To punish a big bank

HSBC is Britain’s largest — and the world’s second largest — bank, and has been caught quite red-handed facilitating industrial-scale tax evasion

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Published: Sat 28 Feb 2015, 1:22 AM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 7:48 PM

Often claimed to be too big to fall (or to fail), the world’s biggest banks are now in the eyes of the public too big to be honest. And that absence of honesty is why HSBC chairman Douglas Flint has failed to take responsibility for the bank’s alleged criminal transgressions in Switzerland.

More infuriating still for the British public, who have followed the workings of a Treasury Select Committee taking evidence about HSBC and its possible role in tax evasion, is that neither Flint nor the bank’s CEO, Stuart Gulliver, have mentioned personal responsibility for the transgressions.

HSBC is Britain’s largest — and the world’s second largest — bank, and has been caught quite red-handed facilitating industrial-scale tax evasion, committed by some of its wealthiest clients. Thousands of leaked bank account files obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the BBC, The Guardian and other newspapers show that between 2005 and 2007 the bank’s Swiss arm colluded with clients to conceal money and indeed bank accounts from their respective domestic tax authorities — the accounts involved were worth an estimated US$119bn.

In keeping with the appalling absence of honesty, integrity and responsibility that HSBC has displayed from at least 2008 (when ordinary British taxpayers saved the banks) the bank’s chairman initially denied HSBC’s Swiss subsidiary had facilitated tax avoidance.

Flint has appeared very much more concerned about the “horrible reputational damage” HSBC has suffered in recent weeks, and has offered lamely that more robust practices for screening clients are now in place in Switzerland.

In an effort to downplay scandal at home surrounding the bank’s Swiss arm, Flint stressed only 2% of those who stash money in HSBC’s Swiss subsidiary are British. But it is the response of the senior-most HSBC management to the leaked files that has evoked disgust — concerning the leaked files Flint has said the bank’s immediate reaction was to examine weaknesses in its data security measures! This amounts to saying that HSBC is more concerned with how the incriminating evidence found its way out, rather than its own alleged criminality that was uncovered by a whistleblower.

There is now a clear signal that this latest transgression by HSBC, and the widespread vociferous public reaction to the leak, has moved the authorities in the UK to act.

The former Director of Public Prosecution, Ken Macdonald, said HSBC could be liable for criminal charges, arguing that there are reasonable grounds to investigate the bank for “cheating” Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Macdonald said clear evidence indicates HSBC Swiss engaged in years of “systematic and profitable collusion in serious criminal activity against the exchequers of a number of countries”.

He has said that when this “grave cross-border crime” came to the attention of British revenue and customs authorities, they should have prompted “urgent and sustained criminal investigation”.

Under the circumstances, better late than never may be some comfort to the public in Britain and elsewhere. The impunity of big banks has indeed been galling. The Libor scandal was exposed in 2012, implicating a cartel of banks in the fraudulent manipulation of the average interest rate of London banks.

And, in November 2014 five of the world’s biggest banks — JP Morgan Chase, UBS, Citigroup, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and HSBC — were collectively fined US$4.25bn by British, Swiss and American authorities for fixing foreign exchange rates. It is well past high time for strict, long-lasting penalties on those who keep the hard-earned monies of the public.

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