James Moore: It seems the big beasts of banking really are too big to jail after all

  • @TheIndyBusiness

Outlook US Attorneys certainly have a neat line in soundbites. "A Tour de Fraud," is how Preet Bharara described the conduct of French bank BNP as he and his colleagues confirmed what we all knew: BNP will pay a record $9bn for its alleged involvement in sanctions busting.

It was a neat little sideswipe at the old rival from across the Atlantic. But the assertion that "no bank is too big to jail", a play on "too big to fail", doesn't so easily stand up to scrutiny.

BNP as an institution is getting hammered as the "worst offender" when it comes to sanctions busting. The American authorities alleged some extremely cynical conduct on its part and will ban it from cleaning dollar-based transactions for a time in addition to the fine.

But despite claiming that the misconduct was known about at very senior levels we aren't going to see any senior BNP people donning orange jumpsuits ahead of uncomfortable stays at Riker's Island Penitentiary.

Some 45 employees have been disciplined – and 13 are out of the door, including chief operating officer Georges Chodron de Courcel – but that's as far as it goes.

The penalty meted out to BNP is certainly substantial enough for the bank – and its peers – to take seriously.

It might even encourage BNP's shareholders to consider whether they could have done more to avert it by exercising proper oversight.

But if the misconduct at BNP was as serious as prosecutors have alleged, if laws were wilfully broken, why are individuals not being called to account as well as the institution?

Of course we've been here before. This latest affair will simply reinforce the perception that individual bankers, thanks to their wealth and power, have been allowed to "get away with it" despite all the chest thumping from the various authorities in the US.

It's true charges have been pressed against a number of those alleged to have been involved in some of the other recent high-profile scandals, but they are largely relative small fry in terms of banking hierarchies.

The senior executives responsible for setting policies, and culture – the men who run the show – as ever have successfully hidden behind committee-based decision-making and the repeated assertions that they didn't know what was going on under their own noses.

Prosecutors have lacked either the wherewithal, or the will (or both) to bring cases against them. It appears that the big beasts of banking really are too big to jail.

Which is why it's still easier to find a banker willing to turn up to work in a baseball cap and a football shirt (either the American or our kind) than it is to find them in those jumpsuits.