the SEC, Citigroup and moral hazard

This is an update and elaboration on my November 11th post about Judge Jed S. Rakoff, the SEC and Citigroup.

moral hazard

Moral hazard in finance is the situation where the existence of an agreement to share risks causes one of the parties to act in an extra-risky manner, to the detriment of the other.   In a sense, the willingness of the party who ultimately gets injured to enter into the agreement causes, or at least allows, the bad behavior by the other to occur.  He inadvertently sets up a situation where the bad behavior is rewarded, not punished.

examples

–Systematically important banks have been able to take very big proprietary trading risks, knowing that they are “too big to fail” and will ultimately be bailed out by the government if their risky bets don’t pan out.  The rewards of such risk-taking go as bonuses to the bankers; the cost of bets gone bad is borne by the general public.

–One of the reasons Germany is so hesitant to bail out Greece is that doing so rewards the latter country’s reckless borrowing behavior over the past decadeand shifts the costs of cleaning up the resulting economic mess onto the citizens of the rest of the EU.

the Rakoff case and moral hazard

Judge Rakoff has just rejected a proposed settlement of a case involving Citigroup and the SEC, on what appear to me to be similar moral hazard grounds.

The settlement involves Citi’s creation and sale of $1 billion in securities ultimately tied to a pool of sub-prime mortgages selected by the bank.  Citi neglected to tell the buyers of the securities that it wasn’t simply an agent.  It was making a $500 million bet that the securities would decline in value sharply–which they subsequently did.  Investors who bought the securities from Citi lost $700 million.

I don’t know precisely how much money Citi made on this transaction.  But I think I can make a good guess.  To make up rough numbers, collecting a 2% fee for creating and selling the issue would bring in $20 million or so.  A 70% gain on its negative bet on the issue would yield $350 million.  If so, the much more compelling reason for creating the issue would be to design it to fail and then short it.  In any event, let’s say Citi cleared $370 million before paying its employees who thought up and executed the total deal.

The proposed settlement?

–fines and penalties totaling $285 million

–Citi doesn’t admit or deny guilt, which means

——the settlement doesn’t create any evidence to support a lawsuit by the investors who lost money, and

——the settlement doesn’t trigger the sanctions against future illegal conduct that are contained in prior settlements with the SEC.

–only low-level Citi employees are reprimanded.

Assume the SEC allegations are all true.

If so, what a deal for Citi!  The SEC “punishment” is that the bank keeps $85 million in profits and gets a slap on the wrist.  Who wouldn’t agree?

What would make this moral hazard is that this is is the worst case outcome for Citi.

And, if you figure that the SEC looks at one suspicious deal out of ten, the situation is even less favorable for investors.  The decision whether to create another issue like this one is a layup.

Would it be so easy if Citi stood a chance of losing money?  …or of triggering clauses in prior settlements prohibiting illegal behavior?

What about the legal team that decided what he minimum disclosure in sales materials should be?  Would they have insisted that Citi must reveal its proprietary trading position in those materials if fines were larger, or if they could be held professionally liable for the information’s exclusion?

What if the Citi executives that okayed everything risked being barred from the securities business for a period of time–would they have acted in the way they did?

grandstanding?

I don’t think critics are correct that Judge Rakoff is trying to raise his public profile by insisting that the SEC either obtain a better settlement or go to trial with its case.  Others are saying that the SEC takes settlements like this because it doesn’t have the legal skill to get anything better.  But these are ad hominem arguments  –like saying the parties are wearing ill-fitting clothes, they’re distracting, but irrelevant.

But it is true that this case comes at a time of growing public anger that bank executives are showing few ill effects from the devastating economic damage they helped cause.

It will be interesting to see what new settlement the SEC and Citi come up with.

Stay tuned.