Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

In 2008, the U.S. economy was in danger of collapsing. Some of the largest financial institutions, including Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Citi, were found to have been engaging the in the illegal and dangerous practice of bundling a bunch of high-risk mortgage loans together and billing them as great investments. This helped make a few number of people a lot of money, but when the bottom fell out, the government ended up giving them billions of dollars and a slap on the risk because they were “too big to fail.”

The Abacus Federal Savings Bank was founded by Thomas Sung, who immigrated to New York City as a teenager and grew up to become a successful lawyer. He noticed that other banks were happy to accept deposits from Chinese people, but weren’t so welcoming when they came asking for loans. Abacus catered to New York’s Chinatown population and did well enough that they were able to open six branches. That’s certainly respectable, but with something like 2600 larger banks in the country, the government saw them as decidedly not too big to fail.

The problems started when Abacus learned that one of their loan officers had been accepting bribes and skimming money from customers. They fired him immediately and reported the infractions to the appropriate organizations, who decided to jump at the opportunity to have a scapegoat for the whole credit default swap scandal. Members of the Sung family, along with a few other bank employees, were arrested and charged with several serious crimes. At best, they’d have to spend millions of dollars in legal fees to defend themselves. At worst, they faced fines and prison time.

It’s a fascinating documentary, even if you’re not particularly interested in finance. It’s certainly a one-sided presentation, and we’re given less than ninety minutes to look at a trial that lasted for months, but it certainly seems like a David and Goliath-type battle in which the government was desperate to point to at least one bank that they had actually punished instead of bailed out. The filmmakers aredefensepushing you to believe in the bankers’ innocence, and the segments in which government representatives argue to the contrary seem like they have been hand-picked to sound weak.

I was also frustrated by the substantial amount of time spent on tangents not directly related to discussing guilt or innocence. The biggest offender here is the defence argument that no one was hurt by the loans in question, and that even if some of the loans had been obtained with false information, all of the clients had faithfully repaid those loans. This seems irrelevant and counterproductive, since arguing that there were no adverse consequences to an illegal activity has a very different connotation than arguing that they had no involvement in that activity. Nonetheless, this argument was made in court, and it’s appropriate for the documentary to have included it, but it felt like they dwelled on it too much.

On the other hand, the film does a good job of making you feel close to the Sung family and sympathizing with and relating to them. It’s far from impartial, but it is informative and entertaining, and it’s worth checking out if you get the chance.