Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Standard Chartered: Rogue bank or victim of renegade regulator

In his Guardian column, Nils Pratley frames the issue of money laundering at Standard Chartered as either a rogue bank or rogue regulator.

Actually, Standard Chartered has already confessed to a minimum of $14 million in money laundering for Iran.  So we know it is a rogue bank.

Remember, nobody forced Standard Chartered to handle these transactions.  The bank did so voluntarily in the pursuit of profit knowing that any money laundering could cost it is license to operate in the US.

Remember, it was obvious that extra vigilance would be needed to ensure that the bank did not engage in money laundering.  What has emerged so far doesn't appear to be extra vigilance to insure that money laundering didn't take place, but rather extra vigilance in reading the US law not for its intent, but rather for any ambiguity that could be exploited.

Given its confession, the only issue is what is the right level of punishment.

Standard Chartered, don't forget, is an institution that likes to think of itself as a cut above the rest. The reason it hasn't got into scrapes, management likes to proclaim loudly and often, is because it conducts itself properly.
Consider this self-congratulatory statement by the chairman, Sir John Pease, only last week: "In recent weeks, issues have surfaced around governance and behaviour in banking. At Standard Chartered, we believe it is not just about what we do, but how we do it. Our culture and values continue to be a source of strength and a competitive advantage. Strong corporate governance and an obsession with the basics of banking remain key areas of focus for our board."
It is worth re-reading the highlighted text and remembering that Standard Chartered engages in the same level of opaque disclosure as does that other UK bank, Barclays.

Every bank can claim that its culture and values continue to be a source of strength and a competitive advantage.  Particularly the banks that were manipulating Libor to increase their profitability.

History has shown that banks that can 'talk the talk' and 'walk the walk' fully disclose all of their exposures.  These banks understand that ultra transparency is a sign of a bank that can stand on its own two feet and has nothing to hide.

If Standard Chartered had a culture based on ultra transparency where everything is disclosed the next day, would it have engaged in $250 billion worth of transactions with Iran?

If Standard Chartered really is a cut above the rest, I would expect it to a) take full responsibility for $250 billion of questionable transactions, b) voluntarily disgorge 100% of any profits associated with these transactions and c) begin providing ultra transparency.

Instead, I expect that Standard Chartered will run to Washington DC and hope that the regulators there can craft a bank friendly bailout settlement that will get it out from under the line of fire by the NY State regulator.

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