The biggest corporate fines in history and how they changed business

Governments and civil courts are increasingly willing to inflict hefty penalties for wrongdoing, says author José Hernandez.

by José Hernandez
Last Updated: 23 May 2019

The decade since the 2008 financial crisis has witnessed an explosive leap in the magnitude of fines and penalties handed down to global companies found to have engaged in improper conduct. The $1.6bn penalty inflicted on engineering giant Siemens that year by US and German authorities for alleged violations of anti-corruption laws is less than half of the charge taken at Odebrecht in 2016 ($3.5bn).

These amounts, while huge, pale in comparison to the largest multi-billion-dollar fines levied for other major corporate offenses, ranging from financial fraud to violations of international sanctions and environmental crimes.

The United States has led this charge in pursuing increasingly massive fines for corporate offenders. However, prosecutors and regulators in other jurisdictions – and especially in Europe – have recently begun to follow suit. It's worth pointing out that the fines and penalties themselves imposed on companies by governmental authorities to resolve criminal and civil matters are just one part of the story – many such settlements bring forth class-action lawsuits and derivative actions that can add billions to the total price tag for misconduct.

The massive scope of today’s fines – and even greater reputational fallout of the wrongdoing they quantify – means that companies cannot afford to view such payments as mere "costs of doing business". Rather, they need to take a hard look at their business practices and make significant investments in their resources, structures and policies for compliance to ensure that they are equipped to prevent, detect, and respond to improper conduct before it is too late.

The top corporate fines each tell a story about how pervasive cultures of cheating can snowball into a scandal of catastrophic proportions and astronomical cost.

The Top Corporate Fines To Date

The biggest corporate fine to date was levied against BP in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest in history. BP settled with the U.S. Department of Justice for $20.8bn in 2016; the total compensation ultimately paid out by the company reportedly exceeded $65bn.

BP’s experience came at a sensitive time, when global discussions on tackling climate change pushed big oil company investments further towards renewable energy and more sound safety practices.

Several of the largest fines have hit the financial services industry, a direct result of the scrutiny facing banks in the wake of the financial crisis. These include the second-place $16.65bn fine paid by Bank of America in 2014 for its role in the subprime loan crisis, the $13 billion paid by JP Morgan to resolve similar charges, and the $8.9bn paid by BNP Paribas for violations of U.S. sanctions against Sudan, Iran, and Cuba.

Major fines have also been levied on Citigroup, Royal Bank of Scotland, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Wells Fargo, and HSBC holdings for conduct ranging from money laundering to rate manipulation, retail practices, and tax evasion. As a result, financial services companies have been forced to make significant new investments in their compliance, controls and oversight – however, with new cases often in the news, it appears that more much effort remains to be done.  

The third largest fine was paid by Volkswagen, which, in 2016, faced $14.7bn in civil and criminal penalties from the United States in the wake of its scandal over emissions cheating. In a world increasingly concerned with the response to climate change, the VW case shook the entire automotive industry to the core. The VW scandal effectively doomed diesel as a fuel for the future. Today, all major automotive companies are directing their investments (and future) towards electric cars, while striving to meet increasingly aggressive emissions targets.   

Big Tech in the Crosshairs

Regulators in the US and Europe alike appear to be taking aim at Silicon Valley and with growing concerns about cyber-security, data protection, and online privacy, the technology sector has emerged as the next target of multi-billion-dollar fines. Over the past three years, the EU has levied a series of fines against Google for alleged anti-competitive practices, totalling over €8bn. In 2019, it has been widely reported that another tech giant, Facebook, is expected to face fines of up to $5bn by the Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations. 

The Takeaway

The lesson from these giant fines and penalties is clear: the era of tolerance for corporate crime has ended and going back to business-as-usual is not an option. Public and media attention, programs that reward whistleblowers, and multi-jurisdictional information sharing by national enforcement agencies means that global companies are under more regulatory scrutiny than ever before.

To be sure, this is a good thing: the mammoth fines of the past decade have forced companies to rethink their business practices on safety, environment, labour, integrity, transparency, competition, and corporate responsibility. Expect many more in the future.

José Hernandez is the CEO of Ortus Strategies and the author of the new book Broken Business: Seven Steps to Reform Good Companies Gone Bad (published by Wiley), which is available now in hardback and ebook.

Image credit: Vladislav Reshetnyak/Pexels

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