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商业 - 金融

和解方案:大型银行与证交会的遮羞布

Eleanor Bloxham 2011年11月09日

如果大银行们同美国证券交易委员会达成和解时既不承认、也不否认是否存在过错,那么和解到底有什么意义?

    承认,还是否认——这是个问题——无论是哪个,杰德•拉科夫法官审理美国证券交易委员会(SEC)与花旗集团(Citigroup)近日达成的和解方案时,这家监管机构都必须要说清楚这个问题。虽然花旗已同意支付2.85亿美元罚款,并进行小幅改革,但对于SEC指责其在房地产市场一步步走向危机的过程中未向客户尽职披露按揭相关投资产品的风险,该行却采取了既不承认也不否认的态度。

    如果花旗没有过错,它为什么要同意支付这样一笔巨额罚款并同意进行改革?这样有悖常理的事情拉科夫法官可不是头一遭碰上了,两年前美国银行(Bank of America)的SEC和解案也是这样。那一次,起初美国银行同样不承认也不否认,但当案子交由拉科夫审理后,美国银行站了出来,否认存在过错。

    因而,当时拉科夫问了一个合情合理的问题:为什么一家银行要拿股东的钱为自己并不承认的过错买单?而如果一家银行确实存在SEC所指控的不端行为,为什么没有一个人按照SEC的相关规定接受处罚?

    同理,在最近的花旗案中,拉科夫就要求SEC解释,“虽然SEC指控有严重的证券欺诈,但原告既不承认、也不否认有过错。”既然如此,法庭为什么要“审理这样一起案件。”

    要么存在过错,要么不存在。两者必居其一。

    如果不承认有过错,可能会引发其他问题。对被告银行及其的董事的量刑将更加困难。

    去年SEC与高盛(Goldman Sachs)就类似指控达成的和解金额几乎是此次花旗和解金额的两倍。去年的案件中,高盛也是既不承认也不否认。后果如何?高盛的2011年股东委托书在讨论高管表现时,毫无认罪之意。同样也没有说明这件事是否会导致高管奖金减少。相反,文件只是表示,在分析高盛盈利能力时,应将和解支出视为一次性支付剔除在外。

    事实上,2010年高盛提高了发放奖金的额度,所有高管拿到的红包都比前两年大。真是搞不懂这与投资银行所谓的用薪酬“强化公司合规文化”的目标是怎么个吻合法。

    拉科夫将要与SEC就两个问题展开交锋,一是不承认有过错传递了什么样的信号,二是不承认有过错本身是否会让高管们免受惩罚,甚至连收入都不受影响。

    在目前的花旗案中,拉科夫还要求SEC说明落实和解条款的方案,从而关注的焦点引向另外一个问题,也就是SEC在与银行达成和解后,是否曾经尝试过追究过违规公司的责任。

    SEC的一位发言人称,在实践中,SEC并不跟进和解案,也无从确保相关公司不会违反和解条款。

    花旗案所涉及的指控——以及今年和去年摩根大通(JP Morgan)、高盛遭受的指控——与2003年这三家银行与SEC达成和解时,承诺永不再犯的指控是完全一致。

    如果个人无需承担后果,而且无论是公司自身、还是SEC都没有后续跟进,怎么能指望将来不会再次出现这些违规现象?

    Eleanor Bloxham是董事会咨询公司The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://thevaluealliance.com)的首席执行官。

    To admit or deny -- that is the question -- or one of them anyway, that the SEC will have to address when they respond to Judge Jed S. Rakoff's review of the regulator's recent settlement with Citigroup. Although Citi has agreed to pay $285 million and make minor reforms, the bank is neither admitting nor denying that they failed to properly disclose the risks of mortgage-related investments to clients in the run up to the housing crisis.

    But why would Citi (C) agree to such a payment and reforms if they didn't violate regulations? This conundrum is not a new one for Judge Rakoff and one he raised in an SEC settlement case two years ago involving Bank of America (BAC). In that case, although Bank of America had originally neither admitted nor denied the violations, when the case came under scrutiny by Rakoff, Bank of America went ahead and denied.

    So Rakoff asked a reasonable question: why would a bank pay out shareholder dollars for something it had denied committing? If the bank did the deeds as the SEC contended, why weren't individuals being punished in line with SEC guidelines, he had asked?

    Along similar lines, in this most recent Citi case, Rakoff has asked the SEC to explain why the court should "impose a judgment in a case in which the SEC alleges a serious securities fraud but the defendant neither admits nor denies wrongdoing."

    Either there was a violation or there wasn't. Which is it?

    Not admitting wrongdoing poses other concerns. It may make it more difficult for defendants and their boards to mete out punishments.

    The SEC settled with Goldman Sachs (GS) last year for almost two times the amount recommended in the current Citi case on similar charges. In that case, Goldman also neither admitted nor denied. The impact? Goldman's 2011 proxy includes no recognition of the violations in the discussion of its top executives' performance. The settlement is also not cited as a factor that led to any reductions in bonus pay. To the contrary, the discussion of the SEC settlement is only included as a factor that should be excluded as a one-time charge in reviewing Goldman's profitability.

    Bonuses, in fact, were up at Goldman in 2010, with all executive officers receiving higher paychecks than they had during the previous two years. It's unclear how that aligns with the investment bank's objective of using compensation to "enhance the firm's culture of compliance."

    Rakoff and the SEC will need to wrestle with what kind of signal no admission of wrongdoing sends -- and whether the lack of admission, by its own force, results in no penalty to managers, even in their paychecks.

    In the current Citi case, Rakoff has also asked the SEC to explain how it plans to enforce the provisions of the settlement, putting a spotlight on whether the SEC has ever tried to take a company to task for violating a settlement.

    As a matter of practice, the SEC does not follow up on settlements to ensure there are no violations, according to a spokesperson for the regulator.

    The charges in the Citi case – along with the JP Morgan (JPM) and Goldman cases from this year and last -- represent the same kind of alleged wrongdoing all three banks promised never to repeat when they settled with the SEC in 2003.

    If no individuals face repercussions and there is no follow up either internally or from the SEC, how can there be any hope that we won't repeat this all over again?

    Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://thevaluealliance.com), a board advisory firm.

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