Andrew Ross Sorkin: Fraud Triggered the Financial Crisis

A more important statement than you might think from the NYT's Wall Street guy

There was a tough column in The New York Times yesterday on how the feds’ are going after the minnows and avoiding the sharks over the financial crisis.

That the piece comes from Andrew Ross Sorkin, who’s about as inside as they come on Wall Street (for better or for worse), I think is significant.

First, Sorkin punctures Attorney General Eric Holder’s touting of “Operation Broken Trust,” which Holder says is “sending a strong message” and which has brought 343 criminal cases and 189 civil ones. Wow, huh?

Well, not really. Sorkin shows why, and beautifully (emphasis mine):

It all sounded quite important, and the program’s slogan is pretty catchy. But after you get past the pandering sound bites, a question comes to mind: is anyone in the corner offices of Wall Street’s biggest firms or corporate America’s biggest companies paying any attention to Mr. Holder’s “strong message”?

Of course not. (I actually called some chief executives after Mr. Holder’s news conference, and not one had heard of Operation Broken Trust.)

That’s because in the two years since the peak of the financial crisis, the government has not brought one criminal case against a big-time corporate official of any sort.

Instead, inexplicably, prosecutors are busy chasing small-timers: penny-stock frauds, a husband-and-wife team charged in an insider trading case and mini-Ponzi schemes.

Well put.

And then there’s this (emphasis mine):

But fraud at big corporations surely dwarfs by orders of magnitude the shareholders’ losses of $8 billion that Mr. Holder highlighted. If the government spent half the time trying to ferret out fraud at major companies that it does tracking pump-and-dump schemes, we might have been able to stop the financial crisis, or at least we’d have a fighting chance at stopping the next one.

Rabble-rouser! Sorkin is saying that fraud at major companies caused the financial crisis. He’ll get no quibble from us on that.

But which major companies? Bankrupt subprime biggies, funders, and enablers like New Century, Ameriquest, Lehman Brothers, and AIG? Woulda-been failures like Bear Stearns, Countrywide, Merrill Lynch or Washington Mutual? Bailout boys: Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo? Foreign banks Deutsche Bank, UBS, Credit Suisse? Ratings agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s?

If fraud is now on the table as a factor causing the crisis, as it should be, it would be helpful to know which of these brand-name companies contributed to it.

And even if names are not named, it would be helpful for him to talk generally about which type of fraud he means. Was it the street-level predatory lending by the likes of the Countrywides and Ameriquests? The look-the-other-way financing and encouragement by Wall Street of the street-level predatory lending? Was it the screw-you CDO sales by Goldman and Deutsche Bank? Was it the SIV accounting at Citigroup and Bank of America that hid massive risk from shareholders? What about the ratings for sale business at the ratings agencies? Repo 105 and bogus marks at Lehman? Snooker-the-rubes crooks at JPMorgan Chase?
Etc. etc.

Still, until now, I haven’t gotten the impression from Sorkin’s columns that he thought fraud was a major cause of the crisis. That he now says it was, and explicitly, is significant.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,