Foreign Banks Aren't 'Too Big to Jail'

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The Justice Department is currently weighing criminal charges against two European banks, Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas. Lest Wall Street think this isn't serious, Attorney General Eric Holder said explicitly on Monday that no bank is "too big to jail." 

The DOJ is closer to securing a guilty plea from Credit Suisse, according to anonymously-sourced reports from The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. Prosecutors are hoping to land a $1 billion settlement in addition to Credit Suisse's guilty plea for helping wealthy Americans evade taxes. The bank, run by CEO Brady Dougan, has not commented on the allegations or a possible settlement. Allegedly, Credit Suisse launched a new subsidiary in Zurich last year called CS International Advisers, which took on "some of the assets and liabilities of Credit Suisse AG, namely the business area, the U.S. Offshore business." 

Of course, securing a guilty plea from a major bank is a risk to the economy, and the deal isn't guaranteed. BNP Paribas, a French bank, might end up pleading guilty to violating U.S. economic sanctions in other countries like Iran. The bank faces up to $2 billion in fines, but it's unlikely that it will settle with the DOJ before Credit Suisse does.

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Last year, Holder got himself into hot water when he suggested during a Senate hearing that some banks are, in fact, too big to jail. He told lawmakers,

When we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps world economy, that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large. It has an inhibiting impact on our ability to bring resolutions that I think would be more appropriate.

Holder later said his comments were misconstrued, and in a public video message released Monday, he was crystal clear: "There is no such thing as too big to jail." He continued, 

Some have used that phrase to describe the theory that certain financial institutions, even if they engage in criminal misconduct, should be considered immune from prosecution due to their sheer size and their influence on the economy. But, when laws appear indeed to have been broken, and the evidence supports the allegations, a company's size will never be a shield from prosecution or penalty.

Holder did not accuse any specific bank of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, some pundits say that punishing Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas isn't the home run Holder needs. Politico's Ben White wrote Tuesday morning that this is "not the crackdown we waited for":

Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas may well deserve to plead guilty to criminal offenses. But a pair of pleas from foreign owned banks is hardly going to reverse the fact that U.S. prosecutors completely failed to make any significant criminal cases against top executives or institutions in the wake of the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression. ...

Credit Suisse could reach a deal with the DOJ in the next couple weeks.  

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.