowners into purchasing overpriced property insurance. A week later, the Consumer Financial Protection Board announced that the company would pay $80 million in fines and refund an estimated $309 million to more than 2 million customers for illegal credit card fees.

That same day, U.S. and UK financial regulators announced that JPMorgan would pay a total of $920 million to settle charges relating to the London Whale trading fiasco, with the bank admitting that it had violated securities laws.

What should we make of these settlements, particularly the eleven-figure one being hammered out with the Justice Department? To begin with, this is more evidence that corporations can no longer get away with paying trivial amounts to resolve criminal and civil charges and must part with amounts that have a noticeable financial impact.

JPMorgan is not alone in this category. Billion-dollar settlements have become almost commonplace in the various cases that have been brought against major banks in connection with toxic securities as well as foreclosure abuses, money laundering and manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index.

Banks are not the only corporations paying out large settlement sums. Large pharmaceutical producers such as GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer have also parted with ten-figure sums to resolve allegations relating to illegal marketing, withholding of safety data and defrauding federal healthcare programs. BP paid $4 billion to resolve criminal and civil charges relating to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

There is a tendency among corporate critics to downplay these settlements because the cases were brought against the companies rather than their top executives. It is indeed frustrating to see CEOs that authorized reckless behavior get off scot free.

Yet the more fundamental question is whether individual prosecutions would be effective in deterring corporate misconduct. The assumption is that seeing some chief executives put on trial would strike fear in C-suites everywhere and cause firms to clean up their act. Some of this would occur, but I am not convinced it would be enough to stop corporate criminality. After all, high-profile cases against individuals have not put an end to insider trading.

Punishment of corporate executives needs to be accompanied by more aggressive actions against the companies they work for. One thing is clear: the new wave of billion-dollar settlements and penalties may be having a more noticeable financial impact, but they are still a manageable cost of doing business for the companies involved, especially in light of the fact that the payments are often, at least in part, tax deductible.

Take the case of JPMorgan Chase. An $11 billion settlement would not go entirely to the Treasury. Reports of the negotiations suggest that $4 billion of the total would take the form of relief to consumers, which means that the payout could be stretched over a long period of time. We’ve already seen considerable foot-dragging by the large banks (including JPMorgan) that agreed last year to a $25 billion plan to address foreclosure abuses.

Even if JPMorgan had to shell out the remaining $7 billion in a single year, it would be only one-third of the more than $21 billion in profits it generated last year. That would hurt but would be far from fatal.

Rather than disparagement of rising monetary settlements, I’d like to see more analysis of how high the penalties would have to go in order to make a real difference in corporate behavior. It is also worth exploring whether the property seizures used by federal prosecutors against individual felons could be applied more aggressively against corporations. The discussion of JPMorgan’s settlement would be a lot more interesting if the company was facing a penalty such as forfeiture of one of its main business units.

Eric Holder & Company deserve some credit for raising the cost of doing bad business, but the price is still far too low.

Note: To see my newly updated Corporate Rap Sheet on JPMorgan Chase, click here.