To show he is getting tougher on Wall Street, President Obama has nominated Mary Jo White, the former head of the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York, as chair of the SEC. White oversaw the prosecutions of John Gotti and the terrorists responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombings and is a veteran of white collar criminal prosecutions and defense.
Many Americans applaud such displays of toughness, worried that “too big to fail” means “too big to jail.” That is, criminal indictment of a large financial institution threatens its existence and, along with it, economic recovery.
But prosecutors are getting tough on big banks, evident in the recent LIBOR interest rate rigging cases, such as that against Royal Bank of Scotland announced this week, and the money laundering case at HSBC made at year-end. Prosecutors resolved these cases by obtaining admissions of guilt and large fines in exchange for deferring prosecution under agreements that require good corporate behavior for several years.
Under such deferred prosecution agreements, or DPAs, prosecutors flex their muscles by imposing extensive internal reforms at the company. Their goal is to change corporate culture to promote greater accountability and likelihood of compliance with law. Some terms, however, may go overboard, and there is reason to worry about unintended consequences.
Such deals typically require the company to hire an army of compliance officers to roam the company in search of rogues and to train employees in the best practices of compliance programming. In many cases, DPAs require hiring an outside consultant to direct additional steps to be taken and an independent monitor to watch over all the changes during the probation period.
But installing such personnel and programs is no guarantee of succeeding in promoting any particular culture or result. Corporations differ in their histories, philosophies, and business models, negating the possibility of a one-size-fits-all approach to altering culture in desired ways. (For a dramatic example of the danger, consider the experience at AIG from 2005 to 2008, which I document in the new book The AIG Story, and which is summarized in this week’s review of the book in the Wall Street Journal.) Prosecutors often do not understand corporate governance well enough to direct reforms and they rarely explain their reasons when they impose such changes.
Prosecutors should enforce the law and hold people and institutions accountable for violations. When prudent they should settle a matter on terms that may include internal corporate reforms. But they also must make an effort to assure that the reforms they propose will work with the valid parts of the corporate cultures where they are implanted. Failure to do so can be disastrous. When the Senate evaluates Ms. White’s nomination for SEC chair, Senators would do well to ask what she thinks about using DPAs to reform corporate culture.