William D. Cohan, the author of “Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World” has been banging the drum of accountability or the lack of accountability for those responsible for the 2008 economic crisis that wrecked our economy. He is appalled that no Wall Street executives have been held accountable for the 2008 financial crisis. In his words, “some people have gotten away with the financial equivalent of murder.”
Cohan blames it on the revolving door, which means that those previously working in government responsible for regulating the financial institutions are now working in the private sector for the same institutions they were previously regulating.
Cohan also recounts how many of those responsible for the 2008 crisis are still living in the lap of luxury unscathed. Jimmy Cayne, the former chief executive of Bear Stearns & Co., is still enjoying his $400 million fortune. Dick Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc., received between $350 million and $500 million in the seven years prior to the 2008 crisis and has lost nothing. Stan O'Neal, who resigned from Merrill Lynch, a year before it nearly went bankrupt, left with a parting gift of $161.5 million and a board seat on a Fortune 500 company. Angelo Mozilo, the Countrywide Financial Corp. CEO walked away with a net worth of $600 million and has not been charged for creating and selling billions of dollars of bad home mortgages that became securities sold to investors.
Cohan contrasts the 2008 crisis with the savings and loan crisis that began in the 1980s. More than half of the savings and loans had failed, as did the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., the counterpart to the FDIC that insures our bank deposits. The key distinction between the S&L crisis and the 2008 debacle is that people were criminally charged in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The history of the savings and loan crisis is well known now. In 1982 a law was passed that allowed savings and loan associations to raise interest rates, and to make commercial and consumer loans. At the same time, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board regulatory staff was reduced. To raise capital, the S&Ls invested in speculative real estate and commercial loans and their assets increased 56 percent between 1982 and 1985. As more and more banks began failing, Congress stepped in and passed legislation in 1989 to close failed banks and stop further losses. A government agency was set up to resell savings and loan assets and to use the proceeds to pay back bank depositors. The crisis cost over $153 billion and the taxpayers footed the bill for $124 billion.
Many were prosecuted in the aftermath of the S&L crisis. According to a New York Times study, there were more than 1,100 persons charged criminally following the savings and loan crisis with over 839 convictions. The elite that caused the S&L crisis paid the price.
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who would be the one who would lead prosecutions of Wall Street executives after the 2008 crisis, claims that piles of documents revealed no evidence of prosecutable wrongdoing. A former leader of the criminal division at the Justice Department is quoted as saying that he is worried that innocent workers and markets might suffer if he indicted Wall Street firms. He left the government to go to work for a big law firm on Wall Street. The former head of enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission left the SEC to join a big law firm earning big bucks. General counsel at JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Deutsche Bank previously had been directors of enforcement at the SEC.
This is what Cohan calls the revolving door. He also calls for the Justice Department to release all of the documents that it reviewed that led to no charges so that others could review their actions. That is not likely to happen anytime soon.
In the midst of the S&L crisis, a task force was set up to begin criminal prosecutions. President Ronald Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act which included a fraud statute aimed at banks. The elder President George H.W. Bush directed the Justice Department to ramp up prosecutions and there were 150 people working on the criminal investigations.
A professor at the UMKC Law School, William Black, who was the director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, and in charge of litigation for the government in the S&L crisis, has stated that the common denominator of the criminal prosecutions in that crisis was referrals from the regulators. Professor Black also blames deregulation on the 2008 crisis. The double whammy of less regulation and no referrals from regulators has contributed to the lack of prosecutions.
Professor Black wrote a book in 2005: “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.” He was obviously prophetic. The S&L crisis pales in comparison to the 2008 crisis. It was 1/70th the size of the more recent crisis and the consequences of the 2008 crisis continue to cause unemployment and other severe consequences.
We are now entering the fifth year after the 2008 crisis and there is probably little chance that 2014 will bring any prosecutions. Perhaps, it is the revolving door and the cozy relationships between those responsible for regulating institutions and the institutions themselves, or the lack of substantial regulations, or a combination of these factors. Yet, considering that the 2008 financial crisis caused the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression and still affects the economy today, it is truly amazing that no one was held accountable. If the persons responsible got away with it the first time, you think they may try again?
Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org