Corporate Fines: How Much Do They Hurt?

By Mark Riddix | August 06, 2010 AAA
Corporate Fines: How Much Do They Hurt?

The federal government has hit a number of the country's largest corporations with fines over the past 12 months. Businesses have been fined for everything from environmental catastrophes to misleading investors. Companies have been fined as little as a few million to some fines hitting the billions. While many of these fines may appear to be large amounts for individuals, they are a mere annoyance to some of these cash cow companies. Many of these companies can repay their fines with just a few days' profits. Let's take a look at a few of the large fines that have been doled out recently.

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BP
The gulf coast oil spill may have finally been stopped but BP's (NYSE:BP) troubles are not over. The federal government ordered BP to set up a $20 billion dollar escrow fund to handle gulf liability claims. $20 billion dollars is a substantial penalty to any company even one with the earnings power of BP. (Find out more in BP's Broken Window.)

BP is on pace to generate just below $300 billion dollars in revenue this year. BP may have lost $17.2 billion in the most recent quarter due to costs of the oil spill, but the company had a profit of $4.4 billion in the same quarter of last year. If oil damages are limited to $20 billion then it will only take slightly more than one year's worth of BP's profits to fund the $20 billion escrow.

Toyota Motor Corporation
Toyota (NYSE:TM) was recently fined $16.4 million dollars by the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration for failing to report a known gas pedal defect to federal regulators. The biggest hit was to Toyota's reputation. The $16 million dollar fine is a drop in the bucket to Toyota Motor Corp.

Last quarter, Toyota made a net profit of $1.2 billion dollars which means that the company would only need a day and a half of profits to cover the company's fines. (For more, check out The Cost Of An Auto Recall.)

Goldman Sachs
The $550 million dollar fine that the Securities Exchange Commission hit Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) with barely made a dent in the premium investment bank's earnings. Goldman managed to produce a net profit of $453 million dollars this past quarter despite the SEC fines and $600 million dollars in overseas taxes on bonuses.

This was the worst quarter in awhile for a company that was able to generate $3.4 billion in profits over the same quarter last year. A half a billion dollar fine seems like a lot until you realize that Goldman could pay the entire fine with under a month of profits. (See Goldman Sachs: By The Numbers for more.)

Bank of America
The nation's largest bank was recently fined $108 million dollars for charges related to an acquisition that it made during the housing crisis in 2008. Bank of America's (NYSE:BAC) subsidiary Countrywide was alleged to have onerous fees related to borrowers facing foreclosure. This news comes on the heels of a $33 million dollar fine over $3 billion dollars in bonuses paid out at Merrill Lynch.

What's $100 million dollars to a company with nearly $1 trillion dollars in deposits? It's a pittance! Bank of America just posted a $3.1 billion dollar profit over the past 90 days. This means that the banking giant could pay its fine from just three days of profits.

Dell
Computer maker Dell (Nasdaq:DELL) received a hefty fine last week for fraud and misleading investors. Dell failed to inform investors that the company was receiving exclusivity payments from Intel (Nasdaq:INTC) for not using AMD (NYSE:AMD) chips. The company was only able to meet quarterly expectations by improperly accounting for these payments. That's a big no-no. The SEC stepped in and fined Dell $100 million dollars and Michael Dell $4 million dollars personally.

This fine is a hit to Dell whose earnings have seen better days. Last quarter Dell reported $14.9 billion in sales but just $341 million in net income. The fine would cost Dell approximately a month of profits.

The Bottom Line
At first glance these fines may appear to be large amounts, but upon further review they are just pennies on the dollar to these multi-billion dollar conglomerates. The biggest hit to most of these companies will be to their reputations and not their bottom lines.

Catch up on your financial news; read Water Cooler Finance: Google Gains, Taxpayers Pay.

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