Wednesday, July 11, 2012
The news that Barclays officials told the New York Fed in 2007 about potential problems with Libor highlights key differences between the regulatory mind and the prosecutorial mind. It also shows the difficulty in successfully prosecuting white collar fraud in the wake of regulatory incompetence.
When the typical federal prosecutor learns that a financial institution or corporation has lied, his instinct is to prove and charge a crime against the individuals responsible for the falsehood. Virtually any material lie in the context of publicly traded or federally insured entities constitutes a federal crime.
When a regulator learns that he has been lied to, the response is not necessarily the same. A famous example of this occurred during one of the SEC’s many examinations of Bernie Madoff’s shop. Madoff was caught flat out lying to SEC examiners. Did the scope of the examination expand? No. Were prosecutors immediately informed? No. Madoff was given a slap on the wrist. His massive Ponzi scheme continued for several years, claiming thousands of new victims.
While prosecuting S&L fraud twenty years ago, I was appalled to discover repeated instances in which the very fraud I was investigating had been contemporaneously revealed in some format to federal banking regulators and/or examiners who had often done nothing in response. This put putative defendants in the position of arguing that their frauds really weren’t frauds at all, because they had not deceived anyone. They argued that the regulators knew all about their conduct and failed to act, so: 1) it wasn’t deceptive conduct; and 2) they thought they had a green light going forward. Sometimes our targets and subjects were right. Sometimes they had only disclosed the tip of the iceberg.
By ignoring material financial falsehoods, the regulators and examiners allow frauds to continue and decrease the likelihood of future accountability through the criminal process.
But sophisticated fraudsters often reveal their conduct to regulators through a glass darkly. They are hoping that overworked regulators, with whom they are friendly, will miss, or misunderstand, the half-assed disclosures being made. The trick is to disclose just enough, but not too much. The typical regulator, unlike the typical prosecutor, does not distrust mankind or see a fraudster around every corner. The typical regulator has known the institution and executives he is currently monitoring for years. Often his ass has been kissed during that period in perfectly appropriate ways. He has been respected and deferred to. These intangibles, and his workload, may prevent him from noticing or following up on potential red flags.
We don’t have the full story yet on what the New York Fed knew about Barclay’s Libor problems, but the alacrity of the New York Fed’s acknowledgement that it knew something is striking. Timothy Geithner ran the New York Fed at the time, and we know that he has never met a wrist that couldn’t be slapped or a falsehood that couldn’t be excused.
The question remains—how can we bridge the regulatory/prosecutorial mental divide in order to punish real corporate fraud? Here is one answer—by training regulators and examiners to have zero tolerance for misleading or obstructionist behavior. The discovery of any lie or intentionally misleading conduct by a publicly traded or federally insured institution in any context should result in immediate fast-tracking to appropriate civil and/or criminal enforcement officials and/or federal prosecutorial authorities. This does not mean that prosecution should automatically or even usually ensue. It does mean that individuals who actually know something about fraud can take a critical and timely look at red flag behavior.
Once this process is in place, it may create a business climate in which elite corporate and financial institutions, and their officers, directors, and employees, will know that lying in any form will not be tolerated. The success of such a structure depends on the DOJ green-lighting prosecutors fearless enough to investigate and charge the flesh and blood financial elites who commit fraud. Almost every indication to date (outside of the insider trading context) is that current DOJ leadership is not up to the task.