The head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said Thursday that some of America’s largest financial institutions appear to lack respect for the law, a potentially explosive charge against an industry already roiling from numerous government investigations into alleged wrongdoing.
William Dudley, one of the nation’s top banking regulators whose organization helps oversee Wall Street banks including JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, made the comment during a speech focused on the problems posed by banks perceived to be “too big to fail,” and possible solutions to correct them.
But in an abrupt turn, Dudley suggested that regulators may be stymied by "cultural" issues that have negatively affected the nation's biggest banks.
“Collectively, these enhancements to our current regime may not solve another important problem evident within some large financial institutions -- the apparent lack of respect for law, regulation and the public trust," he said.
“There is evidence of deep-seated cultural and ethical failures at many large financial institutions,” he continued. “Whether this is due to size and complexity, bad incentives, or some other issues is difficult to judge, but it is another critical problem that needs to be addressed.”
Dudley's comments come as the world’s biggest banks collectively face tens of billions of dollars in potential fines and government-driven settlements arising from alleged lawbreaking in markets ranging from home mortgages to interest rates and currencies.
Authorities in North America, Europe and Asia have been probing more than a dozen large institutions for allegedly attempting to manipulate benchmark interest rates, the most popular of which is known as Libor, that affect hundreds of trillions of dollars in loans and securities. So far, Barclays, UBS, Rabobank and Royal Bank of Scotland collectively have agreed to pay nearly $4 billion to settle with government authorities. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant U.S.-backed mortgage financiers, also have sued many of these banks to recover alleged losses.
In addition, regulators around the world are investigating whether some big banks attempted to rig the foreign exchange market, where currency prices are set and more than $5 trillion is exchanged daily. Goldman Sachs on Thursday became the latest bank to disclose that it was under investigation, joining Barclays, UBS, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan, among others.
JPMorgan is also among a group of banks facing U.S. demands for restitution and penalties for allegedly misleading investors when selling them home loans that had been bundled into securities. The bank recently agreed to pay the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, about $4 billion to settle claims it sold the mortgage financiers faulty home loan securities. A group of government agencies led by the Department of Justice has been negotiating with the bank to settle related claims that would call for billions more in cash and aid for distressed homeowners.
The FHFA reportedly is pressuring other financial institutions, such as Bank of America, to pay even higher amounts to settle lawsuits the regulator filed in 2011 alleging mass deception by 18 big banks.
New settlements and fines follow nearly $67 billion in fines and settlements agreed to by the nation’s six largest banks since 2010, according to SNL Financial. That figure swells to $103 billion when including legal costs dating to the start of 2008, according to a report earlier this year by Bloomberg News.
Recent pacts with the government include settling allegations that banks duped homeowners into taking out expensive mortgages; broke state and federal rules when attempting to seize homes after borrowers fell behind on their payments, a scandal that became known as “robosigning”; and manipulated markets to bolster their trading positions.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, regulators and the Justice Department faced criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers that they were too soft on banks alleged to have broken the law. Earlier this year, criticism escalated after Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress that some banks were “too large,” thwarting the government’s enforcement efforts.
Holder attempted to walk back those comments, and some five years after the height of the crisis it appears authorities are intent on erasing that view.
Dudley linked accountability and enforcement to “too big to fail,” arguing that ending the perception that some banks will forever be rescued from failure will “encourage the needed cultural shift necessary to restore public trust in the industry.”
“Tough enforcement and high penalties will certainly help focus management’s attention on this issue,” he said.