Fines are not adequate deterrents to corporate misbehavior

When future historians look back at our era, they will doubtless be puzzled about how we allowed it to come to pass that faceless corporations were granted all the freedoms and protections of real people, but faced none of the consequences that real people face for criminal behavior. This puzzle is related to the problem I wrote about earlier this morning, in which social problems for normal people are solved with fines and jail time, but social problems caused by corporate “citizens” are given market solutions and self-regulation instead.

The latest case in point comes as six major banks guilty of manipulating currency markets were given the laughably small fine of $4.3 billion, and not a single one of the actual perpetrators is coming close to facing jail time.

On Wednesday, six massive international banks agreed to pay $4.3 billion to settle allegations from regulators in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland that their traders tried to manipulate the $5.3-trillion-a-day foreign-currency exchange market. But Wall Street watchdogs say the banks got off with a slap on the wrist.

From 2008 through 2013, traders at JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, HSBC, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and UBS colluded to coordinate the buying and selling of 10 major currencies to manipulate prices in their favor….

In the real world, the crime spree being perpetrated by global corporations, particularly those in the financial sector, will never abate until the criminals perpetrating them are actually thrown in jail.

But critics say the banks, which were not forced to admit wrongdoing, deserved a much harsher punishment. “The global too-big-to-fail banks are again allowed to evade responsibility and accountability by using shareholders’ money to pay big fines, which will generate headlines but do little if anything to stop the relentless Wall Street crime spree,” Dennis Kelleher, the president of Better Markets, a financial reform advocacy shop, responded in a statement.

David Weidner, who covers Wall Street for MarketWatch, agrees. The settlements “appear to be just another cost-of-doing-business budget line for the banks,” he wrote. What’s more, financial reformers say, none of the employees involved in the rate-fixing will face criminal charges. “It’s corrupt, as usual,” says one House staffer. Regulators should “send crooks to jail.”

Fines are utterly inadequate to deter this sort of behavior. We understand this implicitly when it comes to check kiters and liquor store robbers. If you’re convicted of those things you go to jail. But if you collude to debase another country’s entire currency for your own profit, your company pays a small fine.

That’s going to look very weird and very corrupt in about 100 years. Or else it won’t–in which good luck to us all.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.