A Modest Proposal for Financial Law

Standard Chartered PLC agreed to pay a $340 million “fine” for improper financial transactions amounting to $250 billion, a fine of just a tad over 1% of that total.  Judge Jed Rakoff, of the United States Federal District, refused to sanction a proposed settlement between the SEC and Citigroup Global Markets of a $160 million “fine” for an improperly handled billion dollar CDO fund, arguing in part that there was no basis for a punitive settlement when there was no allegation or admission of a wrongdoing.

It is, in fact, routine for supposedly misbehaving financial entities and their Federal regulators to negotiate such chump change fines, whether or not actual wrongdoing is conceded or alleged.  This disconnect between the sanction and the (phantom) misbehavior generally is not the result of cronyism; all the players are, say I, fundamentally honest.  No, such settlements are driven by the complexity of our financial laws, of which Dodd-Frank is only the latest addition.  The defendant financial institution usually finds it cheaper to pay the government’s vig than to defend itself, even when innocent, and the government usually finds it cheaper to charge only a taste and make no demand for admission of wrongdoing than to prosecute a case.

As a result of this unnecessary complexity, the government simply continues to hector the financial institutions and the financials simply continue to misbehave (my remark about honesty not withstanding) with the settlements just part of the cost of doing business.

Accordingly, a modest proposal.  Get rid of the financial laws and the regulations.  Replace them with a few simple laws (which, in their simplicity will need no implementing regulations) to the effect of honoring freely signed contracts, the products sold having to be openly and clearly described, all parties to the contracts, and their roles, having to be clearly and openly described.  There might be one or two others, but you get the idea.

Then get serious about cases.  If these laws are violated, hale the miscreants into court and go for serious penalties.  No more “negotiating” pocket money payments.  That’s like negotiating with Willie Sutton over his “community service.”  $250 billion in illegal trades ought to get that much as the floor of a fine.  If that puts the misbehaving company out of business, I suggest that a criminal organization won’t be missed.

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