Credit Suisse pled guilty this week to helping more than 22,000 Americans evade taxes by stashing their cash in Swiss bank accounts — a notable event on several levels, PR included.
The deal represents the first criminal conviction of a major global bank in more than a decade. Criminal charges, it has been widely thought, are a death knell for institutions that cop to them. Credit Suisse agreed to pay $2.6 billion — the largest penalty ever in a US criminal tax case. Prosecutors huffed and puffed about how significant this plea is: US Attorney General Eric Holder warned, “No bank is too big to jail.”
But…nobody’s going to jail, at least nobody at the top. While the conviction generated a lot of media, the general impression is: It’s not so bad. Credit Suisse wasn’t forced to reveal any client names, and it can keep operating in the US. The bank’s CEO told analysts he expects little business impact from the agreement. Indeed, Credit Suisse stock actually rose after the deal was announced.
No doubt the US faced a conundrum: Regulators wanted to inflict serious pain, but too harsh a penalty might be so destabilizing as to spark unintended (and unwelcome) consequences. After all, the threat of banking failures precipitated the last global recession. So they walked a line — and that’s exactly how the media read it.
THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the US government, which gave its PR team little to work with.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Actions speak louder than words. Are we really shocked, shocked, to discover that Swiss banks help people hide money? Yes, the fine is big, but even the general public has become inured to banks paying massive sums. If the US really wanted to send a message to tax evaders and the banks who love them, regulators needed to be more visible: name-and-shame clients, or put some white collars in orange jumpsuits. There’s nothing like a CEO in handcuffs to really command attention.