Levine on Wall Street: Stories of the Well-Connected

Hank Greenberg: Well-connected. A Washington lobbyist: ditto. BNP Paribas: less so, though I guess the French finance minister counts for something. And Sergey Aleynikov had a good weekend.

BNP Paribas is near a deal.

The good news: Previous reports of a $10 billion fine seem to have been slightly exaggerated. The bad news: Everything else. Specifically, "the bank would pay $8 billion to $9 billion" (a discount from the $60 billion sticker price of its alleged transgressions, though "Officials readily concede that such a sum would be unreasonable and uncollectable"), would plead guilty to "conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act" and would face "a temporary ban -- likely lasting a period of months -- on the company's ability to transact in U.S. dollars." That seems bad, for a bank! 1 Also BNP will round up a bunch of people it's already fired, and fire them again:

As part of the deal, officials plan to announce the departures of more than 30 bank employees, acceding to demands by the New York Department of Financial Services that individuals also be punished, according to people close to the talks. The majority of those people have already left the bank, they said.

Symbolism! Honestly if you're just "announc[ing] the departures of" people who don't work there any more you could probably do more than 30 right? Presumably thousands of people no longer work at BNP Paribas, more if you count people who never worked there. Just announce that all of those people don't work there any more because of the sanctions thing. Obviously the open question is whether the no-dollar-clearing thing is a similar piece of empty symbolism, or a real you-can't-be-a-bank-for-a-while penalty.

How's that congressional insider trading case going?

Here's a deep dive into the investigation; the theory seems to be that Brian Sutter, "staff director of the House Ways and Means Committee's health-care subpanel," talked to Mark Hayes, a lobbyist, about a health-care bill, and then Hayes "sent an email predicting the change to a Washington-based investment-research firm shortly before the announcement on April 1, 2013, citing 'very credible sources,'" and then people traded on that information. This may or may not be illegal, who knows. Hayes and Sutter both have sort of amazing lawyers:

Steven Salky, a lawyer for Mr. Hayes, said his client "did not possess any nonpublic information in making his prediction regarding the final rate notice. He made a prediction based upon educated guesses not leaks and did nothing improper."

Yes sure fine but "educated guesses" and "very credible sources" are somewhat difficult to square. Meanwhile Sutter first told the FBI that "he didn't remember discussing the announcement with Mr. Hayes," but then his lawyer walked that back:

"With the benefit of some time for reflection, Mr. Sutter's best recollection now is that he previously may have used his mobile telephone to speak with [Mr. Hayes] although he is not certain," the attorney wrote, according to the SEC court filing. "It is also possible that Mr. Sutter may have made other statements in the course of his interrogation that, while an accurate reflection of his memory at the time, might merit clarification if, for example, Mr. Sutter were to review records that could refresh his memory."

Ha! That's what you pay lawyers for.

How's Hank Greenberg doing?

Crain's New York Business just ranked him number 1 on its "list of the most-connected New Yorkers," which seems pretty impressive; there is some stiff competition there. (Jamie Dimon is number 4.) The headline is "A lifetime of clout and connections," and one question you might ask yourself is, would you want someone to write that about you? Anyway:

His connections might even help him finance his lawsuit against the U.S. government, which he alleges illegally seized AIG during the 2008 bailout. Wall Street titans Steven Cohen, Kenneth Langone and J. Christopher Flowers reportedly may help pay Mr. Greenberg's legal team, led by David Boies, in exchange for a piece of the proceeds should Mr. Greenberg win some of the $55.5 billion in damages he's seeking. The Starr Foundation has invested about $25 million in Mr. Flowers' private-equity funds.

Wouldn't it be great if he won the full $55.5 billion (!) in damages and Steve Cohen got, like, half of it? That'd be some pretty sweet revenge.

Your boss wants you dead.

The trick of corporate-owned life insurance is that it is a pure tax dodge wrapped in what looks like a ghoulish scandalous plot for corporations to profit from the deaths of their employees. That sounds doubly bad, but it's actually very clever; nobody can productively criticize the tax dodge without degenerating into babbling about the death-profiteering:

But critics say it is immoral for companies to profit from the death of employees, while employees themselves do not directly benefit. ... “Companies are holding this humongous amount of coverage on the lives of human beings,” said Michael D. Myers, a lawyer in Houston who has brought class-action lawsuits against several companies with such policies.

This is sort of silly: Companies are not especially moral actors, and frequently get benefits for themselves out of their employees; also it's hard to see how the employees could "directly benefit" from dying. So the companies can respond, no no, not ghoulish at all, we use it to fund pensions:

Companies argue that if they had to finance such obligations with investments taxed at a normal rate, they would incur losses and would not be able to offer the benefits to employees.

"We'd make less money without a tax break" is not a great argument for a tax break, but it works with this topic, because people are focused on the ghoulishness. Anyway, apparently Bank of America has at least $17.6 billion of life insurance on its employees, so watch your back if you work there.

Speaking of which.

Sergey Aleynikov, the former Goldman Sachs programmer who was arrested for stealing code, convicted in federal court, sent to prison for like 8 years, released when an appeals court found that he hadn't committed a federal crime, and then arrested and charged again by state prosecutors, seems to have won his state case too. I mean the case is still ongoing, but the judge threw out most of the evidence against him because it was obtained by an illegal search:

Aleynikov’s arrest and a subsequent search of his home were “presumptively unreasonable,” Zweibel said in his ruling. The judge said the Federal Bureau of Investigation didn’t get warrants and that Special Agent Michael McSwain made a “mistake of law” in charging Aleynikov with two federal crimes.

Now it is obviously understandable for an FBI agent to assume that Goldman Sachs has the power to issue search warrants and authorize arrests, but it turns out that that's not true.

Things happen.

The taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland will get around EU bonus caps with role-based allowances, just like a real bank. Banks are automating FX trading to make it cheaper and less fraudy. A Chicago Fed economist looked at the history of sovereign debt pari passu clauses and concludes that, in the case of Argentina, "the New York court has, if not completely misinterpreted the meaning of the pari passu clause, then at least misapplied it." Big law firms are hiring again. "Credit appears to be on the list of bubbly markets that are not a concern, because the use of leverage by end-investors is limited and the point of stimulus is to encourage economic activity and risk-taking." Ukraine may or may not have missed an interest payment to Russia. "Diverse funding and strong accounting" are key competitive strengths for ISIL.

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  1. Incidentally, if you want to listen to me talking about bad things for banks, try this Planet Money podcast.

To contact the author on this story:
Matthew S Levine at mlevine51@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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