James Moore: US watchdogs' language puts the bite on HSBC

Outlook Is it the $1.9bn (£1.2bn) fine that hurts HSBC or the fact people will never look at this grandest of banks in quite the same way again?

The penalty breaks several records, but in the grand scheme of things even a blockbuster fine of this magnitude won't hurt HSBC all that much: It actually amounts to less than half the bank's underlying, third-quarter earnings.

It's the language used by the American watchdogs which has really stung; the accusation that the bank was used by various "drug kingpins and rogue nations" to launder dirty cash.

There's more of that sort of stuff if you care to read the US report into what was going on at HSBC's Mexican operations.

The people who wrote it clearly want to do for the financial cops what CSI did for forensic science. There's surely a screenplay in at least one of them.

Take a look through some of the "final-decision notices" issued by our own Financial Services Authority. By comparison they're instant insomnia cures.

The sort of language used by the Americans is what will make the Chateau Lafite in HSBC's cellars taste sour when the board next meets for lunch because the size of the fine ensures it will be repeated again and again ad nauseum.

It's not as if the bank wasn't given fair warning.

It often gets forgotten with all the fines that have been flying around, but next-door neighbour Barclays paid $289m to settle claims of non compliance with US money-laundering rules in 2010.

The offences were small beer compared to HSBC's, but news of the investigation into Barclays should certainly have served as a red light to other banks.

As HSBC has learned to its cost, when your neighbours are served with a noise-abatement order after a party you don't go out and buy a sound system.

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