Preface: Not all banks are criminal enterprises. The wrongdoing of a particular bank cannot be attributed to other banks without proof. But – as documented below – many of the biggest banks have engaged in unimaginably bad behavior.
You Won’t Believe What They’ve Done …
Here are just some of the improprieties by big banks:
- Funding the Nazis.....
- Financing illegal arms deals, and funding the manufacture of cluster bombs (and see this and this) and other arms which are banned in most of the world
- Launching a coup against the President of the United States
- Handling money for rogue military operations
- Laundering money for drug cartels. See this, this, this and this (indeed, drug dealers kept the banking system afloat during the depths of the 2008 financial crisis)
- Shaving money off of virtually every pension transaction they handled over the course of decades, stealing collectively billions of dollars from pensions worldwide. Details here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here
- Artificially suppressing gold prices
- Charging “storage fees” to store gold bullion … without even buying or storing any gold . And raiding allocated gold accounts
- Committing massive and pervasive fraud both when they initiated mortgage loans and when they foreclosed on them.
- Pledging the same mortgage multiple times to different buyers. See this, this, this, this and this. This would be like selling your car, and collecting money from 10 different buyers for the same car
- Cheating homeowners by gaming laws meant to protect people from unfair foreclosure
- Committing massive fraud in an $800 trillion dollar market which effects everything from mortgages, student loans, small business loans and city financing
- Manipulating the hundred trillion dollar derivatives market
- Engaging in insider trading of the most important financial information
- Pushing investments which they knew were terrible, and then betting against the same investments to make money for themselves. See this, this, this, this and this
- Engaging in unlawful “frontrunning” to manipulate markets. See this, this, this, this, this and this
- Charging veterans unlawful mortgage fees
- Helping the richest to illegally hide assets
The executives of the big banks invariably pretend that the hanky-panky was only committed by a couple of low-level rogue employees. But studies show that most of the fraud is committed by management.
Indeed, one of the world’s top fraud experts – professor of law and economics, and former senior S&L regulator Bill Black – says that most financial fraud is “control fraud”, where the people who own the banks are the ones who implement systemic fraud. See this, this and this.
But at least the big banks do good things for society, like loaning money to Main Street, right?
- The big banks no longer do very much traditional banking. Most of their business is from financial speculation. For example, less than 10% of Bank of America’s assets come from traditional banking deposits. Instead, they are mainly engaged in financial speculation and derivatives. (and see this)
- The big banks have slashed lending since they were bailed out by taxpayers … while smaller banks have increased lending. See this, this and this
- A huge portion of the banks’ profits comes from taxpayer bailouts. For example, 77% of JP Morgan’s net income comes from taxpayer subsidies
We can almost understand why Thomas Jefferson warned:
And I sincerely believe, with you, that banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies ….
John Adams said:
Banks have done more injury to religion, morality, tranquillity, prosperity, and even wealth of the nation than they have done or ever will do good.
And Lord Acton argued:
The issue which has swept down the centuries and which will have to be fought sooner or later is the people versus the banks....
“Suspicious Cartel Agreements that Include Derivatives”
Spiegel reports today:
“In our investigations, we concentrate on suspicious cartel agreements that include derivatives. This includes possible secret agreements about the determination of these lending rates,” says European Competition Commissioner Joaquín Almunia. In other words, the investigators are interested in more than the manipulation of global interest rates to benefit specific parties. It’s also possible that the enormous market for derivatives was manipulated.
“Derivatives traders are also believed to have agreed upon the difference between the buy and sell prices (spreads) of derivatives, thereby selling these financial instruments to customers under conditions that were not customary in the market,” says the Swiss Competition Commission, which is also investigating possible cartels.
It is difficult to find clear evidence, such as a written cartel agreement. But in Brussels alone, more than 40 banks have contacted authorities to report what they know about years of manipulation.
Of course, out-of-control derivatives were largely responsible for the 2008 financial crisis … and still pose a massive threat to the economy.
But the cartel of giant banks is preventing a fix:
The big banks are preventing derivatives from being tamed.
Harold Bradley – who oversees almost $2 billion in assets as chief investment officer at the Kauffman Foundation – told the Reuters Global Exchanges and Trading Summit in New York that a cabal is preventing swap derivatives from being forced onto clearing exchanges:
There is no incentive from the moneyed interests in either Washington or New York to change it…I believe we are in a cabal. There are five or six players only who are engaged and dominant in this marketplace and apparently they own the regulatory apparatus. Everybody is afraid to regulate them.
That’s bad enough.
But Bob Litan of the Brookings Institute wrote a paper (here’s a summary) showing that – even if real derivatives legislation is ever passed – the 5 big derivatives players will still prevent any real change. James Kwak notes that Litan is no radical, but has previously written in defense in financial “innovation”.
Here’s a good summary from Rortybomb, showing that this is yet another reason to break up the too big to fails:
Litan is worried about the “Dealer’s Club” of the major derivatives players. I particularly like this paper as the best introduction to the current oligarchy that takes place in the very profitable over-the-counter derivatives trading market and credit default swap market. [Litton says]:
I have written this essay primarily to call attention to the main impediments to meaningful reform: the private actors who now control the trading of derivatives and all key elements of the infrastructure of derivatives trading, the major dealer banks. The importance of this “Derivatives Dealers’ Club” cannot be overstated. All end-users who want derivatives products, CDS in particular, must transact with dealer banks…I will argue that the major dealer banks have strong financial incentives and the ability to delay or impede changes from the status quo — even if the legislative reforms that are now being widely discussed are adopted— that would make the CDS and eventually other derivatives markets safer and more transparent for all concerned…Here, of course, I refer to the major derivatives dealers – the top 5 dealer-banks that control virtually all of the dealer-to-dealer trades in CDS, together with a few others that participate with the top 5 in other institutions important to the derivatives market. Collectively, these institutions have the ability and incentive, if not counteracted by policy intervention, to delay, distort or impede clearing, exchange trading and transparency…
Market-makers make the most profit, however, as long as they can operate as much in the dark as is possible – so that customers don’t know the true going prices, only the dealers do. This opacity allows the dealers to keep spreads high…
In combination, these various market institutions – relating to standardization, clearing and pricing – have incentives not to rock the boat, and not to accelerate the kinds of changes that would make the derivatives market safer and more transparent. The common element among all of these institutions is strong participation, if not significant ownership, by the major dealers.
So Bob Litan is waving a giant red flag that the top dealer-banks that control the CDS market can more or less, through a variety of means he lays out convincingly in the paper, derail or significantly slow down CDS reform after the fact if it passes.
If you thought we’d at least get our arms around credit default swap reform from a financial reform bill, you should read this report from Litan as a giant warning flag. In case you weren’t sure if you’ve heard anyone directly lay out the case on how the market and political concentration in the United States banking sector hurts consumers and increases systemic risk through both political pressures and anticompetitive levels of control of the institutions of the market, now you have. It’s not Matt Taibbi, but it’s much further away from a “everything is actually fine and the Treasury is in control of reform” reassurance. Which should scare you, and give you yet another good reason for size caps for the major banks.
Indeed, the U.S. has agreed to backstop potential trillions in derivatives in the U.S. … and abroad.
If the big banks are manipulating the derivatives market, they could manipulate every other market on the planet. Given that the size of the derivatives market dwarfs the entire global economy, and given that derivatives are – by definition – not real assets, but paper abstractions loosely based upon real assets, manipulation of derivatives can drive asset prices up or down at whim.
Of course, the big banks are doing a lot other things to move markets as well, such as:
What Would Jesus – Or the Rabbis of Old, Old, Old – Do?
Preface: If you are an atheist and believe that religion is crazy, please remember that some 85% of the American population identifies itself as Christian and millions more identify themselves as Jewish. Very few Americans are atheists … and the majority don’t trust atheists. Therefore, knowing a few bible verses might be helpful for atheists speaking to people of faith.
The head of Goldman Sachs said he’s doing “God’s work” with his banking activities.
The head of Barclays also told his congregation that banking as practiced by his company was not antithetical to Christian principles.
Are they right? Is big banking as practiced by the giant banks in harmony with Christian principles?
Initially, the Bible does not counsel us to ignore the breaking of laws by the the powerful.
In fact, the Bible mentions justice over 200 times — more than just about any other topic. The Bible asks us to do justice and to stand up to ANYONE — including the rich or powerful — who do injustice or oppress the people.
Indeed, one of the first things God asks of us is to do justice:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
While many churches and synagogues have become obsessed with other issues, many have arguably ignored this most important of God’s demands of us. As pointed out by a leading Christian ministry, which rescues underage girls trapped as sex slaves in third world countries:
In Scripture there is a constant call to seek justice. Jesus got upset at the Pharisees because they neglected the weightier matters of the law, which He defined as justice and the love of God . . . Isaiah 58 complains about the fact that while the people of God are praying and praying and praying, they are not doing anything about the injustice.
Should Christians just pray for justice and leave the rest to God?
That’s not what the Bible asks us to do. Instead, Hebrews 11:33 tells us that we are God’s hands for dispensing justice, and God uses us to “administer justice.”
We have to “walk our talk” and put our prayers into action.
God demands that we do everything in our power to act as “God’s hands” in bringing justice. And as Saint Augustine reminds us, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, He was appalled that there was no one to intervene. (Isaiah 59:15-16)
This is the only place in the Bible where the word “appalled” is used for the way God feels — in other words, the only thing which we know God is appalled by is if people are not doing justice.
There are hundreds of other references to justice in the Bible, including:
- Blessed are they who maintain justice . . . . (Psalm 106:3)
- This is what the LORD says: Maintain justice and do what is right . . . . (Isiah 56:1)
- This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. (Jeremiah 22:3,13-17)
- Follow justice and justice alone. (Deuteronomy 16:19, 20)
- For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice . . . . (Job 11:5,7)
- Learn to do right! Seek justice . . . . (Isaiah 1:17)
So if the powerful players in the giant banks broke the laws, they must be held to account.
Fraud and Manipulation of Money
The big banks have engaged in systemic, continuous ongoing criminal fraud.
Allowing the banks to commit crime with impunity is not what Jesus would do. What would Jesus do? Turn over the tables of the money-changers. (economists agree.)
Moreover, the giant banks manipulate currency through the use of schemes such as manipulating interest rates (gaming interest rates in different regions – Libor, Eurobor, etc. – can in turn drive their currencies up or down), high frequency trading and artificially suppressing gold prices (which artificially inflates the value of fiat money) .
As Ron Paul notes, the Bible forbids altering the quality of money (which, at the time and place, was entirely in the form of coins):
Even the Bible is clear that altering the quality of money is an immoral act. We are instructed to follow the rules of “just weights and measures.” “You shall do no injustice in judgment, in measurement of length, weight, or volume. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin” (Leviticus 19:35-36). “Diverse weights are an abomination to the LORD, and a false balance is not good” (Proverbs 20:23). The general principle can be summed as “You shall not steal.”
Proverbs 11:1 also provides:
Dishonest scales are an abomination to the LORD, but a just weight is His delight.
So to the extent that the giant banks have engaged in any dishonest acts or the manipulation of currencies, they are violating scripture.
Oppression of the Poor
Finally, the Bible condemns oppression of the poor for the benefit of the affluent:
He that oppresses the poor to increase his riches, and he that gives to the rich, shall surely come to want. (Proverbs 22:16)
To the extent that the giant banks have oppressed the poor to increase their riches, they are violating scripture.
Postscript: Not all bankers are bad people. For example, many bankers at smaller banks and credit unions are good people who are trying to help their communities. Each must be judged by his own acts....