Financial Review

The Failure of the Holder Doctrine

Financial Review

DOW – 264 = 16,945
SPX – 32 = 1965
NAS – 88 = 4466
10 YR YLD – .06 = 2.51%
OIL – .32 = 91.21
GOLD + 5.30 = 1222.90
SILV – .18 = 17.60

In economic news:
For the week ending Sept. 20, seasonally adjusted initial claims for unemployment compensation were 293,000, up 12,000 from the previous week’s revised level of 281,000. For the comparable week of 2013, the figure was 316,000.

Orders for durable goods dropped 18.2% in August; which sounds absolutely horrible until you put in in perspective; durable goods orders were up 22.5% in July. It sounds like the economists behind this report need to step away from the crack pipe, but the real reason for the volatility is airplane orders, which are for big expensive durable goods, and usually in big, expensive contracts. For example, Boeing took orders for 107 new planes in August, but that’s down from 324 orders in July. Stripping out the transportation sector, order rose 0.7%. Orders for core capital goods – a broader measure of business investment – climbed by 0.6% in August.

Tomorrow the government will reveal the third of three regular estimates of growth in the period of April to June. The gain in GDP is likely to be raised to 4.7% from a prior estimate of 4.2%, mainly because fresh data show that consumers spent much more on health care than initially estimated. If so, that would mark the fastest spurt of growth since the recession ended in mid-2009. The third quarter ends in just a few days, and it is estimated that 3Q GDP expanded at about a 3.2% pace.

The war continues. French fighter jets struck ISIS targets in Iraq and US fighter jets struck ISIS targets in Syria. A third night of air raids by the United States and Arab allies targeted ISIS controlled oil refineries in eastern Syria that have been a major source of revenue for the terrorist group. Britain announced today that it too would join air strikes against ISIS in Iraq, after weeks of weighing its options. Prime Minister David Cameron recalled parliament, which is expected to give its approval tomorrow.

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, in New York to attend a UN meeting, said he had credible intelligence that ISIS networks in Iraq were plotting to attack US subways and French metro trains. US intelligence officials say they have no evidence of specific threats.

The Russian parliament is considering a proposal that would allow the Kremlin to seize foreign assets on Russian soil, and there are a lot of foreign assets in Russia, many of them oil related.

Attorney General Eric Holder is resigning. He will step down when a successor is confirmed for the post. Holder has been Attorney General for nearly six years, making him one of the longest serving AGs in our history. He was also the first African American AG. White House officials are already pushing out narratives about Holder’s “historic legacy of civil rights enforcement and restoring fairness to the criminal justice system,” but there is one area where Holder was an absolute failure: going after the banksters on Wall Street.

As of today, there has been no significant surge in criminal cases stemming from the financial crisis, to the profound annoyance everyone who sees aggressive prosecution as the only deterrent for future fraud. Instead, Holder has preferred blockbuster civil settlements, including a recent $13 billion deal with JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and an impending agreement with Bank of America that could top $12 billion. That sounds like a lot of money, but the actual amounts are…, well nobody really knows what the actual amounts are; we do know that it is significantly less than the headline numbers after factoring in tax accounting and credits for actions already being undertaken by the banks; what has come to be known as “soft” consumer relief; things like banks getting credited for the amount of a short sale that was going to happen anyway. And there has been lack of transparency around how these penalties are being paid to aggrieved consumers. One federal judge, rejected a settlement with Citibank in 2011, called the fine “pocket change”. Holder’s Justice Department appealed; making certain the fine was not too harsh for the banking giant.

Under Holder, the Justice Department greatly expanded the use of deferred prosecution agreements with large corporations, from financial firms to agricultural giants. These are arrangements that take the place of criminal prosecutions; instead, the offending corporation supposedly admits wrongdoing, pays a fine, which is typically a small fraction of yearly profits, and agrees to remedy internal problems that lead to the crime. In return, the government agrees not to prosecute.

There are a couple of problems with the deferred prosecution agreements, or DPAs. First the banksters never really got around to admitting wrongdoing. The admissions of wrongdoing have been incredibly vague, at best. In at least one case, involving Libor rate rigging, the CEO of Barclays gave a written admission as part of the DPA, and then went out and made public claims that he had done nothing wrong. Another problem with DPAs is that they do not act as a deterrent. The idea is supposed to be something similar to a probationary period for the bank; stay out of trouble and the prosecutors will not go after harsher punishment. The reality is that DPAs are repeatedly violated without consequence.

Perhaps the most egregious example came when Justice allowed HSBC to enter deferred prosecution for wide-ranging multibillion-dollar money laundering at the bank on behalf of large illegal drug operations and also terrorist groups. There was ample evidence that HSBC had set up separate teller windows at its Mexican bank branches to accept the large trays of cash coming from the Mexican drug cartels. And there was solid evidence that HSBC had conducted business with Iran, and Cuba and other entities on a sanctions blacklist. The punishment amounted to about 2 months’ profits. If you’re going to put people in jail for having a joint in their pocket or for slinging dime bags on the corner in a city street, you cannot let people who laundered $850 million for the worst drug offenders in the world walk. But that’s exactly what Holder did, time after time after time.

In March, the Justice Department’s own inspector general released a report that found that the criminal division’s efforts to hold Wall Street executive accountable were a low priority, and in some cases the lowest possible priority, despite Holder’s claims that it was at the top of his to-do list.
Holder has tried to explain his lack of prosecutions relating to the 2008 collapse by claiming the cases were too hard to prove, but that is a weak argument. The Sarbanes Oxley Act, for example, would provide a straightforward template: it makes it a crime for executives to sign inaccurate financial statements, and there is ample evidence that Wall Street CEOs were aware of the toxicity of the sub-prime mortgages sold by their firms.

Late last year, Judge Jed Rakoff of the Federal District Court of Manhattan published an essay titled, “The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?” Rakoff cited the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report that found multiple examples of fraud. He suggested a doctrine of “willful blindness” at Holder’s Justice Department and said “the department’s claim that proving intent in the financial crisis is particularly difficult may strike some as doubtful.” Needless to say, it is rare that a sitting judge publicly calls out the nation’s top cop for what amounts to cowardice. Advocates for financial accountability often point to the Savings and Loan crisis as a counter-example of Holder’s failure to prosecute: despite much smaller-scale fraud, 1,000 bankers were convicted in federal prosecutions and many went to prison.

Holder’s failure to prosecute had a name: the Holder Doctrine; and its origins go back to the days of Enron and the prosecution and conviction of Arthur Andersen, the former “Big Five” accounting firm convicted of obstruction of justice for destroying documents relating to the Enron scandal. The prosecution and collapse of Arthur Andersen cost many otherwise decent accountants their livelihood. Holder admitted as much in Senate testimony last year. He said:
“I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if we do prosecute — if we do bring a criminal charge — it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy,”… “I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large.”

Holder continued, acknowledging that the size of banks “has an inhibiting influence.” He said that it affects “our ability to bring resolutions that I think would be more appropriate.”

According to the Holder Doctrine and Justice Department guidelines, before bringing a criminal case, prosecutors must consider “the nature and seriousness of the offense, including the risk of harm to the public, and applicable policies and priorities, if any, governing the prosecution of corporations for particular categories of crime.” The conventional wisdom is that simply charging a company with a crime raises the possibility of putting the firm out of business because customers, suppliers, counterparties and others will stop doing business with it. In other words, the banksters were just too big to jail.

The Holder Doctrine raises all sorts of interesting questions. Should we prosecute corporations ever? Or should we only prosecute small businesses? Should the size of an institution or its systemic importance influence the decisions of prosecutors? Wasn’t Dodd-Frank legislation supposed to fix the too big to fail problem. If the banks are still too big to jail does it also mean they are still too big to fail? If shutting down a huge bank would impose too many costs on society, then why don’t prosecutors insist that the banks be split up as a condition of not dropping the entire C-suite into the deepest hole in the gray bar hotel?

We don’t yet know Holder’s successor at Justice, but there should be a litmus test for the new AG. Keep it simple. Just ask if they believe in justice for all?

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