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Crime pays: Vampire squids wriggle free in wink-and-nod world

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

It seems the financial world lurches from scandal to scandal as if coated with Teflon, shrugging off demands for accountability.

Errant financiers are a tiny minority, but have come under scrutiny because they not only keep their riches, but also demand fat bonuses and mostly stay out of prison. Their misdemeanors involve the meltdown of the world’s financial system in 2007 and all the collateral damage inflicted since. Derivatives geeks and their accomplices created a house of cards founded on highly leveraged bets — and it all came tumbling down.

Among the best post-mortems on the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe are Matt Taibbi’s “Griftopia” (2011) and Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short” (2010).

If you are curious, Taibbi names both the biggest a**hole in the universe and a firm he terms the “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity” (Hint: initials AG and GS, respectively). He connects the tawdry dealings with the hollowing out of the middle class and widening disparities in the United States.

Lewis always manages to make you laugh as he tour-guides through the sordid tale of perverse incentives, loathsome individuals, inadequate risk-management and regulatory myopia. There aren’t many heroes here, in a saga that explains why the concept of “business ethics” strikes many as an oxymoron.

So there is really not much doubt that investment bankers were naughty and exploited lucrative gray areas, but they got a “get out of jail free card” because their institutions, with the exception of Lehman Brothers, were too big to fail.

It wasn’t always so easy. Remember Nick Leeson, the barrow-boy trader who, in 1995, managed to bring down Barings Bank, the U.K.’s oldest merchant bank ? He went to jail, but possibly that was because of his lack of breeding.

And recall the Savings and Loan Crisis in the United States in the 1980s? Those were heady days, when some 800 bankers went to jail. Then there was the junk-bond czar, Michael Milken, a symbol of greed unhinged, who was jailed in 1990 but spent a mere 22 months in a minimum-security prison resort.

But the 21st century Gordon Gekkos are so much smoother, savvier and better lawyered. Perhaps norms have changed. Prosecutors are spoiled for choice and are so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of crooked bankers and brokers that they don’t have the resources to do their jobs and deliver justice.

And the fix is in because the revolving door between finance and government means that former colleagues are in useful places to ensure that the right thing doesn’t get done or, if a gesture has to be made, it isn’t so painful.

Prosecutors think they have won when they negotiate a large settlement, getting the wrongdoers to cough up some of their illicit dosh. That can be expensive, as Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide Financial, one of the major players in the sub-prime scam, found out when he paid $67.5 million to make his legal problems go away.

So instead of a ball-and-chain, perps can pay pricey speeding tickets, drive off in their top-end getaway cars, and probably not have to depend on food stamps to make ends meet.

Say what you will about the Germans, but they do punish the wicked, and the bad don’t always sleep so well. One executive there hit the trifecta — taking bribes, evading taxes and breach of trust indictmment — enough to earn 8½ years in jail.

In the United Kingdom things are slacker, as nobody has gone to jail for their institution going bust. And the dodgy deal-making and cronyism continues while golden handshakes and parachutes are business as usual, even for executives who seem almost criminally negligent in racking up monumental losses. Incompetence is not yet, however, illegal.

Most recently the LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rate ) scandal rocked financial markets after bankers were caught on tape and in numerous emails conspiring to rig a key interest rate to boost bank profits — and also discussing how they would squander their bonuses.

This fiddle involved trillions of dollars worldwide, since LIBOR — the interest rate, fixed on a daily basis by the British Bankers’ Association, at which banks can borrow funds from other banks in the London interbank market — is a benchmark used to set interest rates on borrowings and savings in global financial markets.

There had been rumors of brazen LIBOR manipulation for 15 years, but a combination of sleepy regulators and the lack of transparency allowed this scam to persist. Investigations revealed that there has been widespread collusion and complicity in this clubby world involving all the biggest banks — where such actions were known and tolerated.

It was not a matter of rogue traders. Massaging the numbers and fudging rates for so long suggests that at the very least there was a tacit wink-and-nod from regulators; there have been allegations about the Bank of England.

This was supposed to be the banks’ Big Tobacco moment, a reference to the more than $200 billion of settlements paid out by America’s tobacco industry in 1998. But that hasn’t really happened, as the penalties paid by the Royal Bank of Scotland ($612 million), Swiss-based UBS ($1.5 billion) and the U.K.’s Barclays (£290 million [around $440 million]) are not onerous.

Barclays, however, suffered a stern tongue-lashing from the Church of England. A few executives were sacked, and more may be, yet though unethical behavior has been established in thousands of transactions, in the end crime pays.

A New York judge largely dismissed claims that LIBOR-rigging violated competition law, even though traders themselves have said their actions did so. Oh well, just a misunderstanding.

Closer to home, last summer Nomura Holdings acknowledged that some of its employees leaked insider information to favored traders. Not exactly a shocking revelation given Nomura’s checkered history of insider-trading scandals, but such dubious dealings are supposed to be kept out of the public eye.

Apparently, tip-offs ahead of share offerings were common in Tokyo, not just involving Nomura, and for traders such inside information is enormously profitable. However, as the media got wind of the rumors swirling about, the stench of scandal began to hurt business and the Financial Services Agency (FSA) expressed concern.

In the way things happen here, Nomura “voluntarily” engineered a management shakeup in the summer of 2012, including the resignation of its chief executive, and admitted to sweeping breaches of internal controls.

This “settlement” was all arranged behind closed doors by Nomura’s chairman who, in 1997, had been able to observe how his seniors managed a crisis involving alleged underworld payoffs.

The FSA put the matter to rest by issuing a “business improvement order” — a penalty as severe as it sounds.

That rebuke should have struck fear in the hearts of insider traders. But one year on all and it’s just water under the bridge, with Nomura having regained its pole position as leading underwriter, with a market share of 29 percent, and its share price has soared.

In Japan, government entities have lifted their embargo and are now using Nomura again as a favored underwriter. In Italy, there may be a pesky Nomura scandal brewing, but the surging Tokyo stock market is manna from heaven for the brokerages, making it seem rather churlish to wonder if such shady practices remain widespread.

Maybe with the Bank of Japan fueling a financial bubble, there isn’t quite the same need to do so.

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.