HSBC can't avoid Senate's rocket-propelled grenade

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2012, 12:00am


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Banks operating in the more exciting parts of the world have always faced big risks.

Just consider the old British Bank of the Middle East (BBME). On January 20, 1976, during a lull in Lebanon's bitter civil war, a military unit surrounded the BBME's Bab Idriss branch in Beirut, favourite depository of the city's wealthy elite.

Covered by a barrage of mortar fire, the soldiers stormed the bank, blasting their way in through the front door with rocket-propelled grenades.

They spent the next few hours methodically laying high explosive charges, which they detonated to blow open the branch's supposedly impregnable vault.

According to Beirut's Daily Star, it took the robbers two days to strip the bank's safety deposit boxes of their contents, largely gold bullion, jewellery, cash, and stock and bond certificates.

The loot was loaded into a fleet of trucks, which promptly vanished along with their heavily armed escort into the back streets of war-torn Beirut.

To this day, no one knows for sure who carried out the raid - the robbery has variously been attributed to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Christian Phalangist militiamen, and even a renegade unit of British army commandos - or how much they got away with.

But if reports that the robbers removed 'hundreds' of standard 12kg gold bars are accurate, at today's prices the haul would be worth at least US$125 million, by far the biggest and most successful bank heist ever.

That was 36 years ago. The British Bank of the Middle East has long since been rebranded as HSBC, and these days the risks of operating around the world are different.

But as HSBC is discovering, although today's dangers may not be as spectacular as they were in the 1970s, they can be even more punishing financially.

Yesterday the Hong Kong and London-based banking group announced first-half net profits of US$8.44 billion, down from US$9.22 billion for the same period last year: a decline of 8.4 per cent.

HSBC's earnings fell in part because the bank was forced to set aside US$700 million as a provision against the 'significant fines and penalties' it expected the authorities to charge its US subsidiary for not adequately enforcing anti-money laundering precautions.

Coming on top of a fresh US$1.35 billion HSBC has set aside to compensate British retail customers who were mis-sold credit insurance, the US regulatory charge was enough to wipe out any growth in net profits, despite the bank's strong first-half performance in Asia.

An institution the size of HSBC is easily able to absorb the immediate hit.

But it is the longer-term dangers revealed by the US Senate's report into HSBC's involvement with 'money laundering, drugs and terrorist financing' that should worry the bank's bosses.

In its report the US censured HSBC for operating 'in many jurisdictions with weak anti-money laundering controls, high-risk clients, and high-risk financial activities, including Asia, Middle East, and Africa'.

This gives the impression that the US Senate believes three-quarters of the world's population are money launderers, terrorists, drug dealers or all three, and that any bank with US operations doing business with foreigners is quite beyond the pale.

HSBC is doing its best to conciliate the US authorities. Yesterday chief executive Stuart Gulliver pledged to spend US$400 million this year applying US regulatory standards across the group as a whole.

But, if pursued, the Senate's determination to find drug dealers and terrorists under every global banker's bed strikes at the heart of Gulliver's new strategy for HSBC.

Setting out his post-crisis direction for the bank last year, the newly installed chief executive pledged that HSBC would become the pre-eminent global commercial banking network, serving growing trade and capital flows within and between emerging economies and the developed world.

Yet, judging by the Senate's report, the authorities in the world's biggest and most important economy view such networks with extreme suspicion, believing they habitually serve 'money launderers, terrorists, organised crime, corrupt officials, tax evaders, and other wrongdoers'.

That will make life difficult for HSBC. Its network banking model can't operate without a sizeable US presence, but neither can it survive without serving what the Senate calls the 'high-risk' markets that generate most of its earnings.

These days the HSBC's bankers may no longer have to deal with rocket-toting militiamen hell-bent on bank robbery. But, the physical threat aside, operating in multiple jurisdictions across the world is more demanding today than ever.