December 11, 2012

British bank to pay record $1.9B fine in US case

The probe of Europe's largest bank focused on the transfer of funds through the U.S. financial system from Mexican drug cartels and on behalf of nations such as Iran.

Pete Yost / The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — HSBC said Tuesday it will pay $1.9 billion to settle a U.S. money-laundering probe, avoiding a protracted legal battle that would have further embarrassed the British banking giant.

The probe of Europe's largest bank by market value focused on the transfer of funds through the U.S. financial system from Mexican drug cartels and on behalf of nations such as Iran that are under international sanctions.

Regulators worldwide have put banks under greater scrutiny since the financial crisis and a string of banking scandals highlighted lax practices and a culture of arrogance and entitlement. Money laundering by banks has become a priority target for U.S. law enforcement. Since 2009, Credit Suisse, Barclays, Lloyds, and ING have all paid big settlements related to allegations that they moved money for people or companies that were on the U.S. sanctions list.

HSBC said in a statement that its anti-money laundering measures were inadequate and it had since made strides in beefing up its controls. The bank also said it has reached agreements over investigations by other U.S. government agencies. It also expects to sign an agreement with British regulators shortly.

"We accept responsibility for our past mistakes. We have said we are profoundly sorry for them, and we do so again," HSBC Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver said in a statement.

A U.S. law enforcement official said the investigation by federal and state authorities will result in HSBC paying $1.25 billion in forfeiture and paying $655 million in civil penalties. The $1.25 billion figure is the largest forfeiture ever in a case involving a bank. Under what is known as a deferred prosecution agreement, the financial institution will be accused of violating the Bank Secrecy Act and the Trading With the Enemy Act.

Under the arrangement, HSBC will admit to certain misconduct, the official said, but the details of those admissions to be made in a New York court were not immediately available. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the source was not authorized to speak about the matter on the record.

The agreement means the bank won't be prosecuted further if it meets certain conditions, such as strengthening its internal controls to prevent money laundering. The Justice Department has used such arrangements often in cases involving large corporations, notably in settlements of foreign bribery charges.

Experts said banks such as HSBC have a strong interest in settling out of court to limit damage to their reputations. On Monday, Standard Chartered, another British bank, signed an agreement with New York regulators to settle their money laundering investigation with a $340 million payment. The bank was accused of scheming with the Iranian government to launder billions of dollars.

"These banks are operating in an environment where you can't afford to have uncertainty attached to your name, and they are dependent on confidence from their investors. And that makes them keen to get past such events very quickly and settle," said Sabine Bauer, director of financial institutions at Fitch Ratings.

Among other European banks to have settled money-laundering cases with the United States:

— Credit Suisse, Switzerland's second-largest bank, agreed to pay $536 million. The authorities said the bank violated U.S. economic sanctions by hiding the booming illegal business it was doing for Iranian banks.

— Barclays paid $298 million. The big British bank allegedly engaged in $500 million in illegal transactions with banks in Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Myanmar for more than a decade.

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