'The big banks have been caught red-handed'

US Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a hearing before Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Feb. 10, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)
US Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a hearing before Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Feb. 10, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
For those looking for greater accountability from Wall Street, this week offered some good news and some bad news. The good news is, five major financial institutions will pay $5.6 billion in fines and plead guilty to multiple crimes. The bad news is, given the scope of their manipulative schemes, the penalty seems far less severe than it should be.
The New York Times reported yesterday on the latest entry "to Wall Street's growing rap sheet."

The Justice Department forced four of the banks -- Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland -- to plead guilty to antitrust violations in the foreign exchange market as part of a scheme that padded the banks' profits and enriched the traders who carried out the plot. The traders were supposed to be competitors, but much like companies that rigged the price of vitamins and automotive parts, they colluded to manipulate the largest and yet least regulated market in the financial world, where some $5 trillion changes hands every day, prosecutors said. Underscoring the collusive nature of their contact, which often occurred in online chat rooms, one group of traders called themselves "the cartel," an invitation-only club where stakes were so high that a newcomer was warned, "Mess this up and sleep with one eye open."

It was an ugly, elaborate scheme, which included not only colluding and manipulating foreign-exchange markets, but also lying to clients. (For more details on what the banks did, exactly, Matt Yglesias' report for Vox was helpful.)
Of course, in this case, regulators caught the banks in the act, and took meaningful action, including demanding guilty pleas from the financial institutions themselves. The Times' report noted that the pleas "represent a first in a financial industry that has been dogged by numerous scandals and investigations since the 2008 financial crisis. Until now, banks have either had their biggest banking units or small subsidiaries plead guilty. But with the four banks charged with currency violations, the guilty pleas will come from their parent companies."
So, that's good news for Wall Street critics, right? Yes and no.
Politico noted, for example, that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is unimpressed. "It's business as usual, and it stinks," she said. "The big banks have been caught red-handed conspiring to manipulate financial markets, and several have even admitted in court that they're felons -- but not a single trader is being held individually accountable, and regulators are stumbling over themselves to exempt the banks from the legally required consequences of their criminal behavior."
To understand why, consider Vox's explanation of the broader context:

In this case, however, there is a bit less than meets the eye to the criminal convictions. Market regulators have the authority to bar criminal banks from managing mutual funds, corporate pension plans, or other regulated financial entities. But in this case not only has the Securities and Exchange Commission issued waivers to avoid that from happening, the DOJ worked with the banks and regulators to ensure that the criminal case was not officially settled until the waivers were in place. In other words, the very same Justice Department that proudly insisted a fine wasn't good enough to settle the case also acted to ensure that there would be no practical consequences beyond the fine.

Add to this the fact that the fine itself is modest by Wall Street standards, and it's clear why Warren talks about the game being "rigged."