In late October, the United States Department of Justice announced a major settlement with the global investment bank Goldman Sachs for its involvement in the 1MDB scandal, an international bribery scheme in which high-level Malaysian officials embezzled an estimated $4.5 billion from a fund designed to finance infrastructure and other economic development projects. Between 2012 and 2013, Goldman Sachs helped raise $6.5 billion for 1MDB in three bond sales, and at least two Goldman bankers aided Jho Low, an advisor to the fund, in embezzling much of the capital. As part of the settlement with DOJ, Goldman agreed to pay over $2.9 billion to authorities in the US, Hong Kong, UK, and Singapore. Of the nearly $3 billion in fines, approximately $1.85 billion will go to the United States, over $600 million to Malaysia (on top of a $3.9 billion settlement the Malaysian branch of Goldman reached with the country in July), and $440 million to financial regulators in other nations.
Despite these eye-popping numbers—including what appears to be the largest fine to date levied under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—some experts have characterized the $2.9 billion penalty as “surprisingly small” or even “virtually meaningless” for a company that made $3.6 billion this last quarter alone. And, in what has become a common refrain among critics of these sorts of settlements with big firms, many complain that no senior Goldman Sachs executives were held personally, criminally liable for the bank’s role in the 1MDB fiasco.
Yet an assessment of the punishment must also include the penalties that extend beyond these government-imposed fines. Indeed, while some regard Goldman Sachs’ settlement as a slap on the wrist for a global corporation that’s a glutton for punishment, the implications of the settlement reveal a more just outcome than appears at first blush.