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Uncle Sam may finally have found a reason to prosecute a big bank: Tax evasion

Aaron Task
·Editor in Chief

"Guilty" is a word that's seldom heard on Wall Street, but could be coming soon for a major bank.

The Justice Department is close to getting a guilty plea from Credit Suisse Group for allegedly helping wealthy Americans avoid taxes, The WSJ reports.

The news immediately follows U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's comments Monday that "there is no such thing as 'too big to jail,'" -- an apparent reversal of his prior stance. Last year, Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee he was “concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them ... [because] it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.”

With approximately $1 trillion in assets, Credit Suisse was the world's 27th-largest bank in 2013, according to Relbanks. The bank has operations in over 50 countries and employs over 45,000 people worldwide. "Counterparty risk" would almost certainly make its way back into the lexicon if Credit Suisse were to suffer a 'materially adverse event', be it a U.S. criminal charge or other shock. (Update: An earlier version of the story incorrectly categorized Credit Suisse as the world's third-largest bank; Yahoo Finance regrets the error.)

Related: Bank capital is an illusion: Bethany McLean

Indeed, concern about "systemic risk" is one big reason prosecutors were wary about bringing criminal charges against banks for the alleged crimes that led to the 2008 crisis. To date, prosecutors have focused on getting "deferred prosecution agreements," wherein the company in question pays a fine and is put on probation of sorts, but doesn't have to admit wrongdoing. To date, only one top banker -- coincidentally a former Credit Suisse executive named Kareem Serageldin -- has gone to jail for crimes related to the 2008 crisis, ProPublica's Jesse Eisinger reports.

Even with the pending case against Credit Suisse, Justice officials are trying to get agreements from the Fed and other bank regulators to insure a guilty plea won't prevent the bank from operating in America, much less amount to a "death sentence" as was the case with Arthur Anderson in 2002 or Drexel Burnham in 1989.

Related: American justice is blind, but likes the sound of money: Matt Taibbi

"It's a butterfly effect approach: 'We don't know if we begin a prosecution over here what's going to happen over there so therefore let's just rather not,'" author Matt Taibbi told me in a recent interview. "These cases are hard to make and they're expensive and they take up a lot of resources; you need a lot of lawyers. When you decide on that path, other crimes are going to go unpunished."

But does the punishment -- also including a fine of more than $1 billion -- fit the crime here?

In the accompanying video, I discuss the Credit Suisse case with my colleague Lauren Lyster, who wonders about the optics of the government going after the bank because it helped rich people escape paying taxes, i.e. took money directly out of the government's pocket.

"When it comes to these big banks, Main Street wants a sense of justice -- and we saw so little of this coming out of the financial crisis," she says, referring to bank settlements lacking an admission (or denial) of guilt. "But you start to deprive Uncle Sam of tax revenue and you're going to get [a guilty plea]?"

'Better late than never' is my view but what do you think: Is the government only going after Credit Suisse because it aided tax evasion -- and is foreign based?

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker and Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com. 

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