Prosecution for Financial Fraud at a 20-Year Low

November 18th, 2011
in econ_news

Robber Econintersect:  The United States must be blessed with the most ethical and fraud-free financial system in years.  Prosecutions for financial fraud have been declining for a decade and have reached a 20-year low.  If you are surprised after all the financial system turmoil of the past few years you need to read on.  The reduced prosecution may have no relationship to the amount of fraud perpetrated.

Follow up:

First, lets look at the prosecution history data from Syracuse University (TRAC Reports):


SU also has data for which agencies are filing prosecutions:




From TRAC Reports:

As shown in Figure 2, additional agencies with substantial numbers of referrals for financial institution fraud were: Homeland Security - Secret Service (32.5%), "Postal Service" (12.9%), "Homeland Security - Immigration and Customs Enforcement" and the Internal Revenue Service (3.9%).

Of course, the lower prosecutions must be a reflection of the trustworthiness of banks – NOT.  The following Gallup data reported in the Huffington Post shows how trust and confidence in banks have eroded over the past five years:


In July The New York Times had an article that discussed a little known policy guideline that could be a partial explanation of the decrease in prosecutions since the middle of 2008:  deferred prosecutions.  From the NYT:

Though little noticed outside legal circles, the guidelines were welcomed by firms representing banks. The Justice Department’s directive, involving a process known as deferred prosecutions, signaled “an important step away from the more aggressive prosecutorial practices seen in some cases under their predecessors,” Sullivan & Cromwell, a prominent Wall Street law firm, told clients in a memo that September.

Read the Times article for discussion by a number of criticisms from legal scholars, who feel the practice lets perpetrators, especially high executives, off too easily.  The term applied to such forbearance is moral hazard.  That expresses the idea that failure to punish wrongdoing can encourage repetition.

Before deferred prosecutions became operative in 2008 it has been suggested that shift of Justice Department attention to Homeland Security issues produced a reduction in financial crimes prosecutions.  Of course, even without Homeland Security the prosecutions might have declined anyway as the 21st century became the playground for deregulation.

The situation was recently summed up by GEI guest author Mike Norman at Mike Norman Economics:

French economist, Frederic Bastiat, perfectly summed up the concept of fraud and how it is perpetuated with this quote:

"When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it" - Fredric Bastiat.  (h/t Roger Erickson)

Sources: TRAC Reports, Syracuse Univ., Huffington Post, The New York Times and Mike Norman Economics

Hat tip to RH.

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