Speed Reads


Wall Street's first post–housing crash criminal charges will have nothing to do with shady mortgages

U.S. Library of Congress

Federal prosecutors are preparing to file criminal charges against at least two of the world's largest banks, The New York Times reports, tackling the "public outcry over the perception that Wall Street giants are 'too big to jail.'" That perception is due largely to the fact that five years after the global economy collapsed under the weight of shady mortgage and lending practices at the world's biggest banks, no top bank or banker has been charged with a crime.

So who are the feds going after? Switzerland's Credit Suisse and France's BNP Paribas, according to The Times' sources. Now, both banks operate in the U.S., and neither's hands are clean in the housing bust, but that's not what the Justice Department and bank regulators are going after them for. The case against Credit Suisse reportedly hinges on its selling tax shelters to Americans, and BNP is accused of conducting business with U.S.-blacklisted countries like Sudan and Iran. Criminal investigations are underway for U.S. banks, but at a less-advanced stage, The Times reports.

If you were inclined toward cynicism, you might suggest that unlike foreign banks, Wall Street giants tend to donate liberally to U.S. politicians in both parties — and they're potential (high-paying) future employers for government bank regulators. But it's probably more likely in this case that prosecutors will have an easier time making the case that Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas actually broke the law.

What Wall Street banks did to the economy and hundred of thousands of unlucky homebuyers may be "criminal" in the figurative sense — as in, "casting Keanu Reeves in that role is criminal" — but proving that bankers committed actual legal crimes is tricky. There's the law, and this other problem: If banks are convicted of a crime, bank regulators may have to pull their charters, which "amounts to a death sentence for a bank," former U.S. prosecutor Daniel Levy tells The Times. A guilty plea by BNP would be the biggest from a bank since junk-bond pioneer Drexel Burnham Lambert in 1989.