My first and second blogposts introduced why conspiracy prosecutions are particularly important for reaching the coordinated actions of individuals when the elements of wrong-doing may be delegated among members of the group.
So where are the prosecutions for corporate conspiracy??? The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 (“RICO”, 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1961 et seq.), no longer applies to most business organizations and their employees. In fact, business organizations working together with outside agents can form new protected “enterprises.”
What’s going on here? In this area and many other parts of the law, we are witnessing the power of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. This doctrine provides immunity to an enterprise and its agents from conspiracy prosecution, based on the legal fiction that an enterprise and its agents are a single actor incapable of the meeting of two minds to form a conspiracy. According to the most recent American Law Reports survey, the doctrine “applies to corporations generally, including religious corporations and municipal corporations and other governmental bodies. The doctrine applies to all levels of corporate employees, including a corporation’s officers and directors and owners who are individuals.” Moreover, it now extends from antitrust throughout tort and criminal law.
What is the practical effect of this doctrine? The intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has distorted agency law and inappropriately handicaps the ability of tort and criminal law to regulate the behavior of organizations and their agents. Obedience to a principal (up to a point) should be rewarded in agency law. But the law should not immunize an agent who acts in the best interest of her employer to commit wrongdoing. Not only does the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine immunize such wrongdoing, but the more closely that an employer orders and supervises the employee’s illegal acts, the more the employer is protected from prosecution as well.
My next blogpost illustrates how the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine operates to defeat prosecutions for coordinated wrongdoing by agents within an organization. Let’s examine the case of Monsignor Lynn.
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In my previous blogpost, I granted the merit of defense counsel’s argument that the actions of discrete individual defendants—when the law is not permitted to consider the coordination of those actions—may not satisfy the elements of a prosecutable crime.
But what is the coordination of individuals for a wrongful common purpose? That’s a conspiracy. And, for exactly the reasons that defense counsel articulates, these types of crimes cannot be reached by other forms of prosecution. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that conspiracy is its own animal. “[C]ollective criminal agreement—partnership in crime—presents a greater potential threat to the public than individual delicts.” When we consider the degree of coordination necessary to create the financial crisis, we are not talking about a single-defendant mugging in a back alley—we are talking about at least the multi-defendant sophistication of a bank robbery.
Conspiracy prosecutions for the financial crisis have some other important features. First, the statute of limitations would run from the last action of a member of the group, not the first action as would be typical of other prosecutions. This means that many crimes from the financial crisis could still be prosecuted (answering Judge Rakoff’s concern). Second, until whistle-blower protections are improved to the point that employees with conscientious objections to processes can be heard, traditional conspiracy law provides an affirmative defense to individuals who renounce the group conspiracy. By contrast, the lesson Wall Street seems to have learned from the J.P. Morgan case is not to allow employees to put objections into writing. Third, counter to objections that conspiracy prosecutions may be too similar to vicarious liability, prosecutors would have to prove that each member of the conspiracy did share the same common intent to commit wrongdoing. The employee shaking his head “no” while saying yes would not be a willing participant, but many other bankers were freely motivated by profit at the expense of client interest to cooperate with a bank’s program.
My next blogpost will ask: where are the prosecutions for corporate conspiracy?
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The government’s response to the financial crisis was dramatic, enormous, and unprecedented, and nothing about it has been overseen by the courts. In our federal system, the courts are supposed to put the policies of presidents and congresses to the test of judicial review, to evaluate decisions by the executive to sanction individuals for wrongdoing, and to resolve disputes between private parties. But during and after the financial crisis, there has been almost none of that sort of judicial review of government, few sanctions on the private sector for conduct during the crisis, especially criminal ones, for the courts to scrutinize, and a private dispute process that, while increasingly active, has resulted in settlements, rather than trials or verdicts. This Article tells the story of the marginal role of courts in the financial crisis, evaluates the costs of that role, and provides suggestions to ensure a real, if not all-encompassing, judicial role during the next economic emergency.
Do give it a download, and let me know what you think. And thanks in advance for supporting us around here - we do like downloads!
It is a pleasure to be guest-blogging here at The Glom for the next two weeks. My name is Josephine Nelson, and I am an advisor for the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Stanford’s business school. Coming from a business school, I focus on practical applications at the intersection of corporate law and criminal law. I am interested in how legal rules affect ethical decisions within business organizations. Many thanks to Dave Zaring, Gordon Smith, and the other members of The Glom for allowing me to share some work that I have been doing. For easy reading, my posts will deliberately be short and cumulative.
In this blogpost, I raise the question of what is broken in our system of rules and enforcement that allows employees within business organizations to escape prosecution for ethical misconduct.
Public frustration with the ability of white-collar criminals to escape prosecution has been boiling over. Judge Rakoff of the S.D.N.Y. penned an unusual public op-ed in which he objected that “not a single high-level executive has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the recent financial crisis.” Professor Garett’s new book documents that, between 2001 and 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) failed to charge any individuals at all for crimes in sixty-five percent of the 255 cases it prosecuted.
Meanwhile, the typical debate over why white-collar criminals are treated so differently than other criminal suspects misses an important dimension to this problem. Yes, the law should provide more support for whistle-blowers. Yes, we should put more resources towards regulation. But also, white-collar defense counsel makes an excellent point that there were no convictions of bankers in the financial crisis for good reason: Prosecutors have been under public pressure to bring cases against executives, but those executives must have individually committed crimes that rise to the level of a triable case.
And why don’t the actions of executives at Bank of America, Citigroup, and J.P. Morgan meet the definition of triable crimes? Let’s look at Alayne Fleischmann’s experience at J.P. Morgan. Fleischmann is the so-called “$9 Billion Witness,” the woman whose testimony was so incriminating that J.P. Morgan paid one of the largest fines in U.S. history to keep her from talking. Fleischmann, a former quality-control officer, describes a process of intimidation to approve poor-quality loans within the bank that included an “edict against e-mails, the sabotaging of the diligence process,… bullying, [and] written warnings that were ignored.” At one point, the pressure from superiors became so ridiculous that a diligence officer caved to a sales executive to approve a batch of loans while shaking his head “no” even while saying yes.
None of those actions in the workplace sounds good, but are they triable crimes??? The selling of mislabeled securities is a crime, but notice how many steps a single person would have to take to reach that standard. Could a prosecutor prove that a single manager had mislabeled those securities, bundled them together, and resold them? Management at the bank delegated onto other people elements of what would have to be proven for a crime to have taken place. So, although cumulatively a crime took place, it may be true that no single executive at the bank committed a triable crime.
How should the incentives have been different? My next blogpost will suggest the return of a traditional solution to penalizing coordinated crimes: conspiracy prosecutions for the financial crisis.
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The Times reports that S&P will soon be paying a billion dollar fine - or roughly one year's annual profits - to make a case that it commited fraud in relation to a financial institution go away. What should we make of this decision to settle?
- The government is using FIRREA to go after S&P, the obscure statute that combines harsh penalties with a civil burden of proof. To apply, FIRREA has to be about fraud "affecting a federally insured financial institution," and that has been conceptually challenging when applied to banks who have defrauded themselves by overstating the quality of various financial products to their counterparties and in their quarterly statements (you see? doesn't that sound like the opposite of defrauding yourself? It sounds like fraud affecting someone doing business with an FI?), but is more easily fit into a case against S&P's allegedly fraudulent ratings of banks.
- S&P hired Floyd Abrams, who has in the past successfully invoked the First Amendment to defend credit ratings agency rights to offer opinions about securities. I've never really understood why this works, as no one has a First Amendment right to defraud someone. A one billion dollar settlement doesn't suggest that the free speech at stake here is something that, you know, the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press is really willing to get behind.
- This is something of a "first principles" observation, but fraud. Doesn't that sound like a bad word? Fraud! S&P is a fraud! Intentionally deceiving someone? Or omitting information you had a fiduciary duty to disclose? I don't think fraud means "fraud," anymore. I think it means something more like reckless wrongheadedness, at least in the financial markets.
- Why settle? The Times has a nice blurb on this:
Most Wall Street institutions, when faced with the threat of a Justice Department lawsuit, eventually cut a check rather than go to court: JPMorgan agreed to pay $13 billion to settle a crisis case;Bank of America more than $16 billion.
That settle-at-all-costs mentality stems from fears that a courtroom fight might antagonize the government and unnerve shareholders. It also spares a company the embarrassment of paying the same or even more after a trial, where an anti-Wall Street sentiment might sour the jury pool.
Financial institutions still manage to wring concessions from the government, often persuading prosecutors to water down a statement of facts that accompanies a settlement or provide immunity from other charges. And for all the leverage the government possesses, its approach has not translated into criminal charges against a single top Wall Street executive.
One dodgy thing that is being included in the currently debated spending bill is a substantive provision repealing a much-hated-by-banks law requiring them to do most of their derivatives trading though an entity that is not covered by deposit insurance. It's a rule that sounds pretty logical - why subsidize derivatives trading with deposit insurance, and isn't it risky to do otherwise? And why do we have to address this in a government budget bill anyway?
But it is also one of uncertain policy origins. Blanche Lincoln thought the swaps pushout rule would resonate with voters when she pushed it, and maybe community banks, which don't do a ton of this stuff, would like to make life hard for the big banks that do. Elizabeth Warren is incensed that it might be repealed, so maybe her constituents would be for it. But the Fed doesn't think it does bank safety much good.
Here's Dave Weigel on the politics, which look good for the banks (Warren's concerns aside, Democrats aren't whipping for the pushout rule reversal to be defeated). Here's DealBook on the sausage-making (the statutory language was drafted by Citigroup, which has always seemed like the most tone-deaf bank to me, rather than the most politically puissant).
My view is that financial regulation, which is just about protecting banks from themselves/macroeconomic shocks, with a soupcon of rent-seeking, is a mixture of easy rules and hard ones. Activity restrictions, like the Volcker Rule, or anti-branching laws, are easy. Capital rules, at least the current ones, are hard, and require a team of examiners to look over the daily positions of the banks, and so on. Admati's capital rule recommendation - banks must hold 4 times more capital than they do now, and there will be no risk-weighting - is an effort to make that easy again.
And organizational rules - create a bank holding company, make this sub do this thing, and that sub do that thing - are also easy.
Note that currently, it's the left and community banks that like the easy rules, and it's the right and the big banks that prefer to do things the hard, sophisticated way. That doesn't mean that complex rules are weak ones - I can't judge the onerousness of our tax laws, but some of them are super-complicated responses to super-sophisticated behavior, and maybe that makes more sense than giving up and charging everyone a VAT. But that's the way I see financial regulation right now.
And yes, I don't know why part of Dodd-Frank should be repealed as a condition of passing a spending bill. But I admire the ability of the lobbyists to get in there and at it.
One last thing - it's risky to be the bank named as the drafter of a bill taking away some of your regulator's regulatory powers. We'll have to see if Citi starts paying a extra-large number of fines in the next year, or if it really did do this with the tacit approval of its supervisors.
Over at DealBook, I've got a take on MetLife's claim that it will be suing over its designation as a systemically important financial institution. A taste:
Congress gave the government 10 factors to take into account when making a too-big-to-fail designation. This sort of multiple-factor test all but requires regulators to balance values that have different degrees of quantifiability. Some can be counted, like the amount of leverage and off-balance sheet exposure. But others like “the nature, scope, size, scale, concentration, interconnectedness and mix of the activities of the company” have so many moving parts, some of them difficult to quantify, that expressing them mathematically may not be worth the effort. The government has also been given the leeway to consider “any other risk-related factors” that it deems appropriate, a standard that encourages judges to defer to regulators.
Do give it a look!
Eugene Scalia, of the family Scalia, has been the scourge of the SEC with his until recently effective insistence on a cost-benefit analysis to justify the imposition of new major rules on the capital markets. Now he's working for MetLife, the insurance company recently designated as a SIFI (which stands for "dangerously big bank-like institution"), and I guess the argument will be that the designation was arbitrary and capricious, and so inconsistent with the federal standards for administrative procedure, which probably, in Scalia's view, require a quantitative cost-benefit analysis done with meticulous care. Some thoughts:
- Courts often stay out of financial stability inquiries, but, then, they used to defer to the SEC's capital markets expertise, until Eugene Scalia came along. Perhaps Scalia can do something in this really nascent field of disputing SIFI designations. Still, uphill battle.
- If the FSOC somehow lost this case, it could always go global, and ask the Financial Stability Board to designate Met Life as a G-SIFI, which would give foreign regulators the right to persecute the firm's foreign operations, and maybe super-persecute it, if the American regulators could do nothing to control its SIFIness.
- The basic idea, by the way, which is hardly ludicrous, is that insurance companies aren't subject to bank runs, even if they are really big, and that only one of them failed, or was even at risk, during the last financial crisis. Since Met Life isn't in the business of writing unhedged credit default swaps (which is what AIG did, bolstered by its AAA rating and huge balance sheet), why should it have to hold bank-like levels of capital? There's more to that story, but I assume that is part of the story that MetLife will be telling.
HT: Matt Levine
Okay, the headline was made to draw in the reader. Non-banks will be allowed to securitize to their heart's content, and banks will likely basically continue to do the same. However, the Basel Committee orchestrated a meeting in Tianjin between central bankers (they do monetary policy) and bank supervisors (they do safety and soundness),and came up with, among other standards, an approach to the ability of banks to hold collateralized debt obligations, the sort of obligations that have been blamed for the financial crisis.
I will quote the report made from the meeting, though that's pretty dull and bureaucratic. However:
- the freedom of banks to hold derivatives is being set in these informal international meetings among bureaucrats, a fact always worth repeating
- the limits on bank holdings of securitized assets is being set through a negotiated, and global, process involving bank regulators and capital market regulators
- some people, the US very much not included, would see no reason to consult those who set monetary policy, or what the currency is worth, on the appropriate way to limit the power of banks to hold derivatives, or whether derivatives would fail to protect a bank in crisis times
- the supervisors and central bankers met in Tianjin, which means that some of them hopefully took the world's fastest train from Beijing's airport to Beijing's port city.
It's all very global and committee of regulators oriented. Anyway, here's the report on securitization assets held by banks:
The Committee also reviewed progress towards finalising revisions to the Basel framework's securitisation standard and agreed the remaining significant policy details that will be published by year-end. It also recognised work that is being conducted jointly by the Basel Committee and the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) to review securitisation markets. The Committee looks forward to the development of criteria that could help identify - and assist the financial industry's development of - simple and transparent securitisation structures. In 2015, the Committee will consider how to incorporate the criteria, once finalised, into the securitisation capital framework.
Turkey's largest Islamic bank believes that it has been targeted for destruction by the Turkish government, and, given the way things seem to go in that country, the level of conspiratorial innuendo is high. But also high is the discretion of the government to act against banks and observers of same. Banks generally did well in the financial crisis of 2008, if not so well before then. Usually, supervision is done for safety and soundness. But here's Euromoney's quote of one of the principles of Turkish banking law:
The 'protection of reputation’ article of Turkey’s banking law, introduced after the country’s devastating banking crisis of 2001, states "no real or legal person shall intentionally damage the reputation, prestige or assets of a bank or disseminate inaccurate news either using any means of communication". Convicted violators of the code face up to three years in prison.
That seems like almost untrammeled regulatory discretion to me, joined with severe penalties. You could go after shorts, any sort of speaker, and probably the banks themselves, for soiling their own reputation. Via Matt Levine.
Geoffrey Graber, who is heading up a mortgage fraud task force for DOJ, is motivated by Glengarry Glen Ross, and the results have evinced an ouch from the banking community:
The surge of settlements engineered by Graber in the past year has helped neutralize some of that criticism and rehabilitate a key piece of Holder’s legacy. Still, the settlements have been controversial. Critics such as Roy Smith, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, say prosecutors were driven by “political fever” to extract massive penalties from Wall Street.
“They have to deliver something, so they come up with this,” said Smith, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) partner. “The fact that it’s unfair never really gets considered. The banks have no choice but to hunker down and accept it.”
A bracing corollary to those capture stories, though notice that it's the enforcement officials who win headlines for big settlements, and the bank examiners who are subject to the expose about go along get along.
Steven Davidoff Solomon and I opine on a recent opinion dismissing cases brought by Fannie and Freddie shareholders against the government in DealBook. A taste:
In one Washington court, Maurice R. Greenberg, the former chief executive and major shareholder of A.I.G., is suing the United States government, contending that the tough terms imposed in return for the insurance company’s bailout were unconstitutionally austere.
In another closely watched case in a different Washington court, the shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, led by hedge funds Perry Capital and the Fairholme Fund, lost a similar kind of claim.
Parsing what the United States District Court did in the Fannie and Freddie litigation offers a window into the ways in which the government’s conduct during that crisis might finally be evaluated.
There are three main points to the decision. For one, the court held that the government’s seizure of Fannie’s and Freddie’s profits did not violate the Administrative Procedure Act’s prohibition on “arbitrary and capricious” conduct. It also found that the Housing and Economic Recovery Act barred shareholders of Fannie and Freddie from bringing breach of fiduciary duty suits against the boards of the companies and that the government’s seizure of profits was not an unconstitutional “taking.”
This American Life has a banking supervision story (!) that turns on secret recordings made by a former employee of the New York Fed, Carmen Segarra, and it's pretty good, because it shows how regulators basically do a lot of their regulating of banks through meetings, with no action items after. That's weird, and it's instructive to see how intertwined banking and supervision are. There's a killer meeting after a meeting with Goldman Sachs where Fed employees talk about what happened, and - though we don't know what was left on the cutting room floor - the modesty of the regulatory options being considered is fascinating. Nothing about fines, stopping certain sorts of deals, stern letters, or anything else. The talk is self-congratulation (for having that meeting with Goldman) and "let's not get too judgmental, here, guys."
The takeaway of the story, which is blessedly not an example of the "me mad, banksters bad!" genre, is that this kind of regulation isn't very effective. It clearly hasn't prevented banks from being insanely profitable until recently, in a way that you'd think would get competed away in open markets.
But here's the case for banking regulation:
- Imagine what it would be like if Alcoa and GE had EPA officials on site, occasionally telling them to shut down a product line. That's what bank regulators do, and, more broadly, did with things like the Volcker Rule (with congressional help).
- Since the financial crisis (and that's the time that's relevant here), regulation has made banking less profitable, not more, share prices are down, so are headcounts, etc.
- Regardless of how it looks, regulators that essentially never lose on a regulatory decision - that includes bank supervisors, but also broad swaths of agencies like Justice and DoD - don't experience themselves as cowed by industry. Kind of the opposite, actually. So what you really worry about is the familiarity leading to complacency, not fear. Regulators can fine any bank any number they like. If they want someone fired, they could demand it without repercussion.
The fact that TAL pulled off this story, given that it was centered around an employee who lasted at the Fed for 7 months before being fired, who made secret recordings of her meetings with colleagues (who does that?), who mysteriously and obviously wrongly alleged during her time at the Fed that Goldman Sachs did not have a conflict of interest policy, whose subsequent litigation has gone nowhere, and whose settlement demand was for $7 million (so that's one million per month of working as a bank examiner, I guess), is impressive. But that's the former government defense lawyer in me, your mileage may vary.
Morover, even skeptical I was persuaded that maybe the Fed could do with a more ambitious no-holds-barred discussion among its regulators, at the very least.
The Basel Committee is doing a lot of Basel III capital accord implementation this week. Page 10 of this report makes it look like the largest banks hold slightly less capital than smaller banks, which is the opposite of what you would want (smaller banks hold more variable capital though). And this report suggests that the effort to have banks deal with a hypothetical effort to adopt the new capital rules was messy. Not to worry, though! As is the case with all Basel documents, bland positivity about the success of the regulatory effort is the tone of the day.
One of the reason that bank capital regulation became an international affair was to ensure a regulatory "level playing field," which would be paired with market access to the US and UK. That is, as long as the rest of the world complied with the Anglo-American vision of capital requirements, access to London and New York would be assured.
But as former law professor and current Fed Board member Daniel Tarullo will testify to Congress today, as those global (call them "BCBS") rules have become more elaborate and comprehensive, some countries have elected to depart from them - only upwards, not downwards. Switzerland is trying to use very, very heightened capital requirements to shrink its universal banks into asset managers. And now the United States is enacting global rules with its own pluses. For example, the liquidity coverage ratio, which requires banks to keep a certain percentage of their assets in cash-like instruments,
is based on a liquidity standard agreed to by the BCBS but is more stringent than the BCBS standard in several areas, including the range of assets that qualify as high-quality liquid assets and the assumed rate of outflows for certain kinds of funding. In addition, the rule's transition period is shorter than that in the BCBS standard.
The Fed is also imposing an extra capital requirement on the largest American banks:
This enhanced supplementary leverage ratio, which will be effective in January 2018, requires U.S. GSIBs [very large banks] to maintain a tier 1 capital buffer of at least 2 percent above the minimum Basel III supplementary leverage ratio of 3 percent, for a total of 5 percent, to avoid restrictions on capital distributions and discretionary bonus payments
And another such requirement based on the amount of risk-based capital,
will strengthen the BCBS framework in two important respects. First, the surcharge levels for U.S. GSIBs will be higher than the levels required by the BCBS, noticeably so for some firms. Second, the surcharge formula will directly take into account each U.S. GSIB's reliance on short-term wholesale funding.
I think of the global efforts in financial regulation as being notable precisely because they created, incredibly informally, some reasonably specific and consistently observed rules that comprise most of the policy action around big bank safety and soundness. The little new trend towards harmonization plus is a bit comparable to the trade law decision to create the WTO for global rules, but to permit regional compacts like NAFTA and the EU to create even freer trade mini-zones. Some find this multi-speed approach to be inefficient and, ultimately, costly to the effort to create a consistent global program. We'll see if the Basel plus approach rachets up bank regulation, or just disunifies it.