Standard Chartered stained by settlement
The bank still faces bills from other US regulators, as well as allegations over deals with Burma, Libya and Sudan
Thursday 16 August 2012
Standard Chartered investors may have welcomed the London bank's $340m (£216m) settlement over money-laundering allegations in New York, but the case is far from closed.
While the bank's shares jumped 4 per cent yesterday they are still more than 10 per cent below the level they stood at shortly before Benjamin Lawsky, Superintendent of New York's Department for Financial Services (DFS), published his highly damaging allegations 10 days ago.
Mr Lawsky's in-tray still contains "evidence with respect to what are apparently similar Standard Chartered Bank schemes to conduct business with other US sanctioned countries such as Libya, Myanamar [Burma] and Sudan".
The speed at which Standard Chartered negotiated a settlement with Mr Lawsky reflects what chief executive Peter Sands told staff in a memo that it was "in the best interests of our shareholders, clients, customers and staff".
Analysts warned that the London-based bank still faces large payouts to another four regulators in the US and said that the settlement with New York's Department of Financial Services could set a worrying precedent for all banks.
Pressure on Mr Sands and his senior colleagues has been considerably reduced although it will take time to repair reputational damage to the bank.
Standard Chartered is still probably on course to record its 10th annual rise in profits this year, but its reputation as one of the few global banks to not require a bailout during the financial crisis and its claim to make money by being boring have been tarnished.
By agreeing the deal with Mr Lawsky, the ambitious head of the DFS, Mr Sands has avoided what could have been a damaging public hearing over the highly charged allegations that Standard Chartered had acted like a "rogue institution".
Tony Anderson, a banking partner at the legal firm Pinsent Masons, said: "The approach of regulators issuing damaging statements before alleged regulatory breaches have been resolved judicially and fairly will be a significant concern for financial institutions if it continues. Faced with a plunging share price following publication of such statements, institutions will have little choice but to settle these disputes as soon as possible and on compromised terms, to avoid further reputational damage."
In the US, Mr Lawksy has been portrayed as anything from a hero to a grandstanding gun slinger.
Under the headline "Ben Lawsky's, New York's top financial regulator, nails British bank for helping Iran launder money", the New York Daily News said: "Bravo. Lawsky did the job as far as New York's regulations are concerned. Others, including the FBI, US Treasury, Federal Reserve Bank and Manhattan district attorney, are still on the case. They must apply their powers to the fullest."
But the Wall Street Journal commented: "If the message to bankers from Mr Lawsky's Eliot Spitzer moment is to withhold information lest they invite overzealous prosecution, reputational damage and destruction of shareholder wealth, we can expect less co-operation from other banks and other governments. It also hurts the reputation of US law enforcement if banks can be subject to multiple prosecutions based on different standards and different claims of evidence."
Mr Lawsky has yet to publish full details of the settlement but the wording of his statement on Tuesday was notably less histrionic. It also contained the phrase: "The parties have agreed that the conduct at issue involved transactions of at least $250bn."
That is a considerable step back from his original claim that Standard Chartered hid "60,000 secret transactions involving at least $250bn".
In fact it appears that some $300m (not billion) of transactions over a decade were illegal. That is considerably more than Standard Chartered's claim that only $14m of deals broke the rules but more than £249bn less than Mr Lawsky claimed. Other sources suggest that just 300 transactions out of the 1.5 million which regulators have looked at broke the sanctions rules.
Given that Standard Chartered's New York branch handles roughly $200bn worth of dollar transactions for its worldwide clients every day, the scale of the Iran sanctions transgressions is relatively small.
But as Mr Sands said when he apologised last week when he claimed only $14m of transactions had been illegal: "This was clearly wrong and we are sorry that they happened."
The same no doubt applies to any deals Standard Chartered did with Libya, Burma and Sudan which failed to comply with the US regulators' sanctions rules.
The bank will be hoping that it can reach an all-embracing settlement with the five main US financial regulators without being dragged screaming to public hearings in New York.
But the fact is that whatever the scale of the misdemeanours, Standard Chartered's whiter-than-white reputation has been damaged. As yet there are no signs that its clients stretching from India to Hong Kong have reduced the amount of business they do with the bank. But some could have second thoughts. And investors have certainly taken a hit.
Standard Chartered shares rose 56.5p to 1,426.5p yesterday but they are still well below the 1601.5p they stood at before Mr Lawsky published his order.
"Standard Chartered has probably done the right thing. You just pay up and get on with life however innocent you feel you are. Otherwise, it's something that could hang over you for years," said Hugh Young, Asia managing director at Aberdeen Asset Management, Standard Chartered's third-biggest shareholder.
But Ian Gordon, banking analyst at Investec, has questioned the regulator's actions.
He said: "It is highly unsatisfactory that the DFS allegations have effectively allowed a false market to develop in Standard Chartered's shares over the past week.
"In our view, Standard Chartered has acted with pragmatism and integrity in the face of extreme provocation."
Standard Chartered said that it continued to "engage actively" with the other US regulators who have been investigating breaches of rules on banking transactions with Iran.
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