I am grateful to Europeans for the many incredible literary, musical and linguistic contributions they have made to the United States, and even for some of their culinary influences. But there are certain exports the U.S. can do without. Chief among them are European banks' weak risk management practices and some top bank and government officials' disregard for laws meant to root out money laundering and terrorism financing.
The Financial Times reported Sunday that anonymous officials from France and other European countries are prepared to challenge U.S. regulators for "imposing heavy penalties on foreign banks" at November's G-20 meeting in Brisbane. European politicians are upset because U.S. authorities had the audacity to fine BNP Paribas nearly $9 billion over charges that it had concealed for a decade transactions on behalf of clients in Cuba, Iran and Sudan. The French lender allegedly engaged in these activities even after it had received warnings that it was under investigation for violating U.S. sanctions.
These illegal activities cost BNP Paribas money that could have been better spent bolstering the banks capital to sustain unexpected losses. The issue of sanctions violations is by no means contained to BNP Paribas; other European banks under investigation for similar charges include Commerzbank, Deutsche Bank, Société Générale, Standard Chartered and Unicredit.
One might expect European politicians to express genuine contrition on behalf of their senior bank managers. But mea culpas have been in short supply. Instead, officials are seeking to rein in authorities that have meted out just punishments for crimes.
The echoes of European politicians' grumbling were still reverberating when HSBC chairman Douglas Flint protested the strict regulatory environment on Monday. Flint warned of "an observable and growing danger of disproportionate risk aversion creeping into decision-making in our businesses as individuals, facing uncertainty as to what may be criticized with hindsight and perceiving a zero tolerance of error, seek to protect themselves and the firm from future censure," according to the Financial Times.
That's a rich claim coming from the London-based HSBC, which has a long list of financial sins. (Quartzs Jason Karaian provides a good summary.) One does not have to run a bank of over $2 trillion in assets in over 80 countries to know that activities like alleged rate-rigging are not normal business risks particularly not for a globally systemically interconnected bank, the downfall of which could lead to a financial crisis.
Flint argues that regulators need to clarify their rules so that HSBC employees "won't pull back from approving loans or offering customers products simply because of fears that regulators could later find problems," according to the Wall Street Journal. But for all regulators' imperfections, the last thing any of them want is to inhibit bank transactions that may actually lead to economic expansion particularly job creation.
HSBC is not paying legal fines and facing regulatory scrutiny because of its noble service in growing the economy through lending, nor because of its magnificent customer product offerings. The bank has already spent roughly $5 billion in legal claims over laundering money for Latin American drug cartels and mis-selling insurance policies. It has also set aside over $3 billion in provisions for future legal troubles as it is investigated for multiple market rates manipulations scandals.
Since 1776, there have been dramatic changes in the evolution of British and American English but I hope we can all agree that money laundering is not a "customer product" and that a "customer" is not a drug cartel. The Brits may say that Flint is "cheeky," but it's a Yiddish word that best describes what Flint has unwarranted chutzpah.
Regulators in both the U.S. and Europe expect top government and bank officials to set the right tone when it comes to respecting laws, rules and ethics. This is not the attitude displayed by European politicians or by Flint. They are simply focused on damage control.
Instead, European politicians and heads of banks should demonstrate that they understand why the rule of law matters. Bank leaders should communicate this critical ethos to every senior manager across the globe. They should also make sure word spreads to the most junior employees, who have the daunting task of ensuring that banks are in compliance with all relevant laws and regulations in every jurisdiction where a bank holding company operates. If the tone at the top does not change, HSBC's plans to add 3,000 regulatory and financial-crime compliance employees will not make an iota of a difference.
As a shareholder, creditor or employee at a European bank, I would want HSBC and other European banks to commit to improving their risk management, especially operational risk. Whining about inconvenient regulations and laws does neither banks nor the public any good.
Mayra Rodríguez Valladares is managing principal at MRV Associates, a New York-based capital markets and financial regulatory consulting and training firm. She is also a faculty member at Financial Markets World.