Why WikiLeaks Can't Take Down Bank of America

Embarrass it, sure. But cripple America's largest bank? Hardly.

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At last, people who care about Wall Street and only Wall Street can join in on the WikiLeaks bonanza. In an interview with Forbes, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said his next big target will be a "major U.S. bank." As you can imagine, risk-averse investors would like to know which major U.S. bank. The best guess so far is Bank of America. That's due to the fact that in 2009 Assange told Computer World this rather unnoticed bombshell:

At the moment, for example, we are sitting on five gigabytes from Bank of America, one of the executive’s hard drives... Now how do we present that? It’s a difficult problem. We could just dump it all into one giant Zip file, but we know for a fact that has limited impact. To have impact, it needs to be easy for people to dive in and search it and get something out of it.

OK, so if he's got some serious corporate dirt, how serious is it? Enron serious?

Assange responds:

Reporter: So do you have very high impact corporate stuff to release then?

Assange: Yes, but maybe not as high impact…I mean, it could take down a bank or two.

Reporter: That sounds like high impact.

Assange: But not as big an impact as the history of a whole war. But it depends on how you measure these things.

Assange's latest threat turned a lot of heads in the blogosphere. However, it's the opinion of most business writers that the big U.S. banks are pretty much invincible:

  • Assange Is Out of His Mind if He Thinks This Will Take Down a U.S. Bank, writes Bess Levin at Dealbreaker:
I don’t know if Jules is aware of this, but in America, we don’t let banks fail (sorry, Lehman), even if they want to. Take Citi– they’ve tried as hard as possible and yet, still kicking. If Tim Geithner has to place a bank on a floating piece of debris while he freezes his ass off in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to save it, he will.

There’s no telling what might be revealed in any Bank of America documents–if Assange does indeed have them–but it could be old news. By the time of publication, the documents would be more than 14 months old. And, as much as any bank on Wall Street, BoA has been scrutinized in recent years by everyone from plaintiffs’ attorneys in class-action investor suits to the New York Attorney General’s office.

It is, of course, not impossible that someone innocent managed to stumble onto an explosive treasure trove of evidence.  But I'd say it's at least as likely that the documents reveal little in the way of malfeasance, and a great deal of bankers saying things that sound bad: making fun of customers and other bankers, whining about regulators, and so forth.  In other words, much like the diplomatic cables, a bunch of stuff that is embarrassing, but doesn't actually tell us much of anything that we desperately need to know.

That sort of openness doesn't seem to me to accomplish much other than causing banks and other vulnerable corporations to practice tighter security.
It is believed that the release will be so damaging as to create a new crisis in banking. I find this almost impossible to believe. I cannot imagine what new news will be released on banking that is not already known or has been speculated about in the press for the past three years.
  • Bank Leaks Are Better Than Gov't Leaks—But I Don't Know Why, writes an ambivalent Kevin Drum at Mother Jones:
As I said earlier, I'm on the fence a bit about whether an indiscriminate release of thousands of U.S. embassy cables is useful. After all, governments have a legitimate need for confidential diplomacy. But when I read about WikiLeaks' planned financial expose, I felt no such qualms. A huge release of internal documents from a big bank? Bring it on! And yet, just like governments, big corporations have both a legitimate need for confidential deliberations as well as many of the same pathologies that secrecy breeds. It's not a perfect analogy, of course, on a variety of levels, but still: it's not all that different either. So why do I feel so differently about it? I'm not quite sure.
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