Bill Black: The Banks Have Blood on Their Hands


We invited Bill Black to return to explain whether the level of systemic risk due to fraud in our financial markets has improved or worsened since the dire situation he painted for us in early 2012. Sadly, it looks like abuse by the big players has only flourished since then.

In the U.S., our regulators have publicly embraced a “too big to prosecute” doctrine. We are restraining, underfunding, and dismantling regulatory oversight in the interest of short-term stability for the status quo. Which, as a criminologist, Black knows with certainty creates an environment where bad actors will act in their self-interest with assumed (and likely real, at this point) impunity.

If you can steal with impunity, as soon as you devastate regulation, you devastate the ability to prosecute. And as soon as that happens, in our jargon, in criminology, you make it a criminogenic environment. It just means an environment where the incentives are so perverse that they are going to produce widespread crime. In this context, it is going to be widespread accounting control fraud. And we see how few ethical restraints remain in the most elite banks.

You are looking at an underlying economic dynamic where fraud is a sure thing that will make people fabulously wealthy and where you select by your hiring, by your promotion, and by your firing for the ethically worst people at these firms that are committing the frauds. And so you have one of the largest banks in the world, HSBC, being the key ally to the most violent Mexican drug cartel, where they actually did so much business together that the drug cartel designed special boxes to put the cash in that they were laundering that fit exactly into the teller windows so that there would be no delay. This is the efficiency principle of drug laundering.

So these banks figuratively have the blood of over a thousand people on their hands.They are willing to fund people that murder and torture and behead folks. And they are willing to do that year after year, despite warnings from the regulators that they are doing this. And the regulators are not willing to actually take serious action until there has been “true devastation.”

And as time passes, our ability to bring effective justice – should we want to – atrophies:

I will tell you one of the things from being a former enforcement specialist: If you do not bring cases for year after year after year, it would be like a tennis player who stopped playing tournaments for ten years and never practices, and then he or she goes onto the court. What is going to happen?

They will get crushed by the opposition. So once you have given up enforcing the laws, I can tell you this with my lawyer hat on and former enforcement hat: You fear bringing these cases because you have allowed your skills to deteriorate so badly.

Given the sorry statements from officials like Lanny Breuer, who stepped down as the DOJ Criminal Division Chief earlier this year (he headed up the investigation of the banks and mortgage companies), we may already be at this stage.

Black sees a natural end to this systemic rot: a day where the bad actors no longer trust one another, and the system implodes upon itself:

I can tell you as a criminologist and as a former financial regulator, this is what you need to know about fraud: Fraud involves me, the fraudster, getting you to trust me. And then I betray your trust for my financial gain. And so there is no more destructive asset against trust than elite fraud.

So yes, we have been running a system under which the fraudsters get incredibly wealthy. And now they get incredibly wealthy and they do not even get prosecuted. And if there is a civil case – actually, they get the worst of all worlds. It sounds large for propaganda purposes, but all of us in finance know it is trivial. It is often literally a week of income, where their income is massively increased by the frauds.  The statistics show that there has been a general withdrawal of less sophisticated investors, in particular, from the marketplaces — and it’s because people do not trust the markets anymore.

Here is what people forget: After Lehman Brothers goes, the run that occurred was not Ma and Pa. The run that occurred that, for example, broke the buck in the money market mutual funds: that was a massive run of the most sophisticated financial players, where they were taking out hundreds of millions  or even tens of billions, in some cases – of money, in some cases, literally, in microseconds. In other words, bankers no longer trusted other bankers. And when that happens, markets do not simply become inefficient; they actually lock up. And that is what happened thousands of times after Lehman collapsed, because bankers would no longer trust other bankers’ evaluation of the assets.

And we have not even discussed derivatives to this point. Which is the not-800-pound gorilla, but the $8-trillion-ton-gorilla that is out there. So we already have the insanity of derivative trades in which both of us book a gain because we have different evaluations for the asset. So we have phenomenal paper gains that cannot be true. When the markets no longer trust each other, then those kinds of transactions do not work anymore, and there is no liquidity, and you are in the equivalent of trying to sell minority shareholder interest in a privately held corporation. How is that going to work out for you? Ever tried to do that?

So all across the globe, all across history, minority shareholders get completely screwed in that circumstance, when liquidity dries up. Well, the same thing can happen to much broader markets, including in particular the derivatives markets.

And if it does, when trust is interrupted, much less eroded, in the ways I have talked about it in the derivatives market, liquidity completely dries up. Anything that functions like a market-maker collapses, and you get whole financial systems that grind to a halt. And they do not happen just a few times. It can happen in thousands of markets roughly simultaneously.

You asked me earlier about Dodd Frank, and I said it had no coherent strategic vision. And a couple of the areas in which it had no coherent strategic vision we have talked about. It did not deal with the international competition-in-laxity. It did not deal with “too big to fail.” And it did not deal with derivatives. So I would say that was strike one, strike two, strike three.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Bill Black (47m:23s):


Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. Today Bill Black returns to the program. Bill is a former bank regulator and was a central figure in prosecuting the corruption associated with the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late 1980s. He has since been a prominent voice against financial and political fraud. And in 2005, he authored the excellent book The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One: How Corporate Executives and Politicians Looted the S&L Industry.

Now, when Bill was our guest last year, we discussed how control fraud is … read more

Peak Prosperity