Why the SEC Won’t Hunt Big Dogs

By » Mon, October 31 2011

SEC Why the SEC Won’t Hunt Big Dogs

By Jesse Eisinger, Pro Publica

Back when the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was doing its work, I would check in periodically with someone who worked there to find out how it was going.

“Good news!” my source would joke. “We got the guy who caused it.”

That is the way I felt last week when the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it had, well, agreed to a measly $285 million settlement with Citigroup over the bank having misled its own customers in selling an investment it created out of mortgage securities as the housing market was beginning its collapse.

In addition, the S.E.C. accused one person—a low-level banker. Hooray, we finally got the guy who caused the financial crisis! The Occupy Wall Street protestors can now go home.

After years of lengthy investigations into collateralized debt obligations, the mortgage securities at the heart of the financial crisis, the S.E.C. has brought civil actions against only two small-time bankers. But compared with the Justice Department, the S.E.C. is the second coming of Eliot Ness. No major investment banker has been brought up on criminal charges stemming from the financial crisis.

To understand why that is so pathetic and—worse—corrupting, we need to briefly review what went on in C.D.O.’s in the years before the crisis. By 2006, legions of Wall Street bankers had turned C.D.O.’s into vehicles for their own personal enrichment, at the expense of their customers.

These bankers brought in savvy (and cynical) investors to buy pieces of the deals that they could not sell. These investors bet against the deals. Worse, they skewed the deals by exercising influence over what securities went into the C.D.O.’s, and they pushed for the worst possible stuff to be included.

The investment banks did not disclose any of this to the investors on the other side of the deals, or if they did, they slipped a vague, legalistic disclosure sentence into the middle of hundreds of pages of dense documentation. In the case brought last week, Citigroup was selling the deal, called Class V Funding III, while its own traders were filling it up with garbage and betting against it.

By the S.E.C.’s own investigations of and settlements with Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, and by reporting like my ProPublica work with Jake Bernstein and early stories by The Wall Street Journal, we know that these breaches were anything but isolated. This was the Wall Street business model. (Goldman, JPMorgan and Citigroup were all able to settle without admitting or denying anything, which, of course, is part of the problem.)

Neither the Citigroup settlement nor any of the others come close to matching the profits and bonuses that these banks generated in making these deals. And low-level bankers did not, and could not, act alone. They were not rogues, hiding things from their bosses.

Continue reading @Pro Publica

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