The Citigroup ATM, WSJ Editorial
Jack Lew and Tim Geithner escape mention in the bank settlement.The Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2014 7:37 p.m. ET
The Department of Justice isn't known for a sense of humor. But on Monday it announced a civil settlement with Citigroup over failed mortgage investments that covers almost exactly the period when current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew oversaw divisions at Citi that presided over failed mortgage investments. Now, that's funny.
Though Justice, five states and the FDIC are prying $7 billion from the bank for allegedly misleading investors, there's no mention in the settlement of clawing back even a nickel of Mr. Lew's compensation. We also see no sanction for former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who allowed Citi to build colossal mortgage risks outside its balance sheet while overseeing the bank as president of the New York Federal Reserve.
The settlement says Citi's alleged misdeeds began in 2006, the year Mr. Lew joined the bank, and the agreement covers conduct "prior to January 1, 2009." That was shortly before Mr. Lew left to work for President Obama and two weeks before Mr. Lew received $944,518 from Citi in "salary, payout for vested restricted stock," and "discretionary cash compensation for work performed in 2008," according to a 2010 federal disclosure report. That was also the year Citi began receiving taxpayer bailouts of $45 billion in cash, plus hundreds of billions more in taxpayer guarantees.
While Attorney General Eric Holder is forgiving toward his Obama cabinet colleagues, he seems to believe that some housing transactions can never be forgiven. The $7 billion settlement includes the same collateralized debt obligation for which the bank already agreed to pay $285 million in a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Justice settlement also includes a long list of potential charges not covered by the agreement, so prosecutors can continue to raid the Citi ATM.
Citi offers in return what looks like a blanket agreement not to sue the government over any aspect of the case, and waives its right to defend itself "based in whole or in part on a contention that, under the Double Jeopardy Clause in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, or under the Excessive Fines Clause in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, this Agreement bars a remedy sought in such criminal prosecution or administrative action." We hold no brief for Citi, which has been rescued three times by the feds. But what kind of government demands the right to exact repeated punishments for the same offense?
The bank's real punishment should have been failure, as former FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair and we argued at the time. Instead, the regulators kept Citi alive with taxpayer money far beyond what it provided most other banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Keeping it alive means they can now use Citi as a political target when it's convenient to claim they're tough on banks.
And speaking of that $7 billion, good luck finding a justification for it in the settlement agreement. The number seems to have been pulled out of thin air since it's unrelated to Citi's mortgage-securities market share or any other metric we can see beyond having media impact.
If this sounds cynical, readers should consult the Justice Department's own leaks to the press about how the Citi deal went down. Last month the feds were prepared to bring charges against the bank, but the necessities of public relations intervened.
According to the Journal, "News had leaked that afternoon, June 17, that the U.S. had captured Ahmed Abu Khatallah, a key suspect in the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi in 2012. Justice Department officials didn't want the announcement of the suit against Citigroup—and its accompanying litany of alleged misdeeds related to mortgage-backed securities—to be overshadowed by questions about the Benghazi suspect and U.S. policy on detainees. Citigroup, which didn't want to raise its offer again and had been preparing to be sued, never again heard the threat of a suit."
This week's settlement includes $4 billion for the Treasury, roughly $500 million for the states and FDIC, and $2.5 billion for mortgage borrowers. That last category has become a fixture of recent government mortgage settlements, even though the premise of this case involves harm done to bond investors, not mortgage borrowers.
But the Obama Administration's references to the needs of Benghazi PR remind us that it could be worse. At least Mr. Holder isn't blaming the Geithner and Lew failures on a video.