Bank of America is reportedly ready to pay up to $17 billion to atone for selling lousy mortgage investments in the run-up to the financial crisis. Overall, big American banks are paying more than $100 billion in settlements like this.
For the banks, paying settlement costs is a way to move past the darkest days of the meltdown. But many financial observers still point to enduring problems on Wall Street. Chief among them is the issue of risk and reward.
Bankers didn’t create and sell dicey mortgage investments because they wanted to decimate the world’s economy. They did it because their bank bonus structures paid them handsomely for doing so. They were incentivized to keep going, long after red flags popped up.
“No one slammed on the brakes,” says Charles Kenji Whitehead, a Cornell Law School professor and former high-level banking attorney. “Have we actually done anything to address that problem? Not really.”
Whitehead thinks recent changes on compensation and risk don’t do enough. Banks say going further would damage their business, maybe even make it more expensive for small businesses and regular people to bank.
And as far as all those multi-billion dollar settlements, don’t forget who really pays the tab.
“We've seen only punishments of shareholders,” says Jim Sinegal, Morningstar’s lead bank analyst. “A lot of the executives, a lot of the people making money -- making the most money in some cases -- are not getting punished at all.”
Dennis Kelleher runs the nonprofit Better Markets. A critic of Wall Street, he takes a dim view of recent bank settlements, saying they should be bigger and more transparent.
But at the same time, he is optimistic about moves being made related to the problem of Too Big to Fail, the worry that taxpayers will get stuck bailing out banks. He appreciated regulators telling banks this week that their disaster planning doesn't cut it.
“Rejecting these plans was a tremendous stride on behalf of the American people to get financial reform in place,” Kelleher says.
But of course, the rejection of those Too Big to Fail plans means there still aren't acceptable ones.