The settlement is the joke.
This news is a few days old, but just in case you missed it: HSBC, Britain's biggest bank, has been given a tiny, $2 billion slap on the wrist for being the go-to institution for cartel money laundering, rogue state banking, and other financial no-nos for a decade. From the Guardian:
Britain's biggest bank was forced to pay $1.9bn (£1.17bn) fine to settle allegations by US regulators that it allowed itself to be used to launder billions of dollars for drug barons and potential terrorists for nearly a decade until 2010.
The US department of justice said HSBC had moved $881m for two drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia and accepted $15bn in unexplained "bulk cash", across the bank's counters in Mexico, Russia and other countries. In some branches the boxes of cash being deposited were so big the tellers' windows had to be enlarged. The US authorities said HSBC did not face criminal charges because the bank was too big to prosecute and no individuals were implicated.
"Too big to jail" is the headline du jour for this story, and some people are outraged that the penalties—including senior anti-money laundering officers having to partially defer some of their bonus—aren't tougher. It's depressing, but I can't say I'm surprised. Uneven justice for banks and individuals seems like a basic fact of American life these days. But if you want a taste of the outrage, you can find it at Rolling Stone:
So you might ask, what's the appropriate financial penalty for a bank in HSBC's position? Exactly how much money should one extract from a firm that has been shamelessly profiting from business with criminals for years and years? Remember, we're talking about a company that has admitted to a smorgasbord of serious banking crimes. If you're the prosecutor, you've got this bank by the balls. So how much money should you take?
How about all of it? How about every last dollar the bank has made since it started its illegal activity? How about you dive into every bank account of every single executive involved in this mess and take every last bonus dollar they've ever earned? Then take their houses, their cars, the paintings they bought at Sotheby's auctions, the clothes in their closets, the loose change in the jars on their kitchen counters, every last freaking thing. Take it all and don't think twice. And then throw them in jail.
Sound harsh? It does, doesn't it? The only problem is, that's exactly what the government does just about every day to ordinary people involved in ordinary drug cases.
If you're poor, the drug war is a real thing with real consequences—prison, death, destabilized families, cities, and countries. If you're a bank, it's a moneymaker and the law is just a minor inconvenience.