By James Kwak
As banking scandals go, Wells Fargo opening millions of new accounts for existing customers so that it could pump up its cross-selling metrics for investors is about as clear-cut as it gets. It’s up there with HSBC telling its employees how to get around U.S. regulations in order to launder money for drug cartels, or traders and treasury officials at several banks conspiring to fix LIBOR.
Holding Wells responsible, however, was a bit trickier. The bank agreed to restitution (i.e, refunding the fees it had collected from its customers for the phony accounts) and a paltry $185 million in fines. When customers sued for damages, however, Wells hid behind its mandatory arbitration clauses, which were so broadly written that they even applied to accounts that the customer never intended to exist and that the bank had fraudulently created. Wells eventually reached a settlement with the class of plaintiff customers, but the settlement amount was no doubt influenced by the bank’s ability to compel arbitration.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has proposed to eliminate the Wells Fargo defense by prohibiting class action waivers—clauses that take away customers’ right to participate in class action lawsuits—in arbitration clauses of financial contracts. (Class actions are crucial to deterring and punishing systematic fraud against consumers, because the harm to any single person will not be worth the expense of pursuing a lawsuit; without a class action, no one will sue, and the company will escape unharmed.)
Continue reading “Economism and Arbitration Clauses” →
By James Kwak
There’s a story you hear often these days. The story is that America has too many lawsuits: too many lawyers, too many people filing frivolous suits, too many excessive damages awards by juries, and so on. This story is the reason for all the “litigation reform” in recent decades: the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, the state-level tort reform movement, Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, and so on.
There are two problems with this story. The first is that it isn’t true. Take medical malpractice, for example—a frequent target of tort reform advocates. Only a tiny fraction—probably under 2%—of people harmed by negligent medical care actually file suit. Of suits that are filed, according to an after-the-fact review by unaffiliated doctors, 63% involved errors by doctors, and another 17% showed some evidence of error. According to the most basic economic theory of torts, we want people harmed by negligence to sue, because otherwise potential defendants (doctors, companies, etc.) will not have sufficient incentive to make the efficient level of investments in preventing injuries. In short, it is highly likely that we suffer from not enough lawsuits, not from too many lawsuits.
The second problem is more important, however. That problem is that while the costs of litigation are real—not just money but also defensive medicine, intimidation of startups by patent trolls, intimidation of the media by billionaires—the exclusive focus on costs overlooks the crucial role of litigation in our democracy. That is the focus of the new book In Praise of Litigation by Alexandra Lahav, a colleague of mine at the University of Connecticut School of Law. (The book is also where I got the statistics in the previous paragraph.)
Continue reading “The Right to Have Rights” →
By James Kwak
Economism—the simplistic, unreflecting application of Economics 101 models to complex, real-world issues—is particularly influential in the law, including both legal academia and actual court opinions that decide important questions.
Noah Smith, for example, points to a paper by a law professor arguing that forced prison labor deters crime because it effectively raises the price of crime in a supply-and-demand model. The problem with this model is that it doesn’t accurately describe criminal behavior. Smith quotes economist Alex Tabarrok on what happened when the United States dramatically increased the harshness of punishments:
In theory, this should have reduced crime, reduced the costs of crime control and led to fewer people in prison. In practice … the experiment with greater punishment led to more spending on crime control and many more people in prison.
Continue reading “Economism and the Law” →
… goes to Chain of Title, by David Dayen (with apologies to Jennifer Taub, Alyssa Katz, Michael Lewis, and many others, including my co-author, Simon Johnson).
Chain of Title isn’t primarily about the grand narrative of the financial crisis: subprime lending, mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, synthetic CDOs, the collapse of the global financial system in 2008, and the frenzied bailout that followed. Instead, it’s about foreclosure fraud: how mortgage servicers, banks, and the law firms they hired systematically broke the law to force people out of their homes. At the same time, it’s about securitization fraud: the fact that an untold number of securitizations were not properly executed, meaning that they violated the terms of their underlying agreements, meaning that their investors should have been able to force rescission of the entire deal.
The substance of the argument has been well known for years, so I’ll try to pack it into one sentence: The banks creating mortgage-backed securities failed to properly transfer notes (the documents proving a borrower’s obligation) to the trusts that issued the MBS, so not only was the securitization itself faulty, but the trust did not have legal standing to foreclose on homeowners—so the banks paid third-party companies to forge the required paper trail, and lawyers knowingly submitted fraudulent evidence to courts, who usually accepted it.
This has been common knowledge on the Internet since 2009 or 2010. But Dayen does what good writers do: he tells the story of a few real human beings figuring out the workings of this vast fraudulent system on their own, fighting against it … and ultimately, for the most part, losing. The book makes you feel the anger, disbelief, hope, and disappointment of those days over again. Even though I knew how the story ended—in a whimper of liability-eliminating settlements and self-congratulatory back-patting by politicians—it was still painful to read. Continue reading “And the Award for Best Financial Crisis Book …” →
By James Kwak
Today was a victory for justice. In Foster v. Chatman—a case brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights and argued by death penalty super-lawyer Stephen Bright—the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence imposed on Timothy Foster by an all-white jury in 1987. In that case, the prosecution made sure it had an all-white jury by eliminating (striking) all black candidates from the jury pool. In Batson v. Kentucky (1986), the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to strike potential jurors on the basis of race, but the prosecutors’ own notes made clear that they knew what they were doing. Here are just a few examples, from the appendix. They pretty much speak for themselves.
It’s hard to read, but next to the green blotch in the picture above are the words “represents Blacks.”
Continue reading “Why Justice Is So Rare” →
By James Kwak
Credit Suisse’s guilty plea to a charge of tax fraud seems to be a major step forward for a Justice Department that was satisfied both before and after the financial crisis with toothless deferred prosecution agreements and large-sounding fines that were easily absorbed as a cost of doing business. A criminal conviction certainly sounds good, and I agree that it’s better than not a criminal conviction. But what does it mean at the end of the day?
Most obviously, no one will go to jail because of the conviction (although several Credit Suisse individuals are separately being investigated or prosecuted). And for Credit Suisse, business will go on as usual, minus some tax fraud—that’s what the CEO said. A criminal conviction can be devastating to an individual. But when public officials go out of their way to ensure that a conviction has as little impact as possible on a corporation, it’s not clear how this is better than a deferred prosecution agreement.
Continue reading “Is Credit Suisse Really in Jail?” →
By James Kwak
Update: See notes in bold below.
The only “Wall Street” “executive” to go to jail for the financial crisis was Kareem Serageldin, the head of a trading desk at Credit Suisse, according to Jesse Eisinger in a recent article. Serageldin pleaded guilty to—get this—holding mortgage-backed securities at artificially high marks in order to minimize reported losses on his trading portfolio.
Now if that’s a crime, there are a lot of other people who are guilty of it. In fact, a major premise of the federal government’s crisis response strategy was exactly that: allowing banks to keep assets at inflated marks in order to pretend they were solvent when they weren’t. FASB changed its rules in April 2009 in order to make it easier for banks to inflate their marks. And the Obama administration’s “homeowner relief program” was designed to allow banks to delay realizing losses on their mortgage loans by dragging out—but generally not preventing—foreclosures. (Remember “foam the runway”?)
Combine Serageldin’s story with the story of the vigorous prosecution of Abacus Federal Savings Bank—a little Chinatown bank that, if anything, was probably allowing its borrowers to underreport their income on loan applications—which Matt Taibbi tells in the first chapter of his latest book, and the picture you get isn’t pretty. It’s a picture of the immense resources of the American criminal justice system being deployed against bit players, with no consequences for the people responsible for the financial crisis. The judge in Serageldin’s case even called his conduct “a small piece of an overall evil climate within the bank and with many other banks.”
Continue reading “The “Chicken(expletive) Club”” →
By James Kwak
The Wall Street Journal reports that the SEC will soon decide (well, sometime this year) whether brokers should be subject to a fiduciary standard in their dealings with clients, as registered financial advisers are today. At present, brokers only need to show that investments they recognize are “suitable” for their clients—roughly speaking, that they are in an appropriate asset class.
Not surprisingly, the brokerage industry is up in arms. They want to be able to push clients into the products for which they receive the highest commissions—a practice that (they say) could be more difficult under a fiduciary standard. According to one lobbyist,
“a universal fiduciary standard could end up hurting many investors. Lower- and middle-income investors often turn to brokers who are compensated through product commissions, he says, because such clients are less attractive to financial advisers who are compensated based on a percentage of assets under management. Higher costs could prompt some brokers to drop commission-based accounts in favor of more-lucrative accounts that charge a percentage of assets under management, leaving many lower- and middle-income investors without anyone to turn to for investment advice.”
(That’s a paraphrase by the Journal writer, not a direct quotation.)
Continue reading “Defending Kickbacks” →
By James Kwak
I was reading the plea deal in the SAC case, which was approved by the judge yesterday, and then I started reading the criminal indictment filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. What I noticed was how relatively simple it was for the prosecutors to convict SAC Capital for the insider trading committed by its employees. In short, because the firm enabled and benefited from the employees’ crimes, the firm was itself criminally liable.
Looking back at the enormous amount of effort the Southern District has put into Preet Bharara’s crusade against insider trading, you have to wonder what they might have accomplished had they instead targeted, say, fraud committed by Wall Street banks that contributed to the financial crisis. That’s the topic of my new column in The Atlantic. One of the frustrations of post-crisis legal proceedings is that it’s so hard to show that any senior executives themselves committed fraud, since they can usually plead some combination of ignorance and incompetence instead. Failing that, though, the government could have put more resources into flipping lower-level employees and then filing criminal indictments against their banks. Yesterday Bharara claimed, “when institutions flout the law in such a colossal way, they will pay a heavy price.” But only if the Department of Justice chooses to go after them.
By James Kwak
No, I’m not talking about the fact that a major bank is named Fifth Third Bank. (As a friend said, why would you trust your money to a bank that seems not to understand fractions?) I’m talking about Fifth Third Bancorp. v. Dudenhoeffer, which was heard by the Supreme Court last week.
The plaintiffs in Fifth Third were former employees who were participants in the company’s defined contribution retirement plan. One of the plan’s investment options was company stock, and the employees put some of their money in company stock. (Most important lesson here: don’t invest a significant portion of your retirement assets in your company’s stock. Remember Enron? Anyway, back to our story.) As you probably guessed, Fifth Third’s stock price fell by 74% from 2007 to 2009—this is a bank, you know—so the plaintiffs lost money in their retirement accounts.
The claim (I’m looking at the 6th Circuit opinion) is that the people running the retirement plan knew or should have known that Fifth Third stock was overvalued in 2007, and they breached their fiduciary duty to plan participants by continuing to offer company stock as an investment option and by failing to sell the company stock that was owned by the plan. The suit was dismissed in the district court for failure to state a claim, so on review the courts are supposed to accept all the plaintiffs’ allegations as correct.
Continue reading “The Absurdity of Fifth Third” →
By James Kwak
I accidentally glanced at the link to David Brooks’s recent column and—oh my god, is it stupid. You may want to stop reading right here to avoid being exposed to it.
Continue reading “More Pseudo-Contrarianism” →
By James Kwak
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about my most recent “academic” paper, on the issue of whether corporate political contributions might constitute a breach of insiders’ fiduciary duty toward shareholders. The thrust of that paper was that some political contributions could be contested as breaches of the duty of loyalty—for example, if a CEO causes the corporation to give money to a candidate who promises to lower the CEO’s individual income taxes—which would result in the courts applying a higher standard of review.
Joseph Leahy, another law professor, recently directed me to a paper that he wrote last year (but is still being edited for publication in the Missouri Law Review) on basically the same topic. He argues first that corporate political contributions do not qualify as “waste” (which has a precise legal definition), barring the kind of extreme facts that you only see in law school hypotheticals. I agree with that, although my only discussion of the point was in a footnote (79).
Continue reading “More on Wasting Shareholders’ Money” →
By James Kwak
That’s what Jesse Litvak’s lawyer said at the start of his trial earlier today. And technically speaking, it’s true. If you’re trying to sell a bond to a client, and during the course of the conversation you say you can bench press 250 pounds when you can only bench 150, that’s not a federal crime. But if you lie about a material aspect of the bond and the client relies on your lie in buying the bond, that’s another story.
Litvak’s case is (barely) in the news because it has a financial crisis connection; some of the buy-side clients he is alleged to have defrauded were investment funds financed by the infamous Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP) set up in 2009 using TARP money, and hence one of the counts against Litvak is TARP-related fraud. But it bears on a much more widespread, and much more important feature of over-the-counter (OTC) securities markets.
Continue reading ““Telling a lie does not make you guilty of a federal crime”” →
By James Kwak
If I write about a legal matter on this blog, it usually involves battalions of attorneys on each side, months of motions, briefs, and hearings, and legal fees easily mounting into the millions of dollars. That’s how our legal system works if, say, you lie to your investors about a synthetic CDO and the SEC decides to go after you—even if it’s a civil, not a criminal matter.
But most legal matters in this country don’t operate that way, even if you face the threat of prison time (or juvenile detention), and all the collateral consequences that entails (ineligibility for public housing, student loans, and many public sector jobs, to name a few). Theoretically, the Constitution guarantees you the services of an attorney if you are accused of a felony (Gideon v. Wainwright), misdemeanor that creates the risk of jail time (Argersinger v. Hamlin), or a juvenile offense that could result in confinement (In re Gault). The problem is that this requires state and counties to pay for attorneys for poor defendants, which is just about the lowest priority for many state legislatures, especially those controlled by conservatives.
Continue reading “Unequal Justice” →
By James Kwak
People keep asking why no senior executive has gone to jail for the misdeeds that produced the financial crisis—and cost the United States more than $6 trillion, or $50,000 per household, in lost economic output. The usual answers are that no one did anything wrong (oh, come on) or, more realistically, that it’s too hard to convict individuals in complex financial fraud cases.
At the same time, however, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York—the district that includes Wall Street—has amassed a 79-0 record in insider trading cases, including yesterday’s jury verdict against Mathew Martoma, a trader at the hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors. In Martoma’s case, he obtained confidential information about a clinical trial for a drug being manufactured by two pharmaceutical companies and, according to the jury, convinced his boss, Steven Cohen, to unload the firm’s positions in those two stocks.
Continue reading “The Prosecution That Isn’t Happening” →