Citigroup, Jed Rakoff, MF Global and the SEC

There’s an odd asymmetry to the way the SEC works.

For example, it put Martha Stewart in jail but ignored Bernie Madoff.   It pursued Michael Milken vigorously after the junk bond market collapsed.   But it has, so far, left the heads of the major commercial and investment banks untouched, despite the fact that the toxic derivative securities they created were much more widespread and–as we continue to see–have damaged the world financial system much more severely than anything Milken did.

Raj Rajaratnam’s insider trading recently drew an 11-year prison sentence and a $93 million fine.

But the other side of the SEC has come to light again recently in the court of gadfly judge Jed Rakoff.  Judge Rakoff is being asked to approve a settlement of a case in which buyers of a Citigroup mortgage product lost $700 million.

The deal the SEC is offering?

–pay back $160 million, plus $30 million in interest and a $95 million fine;

–Citi doesn’t admit it did anything wrong;

–only low-level Citi employees are sanctioned.

–oh  …and the SEC wants to include an admonition to Citi not to do stuff like this again.  But, as Judge Rakoff points out, Citi appears to have violated such orders issued in prior settlements at least twice in the past decade and the SEC has done nothing.

You’d take a deal like that all day long.

A cynic might say that this behavior is related to the fact the current head of the SEC used to be in charge of the brokerage industry trade association.  On the other hand, I believe much of the toxic derivative activity was deliberately organized by the banks out of London because that put them out of the reach of US prosecutors.  So there’s not much the SEC can do.

…which brings me to MF Global.

There’s certainly a danger to generalizing from a small number of instances.  But, to me, what connects Martha Stewart, Michael Milken and Raj Rajaratnam is tha: t the issues are easy to understand, the names are high-profile, none were deeply plugged into the financial industry establishment and, although wealthy, none had the near-infinite resources of the large investment and commercial banks.

One of the issues that the Occupy Wall Street movement gives voice to is that after nearly destroying the world economy and forcing a high-cost financial rescue that all of us will be paying for for many years, no high-level financial commercial bank or brokerage executive has been prosecuted for anything.

What this adds up to, I think, is that the SEC will be scrutinizing the role Jon Corzine played in the demise of MF Global very carefully.  He’s a former head of Goldman Sachs but no longer an industry insider;  he’s an ex-senator and ex-governor; he’s wealthy–but not Bill Gates.   And, the question of whether the firm illegally took money out of customer accounts and used it to stave off margin calls is pretty clear-cut.  It may also be hard to say you didn’t notice an extra $600 million plopping into a portfolio you manage–especially so if you really needed it.

It will be interesting to see what happens–both whether the SEC finds a reason to prosecute and whether that will satisfy OWS.  My guess on the second count is that it won’t.

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