TOO LITTLE PUNISHMENT FOR MISBEHAVIOR IN THE FINANCIAL SECTOR

ABSTRACT: One person who has both spoken out and acted when he felt the punishment for misbehavior in the financial sector was too lenient or lacking is federal District Court Judge Jed Rakoff.* In 2011, he refused to approve a proposed settlement with Citigroup related to the 2008 financial crisis because he thought that it was too lenient. Currently, he is withholding approval of settlement of an insider trading case. The proposed settlement would allow two men to settle the case for $4.8 million without admitting guilt.

SAC Capital, a huge, $15 billion hedge fund, has been charged in what probably is the biggest insider trading scandal ever. Five employees of SAC have already pleaded guilty to insider trading and the company itself has agreed to a record $616 million settlement. However, it is unlikely that anyone will go to jail and the head of SAC, despite any fines and restitution he may be required to pay, is likely to remain a billionaire.

Judge Rakoff recently wrote an article entitled “The Financial Crisis: Why have no high-level executives been prosecuted?” [1] Multiple authorities, including enforcement agencies, have describe what occurred in the run up to the 2008 financial crisis as fraud. Rakoff states that if the financial crisis was the result of intentional fraud, then “the failure to [criminally] prosecute those responsible must be judged one of the most egregious failures of the criminal justice system in many years.”

Rakoff notes that in previous financial crises individual perpetrators were successfully prosecuted. In the 1980s savings and loan crisis, which has strong parallels to the 2008 crisis but at a much smaller scale, over 800 individuals were successfully, criminally prosecuted.

Rakoff concludes by writing, “if it was [fraudulent misconduct] – as various governmental authorities have asserted it was – then the failure of the government to bring to justice those responsible … bespeaks weaknesses in our prosecutorial system that need to be addressed.”

FULL POST: One person who has both spoken out and acted when he felt the punishment for misbehavior in the financial sector was too lenient or lacking is federal District Court Judge Jed Rakoff.* For example, in 2011, he refused to approve a proposed settlement by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with Citigroup related to the 2008 financial crisis because he thought that it was too lenient.

Currently, he is withholding approval of settlement of an insider trading case where two men, acting on an illegal insider’s tip, bought $90,000 worth of securities a day before the announcement of the buyout of H.J. Heinz (the ketchup maker). The next day, when the buyout was announced, the securities became worth $1.8 million. The SEC’s proposed settlement would allow the two men to settle the case for $4.8 million without either admitting or denying guilt. Such settlement language had been standard practice for insider trading cases until a public debate erupted, prompted in large part by Judge Rakoff. In June 2013, the new chair of the SEC, Mary Jo White, announced a new SEC policy that would require some defendants to admit guilt. [2]

There have been a number of insider trading cases in the news lately. These are cases where an individual buying or selling securities benefited from illegally obtained, confidential information that gave him or her an unfair opportunity to profit from securities transactions. For example, SAC Capital, a huge, $15 billion hedge fund, responsible for about 1% of all US securities exchanges’ average daily trading, has been charged in what probably is the biggest insider trading scandal ever. Five employees of SAC have already pleaded guilty to insider trading and the company itself has agreed to a record $616 million settlement for more than 10 years of trading based on illegal tips from corporate insiders. More legal action is still to come, but it is unlikely that anyone will go to jail and the head of SAC, Steven A. Cohen, despite any fines and restitution he may be required to pay, is likely to remain a billionaire. [3][4]

However, Judge Rakoff’s primary focus has not been on insider trading but on the financial industry’s misbehavior that led to the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession. He recently wrote an article entitled “The Financial Crisis: Why have no high-level executives been prosecuted?” [5] In it, he explores why there have been no criminal prosecutions when multiple authorities, including enforcement agencies, have describe what occurred in the run up to the 2008 financial crisis as fraud (i.e., intentional deception for financial or personal gain). Rakoff states that if the financial crisis was the result of intentional fraud (and he makes clear that he has no personal knowledge of whether that was the case or not), “the failure to [criminally] prosecute those responsible must be judged one of the most egregious failures of the criminal justice system in many years.”

Rakoff notes that in previous financial crises – the junk bond scandal of the 1970s, the savings and loan (S&L) crisis of the 1980s, and the accounting frauds of the 1990s (e.g., Enron and WorldCom) – individual perpetrators were successfully prosecuted. Specifically, in the S&L crisis, which has strong parallels to the 2008 crisis but at a much smaller scale, over 800 individuals were successfully, criminally prosecuted.

There is strong evidence of criminal fraud in the events leading to the 2008 crisis. The federal government’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission uses the word “fraud” 157 times in its report describing what led to the crisis. Furthermore, indications that fraud was occurring emerged well before the 2008 collapse. There were 20 times as many reports of suspected mortgage fraud in 2005 as in 1996, and the number kept growing. In 2008, the number of fraud reports was double that of 2005. As early as 2004, the FBI was publicly warning of the “pervasive problem” of mortgage fraud. In the years before the 2008 crisis, sub-prime mortgages, in other words mortgages with more risk of default than normal mortgages, increasingly provided the underpinnings for mortgage-backed securities that continued to be sold with AAA ratings. This rating is supposed to identify securities of very low risk. It seems impossible that this could have occurred without fraud taking place.

Rakoff discusses reasons given by officials of the Department of Justice (DOJ) for the failure to criminally prosecute either individuals or corporations and finds them unconvincing. He then proposes some reasons that he finds more believable. I’ll summarize all of this in my next post.

Rakoff concludes by writing, “if it was [fraudulent misconduct] – as various governmental authorities have asserted it was – then the failure of the government to bring to justice those responsible for such colossal fraud bespeaks weaknesses in our prosecutorial system that need to be addressed.”

*    Jed Rakoff is a United States District Judge on senior status for the Southern District of New York. A full-time judge from 1996 to 2010, he moved to senior status in 2010. Senior status is a form of semi-retirement for judges over 65 where they continue to work part-time. Judge Rakoff is a leading authority on securities laws and the law of white collar crime, and has authored many articles on those topics. He is a former prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York. [6]


 

[1]       Rakoff, J.S., 1/9/14, “The Financial Crisis: Why have no high-level executives been prosecuted?” The New York Review of Books (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/jan/09/financial-crisis-why-no-executive-prosecutions/?pagination=false)

[2]       Raymond, N., 1/30/14, “U.S. judge takes on SEC again, questions Heinz insider trading pact,” Reuters

[3]       Editorial, 7/27/13, “Pursuit of SAC Capital sends needed message to Wall St.,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Lattman, P., 7/31/13, “Ex-analyst charged in insider-trading crackdown,” The Boston Globe (from The New York Times)

[5]       Rakoff, J.S., 1/9/14, see above

[6]       Wikipedia, retrieved 2/5/14, “Jed S. Rakoff,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jed_S._Rakoff

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