How many U-turns can a bank fit inside a loophole?

By Felix Salmon
August 9, 2012
affair today. Read this one first, about the law which may or may not have been broken; and then move on to this one, about the reaction to the case in London.


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The NYT has two excellent articles about the Standard Chartered affair today. Read this one first, about the law which may or may not have been broken; and then move on to this one, about the reaction to the case in London.

Up until 2008, the US law governing banking transactions with Iran fell short, shall we say, from what you might expect from a perfect model piece of legislation. Banks in New York couldn’t do such business — unless the money just came in to the US and then immediately left again — but even then there were lots of rules surrounding disclosures and the like which tended to slow such business down. The big argument in this case is not whether the transactions took place, but rather whether Standard Chartered illegally circumvented the disclosure rules, by stripping lots of information from the transactions before they reached New York.

In other words, this whole thing is a fight over the size of a loophole. Standard Chartered defends its actions on the grounds, in the NYT’s words, that they “fell squarely within that loophole” — while Benjamin Lawsky sees the loophole as being much smaller, and the StanChart transactions as falling outside it.

Viewed from across the pond, all of this seems a little bit silly. London has always been a more freewheeling and international banking center than New York; moving money around the world is what London banks do. And so the English are seeing a war on London here:

John Mann, perhaps the most strident critic of Britain’s banking culture in Parliament, said in an interview on Wednesday that the Standard Chartered allegations reflected an anti-Britain bias by American regulators, who he said were trying to bolster Wall Street at the expense of the City of London.

This is silly; I’m quite sure that Lawksy doesn’t have some kind of hidden agenda to boost the fortunes of Goldman Sachs or BofA. But the US rules are definitely written in a world where the US can and will advance its own geopolitical agenda by imposing regulations on domestic institutions, as well as foreign institutions with a US presence. And since it’s impossible to be an international bank without having a US presence, the US geopolitical agenda ends up being imposed on every major bank in the world.

The London view of things is different: it sees itself more a global financial center, rather than a UK city, and historically has tried to be as welcoming as it can be to foreign institutions and capital flows. Hence the now-famous quote from an English StanChart executive, complaining about where the “fucking Americans” get off telling the rest of world what they can and can’t do when it comes to Iran.

What’s more, while London regulation is principles-based, US regulations are rules-based — which means that if Standard Chartered could find a way of moving money around the world while remaining within the four corners of the law, it would happily do so. There’s very little doubt that StanChart’s actions violated the spirit of the law; Lawsky’s assertion is that they violated the letter of the law, as well. But that remains to be seen. In London, and in general, StanChart would generally avoid taking refuge in loopholes like this. But New York is different, and in New York, StanChart played by different rules.

So while Lawsky’s suit isn’t a matter of bolstering Wall Street at the expense of the City, it is a matter of trying to impose the US (and, indeed, NY) vision of finance on every global financial institution. When it comes to things like capital adequacy, regulators around the world have interminable meetings in boring cities to try and build a global framework they can all agree on. When it comes to things like money transfers, however, every country has different rules, and the US has no compunction in declaring that, say, all flows in and out of Iran are money laundering and/or terrorist finance unless proven otherwise.

Up until now, US bank regulators have taken a relatively sanguine view of such matters. They understand that New York is an international financial center, and so long as banks are making a good-faith effort to stay within the letter of the law, they’re often given the benefit of the doubt. Some might call that regulatory capture; others might simply see New York regulators triangulating towards international norms.

Lawsky, on the other hand, clearly doesn’t care a whit for international norms or the global nature of finance. He sees behavior which on its face involves trading with Iranians and making hundreds of millions of dollars in profit from activities no US bank would want to touch. He has every right to go after StanChart, which has a major New York presence. And he also — crucially — has the right to take away StanChart’s banking license here, which would basically kill the bank entirely. What he sees as the moral high ground looks to Londoners very much like judicial bullying.

The US tightened up its loophole in 2008, and when it did so, StanChart’s U-turns came to an end: they thought they were within the loophole, and when that loophole went away, they stopped what they were doing. In other words, we’ve already had the US action which put an end to StanChart’s behavior: in fact, we had it four years ago. What extra purpose is served in going so aggressively after StanChart now? That’s the question that London is asking; I’d be interested to hear Lawsky’s answer.

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