16 Feb 2013

Secrets and Lies of the Bailout

by Matt Taibi

The federal rescue of Wall Street didn’t fix the economy – it created a permanent bailout state based on a Ponzi-like confidence scheme. And the worst may be yet to come

Illustration by Victor Juhasz

It has been four long winters since the federal government, in the hulking, shaven-skulled, Alien Nation-esque form of then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, committed $700 billion in taxpayer money to rescue Wall Street from its own chicanery and greed. To listen to the bankers and their allies in Washington tell it, you'd think the bailout was the best thing to hit the American economy since the invention of the assembly line. Not only did it prevent another Great Depression, we've been told, but the money has all been paid back, and the government even made a profit. No harm, no foul – right?


It was all a lie – one of the biggest and most elaborate falsehoods ever sold to the American people. We were told that the taxpayer was stepping in – only temporarily, mind you – to prop up the economy and save the world from financial catastrophe. What we actually ended up doing was the exact opposite: committing American taxpayers to permanent, blind support of an ungovernable, unregulatable, hyperconcentrated new financial system that exacerbates the greed and inequality that caused the crash, and forces Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup to increase risk rather than reduce it. The result is one of those deals where one wrong decision early on blossoms into a lush nightmare of unintended consequences. We thought we were just letting a friend crash at the house for a few days; we ended up with a family of hillbillies who moved in forever, sleeping nine to a bed and building a meth lab on the front lawn.

How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform

But the most appalling part is the lying. The public has been lied to so shamelessly and so often in the course of the past four years that the failure to tell the truth to the general populace has become a kind of baked-in, official feature of the financial rescue. Money wasn't the only thing the government gave Wall Street – it also conferred the right to hide the truth from the rest of us. And it was all done in the name of helping regular people and creating jobs. "It is," says former bailout Inspector General Neil Barofsky, "the ultimate bait-and-switch."

The bailout deceptions came early, late and in between. There were lies told in the first moments of their inception, and others still being told four years later. The lies, in fact, were the most important mechanisms of the bailout. The only reason investors haven't run screaming from an obviously corrupt financial marketplace is because the government has gone to such extraordinary lengths to sell the narrative that the problems of 2008 have been fixed. Investors may not actually believe the lie, but they are impressed by how totally committed the government has been, from the very beginning, to selling it.


Today what few remember about the bailouts is that we had to approve them. It wasn't like Paulson could just go out and unilaterally commit trillions of public dollars to rescue Goldman Sachs and Citigroup from their own stupidity and bad management (although the government ended up doing just that, later on). Much as with a declaration of war, a similarly extreme and expensive commitment of public resources, Paulson needed at least a film of congressional approval. And much like the Iraq War resolution, which was only secured after George W. Bush ludicrously warned that Saddam was planning to send drones to spray poison over New York City, the bailouts were pushed through Congress with a series of threats and promises that ranged from the merely ridiculous to the outright deceptive. At one meeting to discuss the original bailout bill – at 11 a.m. on September 18th, 2008 – Paulson actually told members of Congress that $5.5 trillion in wealth would disappear by 2 p.m. that day unless the government took immediate action, and that the world economy would collapse "within 24 hours."

To be fair, Paulson started out by trying to tell the truth in his own ham-headed, narcissistic way. His first TARP proposal was a three-page absurdity pulled straight from a Beavis and Butt-Head episode – it was basically Paulson saying, "Can you, like, give me some money?" Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, remembers a call with Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. "We need $700 billion," they told Brown, "and we need it in three days." What's more, the plan stipulated, Paulson could spend the money however he pleased, without review "by any court of law or any administrative agency."

The White House and leaders of both parties actually agreed to this preposterous document, but it died in the House when 95 Democrats lined up against it. For an all-too-rare moment during the Bush administration, something resembling sanity prevailed in Washington.

So Paulson came up with a more convincing lie. On paper, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was simple: Treasury would buy $700 billion of troubled mortgages from the banks and then modify them to help struggling homeowners. Section 109 of the act, in fact, specifically empowered the Treasury secretary to "facilitate loan modifications to prevent avoidable foreclosures." With that promise on the table, wary Democrats finally approved the bailout on October 3rd, 2008. "That provision," says Barofsky, "is what got the bill passed."

But within days of passage, the Fed and the Treasury unilaterally decided to abandon the planned purchase of toxic assets in favor of direct injections of billions in cash into companies like Goldman and Citigroup. Overnight, Section 109 was unceremoniously ditched, and what was pitched as a bailout of both banks and homeowners instantly became a bank-only operation – marking the first in a long series of moves in which bailout officials either casually ignored or openly defied their own promises with regard to TARP.

Congress was furious. "We've been lied to," fumed Rep. David Scott, a Democrat from Georgia. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, raged at transparently douchey TARP administrator (and Goldman banker) Neel Kashkari, calling him a "chump" for the banks. And the anger was bipartisan: Republican senators David Vitter of Louisiana and James Inhofe of Oklahoma were so mad about the unilateral changes and lack of oversight that they sponsored a bill in January 2009 to cancel the remaining $350 billion of TARP.

So what did bailout officials do? They put together a proposal full of even bigger deceptions to get it past Congress a second time. That process began almost exactly four years ago – on January 12th and 15th, 2009 – when Larry Summers, the senior economic adviser to President-elect Barack Obama, sent a pair of letters to Congress. The pudgy, stubby­fingered former World Bank economist, who had been forced out as Harvard president for suggesting that women lack a natural aptitude for math and science, begged legislators to reject Vitter's bill and leave TARP alone.

In the letters, Summers laid out a five-point plan in which the bailout was pitched as a kind of giant populist program to help ordinary Americans. Obama, Summers vowed, would use the money to stimulate bank lending to put people back to work. He even went so far as to say that banks would be denied funding unless they agreed to "increase lending above baseline levels." He promised that "tough and transparent conditions" would be imposed on bailout recipients, who would not be allowed to use bailout funds toward "enriching shareholders or executives." As in the original TARP bill, he pledged that bailout money would be used to aid homeowners in foreclosure. And lastly, he promised that the bailouts would be temporary – with a "plan for exit of government intervention" implemented "as quickly as possible."

The reassurances worked. Once again, TARP survived in Congress – and once again, the bailouts were greenlighted with the aid of Democrats who fell for the old "it'll help ordinary people" sales pitch. "I feel like they've given me a lot of commitment on the housing front," explained Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska.

But in the end, almost nothing Summers promised actually materialized. A small slice of TARP was earmarked for foreclosure relief, but the resultant aid programs for homeowners turned out to be riddled with problems, for the perfectly logical reason that none of the bailout's architects gave a shit about them. They were drawn up practically overnight and rushed out the door for purely political reasons – to trick Congress into handing over tons of instant cash for Wall Street, with no strings attached. "Without those assurances, the level of opposition would have remained the same," says Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a leading progressive who voted against TARP. The promise of housing aid, in particular, turned out to be a "paper tiger."

HAMP, the signature program to aid poor homeowners, was announced by President Obama on February 18th, 2009. The move inspired CNBC commentator Rick Santelli to go berserk the next day – the infamous viral rant that essentially birthed the Tea Party. Reacting to the news that Obama was planning to use bailout funds to help poor and (presumably) minority homeowners facing foreclosure, Santelli fumed that the president wanted to "subsidize the losers' mortgages" when he should "reward people that could carry the water, instead of drink the water." The tirade against "water drinkers" led to the sort of spontaneous nationwide protests one might have expected months before, when we essentially gave a taxpayer-funded blank check to Gamblers Anonymous addicts, the millionaire and billionaire class.

In fact, the amount of money that eventually got spent on homeowner aid now stands as a kind of grotesque joke compared to the Himalayan mountain range of cash that got moved onto the balance sheets of the big banks more or less instantly in the first months of the bailouts. At the start, $50 billion of TARP funds were earmarked for HAMP. In 2010, the size of the program was cut to $30 billion. As of November of last year, a mere $4 billion total has been spent for loan modifications and other homeowner aid.

In short, the bailout program designed to help those lazy, job-averse, "water-drinking" minority homeowners – the one that gave birth to the Tea Party – turns out to have comprised about one percent of total TARP spending. "It's amazing," says Paul Kiel, who monitors bailout spending for ProPublica. "It's probably one of the biggest failures of the Obama administration."

The failure of HAMP underscores another damning truth – that the Bush-Obama bailout was as purely bipartisan a program as we've had. Imagine Obama retaining Don Rumsfeld as defense secretary and still digging for WMDs in the Iraqi desert four years after his election: That's what it was like when he left Tim Geithner, one of the chief architects of Bush's bailout, in command of the no-strings­attached rescue four years after Bush left office.

Yet Obama's HAMP program, as lame as it turned out to be, still stands out as one of the few pre-bailout promises that was even partially fulfilled. Virtually every other promise Summers made in his letters turned out to be total bullshit. And that includes maybe the most important promise of all – the pledge to use the bailout money to put people back to work.


Once TARP passed, the government quickly began loaning out billions to some 500 banks that it deemed "healthy" and "viable." A few were cash loans, repayable at five percent within the first five years; other deals came due when a bank stock hit a predetermined price. As long as banks held TARP money, they were barred from paying out big cash bonuses to top executives.

But even before Summers promised Congress that banks would be required to increase lending as a condition for receiving bailout funds, officials had already decided not to even ask the banks to use the money to increase lending. In fact, they'd decided not to even ask banks to monitor what they did with the bailout money. Barofsky, the TARP inspector, asked Treasury to include a requirement forcing recipients to explain what they did with the taxpayer money. He was stunned when TARP administrator Kashkari rejected his proposal, telling him lenders would walk away from the program if they had to deal with too many conditions. "The banks won't participate," Kashkari said.

Barofsky, a former high-level drug prosecutor who was one of the only bailout officials who didn't come from Wall Street, didn't buy that cash-desperate banks would somehow turn down billions in aid. "It was like they were trembling with fear that the banks wouldn't take the money," he says. "I never found that terribly convincing."

In the end, there was no lending requirement attached to any aspect of the bailout, and there never would be. Banks used their hundreds of billions for almost every purpose under the sun – everything, that is, but lending to the homeowners and small businesses and cities they had destroyed. And one of the most disgusting uses they found for all their billions in free government money was to help them earn even more free government money.

To guarantee their soundness, all major banks are required to keep a certain amount of reserve cash at the Fed. In years past, that money didn't earn interest, for the logical reason that banks shouldn't get paid to stay solvent. But in 2006 – arguing that banks were losing profits on cash parked at the Fed – regulators agreed to make small interest payments on the money. The move wasn't set to go into effect until 2011, but when the crash hit, a section was written into TARP that launched the interest payments in October 2008.
In theory, there should never be much money in such reserve accounts, because any halfway-competent bank could make far more money lending the cash out than parking it at the Fed, where it earns a measly quarter of a percent. In August 2008, before the bailout began, there were just $2 billion in excess reserves at the Fed. But by that October, the number had ballooned to $267 billion – and by January 2009, it had grown to $843 billion. That means there was suddenly more money sitting uselessly in Fed accounts than Congress had approved for either the TARP bailout or the much-loathed Obama stimulus. Instead of lending their new cash to struggling homeowners and small businesses, as Summers had promised, the banks were literally sitting on it.

Today, excess reserves at the Fed total an astonishing $1.4 trillion."The money is just doing nothing," says Nomi Prins, a former Goldman executive who has spent years monitoring the distribution of bailout money.

Nothing, that is, except earning a few crumbs of risk-free interest for the banks. Prins estimates that the annual haul in interest­ on Fed reserves is about $3.6 billion – a relatively tiny subsidy in the scheme of things, but one that, ironically, just about matches the total amount of bailout money spent on aid to homeowners. Put another way, banks are getting paid about as much every year for not lending money as 1 million Americans received for mortgage modifications and other housing aid in the whole of the past four years.

Moreover, instead of using the bailout money as promised – to jump-start the economy – Wall Street used the funds to make the economy more dangerous. From the start, taxpayer money was used to subsidize a string of finance mergers, from the Chase-Bear Stearns deal to the Wells Fargo­Wachovia merger to Bank of America's acquisition of Merrill Lynch. Aided by bailout funds, being Too Big to Fail was suddenly Too Good to Pass Up.

Other banks found more creative uses for bailout money. In October 2010, Obama signed a new bailout bill creating a program called the Small Business Lending Fund, in which firms with fewer than $10 billion in assets could apply to share in a pool of $4 billion in public money. As it turned out, however, about a third of the 332 companies that took part in the program used at least some of the money to repay their original TARP loans. Small banks that still owed TARP money essentially took out cheaper loans from the government to repay their more expensive TARP loans – a move that conveniently exempted them from the limits on executive bonuses mandated by the bailout. All told, studies show, $2.2 billion of the $4 billion ended up being spent not on small-business loans, but on TARP repayment. "It's a bit of a shell game," admitted John Schmidt, chief operating officer of Iowa-based Heartland Financial, which took $81.7 million from the SBLF and used every penny of it to repay TARP.

Using small-business funds to pay down their own debts, parking huge amounts of cash at the Fed in the midst of a stalled economy – it's all just evidence of what most Americans know instinctively: that the bailouts didn't result in much new business lending. If anything, the bailouts actually hindered lending, as banks became more like house pets that grow fat and lazy on two guaranteed meals a day than wild animals that have to go out into the jungle and hunt for opportunities in order to eat. The Fed's own analysis bears this out: In the first three months of the bailout, as taxpayer billions poured in, TARP recipients slowed down lending at a rate more than double that of banks that didn't receive TARP funds. The biggest drop in lending – 3.1 percent – came from the biggest bailout recipient, Citigroup. A year later, the inspector general for the bailout found that lending among the nine biggest TARP recipients "did not, in fact, increase." The bailout didn't flood the banking system with billions in loans for small businesses, as promised. It just flooded the banking system with billions for the banks.



The main reason banks didn't lend out bailout funds is actually pretty simple: Many of them needed the money just to survive. Which leads to another of the bailout's broken promises – that taxpayer money would only be handed out to "viable" banks.

Soon after TARP passed, Paulson and other officials announced the guidelines for their unilaterally changed bailout plan. Congress had approved $700 billion to buy up toxic mortgages, but $250 billion of the money was now shifted to direct capital injections for banks. (Although Paulson claimed at the time that handing money directly to the banks was a faster way to restore market confidence than lending it to homeowners, he later confessed that he had been contemplating the direct-cash-injection plan even before the vote.) This new let's-just-fork-over-cash portion of the bailout was called the Capital Purchase Program. Under the CPP, nine of America's largest banks – including Citi, Wells Fargo, Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, State Street and Bank of New York Mellon – received $125 billion, or half of the funds being doled out. Since those nine firms accounted for 75 percent of all assets held in America's banks – $11 trillion – it made sense they would get the lion's share of the money. But in announcing the CPP, Paulson and Co. promised that they would only be stuffing cash into "healthy and viable" banks. This, at the core, was the entire justification for the bailout: That the huge infusion of taxpayer cash would not be used to rescue individual banks, but to kick-start the economy as a whole by helping healthy banks start lending again.

The Scam Wall Street Learned From the Mafia ["stripped of all the camouflaging financial verbiage, the crimes the defendants and their co-conspirators committed were virtually indistinguishable from the kind of thuggery practiced for decades by the Mafia, which has long made manipulation of public bids for things like garbage collection and construction contracts a cornerstone of its business."]

This announcement marked the beginning of the legend that certain Wall Street banks only took the bailout money because they were forced to – they didn't need all those billions, you understand, they just did it for the good of the country. "We did not, at that point, need TARP," Chase chief Jamie Dimon later claimed, insisting that he only took the money "because we were asked to by the secretary of Treasury." Goldman chief Lloyd Blankfein similarly claimed that his bank never needed the money, and that he wouldn't have taken it if he'd known it was "this pregnant with potential for backlash." A joint statement by Paulson, Bernanke and FDIC chief Sheila Bair praised the nine leading banks as "healthy institutions" that were taking the cash only to "enhance the overall performance of the U.S. economy."

But right after the bailouts began, soon-to-be Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner admitted to Barofsky, the inspector general, that he and his cohorts had picked the first nine bailout recipients because of their size, without bothering to assess their health and viability. Paulson, meanwhile, later admitted that he had serious concerns about at least one of the nine firms he had publicly pronounced healthy. And in November 2009, Bernanke gave a closed-door interview to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the body charged with investigating the causes of the economic meltdown, in which he admitted that 12 of the 13 most prominent financial companies in America were on the brink of failure during the time of the initial bailouts.

On the inside, at least, almost everyone connected with the bailout knew that the top banks were in deep trouble. "It became obvious pretty much as soon as I took the job that these companies weren't really healthy and viable," says Barofsky, who stepped down as TARP inspector in 2011.

This early episode would prove to be a crucial moment in the history of the bailout. It set the precedent of the government allowing unhealthy banks to not only call themselves healthy, but to get the government to endorse their claims. Projecting an image of soundness was, to the government, more important than disclosing the truth. Officials like Geithner and Paulson seemed to genuinely believe that the market's fears about corruption in the banking system was a bigger problem than the corruption itself. Time and again, they justified TARP as a move needed to "bolster confidence" in the system – and a key to that effort was keeping the banks' insolvency a secret. In doing so, they created a bizarre new two-tiered financial market, divided between those who knew the truth about how bad things were and those who did not.

A month or so after the bailout team called the top nine banks "healthy," it became clear that the biggest recipient, Citigroup, had actually flat-lined on the ER table. Only weeks after Paulson and Co. gave the firm $25 billion in TARP funds, Citi – which was in the midst of posting a quarterly loss of more than $17 billion – came back begging for more. In November 2008, Citi received another $20 billion in cash and more than $300 billion in guarantees.

What's most amazing about this isn't that Citi got so much money, but that government-endorsed, fraudulent health ratings magically became part of its bailout. The chief financial regulators – the Fed, the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency – use a ratings system called CAMELS to measure the fitness of institutions. CAMELS stands for Capital, Assets, Management, Earnings, Liquidity and Sensitivity to risk, and it rates firms from one to five, with one being the best and five the crappiest. In the heat of the crisis, just as Citi was receiving the second of what would turn out to be three massive federal bailouts, the bank inexplicably enjoyed a three rating – the financial equivalent of a passing grade. In her book, Bull by the Horns, then-FDIC chief Sheila Bair recounts expressing astonishment to OCC head John Dugan as to why "Citi rated as a CAMELS 3 when it was on the brink of failure." Dugan essentially answered that "since the government planned on bailing Citi out, the OCC did not plan to change its supervisory rating." Similarly, the FDIC ended up granting a "systemic risk exception" to Citi, allowing it access to FDIC-bailout help even though the agency knew the bank was on the verge of collapse.

The sweeping impact of these crucial decisions has never been fully appreciated. In the years preceding the bailouts, banks like Citi had been perpetuating a kind of fraud upon the public by pretending to be far healthier than they really were. In some cases, the fraud was outright, as in the case of Lehman Brothers, which was using an arcane accounting trick to book tens of billions of loans as revenues each quarter, making it look like it had more cash than it really did. In other cases, the fraud was more indirect, as in the case of Citi, which in 2007 paid out the third-highest dividend in America – $10.7 billion – despite the fact that it had lost $9.8 billion in the fourth quarter of that year alone. The whole financial sector, in fact, had taken on Ponzi-like characteristics, as many banks were hugely dependent on a continual influx of new money from things like sales of subprime mortgages to cover up massive future liabilities from toxic investments that, sooner or later, were going to come to the surface.

Now, instead of using the bailouts as a clear-the-air moment, the government decided to double down on such fraud, awarding healthy ratings to these failing banks and even twisting its numerical audits and assessments to fit the cooked-up narrative. A major component of the original TARP bailout was a promise to ensure "full and accurate accounting" by conducting regular­ "stress tests" of the bailout recipients. When Geithner announced his stress-test plan in February 2009, a reporter instantly blasted him with an obvious and damning question: Doesn't the fact that you have to conduct these tests prove that bank regulators, who should already know plenty about banks' solvency, actually have no idea who is solvent and who isn't?

The government did wind up conducting regular stress tests of all the major bailout recipients, but the methodology proved to be such an obvious joke that it was even lampooned on Saturday Night Live. (In the skit, Geithner abandons a planned numerical score system because it would unfairly penalize bankers who were "not good at banking.") In 2009, just after the first round of tests was released, it came out that the Fed had allowed banks to literally rejigger the numbers to make their bottom lines look better. When the Fed found Bank of America had a $50 billion capital hole, for instance, the bank persuaded examiners to cut that number by more than $15 billion because of what it said were "errors made by examiners in the analysis." Citigroup got its number slashed from $35 billion to $5.5 billion when the bank pleaded with the Fed to give it credit for "pending transactions."

Such meaningless parodies of oversight continue to this day. Earlier this year, Regions Financial Corp. – a company that had failed to pay back $3.5 billion in TARP loans – passed its stress test. A subsequent analysis by Bloomberg View found that Regions was effectively $525 million in the red. Nonetheless, the bank's CEO proclaimed that the stress test "demonstrates the strength of our company." Shortly after the test was concluded, the bank issued $900 million in stock and said it planned on using the cash to pay back some of the money it had borrowed under TARP.

This episode underscores a key feature of the bailout: the government's decision to use lies as a form of monetary aid. State hands over taxpayer money to functionally insolvent bank; state gives regulatory thumbs up to said bank; bank uses that thumbs up to sell stock; bank pays cash back to state. What's critical here is not that investors actually buy the Fed's bullshit accounting – all they have to do is believe the government will backstop Regions either way, healthy or not. "Clearly, the Fed wanted it to attract new investors," observed Bloomberg, "and those who put fresh capital into Regions this week believe the government won't let it die."

Through behavior like this, the government has turned the entire financial system into a kind of vast confidence game – a Ponzi-like scam in which the value of just about everything in the system is inflated because of the widespread belief that the government will step in to prevent losses. Clearly, a government that's already in debt over its eyes for the next million years does not have enough capital on hand to rescue every Citigroup or Regions Bank in the land should they all go bust tomorrow. But the market is behaving as if Daddy will step in to once again pay the rent the next time any or all of these kids sets the couch on fire and skips out on his security deposit. Just like an actual Ponzi scheme, it works only as long as they don't have to make good on all the promises they've made. They're building an economy based not on real accounting and real numbers, but on belief. And while the signs of growth and recovery in this new faith-based economy may be fake, one aspect of the bailout has been consistently concrete: the broken promises over executive pay.


That executive bonuses on Wall Street were a political hot potato for the bailout's architects was obvious from the start. That's why Summers, in saving the bailout from the ire of Congress, vowed to "limit executive compensation" and devote public money to prevent another financial crisis. And it's true, TARP did bar recipients from a whole range of exorbitant pay practices, which is one reason the biggest banks, like Goldman Sachs, worked so quickly to repay their TARP loans.

But there were all sorts of ways around the restrictions. Banks could apply to the Fed and other regulators for waivers, which were often approved (one senior FDIC official tells me he recommended denying "golden parachute" payments to Citigroup officials, only to see them approved by superiors). They could get bailouts through programs other than TARP that did not place limits on bonuses. Or they could simply pay bonuses not prohibited under TARP. In one of the worst episodes, the notorious lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac paid out more than $200 million in bonuses­ between 2008 and 2010, even though the firms (a) lost more than $100 billion in 2008 alone, and (b) required nearly $400 billion in federal assistance during the bailout period.

Even worse was the incredible episode in which bailout recipient AIG paid more than $1 million each to 73 employees of AIG Financial Products, the tiny unit widely blamed for having destroyed the insurance giant (and perhaps even triggered the whole crisis) with its reckless issuance of nearly half a trillion dollars in toxic credit-default swaps. The "retention bonuses," paid after the bailout, went to 11 employees who no longer worked for AIG.

Daily Beast: Don't Blame AIG for Hank Greenberg's Lawsuit

But all of these "exceptions" to the bonus restrictions are far less infuriating, it turns out, than the rule itself. TARP did indeed bar big cash-bonus payouts by firms that still owed money to the government. But those firms were allowed to issue extra compensation to executives in the form of long-term restricted stock. An independent research firm asked to analyze the stock options for The New York Times found that the top five executives at each of the 18 biggest bailout recipients received a total of $142 million in stocks and options. That's plenty of money all by itself – but thanks in large part to the government's overt display of support for those firms, the value of those options has soared to $457 million, an average of $4 million per executive.

In other words, we didn't just allow banks theoretically barred from paying bonuses to pay bonuses. We actually allowed them to pay bigger bonuses than they otherwise could have. Instead of forcing the firms to reward top executives in cash, we allowed them to pay in depressed stock, the value of which we then inflated due to the government's implicit endorsement of those firms.

All of which leads us to the last and most important deception of the bailouts:


The bailout ended up being much bigger than anyone expected, expanded far beyond TARP to include more obscure (and in some cases far larger) programs with names like TALF, TAF, PPIP and TLGP. What's more, some parts of the bailout were designed to extend far into the future. Companies like AIG, GM and Citigroup, for instance, were given tens of billions of deferred tax assets – allowing them to carry losses from 2008 forward to offset future profits and keep future tax bills down. Official estimates of the bailout's costs do not include such ongoing giveaways. "This is stuff that's never going to appear on any report," says Barofsky.

Citigroup, all by itself, boasts more than $50 billion in deferred tax credits – which is how the firm managed to pay less in taxes in 2011 (it actually received a $144 million credit) than it paid in compensation that year to its since-ousted dingbat CEO, Vikram Pandit (who pocketed $14.9 million). The bailout, in short, enabled the very banks and financial institutions that cratered the global economy to write off the losses from their toxic deals for years to come – further depriving the government of much-needed tax revenues it could have used to help homeowners and small businesses who were screwed over by the banks in the first place.

Even worse, the $700 billion in TARP loans ended up being dwarfed by more than $7.7 trillion in secret emergency lending that the Fed awarded to Wall Street – loans that were only disclosed to the public after Congress forced an extraordinary one-time audit of the Federal Reserve. The extent of this "secret bailout" didn't come out until November 2011, when Bloomberg Markets, which went to court to win the right to publish the data, detailed how the country's biggest firms secretly received trillions in near-free money throughout the crisis.

Goldman Sachs, which had made such a big show of being reluctant about accepting $10 billion in TARP money, was quick to cash in on the secret loans being offered by the Fed. By the end of 2008, Goldman had snarfed up $34 billion in federal loans – and it was paying an interest rate of as low as just 0.01 percent for the huge cash infusion. Yet that funding was never disclosed to shareholders or taxpayers, a fact Goldman confirms. "We did not disclose the amount of our participation in the two programs you identify," says Goldman spokesman Michael Duvally.

Goldman CEO Blankfein later dismissed the importance of the loans, telling the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that the bank wasn't "relying on those mechanisms." But in his book, Bailout, Barofsky says that Paulson told him that he believed Morgan Stanley was "just days" from collapse before government intervention, while Bernanke later admitted that Goldman would have been the next to fall.

Meanwhile, at the same moment that leading banks were taking trillions in secret loans from the Fed, top officials at those firms were buying up stock in their companies, privy to insider info that was not available to the public at large. Stephen Friedman, a Goldman director who was also chairman of the New York Fed, bought more than $4 million of Goldman stock over a five-week period in December 2008 and January 2009 – years before the extent of the firm's lifeline from the Fed was made public. Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit bought nearly $7 million in Citi stock in November 2008, just as his firm was secretly taking out $99.5 billion in Fed loans. Jamie Dimon bought more than $11 million in Chase stock in early 2009, at a time when his firm was receiving as much as $60 billion in secret Fed loans. When asked by Rolling Stone, Chase could not point to any disclosure of the bank's borrowing from the Fed until more than a year later, when Dimon wrote about it in a letter to shareholders in March 2010.

The stock purchases by America's top bankers raise serious questions of insider trading. Two former high-ranking financial regulators tell Rolling Stone that the secret loans were likely subject to a 1989 guideline, issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission in the heat of the savings and loan crisis, which said that financial institutions should disclose the "nature, amounts and effects" of any government aid. At the end of 2011, in fact, the SEC sent letters to Citigroup, Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Wells Fargo asking them why they hadn't fully disclosed their secret borrowing. All five megabanks essentially replied, to varying degrees of absurdity, that their massive borrowing from the Fed was not "material," or that the piecemeal disclosure they had engaged in was adequate. Never mind that the law says investors have to be informed right away if CEOs like Dimon and Pandit decide to give themselves a $10,000 raise. According to the banks, it's none of your business if those same CEOs are making use of a secret $50 billion charge card from the Fed.

The implications here go far beyond the question of whether Dimon and Co. committed insider trading by buying and selling stock while they had access to material nonpublic information about the bailouts. The broader and more pressing concern is the clear implication that by failing to act, federal regulators­ have tacitly approved the nondisclosure. Instead of trusting the markets to do the right thing when provided with accurate information, the government has instead channeled Jack Nicholson – and decided that the public just can't handle the truth.

All of this – the willingness to call dying banks healthy, the sham stress tests, the failure to enforce bonus rules, the seeming indifference to public disclosure, not to mention the shocking­ lack of criminal investigations into fraud committed by bailout recipients before the crash – comprised the largest and most valuable bailout of all. Brick by brick, statement by reassuring statement, bailout officials have spent years building the government's great Implicit Guarantee to the biggest companies on Wall Street: We will be there for you, always, no matter how much you screw up. We will lie for you and let you get away with just about anything. We will make this ongoing bailout a pervasive and permanent part of the financial system. And most important of all, we will publicly commit to this policy, being so obvious about it that the markets will be able to put an exact price tag on the value of our preferential treatment.

The first independent study that attempted to put a numerical value on the Implicit Guarantee popped up about a year after the crash, in September 2009, when Dean Baker and Travis McArthur of the Center for Economic and Policy Research published a paper called "The Value of the 'Too Big to Fail' Big Bank Subsidy." Baker and McArthur found that prior to the last quarter of 2007, just before the start of the crisis, financial firms with $100 billion or more in assets were paying on average about 0.29 percent less to borrow money than smaller firms.

By the second quarter of 2009, however, once the bailouts were in full swing, that spread had widened to 0.78 percent. The conclusion was simple: Lenders were about a half a point more willing to lend to a bank with implied government backing – even a proven-stupid bank – than they were to lend to companies who "must borrow based on their own credit worthiness." The economists estimated that the lending gap amounted to an annual subsidy of $34 billion a year to the nation's 18 biggest banks.

Today the borrowing advantage of a big bank remains almost exactly what it was three years ago – about 50 basis points, or half a percent. "These megabanks still receive subsidies in the sense that they can borrow on the capital markets at a discount rate of 50 or 70 points because of the implicit view that these banks are Too Big to Fail," says Sen. Brown.

Why does the market believe that? Because the officials who administered the bailouts made that point explicitly, over and over again. When Geithner announced the implementation of the stress tests in 2009, for instance, he declared that banks who didn't have enough money to pass the test could get it from the government. "We're going to help this process by providing a new program of capital support for those institutions that need it," Geithner said. The message, says Barofsky, was clear: "If the banks cannot raise capital, we will do it for them." It was an Implicit Guarantee that the banks would not be allowed to fail – a point that Geithner and other officials repeatedly stressed over the years. "The markets took all those little comments by Geithner as a clue that the government is looking out for them," says Baker. That psychological signaling, he concludes, is responsible for the crucial half-point borrowing spread.

The inherent advantage of bigger banks – the permanent, ongoing bailout they are still receiving from the government – has led to a host of gruesome consequences. All the big banks have paid back their TARP loans, while more than 300 smaller firms are still struggling to repay their bailout debts. Even worse, the big banks, instead of breaking down into manageable parts and becoming more efficient, have grown even bigger and more unmanageable, making the economy far more concentrated and dangerous than it was before. America's six largest banks – Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley – now have a combined 14,420 subsidiaries, making them so big as to be effectively beyond regulation. A recent study by the Kansas City Fed found that it would take 70,000 examiners to inspect such trillion-dollar banks with the same level of attention normally given to a community bank. "The complexity is so overwhelming that no regulator can follow it well enough to regulate the way we need to," says Sen. Brown, who is drafting a bill to break up the megabanks.

Worst of all, the Implicit Guarantee has led to a dangerous shift in banking behavior. With an apparently endless stream of free or almost-free money available to banks – coupled with a well-founded feeling among bankers that the government will back them up if anything goes wrong – banks have made a dramatic move into riskier and more speculative investments, including everything from high-risk corporate bonds to mortgage­backed securities to payday loans, the sleaziest and most disreputable end of the financial system. In 2011, banks increased their investments in junk-rated companies by 74 percent, and began systematically easing their lending standards in search of more high-yield customers to lend to.

This is a virtual repeat of the financial crisis, in which a wave of greed caused bankers to recklessly chase yield everywhere, to the point where lowering lending standards became the norm. Now the government, with its Implicit Guarantee, is causing exactly the same behavior – meaning the bailouts have brought us right back to where we started. "Government intervention," says Klaus Schaeck, an expert on bailouts who has served as a World Bank consultant, "has definitely resulted in increased risk."

And while the economy still mostly sucks overall, there's never been a better time to be a Too Big to Fail bank. Wells Fargo reported a third-quarter profit of nearly $5 billion last year, while JP Morgan Chase pocketed $5.3 billion – roughly double what both banks earned in the third quarter of 2006, at the height of the mortgage bubble. As the driver of their success, both banks cite strong performance in – you guessed it – the mortgage market.

So what exactly did the bailout accomplish? It built a banking system that discriminates against community banks, makes Too Big to Fail banks even Too Bigger to Failier, increases risk, discourages sound business lending and punishes savings by making it even easier and more profitable to chase high-yield investments than to compete for small depositors. The bailout has also made lying on behalf of our biggest and most corrupt banks the official policy of the United States government. And if any one of those banks fails, it will cause another financial crisis, meaning we're essentially wedded to that policy for the rest of eternity – or at least until the markets call our bluff, which could happen any minute now.

Other than that, the bailout was a smashing success.

This article is from the January 17th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/secret-and-lies-of-the-bailout-20130104#ixzz2L3iybma8

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14 Feb 2013

Gangster Bankers: Too Big to Jail

How HSBC hooked up with drug traffickers and terrorists. And got away with it

Illustration by Victor Juhasz

The deal was announced quietly, just before the holidays, almost like the government was hoping people were too busy hanging stockings by the fireplace to notice. Flooring politicians, lawyers and investigators all over the world, the U.S. Justice Department granted a total walk to executives of the British-based bank HSBC for the largest drug-and-terrorism money-laundering case ever. Yes, they issued a fine – $1.9 billion, or about five weeks' profit – but they didn't extract so much as one dollar or one day in jail from any individual, despite a decade of stupefying abuses.

People may have outrage fatigue about Wall Street, and more stories about billionaire greedheads getting away with more stealing often cease to amaze. But the HSBC case went miles beyond the usual paper-pushing, keypad-punching­ sort-of crime, committed by geeks in ties, normally associated­ with Wall Street. In this case, the bank literally got away with murder – well, aiding and abetting it, anyway.

Daily Beast: HSBC Report Should Result in Prosecutions, Not Just Fines, Say Critics

For at least half a decade, the storied British colonial banking power helped to wash hundreds of millions of dollars for drug mobs, including Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, suspected in tens of thousands of murders just in the past 10 years – people so totally evil, jokes former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, that "they make the guys on Wall Street look good." The bank also moved money for organizations linked to Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, and for Russian gangsters; helped countries like Iran, the Sudan and North Korea evade sanctions; and, in between helping murderers and terrorists and rogue states, aided countless common tax cheats in hiding their cash.

"They violated every goddamn law in the book," says Jack Blum, an attorney and former Senate investigator who headed a major bribery investigation against Lockheed in the 1970s that led to the passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. "They took every imaginable form of illegal and illicit business."

That nobody from the bank went to jail or paid a dollar in individual fines is nothing new in this era of financial crisis. What is different about this settlement is that the Justice Department, for the first time, admitted why it decided to go soft on this particular kind of criminal. It was worried that anything more than a wrist slap for HSBC might undermine the world economy. "Had the U.S. authorities decided to press criminal charges," said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer at a press conference to announce the settlement, "HSBC would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the U.S., the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized."

It was the dawn of a new era. In the years just after 9/11, even being breathed on by a suspected terrorist could land you in extralegal detention for the rest of your life. But now, when you're Too Big to Jail, you can cop to laundering terrorist cash and violating the Trading With the Enemy Act, and not only will you not be prosecuted for it, but the government will go out of its way to make sure you won't lose your license. Some on the Hill put it to me this way: OK, fine, no jail time, but they can't even pull their charter? Are you kidding?

But the Justice Department wasn't finished handing out Christmas goodies. A little over a week later, Breuer was back in front of the press, giving a cushy deal to another huge international firm, the Swiss bank UBS, which had just admitted to a key role in perhaps the biggest antitrust/price-fixing case in history, the so-called LIBOR scandal, a massive interest-rate­rigging conspiracy involving hundreds of trillions ("trillions," with a "t") of dollars in financial products. While two minor players did face charges, Breuer and the Justice Department worried aloud about global stability as they explained why no criminal charges were being filed against the parent company.

"Our goal here," Breuer said, "is not to destroy a major financial institution."

A reporter at the UBS presser pointed out to Breuer that UBS had already been busted in 2009 in a major tax-evasion case, and asked a sensible question. "This is a bank that has broken the law before," the reporter said. "So why not be tougher?"

"I don't know what tougher means," answered the assistant attorney general.

Also known as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, HSBC has always been associated with drugs. Founded in 1865, HSBC became the major commercial bank in colonial China after the conclusion of the Second Opium War. If you're rusty in your history of Britain's various wars of Imperial Rape, the Second Opium War was the one where Britain and other European powers basically slaughtered lots of Chinese people until they agreed to legalize the dope trade (much like they had done in the First Opium War, which ended in 1842).

A century and a half later, it appears not much has changed. With its strong on-the-ground presence in many of the various ex-colonial territories in Asia and Africa, and its rich history of cross-cultural moral flexibility, HSBC has a very different international footprint than other Too Big to Fail banks like Wells Fargo or Bank of America. While the American banking behemoths mainly gorged themselves on the toxic residential-mortgage trade that caused the 2008 financial bubble, HSBC took a slightly different path, turning itself into the destination bank for domestic and international scoundrels of every possible persuasion.

Three-time losers doing life in California prisons for street felonies might be surprised to learn that the no-jail settlement Lanny Breuer worked out for HSBC was already the bank's third strike. In fact, as a mortifying 334-page report issued by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations last summer made plain, HSBC ignored a truly awesome quantity of official warnings.

In April 2003, with 9/11 still fresh in the minds of American regulators, the Federal Reserve sent HSBC's American subsidiary a cease-and-desist­ letter, ordering it to clean up its act and make a better effort to keep criminals and terrorists from opening accounts at its bank. One of the bank's bigger customers, for instance, was Saudi Arabia's Al Rajhi bank, which had been linked by the CIA and other government agencies to terrorism. According to a document cited in a Senate report, one of the bank's founders, Sulaiman bin Abdul Aziz Al Rajhi, was among 20 early financiers of Al Qaeda, a member of what Osama bin Laden himself apparently called the "Golden Chain." In 2003, the CIA wrote a confidential report about the bank, describing Al Rajhi as a "conduit for extremist finance." In the report, details of which leaked to the public by 2007, the agency noted that Sulaiman Al Rajhi consciously worked to help Islamic "charities" hide their true nature, ordering the bank's board to "explore financial instruments that would allow the bank's charitable contributions to avoid official Saudi scrutiny." (The bank has denied any role in financing extremists.)

In January 2005, while under the cloud of its first double-secret­-probation agreement with the U.S., HSBC decided to partially sever ties with Al Rajhi. Note the word "partially": The decision­ would only apply to Al Rajhi banking and not to its related trading company, a distinction that tickled executives inside the bank. In March 2005, Alan Ketley, a compliance officer for HSBC's American subsidiary, HBUS, gleefully told Paul Plesser, head of his bank's Global Foreign Exchange Department, that it was cool to do business with Al Rajhi Trading. "Looks like you're fine to continue dealing with Al Rajhi," he wrote. "You'd better be making lots of money!"

But this backdoor arrangement with bin Laden's suspected "Golden Chain" banker wasn't direct enough – many HSBC executives wanted the whole shebang restored. In a remarkable e-mail sent in May 2005, Christopher Lok, HSBC's head of global bank notes, asked a colleague if they could maybe go back to fully doing business with Al Rajhi as soon as one of America's primary banking regulators, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, lifted the 2003 cease-and-desist order: "After the OCC closeout and that chapter is hopefully finished, could we revisit Al Rajhi again? London compliance has taken a more lenient view."

After being slapped with the order in 2003, HSBC began blowing off its requirements both in letter and in spirit – and on a mass scale, too. Instead of punishing the bank, though, the government's response was to send it more angry letters. Typically, those came in the form of so-called "MRA" (Matters Requiring Attention) letters sent by the OCC. Most of these touched upon the same theme, i.e., HSBC failing to do due diligence on the shady characters who might be depositing money in its accounts or using its branches to wire money. HSBC racked up these "You're Still Screwing Up and We Know It" orders by the dozen, and in just one brief stretch between 2005 and 2006, it received 30 different formal warnings.

Nonetheless, in February 2006 the OCC under George Bush suddenly decided to release HSBC from the 2003 cease-and-desist­ order. In other words, HSBC basically violated its parole 30 times in just more than a year and got off anyway. The bank was, to use the street term, "off paper" – and free to let the Al Rajhis of the world come rushing back.

After HSBC fully restored its relationship with the apparently terrorist-friendly Al Rajhi Bank in Saudi Arabia, it supplied the bank with nearly 1 billion U.S. dollars. When asked by HSBC what it needed all its American cash for, Al Rajhi explained that people in Saudi Arabia need dollars for all sorts of reasons. "During summer time," the bank wrote, "we have a high demand from tourists traveling for their vacations."

The Treasury Department keeps a list compiled by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, and American banks are not supposed to do business with anyone on the OFAC list. But the bank knowingly helped banned individuals elude the sanctions process. One such individual was the powerful Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf, a close confidant of the Assad family. When Makhlouf appeared on the OFAC list in 2008, HSBC responded not by severing ties with him but by trying to figure out what to do about the accounts the Syrian power broker had in its Geneva and Cayman Islands branches. "We have determined that accounts held in the Caymans are not in the jurisdiction of, and are not housed on any systems in, the United States," wrote one compliance officer. "Therefore, we will not be reporting this match to OFAC."

Translation: We know the guy's on a terrorist list, but his accounts are in a place the Americans can't search, so screw them.

Remember, this was in 2008 – five years after HSBC had first been caught doing this sort of thing. And even four years after that, when being grilled by Michigan Sen. Carl Levin in July 2012, an HSBC executive refused to absolutely say that the bank would inform the government if Makhlouf or another OFAC-listed name popped up in its system – saying only that it would "do everything we can."

The Senate exchange highlighted an extremely frustrating dynamic government investigators have had to face with Too Big to Jail megabanks: The same thing that makes them so attractive to shady customers – their ability to instantaneously move money around the world to places like the Cayman Islands and Switzerland – makes it easy for them to play dumb with regulators by hiding behind secrecy laws.

When it wasn't banking for shady Third World characters, HSBC was training its mental firepower on the problem of finding creative ways to allow it to do business with countries under U.S. sanction, particularly Iran. In one memo from HSBC's Middle East subsidiary, HBME, the bank notes that it could make a lot of money with Iran, provided it dealt with what it termed "difficulties" – you know, those pesky laws.

"It is anticipated that Iran will become a source of increasing income for the group going forward," the memo says, "and if we are to achieve this goal we must adopt a positive stance when encountering difficulties."

The "positive stance" included a technique called "stripping," in which foreign subsidiaries like HSBC Middle East or HSBC Europe would remove references to Iran in wire transactions to and from the United States, often putting themselves in place of the actual client name to avoid triggering OFAC alerts. (In other words, the transaction would have HBME listed on one end, instead of an Iranian client.)

For more than half a decade, a whopping $19 billion in transactions involving Iran went through the American financial system, with the Iranian connection kept hidden in 75 to 90 percent of those transactions. HSBC has been headquartered in England for more than two decades – it's Europe's largest bank, in fact – but it has major subsidiary operations in every corner of the world. What's come out in this investigation is that the chiefs in the parent company often knew about shady transactions when the regional subsidiary did not. In the case of banned Iranian transactions, for instance, there are multiple e-mails from HSBC's compliance head, David Bagley, in which he admits that HSBC's American subsidiary probably has no clue that HSBC Europe has been sending it buttloads of banned Iranian money.

"I am not sure that HBUS are aware of the fact that HBEU are already providing clearing facilities for four Iranian banks," he wrote in 2003. The following year, he made the same observation. "I suspect that HBUS are not aware that [Iranian] payments may be passing through them," he wrote.

What's the upside for a bank like HSBC to do business with banned individuals, crooks and so on? The answer is simple: "If you have clients who are interested in 'specialty services'­ – that's the euphemism for the bad stuff – you can charge 'em whatever you want," says former Senate investigator Blum. "The margin on laundered money for years has been roughly 20 percent."

Those charges might come in many forms, from upfront fees to promises to keep deposits at the bank for certain lengths of time. However you structure it, the possibilities for profit are enormous, provided you're willing to accept money from almost anywhere. HSBC, its roots in the raw battlefield capitalism of the old British colonies and its strong presence in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, had more access to customers needing "specialty services" than perhaps any other bank.

And it worked hard to satisfy those customers. In perhaps the pinnacle innovation in the history of sleazy banking practices, HSBC ran a preposterous offshore operation in Mexico that allowed anyone to walk into any HSBC Mexico branch and open a U.S.-dollar account (HSBC Mexico accounts had to be in pesos) via a so-called "Cayman Islands branch" of HSBC Mexico. The evidence suggests customers barely had to submit a real name and address, much less explain the legitimate origins of their deposits.

If you can imagine a drive-thru heart-transplant clinic or an airline that keeps a fully-stocked minibar in the cockpit of every airplane, you're in the ballpark of grasping the regulatory absurdity of HSBC Mexico's "Cayman Islands branch." The whole thing was a pure shell company, run by Mexicans in Mexican bank branches.

At one point, this figment of the bank's corporate imagination had 50,000 clients, holding a total of $2.1 billion in assets. In 2002, an internal audit found that 41 percent of reviewed accounts had incomplete client information. Six years later, an e-mail from a high-ranking HSBC employee noted that 15 percent of customers didn't even have a file. "How do you locate clients when you have no file?" complained the executive.

It wasn't until it was discovered that these accounts were being used to pay a U.S. company allegedly supplying aircraft to Mexican drug dealers that HSBC took action, and even then it closed only some of the "Cayman Islands branch" accounts. As late as 2012, when HSBC executives were being dragged before the U.S. Senate, the bank still had 20,000 such accounts worth some $670 million – and under oath would only say that the bank was "in the process" of closing them.

Meanwhile, throughout all of this time, U.S. regulators kept examining HSBC. In an absurdist pattern that would continue through the 2000s, OCC examiners would conduct annual reviews, find the same disturbing shit they'd found for years, and then write about the bank's problems as though they were being discovered for the first time. From the 2006 annual OCC review: "During the year, we identified a number of areas lacking consistent, vigilant adherence to BSA/AML policies. . . . Management responded positively and initiated steps to correct weaknesses and improve conformance with bank policy. We will validate corrective action in the next examination cycle."

Translation: These guys are assholes, but they admit it, so it's cool and we won't do anything.

A year later, on July 24th, 2007, OCC had this to say: "During the past year, examiners identified a number of common themes, in that businesses lacked consistent, vigilant adherence to BSA/AML policies. Bank policies are acceptable. . . . Management continues to respond positively and initiated steps to improve conformance with bank policy."

Translation: They're still assholes, but we've alerted them to the problem and everything'll be cool.

By then, HSBC's lax money-laundering controls had infected virtually the entire company. Russians identifying themselves as used-car salesmen were at one point depositing $500,000 a day into HSBC, mainly through a bent traveler's-checks operation in Japan. The company's special banking program for foreign embassies was so completely fucked that it had suspicious-activity­ alerts backed up by the thousands. There is also strong evidence that the bank was allowing clients in Sudan, Cuba, Burma and North Korea to evade sanctions.

When one of the company's compliance chiefs, Carolyn Wind, raised concerns that she didn't have enough staff to monitor suspicious activities at a board meeting in 2007, she was fired. The sheer balls it took for the bank to ignore its compliance executives and continue taking money from so many different shady sources­ while ostensibly it had regulators swarming­ all over its every move is incredible. "You can't make up more egregious money-laundering that permeated an entire institution," says Spitzer.

By the late 2000s, other law enforcement agencies were beginning to catch HSBC's scent. The Department of Homeland Security started investigating HSBC for laundering drug money, while the attorney general's office in West Virginia snooped around HSBC's involvement in a Medicare-fraud case. A federal intra-agency meeting was convened in Washington in September 2009, at which it was determined that HSBC was out of control and needed to be investigated more closely.

The bank itself was then notified that its usual OCC review was being "expanded." More OCC staff was assigned to pore through HSBC's books, and, among other things, they found a backlog of 17,000 alerts of suspicious activity that had not been processed. They also noted that the bank had a similar pileup of subpoenas in money-laundering cases.

Finally it seemed the government was on the verge of becoming genuinely pissed off. In March 2010, after seeing countless ultimatums ignored, they issued one more, giving HSBC three months to clear that goddamned 17,000-alert backlog or else there would be serious consequences. HSBC met that deadline, but months later the OCC again found the bank's money-laundering controls seriously wanting, forcing the government to take, well . . . drastic action, right?

Sort of! In October 2010, the OCC took a deep breath, strapped on its big-boy pants and . . . issued a second cease-and-desist order!

In other words, it was "Don't Do It Again" – again. The punishment for all of that dastardly defiance was to bring the regulatory process right back to the same kind of double-secret-probation­ order they'd tried in 2003.

Not to say that HSBC didn't make changes after the second Don't Do It Again order. It did – it hired some people.

In the summer of 2010, 25-year-old Everett Stern was just out of business school, fighting a mild case of wanderlust and looking for a job but also for adventure. His dream was to be a CIA agent, battling bad guys and snatching up Middle Eastern terrorists. He applied to the agency's clandestine service, had an interview even, but just before graduation, the bespectacled, youthfully exuberant Stern was turned down.

He was crushed, but then he found an online job posting that piqued his interest. HSBC, a major international bank, was looking for people to help with its anti-money-laundering program. "I thought this was exactly what I wanted to do," he says. "It sounded so exciting."

Stern went up to HSBC's offices in New Castle, Delaware, for an interview, and that October, just days after the OCC issued the second Don't Do It Again letter, he started work as part of HSBC's "expanded" anti­money-laundering program.

From the outset, Stern knew there was something weird about his job. "I had to go to the library to take out books on money-laundering," Stern says now, laughing. "That's how bad it was." There were no training courses or seminars on money-laundering­ – what it was, how to detect it. His work mainly consisted of looking up the names of unsavory characters on the Internet and then running them through the bank's internal systems to see if they popped up on any account names anywhere.

Even weirder, nobody seemed to care if anybody was doing any actual work. The Delaware office was mostly empty for a long while, just a giant unpainted room with a few hastily arranged cubicles and only a dozen or so people in it, and nobody really watching any of the workers. Stern and a fellow co-worker­ would routinely finish all their work by 10:30 in the morning, then spend a few hours throwing rocks into a quarry located behind the bank offices. Then they would go back to their cubicles and hang out until 3 p.m. or so, or until it was at least plausible that they'd put in a real workday. "If we asked for any more work," Stern says, "they got angry."

Stern earned a starting salary of $54,900.

Soon enough, though, out of boredom and also maybe a little bit of patriotism, Stern started to sift through some of the backlogged alerts and tried to make sense of them. Almost immediately, he found a series of deeply concerning transactions. There was an exchange company wiring large sums of money to untraceable destinations in the Middle East. A Saudi fruit company was sending millions, Stern found with a simple Internet search, to a high-ranking figure in the Yemeni wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Stern even learned that HSBC was allowing millions of dollars to be moved from the Karaiba chain of super­markets in Africa to a firm called Tajco, run by the Tajideen brothers, who had been singled out by the Treasury Department as major financiers of Hezbollah.

Every time Stern brought one of these discoveries to his bosses, they rolled their eyes at him, if not worse. When he alerted his boss that a shipping company with ties to Iran was doing a lot of business with the bank, he blew up. "You called me over for this?" the boss snapped.

Soon after, the empty office started to fill up. What HSBC did in the way of hiring new staff was actually pretty clever. It liqui­dated its credit-card-collections unit and moved the bulk of the employees over to the anti-money-laundering department. Again, without really training anyone at all, it put hundreds of loud, gum-chewing, mostly uneducated, occasionally rowdy call-center workers on a new gig, turning them into money-laundering investigators.

Stern says his co-workers not only sucked at their jobs, they didn't even know what their jobs were. "You could walk into that building today," he says, "and ask anyone there what money­laundering is – and I guarantee you, no one will know."

When something fishy pops up in connection with a bank account, the bank generates an alert. An alert can be birthed by almost anything, from someone wiring $9,999 (to keep under the $10K reporting level) to someone wiring large sums in round numbers to someone else opening an account with a phony-sounding name or address.

When an alert gets generated, the bank is supposed to promptly investigate the matter. If the bank doesn't clear the alert, it creates a "Suspicious Activity Report," which is handed over to the Treasury Department to be investigated.

Stern then found himself in the middle of a perverse sort-of anti­compliance mechanism. HSBC had "complied" with the government's Don't Do It Again, Again order by hiring hundreds of bodies whom it turned into an army for whitewashing suspicious transactions. Remember, the complaint against HSBC was not so much that it had specifically allowed terrorist or drug money through, but that it had allowed suspicious accounts to pile up without being checked.

The boss at Stern's Delaware office gave his new team goals: Everyone was to try to clear 72 alerts a week. For those of you keeping score at home, that's nearly two alerts investigated and cleared every hour. According to Stern, almost any kind of information was good enough to clear an alert. "Basically, if a company had a website, you could clear them," he says.

Soon enough, HSBC's compliance executives were circulating cheery e-mails. "Great job by some Delaware professionals in the early part of the week," wrote Stern's boss on June 30th, 2011. The e-mail was subject-lined, "The 60-plus crowd," signifying accolades to employees who had cleared more than 60 suspicious transactions that week.

After trying in vain to convince his bosses to at least let him do his job and look for money-laundering, Stern decided to turn whistle-blower, telling the FBI and other agencies what was going on at the bank. He left work at HSBC in 2011, fully expecting that the government would drop the hammer on his former employers.

By that time, numerous agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, had crawled all the way up HSBC's backside, among other things examining it as part of a major international narcotics investigation. In one four-year period between 2006 and 2009, an astonishing $200 trillion in wire transfers (including from high-risk countries like Mexico) went through without any monitoring at all. The bank also failed to do due diligence on the purchase of an incredible $9 billion in physical U.S. dollars from Mexico and played a key role in the so-called Black Market Peso Exchange, which allowed drug cartels in both Mexico and Colombia to convert U.S. dollars from drug sales into pesos to be used back home. Drug agents discovered that dealers in Mexico were building special cash boxes to fit the precise dimensions of HSBC teller windows.

Former bailout inspector and federal prosecutor Neil Barofsky, who has helped secure numerous foreign money-laundering indictments, points out that the people HSBC was doing business with, like Colombia's Norte del Valle and Mexico's Sinaloa cartels, were "the worst trafficking organizations imaginable" – groups that don't just commit murder on a mass scale but are known for beheadings, torture videos ("the new thing now," he says) and other atrocities, none of which happens without money launderers. It's for this reason, Barofsky says, that drug prosecutors are not shy about dropping heavy prison sentences on launderers. "Frankly, our view of money-laundering was that it was on par with, and as significant as, the traffickers themselves," he says.

Barofsky was involved in the first extradition of a Colombian national (Pablo Trujillo, a member of the same cartel that HSBC moved money for) on money­laundering charges. "That guy got 10 years," says Barofsky. "HSBC was doing the same thing, only on a much larger scale than my schmuck was doing."

Clearly, HSBC had violated the 2010 Don't Do It Again, Again order. Everett Stern saw it with his own eyes; so did the OCC and the U.S. Senate, whose Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations decided to target the company for a yearlong investigation into global money-laundering. The bank itself, in response to the Senate investigation, acknowledged that it had "sometimes failed to meet the standards that regulators and customers expect." It would later go on to say that it was even "profoundly sorry."

A few days after Thanksgiving 2012, Stern heard that the Justice Department was about to announce a settlement. Since he'd left HSBC the year before,­ he'd had a rough time. Going public with his allegations had left him emotionally and financially devastated. He'd been unable to find a job, and at one point even applied for welfare. But now that the feds were finally about to drop the hammer on HSBC, he figured he'd have the satisfaction of knowing that his sacrifice had been worthwhile.

So he went to New York and sat in a hotel room, waiting for reporters to call for his comments. When he heard the news that the "punishment" Breuer had announced was a deferred prosecution agreement – a Don't Do It Again, Again, Again agreement, if you will – he was flabbergasted.

"I thought, 'All that, for nothing?' " he says. "I couldn't believe it."

The writer Ambrose Bierce once said there's only one thing in the world worse than a clarinet: two clarinets. In the same vein, there's only one thing worse than a totally corrupt bank: many corrupt banks.

If the HSBC deal showed how much dastardly crap the state could tolerate from one bank, Breuer was back a week later to show that the government would go just as easy on banks that team up with other banks to perpetrate even bigger scandals. On December 19th, 2012, he announced that the Justice Department was essentially letting Swiss banking giant UBS off the hook for its part in what is likely the biggest financial scam of all time.

The so-called LIBOR scandal, which is at the heart of the UBS settlement, makes Enron look like a parking violation. Many of the world's biggest banks, including Switzerland's UBS, Britain's Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland, got together and secretly conspired to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate, or LIBOR, which measures the rate at which banks lend to each other. Many, if not most, interest rates are pegged to LIBOR. The prices of hundreds of trillions of dollars of financial products are tied to LIBOR, everything from commercial loans to credit cards to mortgages to municipal bonds to swaps and currencies.

If you can imagine executives at Ford, GM, Mitsubishi, BMW and Mercedes getting together every morning to fix the prices of aluminum and stainless steel, you have a rough idea of what the LIBOR scandal is like, except that in the car-company analogy, you'd be dealing with absurdly smaller numbers. These are the world's biggest banks getting together every morning to essentially fix the price of money. Low LIBOR rates are an indicator that banks are strong and healthy. These banks were faking the results of their daily physicals. In banking terms, they were juicing.

Two different types of manipulation took place. In 2008, during the heat of the global crash, banks artificially submitted low rates in order to present an image of financial soundness to the markets. But at other times over the course of years, individual traders schemed to move rates up or down in order to profit on individual trades.

There is nobody anywhere growing weed strong enough to help the human mind grasp the enormity of this crime. It's a conspiracy so massive that the lawyers who are suing the banks are having an extremely difficult time figuring out how to calculate the damage.

Here's how it works: Every morning, 16 of the world's largest banks submit numbers to a London­based panel indicating what interest rates they're charging other banks to borrow money and what they themselves are charged. The LIBOR panel then takes those 16 different interest rates, tosses out the four highest and the four lowest, and averages out the remaining eight to create that day's LIBOR rates – the basis for interest rates almost everywhere in the world.

The fact that the LIBOR panel tosses out the four highest and lowest numbers every day is an important detail, because it means that it is difficult to artificially influence the final rate unless multiple banks are conspiring with each other. One bank lying its ass off and reporting that banks are lending money to each other basically for free doesn't move the needle much. To really be sure you're creating an artificially low or high interest rate, you need a bunch of banks on board – and it turns out that they were.

For perhaps as far back as 20 years, banks have been submitting phony numbers, often in concert with other banks. They did it for a variety of reasons, but the big one, typically, is that a bank trader is holding some investment tied to LIBOR – bundles of currencies, municipal bonds, mortgages, whatever – that would earn more money if the interest rate was lower. So what would happen is, some schmuck trader at Bank X would call the LIBOR submitter and offer him cash, booze, a blow job or just a pat on the back to get him to submit a fake number that day.

The scandal first blew up last year when the British megabank Barclays admitted to its part in the fixing of LIBOR rates. British regulators released a cache of disgusting e-mails showing traders from many different banks cheerfully monkeying around with your credit-card bills, your mortgage rates, your tax bill, your IRA account, etc., so that they could make out better on some sordid trade they had on that day. In one case, a trader from an unnamed bank sent an e-mail to a Barclays trader thanking him for helping to fix interest rates and promising a kickass bottle of bubbly for his efforts:

"Dude. I owe you big time! Come over one day after work, and I'm opening a bottle of Bollinger."

UBS was the next bank to confess, and its settlement – $1.5 billion in fines – was much the same, only the e-mails released were, if anything, more disgusting and damning. The British Financial Services Authority – equivalent to our SEC – discovered thousands of requests to fudge rates over a period of years involving dozens of different individuals and multiple banks. In many cases, the misdeeds were committed more or less openly, in writing, with traders and brokers baldly offering bribes in texts and e-mails with an obvious unconcern for punishment that later, sadly, proved justified.

"I will fucking do one humongous deal with you," begged one UBS trader who wanted a broker to fix the rate. "I'll pay, you know, $50,000, $100,000."

British regulators aren't hiding the size of the scandal. The UBS settlement demonstrated, without a doubt, that the LIBOR scandal involved more than just one or two banks, and probably involved hundreds of people at many of the world's largest and most prestigious financial institutions – in other words, a truly epic case of anti-competitive collusion that called into question whether the world's biggest banks are innovating a new, not-entirely capitalist form of high finance. "We have said there are five further institutions under investigation," says Christopher Hamilton of the FSA. "And there is a large number of individuals as well." (At press time, another bank, the Royal Bank of Scotland, also settled for LIBOR-related offenses.)

This dovetailed with what Bob Diamond, the former head of Barclays, told the British Parliament the day after he stepped down last year. "There is an industrywide problem coming out now," he said. Michael Hausfeld, a famed class-action lawyer who is suing the banks over LIBOR on behalf of cities like Baltimore whose investments lost money when interest rates were lowered, says the public still hasn't grasped the importance of comments like Diamond's. "Diamond essentially said, 'This is an industrywide problem,'" Hausfeld says. "But nobody has defined what this is yet."

Hausfeld's point – that Diamond's "industrywide problem" might be more than just a few guys messing with rates; it could be a systemic effort to pervert capitalism itself – underscores the extreme miscalculation of both recent no-prosecution deals.

At HSBC, the bank did more than avert its eyes to a few shady transactions. It repeatedly defied government orders as it made a conscious, years-long effort to completely stop discriminating between illegitimate and legitimate money. And when it somehow talked the U.S. government into crafting a settlement over these offenses with the lunatic aim of preserving the bank's license, it succeeded, finally, in making crime mainstream.

UBS, meanwhile, was a similarly elemental case, in which the offenses­ didn't just violate the letter of the law – they threatened the integrity of the competitive system. If you're going to let hundreds of boozed-up bankers spend every morning sending goofball e-mails to each other, giving each other super­hero nicknames while they rigged the cost of money (spelling-challenged UBS traders dubbed themselves, among other things, "captain caos," the "three muscateers" and "Superman"), you might as well give up on capitalism entirely and just declare the 16 biggest banks in the world the International Bureau of Prices.

Thus, in the space of just a few weeks, regulators in Britain and America teamed up to declare near-total surrender to both crime and monopoly. This was more than a couple of cases of letting rich guys walk. These were major policy decisions that will reverberate for the next generation.

Even worse than the actual settlements was the explanation Breuer offered for them. "In the world today of large institutions, where much of the financial world is based on confidence," he said, "a right resolution is to ensure that counter-parties don't flee an institution, that jobs are not lost, that there's not some world economic event that's disproportionate to the resolution we want."

In other words, Breuer is saying the banks have us by the balls, that the social cost of putting their executives in jail might end up being larger than the cost of letting them get away with, well, anything.

This is bullshit, and exactly the opposite of the truth, but it's what our current government believes. From JonBenet to O.J. to Robert Blake, Americans have long understood that the rich get good lawyers and get off, while the poor suck eggs and do time. But this is something different. This is the government admitting to being afraid to prosecute the very powerful – something it never did even in the heydays of Al Capone or Pablo Escobar, something it didn't do even with Richard Nixon. And when you admit that some people are too important to prosecute, it's just a few short steps to the obvious corollary – that everybody else is unimportant enough to jail.

An arrestable class and an unarrestable class. We always suspected it, now it's admitted. So what do we do?

This story is from the February 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/gangster-bankers-too-big-to-jail-20130214#ixzz2Ku4ubqHi