Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Banking Corruption Update

Just in case you're not sufficiently demoralized by the failure of authorities to punish almost anyone in the financial industry for their actions leading up to the crisis, read Joe Nocera on the recent fine handed down by the Federal Reserve to Wells Fargo Bank. The Fed fined the bank $85 million (much less than 1% of its revenues for the last quarter alone). No one will be prosecuted, this despite apparent evidence that multiple bank employees "falsified income information on mortgage applications."

Nocera's comments hit the nail on the head:
What’s more, this practice appears to have been quite widespread — “fostered,” as the Fed puts it, “by Wells Fargo Financial’s incentive compensation and sales quota programs.” Matthew R. Lee, the executive director of Inner City Press/Community on the Move and Fair Finance Watch, spent years bringing Wells’ subprime abuses to the attention of the Federal Reserve. “The way the compensation was designed ensured that abuses would take place,” he says. “It was a predatory system."

These are exactly the kind of loans — built on illegal practices — that gave us the financial crisis. Brokers working for subprime mortgage companies routinely doctored incomes to hand out subprime loans they knew the borrowers could never repay — and then, after taking their fat fees, shoveled the loans to Wall Street, which bundled them into subprime securities. This was the kindling that lit the inferno of September 2008. So again, I ask: Why is there no criminal investigation into what went on at Wells Fargo Financial?

I'm not sure whether Justice Department officials have capitulated entirely to economists' arguments about financial incentives and the inefficiencies of good old fashioned legal punishments (i.e. jail time), but I can't see the culture on Wall St. changing one tiny bit until the law shows some real teeth. The dearth of prosecutions suggests that few people in power really want it to change. 

Various organizations such as the World Audit Organization and the Internet Center for Corruption Research try to estimate the level of corruption in different nations, and have been doing it since 1995. It's hardly an exact science and depends a lot on perceptions. But I'm not surprised that the United States in these estimates has fallen from 14th globally in the year 2000 to 22nd in 2010. Hardly surprising.