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May 1, 2014

Why Only One Top Banker Went to Jail for the Financial Crisis

On the evening of Jan. 27, Kareem Serageldin walked out of his Times Square apartment with his brother and an old Yale roommate and took off on the four-hour drive to Philipsburg, a small town smack in the middle of Pennsylvania. Despite once earning nearly $7 million a year as an executive at Credit Suisse, Serageldin, who is 41, had always lived fairly modestly. A previous apartment, overlooking Victoria Station in London, struck his friends as a grown-up dorm room; Serageldin lived with bachelor-pad furniture and little of it — his central piece was a night stand overflowing with economics books, prospectuses and earnings reports. In the years since, his apartments served as places where he would log five or six hours of sleep before going back to work, creating and trading complex financial instruments. One friend called him an “investment-banking monk.”

Serageldin’s life was about to become more ascetic. Two months earlier, he sat in a Lower Manhattan courtroom adjusting and readjusting his tie as he waited for a judge to deliver his prison sentence. During the worst of the financial crisis, according to prosecutors, Serageldin had approved the concealment of hundreds of millions in losses in Credit Suisse’s mortgage-backed securities portfolio. But on that November morning, the judge seemed almost torn. Serageldin lied about the value of his bank’s securities — that was a crime, of course — but other bankers behaved far worse. Serageldin’s former employer, for one, had revised its past financial statements to account for $2.7 billion that should have been reported. Lehman Brothers, AIG, Citigroup, Countrywide and many others had also admitted that they were in much worse shape than they initially allowed. Merrill Lynch, in particular, announced a loss of nearly $8 billion three weeks after claiming it was $4.5 billion. Serageldin’s conduct was, in the judge’s words, “a small piece of an overall evil climate within the bank and with many other banks.” Nevertheless, after a brief pause, he eased down his gavel and sentenced Serageldin, an Egyptian-born trader who grew up in the barren pinelands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to 30 months in jail. Serageldin would begin serving his time at Moshannon Valley Correctional Center, in Philipsburg, where he would earn the distinction of being the only Wall Street executive sent to jail for his part in the financial crisis.

American financial history has generally unfolded as a series of booms followed by busts followed by crackdowns. After the crash of 1929, the Pecora Hearings seized upon public outrage, and the head of the New York Stock Exchange landed in prison. After the savings-and-loan scandals of the 1980s, 1,100 people were prosecuted, including top executives at many of the largest failed banks. In the ’90s and early aughts, when the bursting of the Nasdaq bubble revealed widespread corporate accounting scandals, top executives from WorldCom, Enron, Qwest and Tyco, among others, went to prison.

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Read full New York Times Magazine article here

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