By now it's well known that no senior bank executives went to jail for the fraudulent activities that spurred the financial crisis. But a new study shows many of the senior bankers most closely tied to pre-crisis fraud didn't suffer one bit in the aftermath. They mostly kept their jobs, enjoying the same kinds of opportunities and promotions as their colleagues.
Worst of all, the most plausible explanation the researchers came up with for why senior management didn't fire the people who blew up the economy is that they didn't want to admit their own failure as bosses. And if nobody on Wall Street is willing to see the problem, and the Trump administration is stocked with bankers and corporate cheerleaders, you can bet fraud will continue to shift into other products, harming consumers and investors while executives look the other way.
The study comes from John Griffin and Samuel Kruger of the University of Texas-Austin, and Gonzalo Maturana of Emory University. They tracked 715 individuals involved in issuing residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) from the key housing bubble years of 2004 to 2006, including the senior managers who actually signed off on the deals.
RMBS were the building blocks of the crisis, bundles of toxic loans passed on to investors who were not told about their poor quality. Since the crash, major banks that issued RMBS have paid over $300 billion in government penalties, at least implicitly acknowledging they fucked up.
With settlements and deferred prosecution agreements, federal law enforcement tried to influence corporate culture so banks would discourage bad behavior and punish those responsible within their own ranks. But until now, nobody had studied whether the large civil fines actually did lead to internal discipline. So the researchers compared the careers of RMBS bankers after the crisis to other bank employees whose work was relatively free of fraud.
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"We find no evidence that senior RMBS bankers at top banks suffered from lower job retention, fewer promotions, or worse job opportunities at other firms compared to their counterparts," Griffin, Kruger, and Maturana write.
By 2016, according to the study, 85 percent of RMBS bankers remained in the financial industry, and 63 percent received a promotion in job title, a similar ratio to non-RMBS colleagues. They were also able to move freely to join competitors, with Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Citigroup "particularly aggressive" in hiring RMBS bankers. The dynamic was true for every major underwriter. There was simply no evidence of any large-scale punishment.
Employees at smaller firms were hit marginally harder after the crisis. But there's an easy explanation for that: The market for residential mortgage-backed securities disappeared after the crisis. While bigger banks had the ability to fold RMBS bankers into their larger operations, smaller firms couldn't.
The study doesn't just lay out this lack of consequences, but tries to explain the reasons why. The evidence contradicts the idea that the most culpable senior managers or those who caused the biggest penalties were held accountable, or that discipline was merely delayed until after public knowledge of fraud, or that employees were kept at their companies so they wouldn't turn on their employers in future litigation.
The researchers concluded that one main explanation is that upper management "is concerned that large-scale discipline would implicitly acknowledge widespread wrongdoing and lack of oversight." In other words, if the executives fired too many bankers for fraud, they would point the finger back at their own loss of control, and risk their own job.
We don't necessarily see such fear with smaller-scale bank crimes. But, Griffin, Kruger, and Maturana write, "An important difference is that RMBS fraud was widespread." While executives can cultivate a zero-tolerance reputation through disciplining small-time frauds, they're less willing to do so when their own lack of awareness or oversight would come into question. So they accepted self-serving explanations that the crisis resulted from mass hysteria, that nobody was truly "responsible," and moved the employees seamlessly into other parts of their business.
In other words, these bankers were too big to fail—too entrenched to get in real trouble.
This totally alters the perception of whether Wall Street is safer now than it was before 2008. If the response to industry-wide fraud was to pretend it didn't exist, of course you would expect more fraud to occur in the future. And that's exactly what seems to be happening. Banks have started to run screaming from the subprime auto-loan market, after spiking defaults raised questions about the same deceptions foisted on auto borrowers that we saw with mortgage borrowers a decade ago. The long post-crisis rap sheet, from rigging foreign exchange rates to saddling customers with fake accounts, suggests the same triumph of short-term profits over ethics. And these are just the abuses we know about today.
This all stems from the failure to hold individuals directly accountable. As the researchers conclude, "these employment outcomes send a message to current and future finance professionals that there is little, if any, price to pay for participating in fraudulent and abusive practices." If you can help generate the worst meltdown since the Great Depression—arguably helping set the stage for a populist demagogue to take the presidency—and keep your job, why would you care about the implications of your next great swindle?
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