HSBC Bank. The world’s Most Scandalous Bank?
“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”
US comedian Groucho Marx (1890 – 1977)
Multinational bank HSBC is known for its financial scandals, as much as for its global banking networks.
A quick look at HSBC’s advertising webpage makes for an interesting and informative read, about this rather iconic banking brand name, stating the huge successes of their airport marketing campaign.
The underlying theme of the campaign, which was launched in 2011, is to reflect the forces that will shape commerce and the world of the future. “The creative themes are drawn from the core business lines of our Commercial Banking, Global Banking and Markets and Wealth Management businesses,” their marketing narrative goes on to say. Further, it states, “Their creative themes are drawn from the core business lines of our Commercial Banking, Global Banking and Markets and Wealth Management businesses.”
HSBC, which was founded in 1865, is a British financial institution of truly global proportions and it has developed a global network of more than 6,200 offices in 74 countries and territories.
The question is…has their “Wealth Management” business gone too far – in managing the wealth of the wealthy, as far as its principles or perhaps lack of, are concerned?
HSBC is no stranger to international scandal – from Libor Rates rigging to money laundering to the alleged destruction of Indigenous Lands. As recently as 2012 HSBC was embroiled in a money laundering expose for the laundering of vast sums of money from an al-Qaida linked Saudi bank.
A report presented to the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation in July 2012 detailed HSBC subsidiaries transporting billions of dollars in armoured vehicles, clearing suspicious checks, and assisting drug cartels in buying planes through Cayman Island accounts.
At the hearing David Bagley, HSBC’s head of compliance, resigned in front of the committee stating that, “Despite the best efforts and intentions of many dedicated professionals, HSBC has fallen short of our own expectations and the expectations of our regulators.” In the wake of the investigation and 335 page report HSBC was fined $1.9 billion.
Also, in July 2012 the news broke that HSBC, along with RBS, JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank and other banks were involved with manipulating the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) giving off a false impression of credit and providing them with a hefty profit.
HSBC has also found itself at the forefront of serious allegations from indigenous rights activists. The Rainforest Action Network has detailed how an HSBC financed company is forcing the development of oil palms on the lands of indigenous communities in Papua New Guinea.
HSBC financed the palm oil company Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK) recently claimed ownership of three land development licenses within traditional indigenous lands.
KLK brought in palm oil seedlings and is believed to have begun planting seeds without permission. KLK has been used of using slave labour in Borneo and child plantations in Sumatra.
The UK’s Guardian Newspaper Unleashes a new Tsunami of Allegations against HSBC
Late on Sunday afternoon the UK’s Guardian newspaper unleashed a new tsunami of allegations, leaked by whistleblower Herve Falcianl, about how its Swiss-based subsidiary helped its clients dodge taxes and hide millions.
This huge cache of information was leaked to a specially selected consortium of European newspapers – including the UK’s Guardian, which published the first article of its findings late on Sunday afternoon, in the UK.
The Whistleblower – the Edward Snowden of Swiss Banking’s Largest Secrets Heist
According to Bloomberg Business, On Feb. 1, 2008, a man and a woman boarded a plane in Geneva and flew to Beirut. Over the next week, they visited managers at four Lebanese banks. The man, who identified himself as a Lebanese national named Ruben El Chidiak, told the bankers that he ran a consulting firm and had valuable information to sell.
However, Ruben El Chidiak was not his real name. His real name is Hervé Falciani, who worked as a systems engineer at the Geneva-based private banking unit of HSBC (HBC).
The bank would later discover, to their horror that he had in fact carried out one of the biggest security breaches in Swiss banking history, obtaining details on the accounts of some 24,000 HSBC private-banking clients.
The account data later was passed along to tax authorities in European countries—including France, Spain, and the U.K.—who have used it to collect more than €1 billion ($1.34 billion) in back taxes. Falciani says the data has also provided leads for ongoing investigations of corruption, money laundering, and terrorist financing. The Geneva bank provided an “open door” for such illicit activity, Falciani told a Spanish court earlier this year.
Towards the end of 2008 he slipped out Geneva and has been skipping from one European country to the next, ever since: constantly staying just one step ahead of the Swiss prosecutors, who have accused him of massive data theft – a charge which could earn him up to three years in prison, should the Swiss authorities manage to capture him.
He initially went to Spain, where the Spanish authorities refused to cooperate with the Swiss prosecutors – refusing their requests for extradition. In fact he was praised, by a Spanish prosecutor as a whistleblower. He later moved to France, last summer in 2014, where he has testified (behind closed doors) to various French parliamentary committees.
It has been said that, combined with his computer-geek like knowledge of computer credentials and good looks that he is a cross between Edward Snowden and Robin Hood. The French magazine “Le Point” has portrayed him as “The man who makes the rich tremble.”
A story of claim and denial: similar to that of Edward Snowden’s, with the NSA
Falciani, who has dual French and Italian citizenship, joined HSBC in 2000 in Monaco as a computer specialist. After being transferred to Geneva to work on a document-management system, he says, he discovered that clients’ account information was not being adequately safeguarded. He says he alerted his superiors, but they ignored him. “The bank was working mainly to protect its own profitability,” he says.
The fact that Falciani attempted to alert his superiors – without success or action bears many similarities to that of Edward Snowden’s claims that he had tried, in vain, to alert his superiors. A claim which the NSA have vigorously denied ever since Snowden fled the US and ended up being given political asylum in Russia.
HSBC disputes Falciani’s claim. “We do not have any record or knowledge of any previous attempts made by Falciani to alert his line manager or the bank’s management,” says David Bruegger, a bank spokesman in Zurich. Bruegger says the bank has safeguards “designed to prevent clients from abusing our services for tax evasion,” and that the bank ends relationships with clients who are “not tax-compliant.”
Falciani says that his job did not give him access to client accounts, but that other employees shared his concerns and began leaking account data to him in 2006. HSBC, however, states that its internal investigation showed that Falciani alone took the information.
Falciani says he tried to pass the data to Swiss law-enforcement authorities to demonstrate the weakness of HSBC’s control systems, but was thwarted because they refused to protect his anonymity. He then contacted intelligence services in several other countries, he says, because he “had started having doubts about Swiss justice.”
Falciani’s Mossad Meeting?
In a claim, which has never been substantiated – one evening in the summer of 2007, Falciani says, he was out walking along a street, in Geneva, when some men jumped out of a van and forced him to get in, and took him to the basement of a deserted building.
He says that they told him they were Mossad agents and were asking him for his help in ensuring that HSBC would not “continue its practices.” The men didn’t say specifically what they were concerned about, but Falciani says he later suspected they were worried about hidden sources of terrorist money. Falciani says he agreed to help, although he says he had no way to verify whether the men actually worked for Mossad.
So, what about that trip to Lebanon?
Bloomberg Business’s article goes on to state that, according to Falciani, it was the Mossad agents who proposed the Beirut trip. They said that if Lebanese banks learned that HSBC account secrecy had been compromised, they would alert law-enforcement authorities and “draw attention to the bank.” He says the agents suggested that he enlist the help of a Lebanese-born woman named Georgina Mikhael, who had recently started working at the bank as an IT contractor, without telling her the real purpose of the trip.
The Guardian’s report states how HSBC helped its wealthy clients dodge paying taxes – the concealing millions of dollars and the doling out of bundles of untraceable cash.
According to the material leaked to the Guardian and other (selected) media outlets: HSBC’s Swiss banking arm helped wealthy customers dodge taxes and conceal millions of dollars of assets, doling out bundles of untraceable cash and advising clients on how to circumvent domestic tax authorities, according to a huge cache of leaked secret bank account files.
- Routinely allowed clients to withdraw bricks of cash, often in foreign currencies of little use in Switzerland
- Aggressively marketed schemes likely to enable wealthy clients to avoid European taxes.
- Colluded with some clients to conceal undeclared “black” accounts from their domestic tax authorities.
- Provided accounts to international criminals, corrupt businessmen and other high-risk individuals.
The HSBC files, which cover the period 2005-2007, amount to the biggest banking leak in history, shedding light on some 30,000 accounts holding almost $120bn (£78bn) of assets.
The Guardian then goes on to say that, quote, “The revelations will amplify calls for crackdowns on offshore tax havens and stoke political arguments in the US, Britain and elsewhere in Europe where exchequers are seen to be fighting a losing battle against fleet-footed and wealthy individuals in the globalised world.”
It also went on to say how one British millionaire Richard Caring, British clothing tycoon and restaurateur, stepped out of his Geneva bank on a warm September day in 2005 with 5m Swiss francs in cash – the equivalent of £2.25m ($3.4m) – enough to fill a suitcase.
Richard Brooks, an ex-tax inspector and author of “The Great Tax Robbery,” told the Guardian: “Banks are supposed to fill in suspicious activity reports for such transactions.” He added: “In the UK I don’t think you would be allowed to withdraw that kind of cash.”
The Swiss Banking Secrecy Laws
The Swiss Banking secrecy laws were enshrined in 1934, with many speculating that they came into being, at the behest of the Nazi’s, who were already eyeing up the assets of their future “Enemies of the State.”
The numbered bank account is now illegal in most western countries, but it remains a key part of Switzerland’s fabled banking secrecy.
A depositor’s true identity will be known to only a select group of employees, and in order to withdraw cash or make a wire transfer, the account holder is asked for a codeword.
At HSBC’s Swiss bank, codenames – Painter, Mr Shaw, Captain Kirk and, in a nod to the Tintin books, Capitaine Haddock – were also used to disguise the identity of some clients.
Over the following decades, the Alpine vaults have sheltered the fortunes of families escaping not only the Holocaust, but they have also provided a hiding place for looted assets.
The latest leak, made by a whistleblower in 2007, covers the cache of files of 106,000 clients in 203 countries.
The BBC states that
More than half on the list are men, but the most common profession listed on bank details is “housewife” – a term that is also used with unusual frequency on other countries’ lists and which is not only used to describe married women, but also businesswomen, architects and even princesses.
High-profile figures on the list include the now-deceased former head of Santander, Emilio Botin – whose family have had to pay 200m euros ($226m; £148m) to the Spanish government.
Ekho Moskvy, Russia
In Russia, Magomed Vakhayev, the first deputy chair of the committee for security and fight against corruption of the State Duma, which is the lower house of the Russian parliament, has called for checks into the origin of the HSBC accounts allegedly belonging to Russian officials.
“Of course, I think that if such facts exist they will be investigated [by anti-corruption committee],” he told Gazprom-owned Ekho Moskvy radio.
“It is important because they did not earn the money abroad. They clearly had the intention to keep the money in foreign banks rather than invest them in our companies and organizations,” he said.
The Current Criminal Investigations into HSBC
The bank now faces criminal investigations in the US, France, Belgium and Argentina, but not in the UK, where HSBC is based.
HSBC said it is “co-operating with relevant authorities”.
Treasury minister David Gauke has defended the government’s actions on tax avoidance in the House of Commons after Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood Shabana Mahmood tabled an urgent question.
He insisted that the Treasury approach has been “very successful”, saying it has sought prosecution for “serial tax evaders” and raised extra tax revenue.
Offshore accounts are not illegal, but many people use them to hide cash from the tax authorities. And while tax avoidance is perfectly legal, deliberately hiding money to evade tax is not.
The scandal, however, as a result of Sunday evening’s publication in the Guardian, which is now rocking HSBC, as well as, former and current British officials has only just begun – with claims, denials and counter claims being traded in the House of Parliament on Monday.
The big question that the British public will want to know however is this…will there be any prosecutions? Are heads going to roll?
Bearing in mind that while there are investigations, of (possible) illegal activities, by HSBC, going on in other countries: there is still no investigation being opened up here in the UK.
by Victor Romain