Shahien Nasiripour of The Huffington Post scoops that the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission may just have some impact after all: It has referred several cases to authorities for prosecution, as required under the law that created the panel.
The bipartisan panel appointed by Congress to investigate the financial crisis has concluded that several financial industry figures appear to have broken the law and has referred multiple cases to state or federal authorities for potential prosecution, according to two sources directly involved in the deliberations.
Alas, Nasiripour reports that they’re likely to be civil cases. I say “alas” because my definition of civil case is “white-collar criminal settles for a fraction of the money he stole; doesn’t even have to darken Club Fed’s doors.”
Though civil charges appear a more likely outcome should prosecution result, one source familiar with the panel’s deliberations said criminal charges should not be ruled out.
And, of course, civil cases may even be a bridge too far, despite the fact somebody had to know what they were doing was wrong. Nasiripour is good to give us examples that came out in FCIC testimony:
Richard Bowen, former chief underwriter for Citigroup’s consumer-lending unit, testified that, in the middle of 2006, he discovered more than 60 percent of the mortgages the bank had purchased from other firms and then sold to investors were “defective,” meaning they did not satisfy the bank’s own lending criteria.
Keith Johnson, former president of Clayton Holdings, one of the top mortgage research companies, testified that some 28 percent of the loans given to homeowners with poor credit examined by his firm for Wall Street banks failed to meet basic standards. Yet nearly half appear to have been sold to investors regardless, he added.
It’s unclear whether the FCIC will name the people and/or companies it says broke the law next week when it releases its reports on the crisis. Let’s hope it does.
— Speaking of fraud, a gaggle of insurance companies, including major ones like TIAA-CREF and New York Life, are suing Bank of America (née Countrywide) for mortgage fraud.
Zero Hedge catches the eye-popping stat alleged in their lawsuit against Angelo Mozilo & Co. (emphasis is mine):
“In carrying out its review of the approximately 19,000 Countrywide loan files, MBIA found that 91% of the defaulted or delinquent loans in those securitizations contained material deviations from Countrywide’s underwriting guidelines. MBIA’s report showed that the loan applications frequently “(i) lack key documentation, such as verification of borrower assets or income; (ii) include an invalid or incomplete appraisal; (iii) demonstrate fraud by the borrower on the face of the application; or (iv) reflect that any of borrower income, FICO score, debt, DTI [debt-to-income,] or CLTV [combined loan-to-value] ratios, fails to meet stated Countrywide guidelines (without any permissible exception).”
But remember, the authorities are just having a darned old time finding anyone to prosecute.
— I finally got around to reading Jonah Lehrer’s New York Times Mag article on a physicist who’s taken on analyzing cities. The last few paragraphs, about how big corporations resemble—and don’t big cities, are particularly interesting (emphasis mine):
But it turns out that cities and companies differ in a very fundamental regard: cities almost never die, while companies are extremely ephemeral. As West notes, Hurricane Katrina couldn’t wipe out New Orleans, and a nuclear bomb did not erase Hiroshima from the map. In contrast, where are Pan Am and Enron today? The modern corporation has an average life span of 40 to 50 years.
This raises the obvious question: Why are corporations so fleeting? After buying data on more than 23,000 publicly traded companies, Bettencourt and West discovered that corporate productivity, unlike urban productivity, was entirely sublinear. As the number of employees grows, the amount of profit per employee shrinks. West gets giddy when he shows me the linear regression charts. “Look at this bloody plot,” he says. “It’s ridiculous how well the points line up.” The graph reflects the bleak reality of corporate growth, in which efficiencies of scale are almost always outweighed by the burdens of bureaucracy. “When a company starts out, it’s all about the new idea,” West says. “And then, if the company gets lucky, the idea takes off. Everybody is happy and rich. But then management starts worrying about the bottom line, and so all these people are hired to keep track of the paper clips. This is the beginning of the end.”
The danger, West says, is that the inevitable decline in profit per employee makes large companies increasingly vulnerable to market volatility. Since the company now has to support an expensive staff — overhead costs increase with size — even a minor disturbance can lead to significant losses. As West puts it, “Companies are killed by their need to keep on getting bigger.”
But only the banks are too big to fail.