Bank staff arrested over minibonds

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 March, 2010, 12:00am

Two Bank of China (Hong Kong) employees have been arrested on suspicion of fraudulently or recklessly inducing people to buy Lehman Brothers-related minibonds, in the first such arrests since the US investment bank collapsed in 2008.

The two women, aged 38 and 51, were arrested in Tsuen Wan and Yau Ma Tei yesterday in a case the police said involved eight clients and HK$3.5 million.

'The duo was believed to have separately misled and induced eight customers on various occasions to purchase structured products between 2005 and 2008' in contravention of the Securities and Futures Ordinance, police said.

The two women, said to be frontline employees, were released on bail of HK$5,000 each. No charges were laid. They must report back to police.

The case stems from more than 5,400 complaints of alleged mis-selling of so-called structured investment products received since Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy triggered the international financial crisis. The commercial crime bureau said yesterday others were still under investigation but did not say how many.

A representative of investors who lost money on such products said the police action was too little too late. A legislator called for details of the other investigations. A BOCHK spokeswoman declined to comment.

Minibonds were not corporate bonds, but high-risk, credit-linked derivatives. Hong Kong investors lost billions of dollars on minibonds guaranteed by Lehman Brothers when it went bankrupt.

Yesterday's arrests follow the first criminal prosecution arising from the sale of minibonds, in which a former bank employee is accused of forging a customer's signature to buy the products. Chu Lai-sze, 32, denied one count of forgery when she appeared in Eastern Court on January 12. The case was adjourned to April 19 and she was released on bail.

The court heard she was alleged to have forged the signature of Belinda Au Fung-yee on four applications to buy minibonds from Dah Sing Bank on April 30, 2008.

Hong Kong Monetary Authority deputy chief executive Arthur Yuen Kwok-hang declined to comment on the latest arrests.

By Thursday, the authority had resolved or investigated 21,394 of 21,541 complaints related to Lehman Brothers. It said the remaining 147 cases were still being processed, mainly because many different investment products were involved, the complaints were submitted recently or the person had not yet been reached or interviewed.

Disciplinary action will be taken by the Securities and Futures Commission on 2,842 of the complaints so far handled. Of the 21,541 complaints, 13,846 related to minibonds.

Peter Chan Kwong-yue, chairman of the Alliance of Lehman Products Victims, said the police action was 'too late and small- scale'. 'Why are only frontline staff involved? How about banks and their management? Justice delayed is justice denied,' he said.

Chan said many victims had already settled their cases with banks as the investigations dragged on.

Democratic Party legislator Kam Nai-wai, who has helped minibond investors take on the banks, said police should reveal more about the progress of investigations, such as how many there were and what kind of cases might involve criminality - information that could help victims decide whether to wait for legal proceedings or settle with banks.

In July the authority ordered banks to stake steps to tighten rules on the sale of investment products. These include recording sales pitches and testing investors' appetite for risk and whether they can afford to take it. Banks must also separate commercial banking and investment sales.