Should U.S. Tell Foreign Banks Who They Can Do Business With?

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When news broke Monday that New York regulators had accused Standard Chartered of laundering at least $250 billion for the Iranian government, the British bank found itself at the center of the latest banking maelstrom. The company's shares plummeted Tuesday as phrases like "rogue institution," "willful and egregious violations of law" and "terrorists, weapons dealers, drug kingpins and corrupt regimes" made the rounds on Twitter.

But as the afternoon wore on, and perhaps the stirs of patriotism subsided, some began to question whether the ire was entirely deserved.

"Isn't it at least worth contemplating the possibility that not acting as an adjunct to U.S. gunboat diplomacy is actually the more 'socially legitimate' course here?" one reader commented on Felix Salmon's Reuters blog.

In its regulatory order, the New York State Department of Financial Services alleges, among other things, that Standard Chartered engaged in "wire-stripping" (the intentional removal of codes so money transfers can go unidentified); wrote a training manual so employees would know how to conduct said stripping; asked its auditor Deloitte to omit information from reports submitted to regulators; and gave its entire money-laundering practice a code name, "Project Gazelle."

But, unlike HSBC, which essentially admitted guilt in its money-laundering scandal, Standard Chartered is denying the bulk of the allegations against it. In a formal statement released on Monday, the bank asserts that only $14 million worth of transactions failed to comply with regulations, that it ceased all new business with Iranian customers in any currency over five years ago and, most notably, that it "strongly rejects the position or the portrayal of facts as set out in the order issued by the DFS."

According to Reuters, Deloitte is similarly denying any wrongdoing.

Whether or not all the allegations are true, a provocative question was posed by the London official quoted in the New York regulator's order (and subsequently everywhere else on the Internet). 

"You [expletive] Americans," the official allegedly wrote to an executive in the Americas who attempted to warn him of the repercussions attached to doing business with Iran. "Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we're not going to deal with Iranians?"

Or, as another Salmon commenter more politely phrased it, "why is it OK for the U.S. to unilaterally declare that people all across the world cannot do business with Iran?"

A CNN commenter provided a potential answer to this question by pointing out, "You do realize this bank is in America, and we seem to have a problem with Iran right now."

And others are quick to point out that, regardless of the pariah nation in question, foreign banks need to listen to us [expletive] Americans the second they set up shop on our shores.

As one commenter wrote on a Naked Capitalism blog post questioning the New York Fed's involvement (or lack thereof) in unearthing the scandal, "If you want to have a U.S. bank charter, you have to play by U.S. banking rules."

Do U.S. regulators have the right to tell foreign banks not to do business with certain countries? What's your take on the Standard Chartered money-laundering allegations? Post a comment below. 

Jeanine Skowronski is the deputy editor of BankThink.

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