WikiLeaks, the ultra-controversial whistle-blower site that's been leaking classified U.S. military and foreign policy documents, says its next victim will be a U.S. bank.
Exposing a bank "will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Forbes. "For this, there's only one similar example. It's like the Enron emails."
The "Enron emails" refers to a database released in 2003 containing 1.5 million messages from Enron staff. The magazine Salon culled a few of the juicer morsels out of the database, including:
how the family of Ken Lay lived large in the glory days, how Tom DeLay and other members of Congress used the company as a veritable ATM for campaign contributions, how Enron plotted to place employees in the Bush-Cheney administration, how company executives almost obsessively followed the investigation into price gouging during California's energy crisis, and ultimately how Enron employees suffered when the company collapsed.
The thought of digging up similar dirt on banks is just soaking with suspense.
But what did the Enron emails really achieve? Not much. By the time they were revealed, everyone knew the company was fraudulent, overpaid executives, and had incestuous political ties. We knew two years before, when the company collapsed. In fact, Sarbanes-Oxley, a reform bill passed largely because of Enron's collapse, went into law more than a year before the emails were released. Neither regulators nor investors needed the emails to figure out what went wrong.
Blogger Barry Ritholtz makes a similar point about WikiLeaks going after banks: "We already know the banks are grossly incompetent, can't manage risk and would be dead without taxpayer support. What are we going to find in these leaks -- that free checking isn't really free?"
It's a fair point. When Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) was charged with fraud earlier this year, the exposed fine details of its mischief were new, but everyone following the financial crisis already knew that chicanery was rampant. The public's response was mostly an exercise in unleashing some much-needed schadenfreude, not a newfound understanding of the financial world. Same with the 2008 exposure of the "it could be structured by cows and we would rate it" quote by a Standard & Poor's analyst. As juicy as the line was, the only possible response was, "No kidding. I've seen your results."
Still, I can think of a few things WikiLeaks could expose that would do real harm to banks.
Exposing banks' proprietary trading algorithms wouldn't mean much to Joe Public, but could be gold mines for hedge funds and other professional investors. Trading is disgustingly competitive. Lose your proprietary edge, and it's game over.
Exposing insider trading could also crack open an ordeal that's just recently starting to be brought to light. "Everybody is trading on the inside somehow or another," Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi says. "A lot of sources I talked to suggested this is endemic to the entire [Wall Street] culture." So little is known about insider trading that even a small leak could explode skepticism anew among public investors.
Catching bank executives saying one thing internally while telling shareholders something else could also be damning. If a CEO says publicly that an asset is worth $100, yet in private tells his staff that it's worth $80, he's broken his fiduciary duty to shareholders. This is essentially what former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo was charged with last year. Mozilo and his team spoke candidly among themselves about how disastrous their loans were -- "In all my years in the business I have never seen a more toxic [product]," Mozilo lamented in private -- yet said nothing to investors. While keeping his secret, Mozilo allegedly dumped $140 million worth of stock onto those investors. Basic scam 101 stuff.
Who might WikiLeaks go after? Word is it already has a trove of Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) files awaiting release. The other usual suspects Goldman, Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) , Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) , Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) , and AIG (NYSE: AIG ) are all in the crosshairs. I'd imagine it could dig up more dirt going after a big hedge fund like SAC, Citadel, or Magnetar, but I'll take whatever we can get.
What do you think WikiLeaks will find?