Recently, the head of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Greg Medcraft, called Australia a “paradise” for white-collar criminals. Soon after he recanted, claiming he didn’t want the country to become a haven for financial fraudsters. This rephrasing likely followed when Finance Minister Mathias Cormann leaned on Medcraft.
The mass media has done an admirable job bringing the CBA financial planner scandal to light, forcing ASIC to finally investigate, the Senate to inquire and the CBA to apologise and provide compensation. Despite this, frauds like these are universally downplayed as isolated events, perpetrated by “bad apples” in an otherwise trustworthy FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) sector.
Australia’s economic history shows otherwise. Our past is littered with a surprisingly large number of control frauds, which government and regulators have done next to nothing to prevent and rarely prosecute. The mounting frauds appear emboldened by deregulation and liberalisation of banking and finance.
The following table provides an overview of the major frauds committed by the FIRE sector in recent decades.
The term “control fraud” refers to the systematic, highly damaging, institution-driven and directed nature of the fraud, in contrast to common low-level frauds. The weapon of choice is accounting.
William K. Black’s book The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One provides an excellent account of regulatory public executives who, during the United States Savings and Loan crisis in the 1980s, actively protected the worst fraudsters in the industry, while damning “mum and dad” investors. Black later developed the concept of control fraud, whereby executives use the institution they manage as the mechanism to commit fraud.
Control frauds typically involve a four-part strategy: exponential loan growth, lending to uncreditworthy borrowers, extreme leverage and minimal loss reserves (plus obnoxious pay packets for bank CEOs). The obvious presence of these four elements in Australia’s banking system demonstrates the risk to stability which lies at the centre of finance.
Why fraud goes undetected
Australian economist Phillip J. Anderson documented in his book on US real estate cycles from 1800 to 2008 that fraud is never detected by the mainstream for two reasons. The first is that FIRE sector executives and managers are extremely powerful politically, financially and legally, so few will tangle with them. Secondly, during economic booms, the public is typically too self-centred to care, as long as the predations don’t affect the majority.
ASIC refuses to investigate the control frauds, instead choosing to offer up a number of excuses: lack of funding, jurisdictional boundaries, ineffective laws and so on. Thankfully, 20-year veteran financial consumer activist Denise Brailey does what ASIC declines to do on a A$400 million dollar budget. Brailey, a criminologist, has helped unearth and sue control frauds and recalcitrant state governments over the years.