Banks struggle to shake off $2-trillion dirty money exposé
Hong Kong/London — Global banks faced a fresh scandal about dirty money on Monday as they sought to limit the fallout from a cache of leaked documents showing they transferred more than $2-trillion in suspect funds over nearly two decades.
Britain-based HSBC, Standard Chartered and Barclays, Germany’s Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, and JPMorgan and Bank of New York Mellon were among the lenders named in the report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and based on leaked documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
While some banks said many of the transactions happened a long time ago and they had since put robust anti-money laundering checks in place, investors were worried.
HSBC and StanChart shares touched their lowest level in as much as 25 years, though they fared little worse than their peers amid a wider sell-off in global stocks.
The reports were based on 2,100 leaked suspicious activity reports, covering transactions between 1999 and 2017, filed by banks and other financial firms with the US Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.
Banks have spent billions bolstering their anti-money laundering procedures in recent years after many faced huge fines for rule breaches. They are required to file a suspicious activity report whenever handling funds that cause grounds for suspicion of criminal activity.
But an analysis of 2,100 suspicious activity reports obtained by BuzzFeed News, which worked with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media organisations, found some reports were filed months after the suspect transactions took place and that often little other follow-up action was taken.
“This brings out the point that managing financial crime risk goes beyond making SARs [suspicious activity reports],” said Etelka Bogardi, a Hong Kong-based financial services partner at Norton Rose Fulbright.
Shares of Deutsche Bank, which was involved in the largest number of suspicious activity reports in BuzzFeed’s dossier, were down more than 8% at one point on Monday morning after the reports.
The bank said the issues raised were “historic”, while the German finance ministry said on Monday the cases linked to Germany in the reports had already been dealt with.
Many of the suspicious transactions were linked to companies incorporated in Britain or offshore British territories, prompting calls from action groups for tougher rules.
“If the government cares at all about the UK’s reputation globally, it must stop rolling out the red carpet to the criminal and corrupt, and refuse to legitimise their money through our companies and banks,” Global Witness said.
The UK government said in a statement that “criminals should not be able to profit from their illegal activities in any circumstances, and we have taken robust action in recent years to crack down on dirty money”.
It added that it was working on reforms to its corporate registry system that will require more checks on company directors.
HSBC, whose shares fell as much as 6%, also said the information in the reports was historic, while Standard Chartered, which dropped by 5%, pointed to recent investments to improve its control procedures.
Shares of JPMorgan and Bank of New York Mellon, who were also in the top-five banks mentioned most frequently in the reports, fell 2.6% and 2% respectively.
BNY Mellon told Reuters it could not say on specific suspicious activity reports but that it fully complied with “all applicable laws and regulations”. JPMorgan said it has “thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to this important work”.
Global banks in recent years have boosted investments in technology and staff to deal with tighter anti-money laundering and sanctions regulatory requirements across the world.
Thousands of clients were booted out of bank accounts in major wealth hubs including Hong Kong and Singapore after a money-laundering scandal in Malaysia, the “Panama Papers” expose, and a global push for tax transparency.
Compliance experts said part of the problem now was banks were struggling to distinguish between transactions that were and were not suspicious, so were simply filing millions of suspicious activity reports that enforcement agencies lack the capacity to deal with.
“Lots of banks are struggling with high false-positive rates and the backlog [of existing cases]. That’s why you see that sometimes SARs were raised over 100 days after the transaction,” said Cliff Lam, a director at AlixPartners in Hong Kong.
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