I expect that the title of this article may have made your blood boil, and that's to be expected. After all, the folks on Wall Street were right smack in the middle of one of the worst financial crises we have seen in decades.
And to be perfectly clear, it's not often that I'll step out and take a few eggs for the financial folk. I think there is a laundry list of reforms needed to make our financial industry safer and I believe it was absolutely nuts for the Senate to knock down a reform bill amendment aimed at ending "too big to fail."
However, the criminal investigations that are being launched against Wall Street firms are woefully misdirected. Goldman Sachs
Now there are reports that New York's attorney general is gunning for a whole slew of banks -- UBS
I get it. Really I do. People are ticked and they want to see somebody punished for what happened. But I can't help but think that much of this will prove misguided.
A tale of two regulators
If you want the nitty-gritty on exactly what charges are being levied against the banks, there are plenty of places you can find that. What I find more interesting, though, is why regulators are cracking down now.
In both cases the motivations are pretty clear. If we imagine the Securities and Exchange Commission as a baseball player, it's as if we've been let down time after time as it has struck out at key moments during big games. This regulatory mighty Casey is now back at the plate, hoping desperately to make something wonderful happen, but swinging wildly at bad pitches in its effort to impress us.
And while the details on the New York attorney general's case aren't terribly clear yet, his drive is no less transparent. It would be silly to think that the role of attorney general is anything more than a way station for Andrew Cuomo on his journey to bigger political destinations. He no doubt took close notes as Eliot Spitzer parlayed splashy, headline-grabbing cases into an invitation to live at the New York governor's mansion. With populist bloodlust for Wall Street bankers running high, it would seem that now is the perfect time for Cuomo to swing for the fences.
Revenge is a dish best served cold
If there are bankers who committed legitimate crimes during the real estate bubble, I would be more than happy to personally slam the door shut on their jail cells. However, what concerns me is that the cases that have been brought to light thus far have been fairly weak, suggesting to me that there may not be all that much that legally went awry.
The idea of dragging banks over the coals simply to drag them over the coals isn't really that distasteful to me. But I think the investigations into the banks could be problematic if the regulators don't have meaty cases. I see three primary risks:
1. Distraction. We can't retroactively hold banks and bankers accountable for regulations that we wish were in place in previous years. What we can do, though, is push for comprehensive reform that fundamentally changes the banking industry to make it safer and less prone to conflicts of interest. I see the potential for spurious investigations and political theater to distract from the important task of reform.
2. More regulator black eyes. A great way for the SEC to make itself seem even more like Inspector Clouseau would be to throw together a big, splashy case against the most successful Wall Street firm on record ... and lose. I'm not saying that the SEC will lose, but if it does, that would be a punishing blow in the regulator's effort to have any sort of credibility whatsoever.
3. Free passes for buyers. The accusations against the banks largely suggest that they were tricking and swindling the buyers of structured securities. While there may be some truth to that, it seems that a good deal of the responsibility needs to be put on the buyers. It seems that many of the purchasers, intoxicated by the bubblicious market and lulled to sleep by greed and laziness, simply didn't do their homework. And if they did, they came up with the wrong answer. This half of the equation seems to have been lost in the rush to condemn bankers.
Whether you're looking for revenge on the banking industry or you just want a safer financial system going forward, I see strong, comprehensive reform as the best answer. If regulators also find strong cases where crimes were committed, then by all means we should pursue them. Otherwise, I say we stay focused and keep our eyes on the prize.
What do you think about the regulators' recent investigations into the banks? Head down to the comments section and share your perspective.
While you might think investment banks are dumb, day traders may be even dumber.
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