Economy, Regs, & Taxes

Banks and Banksters: Too Big to Fail or Jail?

There's one set of laws for the ruling class elitists and another set for us "deplorables."

Arnold Ahlert · Sep. 19, 2016

In 2008, when a combination of government mandates severely compounded by Wall Street greed nearly blew up the world’s financial system, Congress and the Bush administration conjured up the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to save institutions deemed “too big to fail.” Ever since, too big to fail has rendered large financial institutions, and the executives that run them, virtually immune from criminal prosecution. And nothing speaks more forcefully to this reality than the latest scandal perpetrated by Wells Fargo.

Two weeks ago, federal regulators revealed the country’s third-largest bank spent the last five years opening 1.5 million bank accounts and 565,000 credit card accounts without customer permission. A staggering 5,300 employees were involved in the scam that included using a customer’s personal information from a legitimate account to open a bogus one and moving money from one to the other. Workers even created fake email addresses and PIN numbers to facilitate the corruption.

The reason? They were trying to meet sales quotas, even though this practice, known as “sandbagging,” resulted in $50 fines for the customer.

Wells Fargo’s punishment? The 5,300 employees were terminated, and the bank paid a $185 million fine levied by officials at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which boasted that “Wells Fargo is paying the largest penalty the CFPB has ever imposed” since its creation following the financial meltdown.

Yet those officials didn’t mention a despicable reality revealed by The New York Times, which explained the deal “was classic Wall Street.” In short, no matter how egregious the activity, many cases are settled “without a bank having to admit doing anything wrong.”

Enter Wells Fargo Chief Executive John Stumpf, who offered the standard faux-mea culpa. “Our goal is to get it right with every customer 100% of the time,” he stated. “When we fall short of that goal, I feel accountable and our leadership team feels accountable — and we want all our stakeholders to know that.”

Feeling accountable? Stumpf and his senior management team have suffered no consequences whatsoever for the bank’s malfeasance. And adding insult to injury, Carrie Tolstedt, the Wells Fargo executive who ran the phony accounts unit she resigned from the firm in July, received a $124.6 million golden parachute. At the time, Stumpf referred to Tolstedt as “a standard-bearer of our culture” and “a champion for our customers.”

Champion sandbagger is more like it.

Moreover, those boastful CFPB officials apparently looked the other way. “Regulators never determined the extent of Tolstedt’s knowledge about the abuse, and she was never named directly in the lawsuits brought over it,” reports the New York Daily News. “But she took over the division in 2008, meaning she oversaw it for the entirety of the racket.”

Even worse, this racket was exposed three years ago by Los Angeles Times reporter E. Scott Reckard, who chronicled the frenzied level of company-pressured “cross-selling” and the concomitant threats of termination that battered employee morale to the point where it led to ethical breaches. “To meet quotas, employees have opened unneeded accounts for customers, ordered credit cards without customers' permission and forged client signatures on paperwork,” he revealed.

Three years later, Americans are supposed to believe this scam was the sole handiwork of middle management and staffers, “some of whom were being paid as little as $10 an hour,” as the Chicago Sun Times put it.

Hopefully it won’t fly. Tomorrow, Stumpf is scheduled to appear at a Senate Banking Committee hearing that will focus on Wells Fargo’s sales practices. While he’s there, maybe he’ll be asked to explain how his insistence there was no incentive to perpetrate this fraud squares with a series of videos — many of which were posted in 2011 — blasting those sales incentives.

Even more important — maybe — the Department of Justice has issued subpoenas to Wells Fargo. Maybe because the DOJ has yet to characterize its involvement as a criminal investigation, without which any subsequent penalties will amount to the aforementioned “classic Wall Street” outcome. And maybe because the DOJ’s track record is utterly dismal in that regard. As Fortune revealed in 2013, despite a total of $62.2 billion in fines paid by the nation’s six largest banks over three years, and another $24.7 billion needed to settle pending lawsuits, not a single bank has had to admit any wrongdoing, and not one dollar of these billions in fines has been paid by any bank executive.

It was shareholders who took all the hits.

Why? The title of a report prepared by the Republican staff of the House Financial Services Committee and issued on July 11 says it all. “Too Big to Jail” reveals the depredation of British banking giant HSBC, which laundered nearly $900 million for drug traffickers and processed transactions for Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Myanmar/Burma, despite them being subject to U.S. sanctions. HSBC paid a $2 billion fine — and the DOJ granted the bank a “deferred prosecution” arrangement that amounts to a delay, or no prosecution whatsoever, because it promised to change its behavior.

That would be the same HSBC whose clients donated $81 million to the Clinton Foundation. The same HSBC that in 2013 appointed as a Director of HSBC Holdings … current FBI Director James Comey.

“Back in 2008, the smart people said we had to bail out the banks — because if we didn’t, we’d get an economic catastrophe,” writes New York Post columnist Nicole Gelinas. “Maybe. We know what we did get: generations of voters, liberal and conservative, who are disillusioned with capitalism. They can see that the chief of Wells Fargo gets $19.3 million annually to preside over systemic fraud, while they get blots on their credit reports.”

We also know what we didn’t get: Not a single resignation required in exchange for the $700 billion taxpayer-funded TARP bailout. Thus, it’s not just the banks the ruling class considers too big to fail. The bankers themselves who ran the system into the ground also remain conspicuously immune from anything resembling genuine accountability.

In an appearance on CNBC’s “Mad Money,” Stumpf resisted the suggestion he should resign, telling host Jim Cramer the best thing he could do now is provide leadership for his company.

Really? Stumpf became chairman of Wells Fargo in 2010. Under his “leadership” between then and now, the bank has paid out billions of dollars in fines and lawsuit settlements related to a host of infractions that include fraud, reckless underwriting, improper certification of home loans, and illegal student loan servicing practices.

This nation remains divided over a host of issues. But one suspects an overwhelming majority of Americans on both sides of the political divide are thoroughly disgusted with the reality that there appears to be one set of laws for the ruling class elitists and another set for the rest of us “deplorables.” Few things would restore a sense of justice more effectively than tossing the odious concepts of too big to fail and too big to jail on the ash heap of history.

The alternative? Abiding criminal activity mitigated solely by fines. Fines large financial institutions see as little more than the cost of doing business.

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