August 25, 2015
Bank Settlements and the Arc of Justice
Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” A recent report by SNL Financial (available here, but requires a lot of sign-up info) offers us a chance to evaluate that claim in the context of the financial crisis.
SNL reports that the six largest bank holding companies have paid over $132 billion to settle credit crisis and mortgage-related lawsuits brought by governments, investors and other financial institutions.
In the context of the litigation over the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships, I had considered whether it is efficient to respond to financial crises by allowing the government to do what it needs to do during the crisis and then “use litigation to make an accounting to all of the stakeholders once the situation has stabilized.” (121)
Given that the biggest bank settlements are now in the rear view window, we can now say that the accounting for the financial crisis comes in at around $132 billion give or take. Does that number do justice for the wrongs of the boom times? I don’t think I have my own answer to that question yet, but it is certainly worth considering.
On the one hand, we should acknowledge that it is a humongous number, a number so big that that no one would have considered it a likely one at the beginning of the financial crisis. This crisis made nine and ten digit settlement numbers a routine event.
On the other hand, wrongdoing (along with good old-fashioned boom mentality) during the financial crisis almost sent the global economy into a depression. It also wreaked havoc on so many individuals, directly and indirectly.
I look forward to seeing metrics that can make sense of this (ratio of settlement amounts to annual profits of Wall Street firms; ratio to bonus pools; ratio to home equity lost), but I will say that I am struck by the lack of individual accountability that has come out of all of this litigation.
Individuals who made six, seven and eight figure paychecks from this wrongdoing were able to move on relatively unscathed. We should think about how to avoid that result the next time around. Otherwise the arc of justice will bend in the wrong direction.