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'Too Big to Fail' Banks Aren't Too Big to Jail

Stocks in this article: CS

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Look out banks, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is watching you very carefully.

The U.S Justice Department, currently investigating foreign financial institutions, is ready to go after any bank -- even those that may be "too big to fail" -- that breaks the law, Holder said in a video posted on the Justice Department's Web site.

Holder did not name any banks but there is speculation federal prosecutors are pushing BNP Paribas and Credit Suisse (CS) to plead guilty to criminal charges to resolve separate investigations, Reuters reported.

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The French bank BNP Paribas said last week in its conference call that it could face in excess of $1.1 billion in fines to U.S. authorities over allegations that it violated U.S. sanctions against Iran and other countries. Similarly, Credit Suisse is involved in a U.S. probe looking into Swiss banks that allegedly helped Americans evade U.S. taxes.

According to Holder, he intends "to reaffirm the principle that no individual or entity that does harm to our economy is ever above the law...there is no such thing as 'too big to jail.'"

Holder's stance on banks facing potential criminal charges has changed from statements he made in 2013 to the U.S. Senate's Judiciary committee. He said then that it can "become difficult" to prosecute major financial institutions because they are so large that a criminal charge could pose a threat to the economy.

The fear of harming large companies by finding them guilty can be traced back to 2002 when accounting firm Arthur Andersen was indicted for its involvement with Enron, leading to the collapse of the accounting firm. Andersen's fall led to a loss of about 25,000 jobs and greater consolidation in the industry.

Since then, the Justice Department has opted to use agreements that resolve criminal allegations without filing an indictment.

In light of recent probes on foreign banks, however, lawyers for banks have publicly expressed concern about how counterparties or clients might react to a bank's indictment.

The lawyers told Reuters that it is hard to predict whether public pension funds might choose not to do business with a convicted felon, or whether top employees might leave to join institutions with better reputations.

At the time of publication, the author had no position in any of the companies mentioned.

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This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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