In the romantic comedy, Something’s Gotta Give, Jack Nicholson said to Diane Keaton, “I have always told you some version of the truth”. I believe the SEC is also telling the public some version of the truth.
The court system is currently reviewing a $285 million fine and settlement that was agreed to by the SEC and Citigroup when it sold toxic mortgage securities to investors. Citigroup told investors the mortgages were safe investments. Then the company bet money this mortgage pool would fail. If this sounds familiar, Goldman Sachs perpetrated the same scam. Citigroup made $160 million and investors lost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Judge Jed Rakoff rejected the settlement because it did not include an admission of wrongdoing by Citigroup. He wants this case to go to trial. The SEC and Citigroup are fighting his decision.
Why are the SEC and Citigroup on the same side? One should be the prosecutor and one should be the defendant.
In my opinion, the Rakoff decison interrupted a long running scam that damages the public. It is somehow legal for financial service companies to rip-off investors. If they are caught, they are allowed to pay a fine without admitting guilt. Because they do not admit guilt, no crime was committed.
This travesty of justice has two consequences. First, fines are a cost of doing business for companies and most of the fines are offset by profits that were generated by the scams. Second, no company executives are prosecuted for committing fraud. These are the executives at Citigroup who approved the sale of toxic assets and then bet the mortgage product would decline in value. This fraud was committed by high level executives at Citigroup.
The SEC is telling investors some version of the truth when it says the public interest is being served by the payment of fines. If that was true, why aren’t the fines more of a deterrent? The real truth is executives are using company resources to stay out of jail and the SEC lets the get away with it.