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Should Big-Bank Execs Go to Jail for the Financial Crisis?

Charles Ferguson may have won an Academy Award late Sunday for directing "Inside Job," a documentary on the financial crisis, but he appeared to be channeling another Oscar-winning film when he delivered his acceptance speech: "There Will Be Blood."

When Ferguson took to the stage, he started off by declaring, "Forgive me, but I must start by pointing out that three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong."

Photo: Reuters

Ferguson is, needless to say, hardly alone in his sentiments, with much of the public still angered by the fallout from the housing crisis and the resulting waves of foreclosures.

But — like it or not — Ferguson is highly unlikely to get his wish.

Angelo R. Mozilo, considered the poster-child by many for the mistakes that led up to the crisis, has agreed to a $67.5 million settlement from the mortgage meltdown, but will probably not see the inside of a prison cell. The Los Angeles Times reported two weeks ago that federal prosecutors had quietly shelved an investigation into Mozilo after concluding there was not enough evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Writing in the New York Times last week, Joe Nocera concluded that no financial executives are likely to go to jail, but also touched on a tougher matter — whether any really deserve to go to the Big House.

"Two and a half years after the world's financial system nearly collapsed, you're entitled to wonder whether any of the highly paid executives who helped kindle the disaster will ever see jail time — like Michael Milken in the 1980s, or Jeffrey Skilling after the Enron disaster," Nocera wrote. "Increasingly, the answer appears to be no. The harder question, though, is whether anybody should."

Nocera concluded that Countrywide broke the law because mortgage brokers encouraged borrowers to take out loans they could not pay back, and even lie on their loan applications. Although that may make the brokers liable for prosecution, it's unclear if that extends up to Mozilo himself, however.

"The problem is that Mr. Mozilo, though he helped create the culture that made such predatory lending acceptable, never made the fraudulent loans himself," Nocera wrote. "Legally, if not morally, he's off the hook."

(American Banker's sister publication, On Wall Street, spoke with Ferguson before the film came out. The two-part interview can be found here and here.)

But let's put this question to the peanut gallery: Should any bubble-era financial-services executives be sent to jail, and for what, exactly?


(19) Comments



Comments (19)
Posted by Dorfy | Monday, February 28 2011 at 11:53AM ET
Posted by Dorfy | Monday, February 28 2011 at 11:54AM ET
Posted by kpersaud | Monday, February 28 2011 at 11:56AM ET
Absolutely - but must read 'bank' broadly to include Freddie, Fannie, AIG, etc. Since many have indemnity protections from civil losses, criminal action is the only effective way to proceed. More orange jump-suits and perp walks!
Posted by ricpfi | Monday, February 28 2011 at 12:01PM ET
YES - a 1000 times - YES! Large loan servicers allowed loan brokers, property appraisers, and especially loan underwriters to conduct their business in a manner that totally disregarded honest, transparent, and risk adversive business practices.
Posted by jimjaxfla | Monday, February 28 2011 at 12:07PM ET
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