Probes Reveal Central, US-Based, International Banks All Have Sticky Fingers (#GotBitcoin?)
Bank of America To Pay $30 Million In Benchmark-Manipulation Settlement
The bank was accused of trying to help its own derivatives positions.
Bank of America Corp. will pay $30 million as part of a settlement with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission related to charges that the bank tried to manipulate a benchmark for interest-rate products over a span of six years.
The CFTC said Wednesday that Bank of America tried to manipulate the U.S. Dollar International Swaps and Derivatives Association Fix, or ISDAfix, to help its own derivatives positions. It also accused the bank of false reporting.
Bank of America traders, according to the futures regulator, attempted to manipulate rates to benefit specific trading positions and influence reference rates and spreads ahead of the time the final rates were published.
CFTC Director of Enforcement James McDonald said in prepared remarks that the regulator’s settlement with the bank is its ninth enforcement action tied to manipulation with this benchmark. On Tuesday, the CFTC announced that Intercapital Markets LLC would pay $50 million as part of a settlement with the regulator.
“We have significantly enhanced our procedures to detect any inappropriate behavior,” a Bank of America spokesman said.
International Bank Agrees To Pay US $70 Million To Resolve CFTC Charges That It Attempted To Manipulate ISDAFIX Benchmark
Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. agreed to pay a fine of US $70 million to resolve charges brought by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission alleging that, from at least January 2007 through May 2012, it attempted to manipulate the US Dollar International Swaps and Derivatives Association Fix benchmark. The CFTC claimed that DBSI engaged in such violation through the acts of some of its traders who caused the firm to make false submissions in order to impact the Fix in a direction to help benefit the firm’s trading book.
American Express Gave Small Businesses One Rate, Then Secretly Raised It
For more than a decade, American Express Co.’s foreign-exchange unit recruited business clients with offers of low currency-conversion rates before quietly raising their prices, according to people familiar with the matter.
AmEx’s foreign-exchange international payments department routinely increased conversion rates without notifying customers in a bid to boost revenue and employee commissions, the people said. The practice, widespread within the forex department, was occurring until early this year and dates back to at least 2004, the people said.
The practice targeted mostly small and midsize businesses, the people said, a group of customers that accounts for about a quarter of the company’s credit-card revenue. AmEx, one of the largest small-business card issuers in the U.S., earlier this year said it hoped to become the leading payments and working-capital provider for small and middle-market companies.
AmEx said it doesn’t have contractual pricing arrangements with most of its foreign-exchange customers. “We have training, control and compliance oversight and believe that our transactions are completed and reported in a fair and transparent manner at the rates which the client has authorized,” said spokeswoman Marina Norville.
On Monday afternoon, Ms. Norville said the company takes “allegations like these very seriously” and will conduct a review with an external party to determine if its standards are being met. “If we find that we fell short of the mark, we will fix the problems and take appropriate actions to make sure it doesn’t recur,” she said.
Although the forex business is small—accounting for less than half of a percentage point of AmEx’s total revenue—it is among a suite of services the company offers to its small-business customers. Small business is a key growth area for AmEx, which has long sought to distinguish itself from rivals JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. by offering generous card-related benefits and tailored services to its consumer and business clients.
Current and former employees say the division’s commissions-driven culture fueled the practice.
Here’s how it worked, according to current and former employees: Salespeople would often tell potential clients that AmEx would beat the price they were paying banks or other financial institutions to convert currency and send money abroad. The salespeople didn’t inform customers that the margin, a markup that AmEx tacks on to the base currency exchange rate, was subject to increase without notice, they said. Prospective clients with certain AmEx cards also were accurately told they could earn points for the transactions, they added.
Some time later, salespeople would increase the margin without informing the customers, the current and former employees said. To spot the change, customers generally would have to log in to their accounts and compare the rate AmEx was offering to the market exchange rate at the time of the transaction. As recently as this year, they said, some customers had margins increased anywhere from 0.05 to 0.25 of a percentage point. In earlier years, margins rose by as much as 3 percentage points, according to former employees.
When clients did notice a change and inquired, AmEx salespeople sometimes would blame a glitch or other technicality and lower the margin, according to current and former employees and emails.
Current and former employees say the division targeted smaller businesses in part because they’re less likely than large corporations to have employees who closely track forex transactions.
Managers directed salespeople to keep the details of the payment arrangements hazy when speaking with potential customers and to avoid putting pricing terms in emails, current and former employees said.
Managers in the division tapped the brakes on the practice in recent months, according to current and former employees, following an article published late last year alleging similar practices at Wells Fargo & Co. An AmEx manager told salespeople they would need his approval before offering prospective clients a margin of less than 0.70 of a percentage point.
Current and former employees said the price changes were common knowledge within the forex business. Paul Hargreaves, who ran AmEx’s global foreign-exchange services division for many years, was aware of the tactic, former employees said. Following a long career with AmEx, he left the company earlier this year, Ms. Norville said.
Mr. Hargreaves couldn’t be reached for comment.
Current and former employees describe an environment focused on bringing in as many new clients as possible and squeezing revenue out of them before they depart. Employees were told that the average forex customer did business with AmEx for around three years, they said.
“Who cares if they come or go? Let’s make money while we have them,” one current employee said, referring to the attitude within the division.
“We constantly reinforce the importance of acting in the best interest of our customers,” said AmEx spokeswoman Ms. Norville.
Commissions are tied to monthly revenue targets, which are heavily influenced by margins and transaction volume, current and former employees said.
Salespeople who hit their targets earn a commission of 15% of the monthly revenue new customers generate, according to current and former employees. Commissions rise to around 25% after an annual revenue target of as much as around $285,000 is exceeded, they said. Sales reports distributed by managers list how much revenue salespeople generate, they added.
At AmEx, rate increases often would occur after managers told salespeople to review their accounts and adjust pricing, the current and former employees said.
Some salespeople said they were encouraged to employ the tactic at the division’s training program for new employees. One former employee said he was told during training to sign up as many accounts as he could in his early days and to go back later and adjust the rates upward to hit revenue targets.
AmEx Staff Misled Small-Business Owners to Boost Card Sign-Ups
Questionable sales tactics cropped up in push to retain cardholders after Costco partnership ended.
The American Express Co. saleswoman had finally convinced Bryan Daughtry to apply for a card. There was just one thing: She had to run a credit check.
Mr. Daughtry, who owns a disaster-cleanup company in Ohio, balked. He was trying to get a mortgage and didn’t want the inquiry to dent his credit score. She refused to stop the process, he said, checked his credit, and his application was approved.
“That left a bad taste in my mouth,” said Mr. Daughtry.
Some AmEx salespeople strong-armed business owners like Mr. Daughtry to increase card sign-ups, according to more than a dozen current and former AmEx sales, customer-service and compliance employees. The salespeople have misrepresented card rewards and fees, checked credit reports without consent and, in some cases, issued cards that weren’t sought, the current and former employees said.
An AmEx spokesman said the company found a very small number of cases “inconsistent with our sales policies.” “All of those instances were promptly and appropriately addressed with our customers, as necessary, and with our employees, including through disciplinary action,” he said.
“We have rigorous, multilayered monitoring and independent risk-management processes in place, which we continuously review and enhance to ensure that all sales activities conform with our values, internal policies and regulatory requirements,” he said. “We carefully examine any issues raised through our various internal and external feedback channels and audits, and we do not tolerate any misconduct.”
Current and former employees said the dodgy sales tactics date to at least 2015, when AmEx was scrambling to retain Costco Wholesale Corp. small-business customers after the warehouse club ended their long-running partnership.
The deal’s demise was a huge blow to AmEx. For 16 years, the warehouse club didn’t accept credit cards in its stores from any company but AmEx. AmEx also issued credit cards branded with the Costco logo that offered special perks.
Small businesses were a particularly valuable slice of the Costco cohort. The warehouse club sells a lot of things they need—two-liter jugs of olive oil, bulk cleaning supplies, big-screen TVs, tires for their delivery vans. AmEx was about to lose the stream of fees on all of those card purchases.
Customers were also free to use their Costco-branded cards elsewhere, and they did. Kenneth Chenault, then AmEx’s chief executive, said that about 70% of spending on the Costco cards were non-Costco purchases. Those fees would go away, too.
The potential revenue hit from the loss of the Costco customers was enormous, so AmEx launched an aggressive campaign to keep them. The push ushered in an era of escalating sales goals and hefty commissions that persists today.
Mr. Daughtry said he didn’t seek out the AmEx card. The saleswoman called his office numerous times over several weeks last spring before she finally got him on the line. Although he said he never consented to the card, he got a $250 bill for its annual fee in the mail.
He called to complain. “I told them I wouldn’t stand for it, and I would take some type of action,” Mr. Daughtry said. AmEx agreed to drop the charge.
Known for courting well-heeled consumers, AmEx also relies heavily on its business customers. It derives about 30% of its revenue from the services it sells to a range of companies—from mom-and-pop shops to multinational corporations.
AmEx is the largest business-card issuer in the U.S., according to the Nilson Report. Small businesses are an especially important constituency; AmEx has said its small-business card portfolio is larger than that of its nearest five competitors combined.
The task of retaining Costco customers initially fell to about a hundred AmEx salespeople in Phoenix. The “top client acquisitions” group employees were told that the Costco retention program—Project Lincoln—was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make big money. Their task: dial up Costco business-card holders and convince as many as possible to sign up for AmEx business cards.
The dial-for-dollars strategy worked. AmEx managed to hang onto a big chunk of the Costco customers. Within six months of the push, some salespeople had earned commissions of $50,000 to $100,000, according to current and former employees. BMWs and other high-end cars began appearing in the office parking lot.
Some salespeople took shortcuts to get there, current and former employees said.
Salespeople are required to call customers on their recorded desk lines, but some placed calls from personal cellphones, often while standing in a breezeway between two buildings on AmEx’s Phoenix campus, according to current and former employees. Senior managers sometimes closed sales on their unrecorded desk lines.
There were red flags. Some 40% to 45% of cards that were being mailed out as part of Project Lincoln were being activated, according to a 2015 presentation by a senior employee in the division—well below the typical rate of at least 60%. Phoenix salespeople were earning the highest commissions, but the accounts they had opened had the lowest usage rates of any other group, said people familiar with the presentation.
An executive at the company’s headquarters in New York flagged the low activation rates to senior sales employees in Phoenix, according to people familiar with the matter. Commissions were scaled back, and some salespeople suspected of dicey behavior were fired, the people said.
The Costco retention campaign ended in 2016, but the problematic sales practices didn’t, current and former employees said. Salespeople who had grown accustomed to the big commissions from the retention program were back to mostly relying on cold calls to meet their now-higher monthly sales targets.
Salespeople sometimes told hesitant business owners they would send informational “welcome kits” in the mail. Instead, they used Social Security numbers and addresses gleaned from customer databases to submit applications on the business owners’ behalf. The “welcome kits” were simply the cards and their associated paperwork.
It didn’t take long for senior sales employees to begin spotting the same practice at another AmEx office in Florida focusing on business-card sales, they said.
Some employees tried to warn higher-ups about the questionable tactics. In early 2017, a saleswoman contacted Susan Sobbott, at the time president of global commercial services. She connected the saleswoman with employees in human resources and risk management so they could investigate the allegations.
When human-resources staff reached out to the employee’s manager, he denied the saleswoman’s allegations and said she was underperforming. The employee later left the company. The manager was later promoted. Ms. Sobbott has since left AmEx.
“The senior leader appropriately referred the matter to independent groups outside the business, who then investigated the allegations and found them to be unsubstantiated,” the AmEx spokesman said.
Around this time, AmEx was conducting a broad review of its sales tactics. After Wells Fargo & Co. disclosed in September 2016 that branch employees had opened fake accounts without customer consent, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency asked AmEx and other banks it oversees to make sure their employees weren’t doing the same thing.
AmEx reviewed calls from desk phone lines of sales staff between 2014 and 2017 and found evidence of misleading behavior, according to people familiar with the matter. Some customers were told their cards were being upgraded when they were being given new cards; others received more cards than they sought. Salespeople skipped over required disclosures and, in some cases, falsely told customers their credit wouldn’t be checked, the people said. Cards also had been issued without customer consent, they said.
AmEx told the OCC it found few cases of inappropriate sales tactics, the people said. The company reprimanded or fired a small number of employees and asked credit-reporting firms to remove inquiries from the credit reports of customers who didn’t consent to the checks, they said. AmEx asked customers who received cards they didn’t authorize if they wanted to keep them, the people said.
The review didn’t capture calls made from employees’ cellphones, nor did it catch those made by senior sales staff on unrecorded lines, according to people familiar with the matter.
An AmEx spokesman said the company “found no evidence of a pattern of misleading sales practices.”
Last year, the OCC listened to some AmEx sales calls and found evidence of misconduct, according to people familiar with the matter.
AmEx said the business-card sales teams were responsible for around 0.25% of 65 million new cards issued by the company world-wide between 2014 and 2019, or about 162,500 cards. “Less than 0.25% of the group’s sales activities have been identified by us as inconsistent with our sales policies,” a spokesman said.
As recently as last year, AmEx’s customer-service department fielded complaints from business owners who said they had received cards they didn’t sign up for, according to people familiar with the matter. Some of those calls made their way to the company’s executive escalations department, some of the people said. Angry customers were often offered extra rewards points to drop their complaints, they said.
Customers also complained that salespeople misled them about card fees and rewards, current and former employees said.
Abdelnasser Abdeen said a salesperson told him he wouldn’t be charged an annual fee if he didn’t activate his AmEx card. Soon after the card came in the mail last year, he got a bill for $295. When he called to complain, Mr. Abdeen said he was told the card rewards would more than cover the fee.
“They were pushing to sell me that card,” said Mr. Abdeen, who owns a used-car dealership in northern Virginia. “I didn’t like that.” He canceled the card and signed up for a different type of AmEx card. He said he isn’t getting the rewards points he was told he would get.
In the fall, an AmEx salesman convinced Glen Vitale to take out six business cards with an unusually generous offer of four rewards points per dollar on certain spending categories for the first $150,000 spent. He said he was led to believe he would pay a single annual fee of $295 for all the cards.
Mr. Vitale, an executive at an auto-parts manufacturer in Pompano Beach, Fla., began using one of the cards right away. The salesperson emailed to ask whether he would make a small purchase with the others to test their security chips.
Soon after, Mr. Vitale said he got six separate bills for $295 each. The salesperson told him the rewards would more than cover the cost.
“I said, ‘I hope you’re right,’ and I went on with my business,” he said. AmEx recently fired the salesman.
Wells Fargo To Pay $35 Million To Settle ETF Probe
SEC says sales controls weren’t sufficient over products called too risky for some investors.
Wells Fargo & Co. agreed to pay $35 million to settle regulatory claims that its financial advisers recommended exchange-traded funds that were too risky for some clients.
The Securities and Exchange Commission’s investigation targeted Wells Fargo’s sale of inverse ETFs, a type of fund that moves in the opposite direction of an index it tracks. Inverse ETFs can be used to hedge other positions or bet on a falling market, but the products are complex enough that regulators have warned for years they are unsuitable for many individual investors.
The sanction follows on an earlier blemish for similar conduct in 2012, when Wells Fargo paid $2.7 million to the brokerage industry’s self-regulator for selling inverse and leveraged ETFs without reasonable supervision. The SEC’s settlement order said Wells Fargo updated its policies for selling the products in 2012, but the controls still weren’t sufficient.
The deal comes one week after Wells Fargo resolved a bigger regulatory cloud, a multiyear investigation into how low-level employees who were stressed by high sales goals opened fake and unauthorized bank accounts. Wells Fargo paid $3 billion to settle those allegations.
Brokers and investment advisers have struggled for years with how to sell inverse and leveraged ETFs. Leveraged ETFs employ derivatives to deliver two or three times the daily price moves of benchmarks. The SEC approved the products over a decade ago and has been reining in their use by individual investors ever since.
Wells Fargo said Thursday that its advisory business “no longer sells these products in the full-service brokerage.”
The products are popular with some traders and are intended for daily, tactical trading. But many brokers have recommended the products to investors who held the funds for longer periods, which can lead to surprises.
For example, an inverse fund that should rise in value when the market declines can actually lose value during periods of sustained volatility. That outcome stems from the effects of daily compounding, which over longer periods produces returns that can vary from a leveraged or inverse ETF’s objectives.
The SEC’s settlement order said Wells Fargo’s employees advised clients from 2012 to 2019 to hold the funds “in many cases for months or years” in accounts, including those investors saving for retirement.
The SEC said the $35 million penalty would be used to compensate clients who had losses and held the funds for more than 30 days.
CFTC Names Four Banking Organization Companies, A Trading Software Design Company And Six Individuals In Spoofing-Related Cases;
The Same Six Individuals Criminally Charged Plus Two More: On January 29, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Department of Justice coordinated announcements regarding the filing of civil enforcement actions by the CFTC, naming five corporations and six individuals, and criminal actions by the DOJ against eight individuals – including six of the same persons named in the CFTC actions – for engaging in spoofing activities in connection with the trading of futures contracts on United States markets.
Four of The Corporations – part of global banking organizations – simultaneously resolved their CFTC-brought civil actions. These four corporations were Deutsche Bank AG and its wholly owned subsidiary Deutsche Bank Securities Inc., UBS AG and HSBC Securities (USA), Inc. DB and DBSI settled their CFTC enforcement actions by agreeing to jointly and severally pay a fine of US $30 million; UBS settled by consenting to a sanction of US $15 million; and HSBC settled by agreeing to a fine of US $1.5 million. The companies additionally agreed to continue to maintain surveillance systems to detect spoofing; ensure personnel “promptly” review reports generated by such systems and follow‑up as necessary if potential spoofing conduct is identified; and maintain training programs regarding spoofing, manipulation and attempted manipulation.
Generally, DB, UBS and HSBC were charged for the spoofing activities of their employees on the Commodity Exchange, Inc. in gold and other precious metal futures contracts. Typically, alleged the CFTC, the employees placed a small lot order on one side of a market and larger lot orders on the other side of the same market for the purpose of artificially moving the market to effectuate the execution of the smaller lot order. As soon as the small lot order was executed, the larger lot orders were cancelled.
DB was also charged with manipulation and attempted manipulation, and UBS was additionally charged with attempted manipulation. The CFTC claimed that one DB and one UBS employee placed orders to try to trigger customers’ stop loss orders to benefit proprietary trading.
DBSI – a registered futures commission merchant – was charged with failure to supervise. According to the CFTC, DBSI maintained a surveillance system that detected many instances of potential spoofing by DB traders, whose accounts it carried. However, said the CFTC, DBSI failed to follow up on “the majority” of potential flagged issues.
The CFTC acknowledged each firm’s cooperation during its investigation. The Commission additionally noted that UBS self‑reported its own misconduct in response to a firm-initiated internal investigation. The CFTC said that it was previously not aware of the misconduct.
Additionally, the CFTC charged Jitesh Thakkar and Edge Financial Technologies, Inc. – a company Mr. Thakkar founded and for which he served as president – with spoofing and engaging in a manipulative and deceptive scheme for designing software that was used by an unnamed trader to engage in spoofing activities. This enforcement action was filed in a federal court in Chicago, Illinois.
According to the CFTC, Mr. Thakkar and Edge Financial aided and abetted the unnamed trader’s spoofing by designing a custom “Back-of-Book” function. This function automatically and continuously modified the trader’s spoofing orders by one lot to move them to the back of relevant order queues (to minimize their chance of being executed) and cancelled all spoofing orders at one price level as soon as any portion of an order was executed. The CFTC said that the unnamed trader admitted using the Back-of-Book function to engage in spoofing activities involving E-mini S&P futures contracts traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange from January 30 through October 30, 2013.
It appears from language in a parallel criminal complaint also filed against Mr. Thakkar in a federal court in Chicago, Il., that the trader he is alleged to have assisted was likely Navinder Sarao. In November 2016, Mr. Sarao pleaded guilty to criminal charges for allegedly engaging in manipulative conduct through spoofing-type activity involving E-mini S&P futures contracts traded on the CME between April 2010 and April 2015, including illicit trading that contributed to the May 6, 2010 “Flash Crash.” He also settled a CFTC enforcement action related to the same conduct. (Click here for background regarding Mr. Sarao’s settlement and initial charges in the article “Alleged Flash Crash Spoofer Pleads Guilty to Criminal Charges and Agrees to Resolve CFTC Civil Complaint by Paying Over $38.6 Million in Penalties,” in the November 13, 2016 edition of Bridging the Week.)
Previously, Mr. Thakkar has served as a member of the High Frequency Trading Subcommittee of the CFTC’s Technology Advisory Committee.
The CFTC also filed civil complaints against Cedric Chanu, Andre Flotron, Krishna Mohan, James Vorley and Jiongsheng Zhao, alleging spoofing and engaging in a manipulative and deceptive scheme. The DOJ announced that criminal complaints were filed against the same persons, as well as Edward Bases and John Pacilio. The criminal case against Mr. Flotron was filed in September 2017. (Click here for details in the article “Spoofing Case Filed in Connecticut Against Overseas-Based Precious Metals Trader,” in the September 17, 2017 edition of Bridging the Week.) Both the civil and criminal actions were filed in federal courts in Connecticut, Illinois and Texas.
CME brought and settled a disciplinary action against Mr. Zhao, alleging disruptive trading in November 2017 (click here for details). To resolve the CME action, Mr. Zhao agreed to pay a fine of US $35,000 and be barred from access to all CME Group exchanges for ten business days.
Prior to the filing of the eight criminal actions by the DOJ, only three persons had previously been criminally prosecuted for spoofing. (Click here for background in the article “Former Newbie Bank Trader Pleads Guilty to Criminal Charges and Settles CFTC Civil Charges for No Fine for Spoofing, Attempted Manipulation and Manipulation of Gold and Silver Futures,” in the June 4, 2017 edition of Bridging the Week.)
My View: The settlement against DB for spoofing and DBSI for failure to supervise was resolved by an agreement by the firms to jointly and severally pay a fine of US $30 million.
In settlements, the rationale for any provision – including the precise amount of a fine – is correctly not part of the public record. As a result, it would be disingenuous to speculate why any one provision might have been agreed.
Hopefully, however, through this settlement, the CFTC is not signaling that it equates the acts of a principal spoofer with the failure of a carrying FCM to follow up on its surveillance system’s detection of possible misconduct by a customer. If this was the CFTC’s intent, it raises the supervisory obligation of FCMs to a new and highly unfair level. Certainly, the commission of an illegal act, or even the affirmative aiding and abetting of such act, must be regarded as far more serious than the failure of a carrying broker to act after it detects such potential misconduct through its ordinary surveillance system.
This matter is the second recent settlement entered into by the CFTC in recent months that seems to impose an extraordinarily high standard of oversight responsibility on FCMs.
Just a few months ago, Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated agreed to pay a fine of US $2.5 million to resolve charges brought by the CFTC that it failed to diligently supervise responses to a CME Group Market Regulation investigation related to block trades executed by its affiliate, Bank of America, N.A. on the CME and the Chicago Board of Trade. The CFTC said that the responses provided by BANA were not accurate. However, there was no indication that Merrill Lynch was aware or had reason to believe that its affiliate’s responses were inaccurate. (Click here for further details in the article “FCM Agrees to Pay US $2.5 Million CFTC Fine for Relying on Affiliate’s Purportedly Misleading Analysis of Block Trades for a CME Group Investigation,” in the September 24, 2017 edition of Bridging the Week.)
Earlier, in 2016, Advantage Futures LLC, Joseph Guinan (its majority owner and chief executive officer), and William Steele (who until May 2016 was Advantage’s chief risk officer), settled charges brought by the CFTC related to the firm’s handling of the trading account of one customer in response to three exchanges’ warnings and for the firm’s alleged failure to follow its own risk management policies. The CFTC claimed that, after three exchanges alerted Advantage to concerns they had regarding the trading of one unspecified customer’s account which they considered might constitute disorderly trading, spoofing and manipulative behavior, the firm initially failed “to adequately respond to the Exchange inquiries and did not conduct a meaningful inquiry into the suspicious trading.” (Click here for background and analysis in the article “FCM, CEO and CRO Sued by CFTC for Failure to Supervise and Risk-Related Offenses,” in the September 25, 2016 edition of Bridging the Week.)
FCM supervisory systems may, on occasion, fail to live up to regulator expectations. When that happens, a FCM may be fairly subject to penalties and other sanctions. However, in this settlement, the CFTC seems to equate the magnitude of the principal offense of spoofing with a failure to act after the detection of such potential offense by a customer – albeit an affiliated entity. If this is the intended message, the potential cost of engaging in the FCM business, or other businesses requiring CFTC registration, has just increased dramatically and unfairly.
Legal Weeds: Late last year, James McDonald, the CFTC’s Director of its Division of Enforcement, indicated during multiple public speeches that potential wrongdoers who voluntarily self-report their violations, fully cooperate in any subsequent CFTC investigation, and fix the cause of their wrongdoing to prevent a re-occurrence will receive “substantial benefits” in the form of significantly lesser sanctions in any enforcement proceeding and “in truly extraordinary circumstances,” no prosecution at all. The Division also released a formal Updated Advisory on Self Reporting and Full Cooperation, which memorialized and expanded the elements of Mr. McDonald’s presentations (click here to access).
The current settlements by DB, DBSI and UBS may provide some insight into what self-reporting might concretely be worth.
Factually, the allegations against DB and UBS were materially similar. In both actions, traders at each firm engaged in alleged spoofing activity that constituted attempted manipulation for a significant period of time – in DB’s circumstance, from February 2008 through at least September 2014, and in UBS’s situation, from January 2008 through at least December 2013. Some facts varied in each enforcement action, but the agreed fine was US $30 million combined for DB and DBSI and $15 million for UBS. Although the CFTC acknowledged both firms’ cooperation in its investigations, the CFTC noted that, in connection with UBS, “[d]uring the course of an internal investigation, [the firm] discovered potential misconduct, of which the Division was previously unaware” and promptly self-reported the misconduct. The CFTC said that both firms’ fines were “substantially reduced” because of their cooperation, but UBS’s fine was one-half that of the DB entities’ combined fine.
Under the Division of Enforcement’s new math – come forward + come clean + remediate = substantial settlement benefits – it appears that, at least in these two matters, coming forward was worth a 50% saving off an already reduced settlement attributable to coming clean!
(Click here for details on the CFTC’s new approach to settlements in the article, “New Math: Come Forward + Come Clean + Remediate = Substantial Settlement Benefits Says CFTC Enforcement Chief” in the October 1, 2017 edition of Bridging the Week.)
Compliance Weeds: The Thakkar and Edge Financial Technologies CFTC enforcement and criminal actions must be taken as a significant warning to programmers and technology firms that developing software to assist a trader in violating the law could result in a charge against such persons for such violation as if they ultimately committed the violation themselves. As a result, developers and their employers requested to customize software should raise any concerns about the purpose for such customization if the purpose seems contrary to law. They should not just accept all instructions and program! However, this may impose a heightened burden on programmers and could stifle the development of legitimate new technology.
JPMorgan Chase Settles Allegations It Violated U.S. Sanctions
The bank says it has since improved its compliance systems.
JPMorgan Chase Bank NA agreed to pay $5.3 million to settle allegations it violated various U.S. sanctions programs.
The bank was hit with two penalties, one monetary and the other a finding of violation. Both, the U.S. Treasury Department said, were connected to failures in its screening processes.
JPMorgan Chase voluntarily disclosed the issues more than six years ago, according to company spokesman Brian Marchiony.
“We have since upgraded our systems and made substantial enhancements to our sanctions compliance program,” he said.
The settlement relates to 87 net-settlement transactions between January 2008 and February 2012 totaling more than $1 billion.
Each of the 87 transactions involved a U.S.-based JPMorgan Chase client and a foreign entity with connections to eight airlines that were, at various times, subject to U.S. sanctions, the Treasury said. The Treasury didn’t identify the U.S. client or the foreign entity.
Before January 2012, JPMorgan didn’t appear to have had a process to independently evaluate members of the foreign entity despite receiving red-flag notifications on at least three occasions, the Treasury said.
“The bank failed to screen…for purposes of [sanctions] compliance, despite being in possession of the necessary information to enable screening,” the Treasury said in its penalty notice.
But since then, the Treasury said, the bank screened all net-settlement participants until it terminated its relationship with the American client. It also increased its compliance staff, implemented new sanctions-screening software and enhanced employee compliance training.
No managers or supervisors were aware of the transactions that led to the sanctions violations, the Treasury said.
JPMorgan Chase Settles In Suit Over Credit Card Crypto Purchases
The sixth-largest bank worldwide, JPMorgan Chase Bank, has settled a lawsuit over unannounced changes made to the fee structure applied to cryptocurrency purchases made using its credit cards in 2018. The details of the settlement have not been disclosed.
Plaintiffs Brady Tucker, Ryan Hilton, and Stanton Smith accused Chase Bank of violating its cardholder terms of service during January 2018.
The trio asserts that Chase applied the fee structure for cash advances to cryptocurrency purchases made with Chase’s credit cards for 10 days without providing any warning as to the change.
Chase Changes Fee Structure For Crypto Purchases Without Warning
During a previous hearing, Chase sought to argue that cryptocurrency purchases comprise “cash-like transactions” as per its terms of service, and as such, it did not breach its contract with cardholders.
However, in August, Judge Failla ruled that the trio had demonstrated a credible interpretation of “cash-like” as exclusively referring to financial instruments tied to fiat currency — such as traveler’s check and money orders, and cash.
Chase also claimed that the adjusted fee schedule was the result of crypto exchange Coinbase changing its merchant category code from “purchases” to “cash advances.”
Plaintiffs Sought $1 Million In Statutory Damages
Tucker originally filed the suit during April 2018. After the bank sought dismissal of the case in July 2018, Tucker filed an amended complaint alongside Smith and Hilton.
Claiming to represent a class of up potentially thousands of Chase Bank cardholders impacted by the unannounced changes, the plaintiffs sought full refunds of all charges wrongfully incurred in addition to $1 million in statutory damages.
All parties now have 75 days to submit their stipulations of settlement, otherwise, the plaintiffs can apply for the action to be restored.
JPMorgan Chase Targets Burgeoning Stablecoin Sector
Last month, JPMorgan Chase published a 74-page report examining the development and state of the blockchain industry.
While acknowledging that distributed ledger technologies had seen significant adoption for niche financial applications such as stock exchanges, the report concluded that mainstream blockchain adoption is still many years away.
Despite its predictions, America’s largest bank has moved quickly to capitalize on the recent boom in stablecoin interest.
During February 2019, JPMorgan Chase became the first U.S. bank to successfully test a stablecoin representing fiat currency after trialing its ‘JPM Coin’.
U.S. Sues UBS Over Mortgage Securities
The Swiss banking giant says it will contest the allegations.
The Justice Department on Thursday (11-11-2018) filed a civil suit against UBS Group AG over “catastrophic” losses incurred by investors from mortgage-linked securities sold in the run-up to the financial crisis in 2006 and 2007.
The lawsuit, which UBS has vowed to fight, will likely leave a legal cloud hanging over Switzerland’s largest bank for many months. It also serves as a reminder that, more a decade after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, some of the issues at the heart of the financial crisis have yet to be fully resolved.
“Investors who bought [residential mortgage-backed securities] from UBS suffered catastrophic losses, which not only caused direct harm to those investors, but also contributed to the financial crisis of 2008,” said U.S. Attorney Richard P. Donoghue.
In the complaint, the U.S. alleges that UBS misled investors about the quality of billions of dollars in subprime and other mortgage loans that were used to back 40 deals. UBS securitized more than $41 billion in mortgage loans through these deals, according to the complaint.
The government didn’t specify the damages that it was seeking, though it pegged the losses by investors as being “many billions of dollars.”
Earlier Thursday, prior to the announcement from U.S. authorities, UBS said it expected the lawsuit and would contest it.
The bank said that it wasn’t a major originator for these types of mortgages and that the bank itself suffered “massive losses” due to investments in U.S. mortgage-backed securities when the housing market collapsed. “This fact alone negates any inference that UBS engaged in an intentional fraud,” it said.
“The DOJ’s claims aren’t supported by the facts or the law. UBS will contest any such complaint vigorously in the interest of its shareholders. UBS is confident in its legal position and has been fully prepared for some time to defend itself in court,” UBS said.
The trade-off for the world’s biggest wealth manager is that even if it is on strong legal ground—and is able to win in court or at least settle for a small sum—its decision to fight prolongs the legal uncertainty. Shares of UBS have languished in recent years, though they have risen since the bank reported solid third-quarter earnings last month.
Other big banks, including German lender Deutsche Bank AG and UBS’s Swiss rival Credit Suisse Group AG , have paid billions of dollars to the U.S. to settle crisis-era claims.
An exception that analysts drew parallels to was Barclays AG , which was sued by the Justice Department in late 2016—around the same time that Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse settled—over its sale of mortgage-backed securities. This March, Barclays agreed to pay $2 billion to resolve the claims.
The U.S. initially sought around $5 billion from Barclays.
Société Générale to Pay $1.3 Billion to Resolve U.S. Sanctions, Money-Laundering Violations
Fines and penalties relate to U.S. allegations that the bank processed transactions connected to Iran, Sudan, Cuba and Libya.
French bank Société Générale SA agreed to pay $1.34 billion in penalties to settle allegations by U.S. and New York state authorities that the bank had processed and concealed billions of dollars in transactions related to countries under sanctions.
New York regulators said Société Générale conducted transactions involving parties in Iran, Cuba, and Sudan between 2003 and 2013. Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, said the bank engaged in more than 2,500 transactions valued at about $13 billion from 2004 to 2010. The transactions violated U.S. sanctions laws, authorities said.
The majority of the transactions and much of the total value involved a dollar credit facility designed to finance oil transactions between a Dutch commodities trading firm and a Cuban company with a state monopoly on the production and refining of Cuban crude, federal prosecutors said.
Société Générale avoided detection, in part, by making inaccurate or incomplete notations on payment messages that accompanied the transactions, prosecutors alleged. The department that managed them “engaged in a deliberate practice of concealing the Cuban nexus of U.S. dollar payments,” prosecutors said.
The total penalty amount is the second-largest imposed on a financial institution for violations of U.S. sanctions, federal prosecutors said. “Other banks should take heed: Enforcement of U.S. sanctions laws is, and will continue to be, a top priority of this office and our partner agencies,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, in a statement.
Frédéric Oudéa, Société Générale’s chief executive, said in a statement that the bank regrets the shortcomings identified in the settlements.
The bank cooperated with authorities and has taken a number of steps in recent years to enhance its sanctions and anti-money-laundering compliance programs, Mr. Oudéa said.
He also referenced the bank’s settlement in June with U.S. and French authorities concerning its alleged manipulation of Libor rates and transactions involving Libyan counterparts.
“These resolutions, following on the heels of the resolution of other investigations earlier this year, allow the bank to close a chapter on our most important historical disputes,” Mr. Oudéa said in the statement.
The penalty is fully covered by a provision for disputes in its books, the bank said, noting that it won’t have any additional effect on the bank’s results for the year. The bank in September forecast an expected $1.3 billion penalty over the sanctions violations, saying at the time it had entered into a phase of active discussions with U.S. authorities over the matter.
Société Générale struck a deferred-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, and agreed to forfeit $717.2 million in a civil forfeiture, prosecutors said. The bank also agreed to pay $325 million to DFS, $162.8 million to the Manhattan district attorney’s office, $81.3 million to the Federal Reserve and $53.9 million to the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions office. It also agreed to continue to cooperate with U.S. authorities in the future.
A second consent order with New York’s DFS requires the bank to pay an additional $95 million relating to anti-money-laundering and compliance deficiencies, and it mandates the New York branch to continue a series of enhancements to its compliance program. Under the terms of the consent order, an independent consultant will assess the branch’s progress after 18 months.
The Société Générale settlements follows a pattern frequently seen during the Obama administration, in which a bank would reach simultaneous agreements with multiple U.S. state and federal authorities regarding sanctions violations. The pace of these settlements, however, had slowed in recent years.
The largest involved BNP Paribas SA, another French bank, which agreed in 2014 to pay nearly $9 billion. Others include HSBC Holdings PLC, which agreed to pay $1.92 billion in 2012, Switzerland’s Credit Suisse AG , which paid $536 million in 2009 and the Netherlands’ ING NV, which agreed to pay $619 million in 2012.
Deutsche Bank Handled $150 Billion of Potentially Suspicious Flows Tied to Danske
German lender’s shares drop on investor concerns about the scandal’s impact on its profitability.
Preliminary findings of an internal review by Deutsche Bank AG of its role in a massive money-laundering scandal at Danske Bank suggest the German lender handled about $150 billion of the total amount of potentially suspicious transactions tied to Danske, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Deutsche Bank’s findings aren’t final and haven’t been made public. It has been trying to assess its exposure to allegations of money laundering involving flows from Russia and elsewhere through Denmark’s largest bank. U.S. law enforcement agencies are probing transactions at Danske’s tiny Estonian branch over several years through 2015 where $230 billion flowed through accounts of non-Estonian account holders at the branch.
On Monday, a British former trader at Danske’s Estonian branch, Howard Wilkinson, testified publicly at a Danish parliamentary hearing about the scope of the alleged activity he witnessed at the small outpost.
Investor concerns about the impact of the Danske scandal have contributed to a drop in Deutsche Bank shares which are down more than 48% this year and hit new lows of near €8 ($9) Tuesday.
he shares had partially recovered by midday Tuesday in Germany, trading near €8.30, representing a 3% decline for the day. The Stoxx Europe 600 Banks index was down 1.8%.
The Danske concerns come as Deutsche Bank’s shares have fallen on broader doubts about its profitability.
“Deutsche Bank acted as correspondent bank for Danske Bank in Estonia,” a Deutsche Bank spokesman said. “Our role was to process payments for Danske Bank. We terminated this relationship in 2015 after identifying suspicious activity by its clients.”
Deutsche Bank has received requests for information from U.S. officials about Danske-related transactions, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Wilkinson, who worked at Danske’s Estonian branch until 2014, pointed fingers at the three U.S. correspondent banks that cleared U.S. dollars for Danske Estonia for not catching suspicious flows of money. He singled out Deutsche Bank, referring to it only as the U.S. subsidiary of a European bank that served Danske throughout the period under investigation, between 2007 and 2015.
“This was the major correspondent bank for U.S. dollars, so when we are talking about this $230 billion number of suspicious funds, I would guess that $150 billion went through this particular bank in the U.S.,” he said.
His estimate roughly matches Deutsche Bank’s own preliminary findings, according to the person familiar with that review.
Correspondent banks serve as intermediaries in international transactions, handling transfers for other banks doing business in countries where they have limited operations.
Deutsche Bank handles $450 billion to $500 billion in U.S. dollar transactions, on average, each day, according to a person close to the business.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. served as correspondent bank for Danske Estonia until 2013, when it was replaced by Bank of America Corp. , which cut ties with the Estonia branch over money laundering concerns in 2015. Those banks have declined to comment.
In September, Danske Bank said in reporting findings from a law firm it hired that around $230 billion washed through its Estonian branch via thousands of accounts. A large part was deemed suspicious. The bank’s CEO resigned with the release of the report.
Deutsche Bank is a major correspondent bank for U.S. dollar transactions. Banks are responsible for policing such money flows and flagging transactions they deem suspicious. Suspicions can be based on origin of funds or concerns about who’s sending or receiving money.
Deutsche Bank has come under fire repeatedly from U.S. and European watchdogs for weaknesses in its policing of financial crime. The unit responsible for money-laundering has suffered high-level turnover. In recent months, its global and U.S. heads of financial crime-fighting have both left for jobs at other banks. The global head, Philippe Vollot, joined Danske Bank as chief compliance officer and an executive board member.
Deutsche Bank Offices Raided in Money-Laundering Probe
Investigation focuses on employees suspected of helping clients create offshore entities in tax havens.
German authorities raided Deutsche Bank AG DB -4.85% offices Thursday as part of an investigation into whether the firm helped clients launder money through tax havens. One of the employees suspected of involvement works in the division responsible for fighting financial crime, according to people familiar with the matter.
Around 170 police officers and other officials seized documents during searches through six different properties Thursday, including one employee’s home, according to authorities.
The raid was a visible sign of mounting legal problems for the German lender, which has faced a string of allegations and costly legal settlements tied to failures to prevent money laundering and other banking violations.
Thursday morning, police vehicles lined up outside Deutsche Bank’s central Frankfurt headquarters, and German federal police and other officers crowded into the lobby of the highrise towers. Officers soon filtered upstairs onto other floors of the bank to search records, a person inside the bank said.
Not long after, Randal Quarles, the Fed’s vice chairman for supervision, arrived for a prescheduled lunchtime meeting with Deutsche Bank’s chief executive Christian Sewing and regulatory chief Sylvie Matherat, people familiar with the matter said.
The meeting was arranged well before Thursday, the people said. A Fed spokesman had no immediate comment. Mr. Sewing became CEO in April and before Thursday had spoken with Mr. Quarles by telephone, people close to the bank say.
Ms. Matherat oversees the division responsible for detecting and preventing financial crime by clients of the bank. She has come under pressure amid discussions of a potential management shakeup, The Wall Street Journal reported this week, citing people close to the bank.
The German authorities are expected to return to Deutsche Bank Friday, according to people close to the bank. Areas they searched Thursday included management-board offices, one of the people said.
The probe includes two unidentified Deutsche Bank employees aged 50 and 46 and other unidentified employees suspected of helping clients create offshore entities in tax havens, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement. The person who works in the financial crime-fighting division remained an employee Thursday, the people familiar with the matter said.
Deutsche Bank confirmed the investigation. Both the bank and prosecutors said it is related to the Panama Papers, a trove of records revealed by a consortium of journalists in 2016 tied to a Panamanian law firm that specialized in offshore holding companies.
“As far as we are concerned, we have already provided the authorities with all the relevant information regarding Panama Papers,” Deutsche Bank said. It said that the bank would cooperate closely in this latest probe “as it is in our interest as well to clarify the facts.”
The investigation focuses on transactions spanning 2013 to 2018, prosecutors said.
People close to the bank said its lawyers and executives aren’t certain of the full scope of the investigation, including whether it is solely focused on the Panama Papers case, or could extend more broadly.
Reports stemming from the Panama Papers linked government and other public figures and company executives around the world to overseas assets in tax havens ranging from the British Virgin Islands to Panama. The records showed hundreds of millions of dollars in assets allegedly tied to hundreds of individuals.
Officials suspect that funds from criminal activities were transferred to Deutsche Bank entities or accounts without the bank raising flags as required, the prosecutor’s office said. The German prosecutors said Friday they were working based on information from Panama Papers documents and investigations.
UBS To Pay $68 million To Settle State Libor-Manipulation Claims
Bank says it is pleased to have resolved the legacy matter.
UBS UBS Group AG agreed to pay $68 million to end state investigations into alleged manipulation of a key lending benchmark that was considered one of the most important barometers of the world’s financial health.
A bank spokesman said the bank was pleased to have resolved the legacy matter and said the settlement “was achieved with the best interests of our shareholders in mind.”
UBS is the fourth U.S. dollar-LIBOR-setting panel bank that reached settlements with attorneys general to resolve accusations that they made billions of dollars by rigging the lending benchmark.
A series of Wall Street Journal articles in 2008 raised questions about whether global banks were manipulating the interest-rate-setting process by lowballing a key interest rate to avoid looking desperate for cash amid the financial crisis.
The London interbank offered rate, or Libor, is used globally to help set the price of many types of financial contracts, from home mortgages to commercial borrowing.
Libor, which is being phased out, is calculated every working day by polling major banks on their estimated borrowing costs.
Under the agreement with the attorneys general, which ties into a previous federal case that ultimately led to the Swiss bank pleading guilty to wire fraud, UBS admitted that management at times directed employees to “err on the low side” or stay in the “middle of the pack” when submitting U.S. Libor rates and that it submitted false Yen Libor rates to benefit its trading positions.
“It is highly advisable to err on the low side with fixings for the time being to protect our franchise in these sensitive markets,” the then head of the bank’s asset and liability management wrote in an email, according to Friday’s settlement agreement. “Fixing risk and [profit and loss] thereof is secondary priority for now.”
As part of the settlement agreement with the states and District of Columbia, UBS agreed to cooperate with the state investigations and said it has “substantially complied” with required business changes under a 2012 settlement agreement with the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.
UBS said it wouldn’t object to the CFTC providing any reports about UBS’s compliance to the attorneys general.
Barclays Fined $15 Million by New York Over CEO’s Anti-Whistleblower Push
Regulator faults bank’s corporate culture after executive apologized for effort to unmask critic.
Barclays PLC was fined $15 million on Tuesday by New York state regulators after a probe into Chief Executive Jes Staley’s efforts to unmask a whistleblower.
The New York Department of Financial Services said shortcomings in governance, controls and corporate culture relating to the bank’s whistleblowing function allowed a sequence of events that could have hurt its whistleblower program. Several members of management failed to follow or apply whistleblowing policies in a manner that protected the CEO or the bank itself, DFS said.
In the summer of 2016, Mr. Staley personally directed the head of group security at Barclays to attempt to identify the author of two whistleblowing letters, DFS alleged. The letters had criticized a new hire, whom The Wall Street Journal has previously identified as Tim Main, a former colleague of Mr. Staley at JP Morgan Chase & Co. Mr. Main was brought in as the head of the financial institutions group at Barclays, the Journal has reported.
Mr. Staley was advised several times, including by the group chief compliance officer and the general counsel, not to try to identify the author of the letters, DFS said. His motive to learn the identity was to protect the new hire from a personal attack, but he had a conflict of interest because the letters criticized Mr. Staley’s role, and that of management, in recruiting and employing him, DFS said.
Mr. Staley has previously acknowledged his personal involvement and apologized. He was fined £642,430 ($868,501) by U.K. regulators in May for what they called a “serious error in judgement” in trying to identify the author of whistleblowing letters. The bank also docked £500,000 in pay from his 2016 bonus over the matter.
The board was told in early 2017 of Mr. Staley’s attempts to identify the whistleblower and it began its own investigation, and told regulators. Barclays said Tuesday that all regulatory investigations into the matter are now closed.
In addition to the $15 million fine, Barclays entered into a consent order with DFS requiring the bank to submit a detailed written plan to ensure the implementation of a whistleblower program, and a plan to improve the board’s oversight of that program.
It also has to provide by March 31 a report detailing, among other things, all instances since Jan. 1, 2017, in which an employee attempted to learn the identity of a whistleblower and any allegations of whistleblower retaliation.
U.S. Casts Global Dragnet in Mozambique Corruption Probe
Recent arrests are part of a Justice Department effort to capture alleged conspirators in a $2 billion corruption scheme
Mozambique’s former Finance Minister Manuel Chang boarded a plane two weeks ago, planning to celebrate New Year’s Eve with his girlfriend in Dubai. Instead, he was arrested during a layover in South Africa and spent the holiday in a crowded Pretoria holding cell, awaiting potential extradition to the U.S.
A few days later, Lebanese shipbuilding executive Jean Boustani flew to the Dominican Republic for a beach vacation with his wife. Dominican authorities arrested him at the airport and expelled him to New York, where he is being held in a Brooklyn detention center.
The men were detained as part of a global effort by the U.S. Justice Department to capture alleged conspirators in a $2 billion corruption scheme in Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world. Mr. Chang and Mr. Boustani deny the charges against them, which include fraud.
Authorities in London last week arrested three former Credit Suisse Group AG bankers who allegedly helped plan and finance the fraud, and other suspects have yet to be apprehended, according to court documents. The former bankers, Andrew Pearse, Surjan Singh and Detelina Subeva, have been released on bail. A lawyer for Ms. Subeva declined to comment. Lawyers for Messrs. Pearse and Singh couldn’t be reached for comment.
The arrests on three continents—planned weeks ahead to occur in countries that have extradition treaties with the U.S.—are part of a widening effort by U.S. authorities to police what bond investors say is a growing intersection of high finance and corruption in emerging markets.
The Justice Department is investigating Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s role in a multibillion-dollar scandal involving a Malaysian sovereign-wealth fund known as 1MDB. Goldman has denied wrongdoing.
Pursuing foreign executives and government officials—Mr. Chang is now a member of Mozambique’s parliament—is part of a new Justice Department strategy to curb corruption by going after individuals, according to lawyers specializing in international corruption cases who aren’t involved in the case.
An indictment filed in the case by the Justice Department in a New York federal court also refers to an unnamed, unindicted co-conspirator matching the description of Iskandar Safa, a wealthy Lebanese defense contractor who owns the company Mr. Boustani works for, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The Justice Department started investigating the situation in 2016, after reported irregularities in $2 billion of debt deals Credit Suisse and Russian bank VTB Group arranged for Mozambique to make purchases from Mr. Safa’s shipbuilding company, Privinvest Group.
According to the recent indictment, Mr. Boustani conspired with Mr. Chang and other Mozambican officials to create government maritime projects as fronts to borrow the money, which was used to pay at least $200 million in bribes and kickbacks.
The conspirators identified Mr. Chang by the code name “pantero,” or panther, in emails and in some cases tried to disguise their scheme by describing bribe payments as chicken deliveries, according to the indictment.
Mr. Pearse and his former colleagues arranged the debt deals by concealing their true nature from Credit Suisse’s compliance department, which had flagged the Privinvest executive said to match Mr. Safa’s description as a “master of kickbacks” in early due diligence, according to the indictment.
Credit Suisse received about $107 million in fees from the deals, according to Kroll Inc., which donors to Mozambique retained to conduct a forensic audit of the transactions. The bank has said it has cooperated with the Justice Department and hasn’t been indicted.
Credit Suisse has increased employees in its global compliance department by 42% since October 2015, hiring over 800 additional compliance specialists, a person close to the firm said.
“Neither VTB nor any of its employees are involved in the current proceedings,” a spokeswoman for VTB said. The Russian bank collected approximately $89 million in fees from the deals, according to the Kroll audit.
The U.S. alleges that the bribes included at least $12 million to Mr. Chang, about $15 million to Mr. Boustani and about $50 million to the three former Credit Suisse bankers.
Privinvest received about $1.8 billion of the debt proceeds and delivered some naval boats and surveillance equipment but overbilled Mozambique by at least $713 million, according to the Kroll audit. “We do not accept the partly constructed evaluation,” Privinvest said about Kroll’s analysis in a 2017 press release.
Neither U.K. nor Swiss authorities have charged anyone in relation to the alleged fraud. Mozambican authorities have also been slow to react, partly, analysts say, to avoid further scandal tainting the ruling party in an election year.
“Our domestic prosecutors were complacent,” said Adriano Nuvunga, head of ADS, a civil-society think tank in Mozambique. “We always hoped that since they used the U.S. financial system in the wrongdoing, the Americans would come for them.”
After the arrests, Mozambique’s national prosecution authority said in a press release that it had identified 18 suspects in its own investigation. U.S. authorities haven’t shared information with Mozambique’s government, according to the statement.
The U.S. Justice Department said it has jurisdiction because the defendants allegedly used correspondent banks in New York to transfer bribes and because the debt was sold to investors in the U.S. The indictment charges the alleged conspirators with wire fraud, securities fraud and money laundering and with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
The Justice Department has asked U.S. and South African courts to deny bail requests by Mr. Chang and Mr. Boustani because it considers them to be flight risks, which lawyers for the men deny.
Mr. Chang was transferred to a Johannesburg cell he shared with 20 other detainees, where he paid a gang leader to ensure his protection, according to Willie Vermeulen, one of his lawyers. On Wednesday, Mr. Chang was moved into solitary confinement at his lawyers’ request.
Mr. Boustani has been in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center with limited access to visitors or telephone calls because of a power outage and a reduction of inmate services caused by the partial U.S. government shutdown, his lawyer said in a court filing last week.
Investment Bankers Charged in Global Insider Trading Scheme
Federal prosecutors say alleged scheme resulted in tens of millions of dollars in illegal profits.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have charged six bankers, including a Goldman Sachs Group Inc. GS +0.60% executive, with a wide-ranging insider-trading scheme spanning Europe and in the U.S. that yielded tens of millions of dollars in allegedly illegal profits.
Four separate indictments unsealed in recent days laid out several interconnected alleged conspiracies that the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office said represented a “global insider trading ring.” Insiders at multiple banks obtained nonpublic information about publicly traded companies and provided that information to securities traders, who profited from the illicit scheme, according to indictments in Manhattan federal court.
Prosecutors charged Benjamin Taylor and Darina Windsor, who worked in the London offices of two unnamed global investment banks, in a “large-scale international insider trading ring.” According to a 40-count indictment unsealed Monday, the pair leaked nonpublic information about companies and deals to traders.
One of the traders, in turn, leaked that information to journalists, with the aim of having them publish news articles that could influence stock prices, the indictment alleges. The trader reaped more than $1.2 million through trades pegged to articles based on information he leaked, the indictment alleges.
Even after Mr. Taylor left his bank in 2015, he continued to receive nonpublic information from insiders from at least one investment bank, prosecutors alleged. Mr. Taylor and Ms. Windsor were compensated by co-conspirators with over $1 million in cash and luxury goods.
Lawyers for Mr. Taylor and Ms. Windsor couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Chicago Fed Board Chief Can Continue After Exit From Private Sector Firm Under Investigation
Anne Pramaggiore resigned as CEO of Exelon Corp. after it received second subpoena from prosecutors.
The chairwoman of the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago can continue in that role while her former employer is the subject of a federal probe, the regional Fed bank said.
Anne Pramaggiore abruptly retired Oct. 15 from her job as chief executive of the utilities unit of Exelon Corp. , the largest operator of nuclear plants in the U.S., less than a week after Exelon Corp. said it had received a second grand-jury subpoena from federal prosecutors looking into its lobbying activities in Illinois.
Ms. Pramaggiore has served as chair of the Chicago Fed’s board since 2014. Each of the Federal Reserve’s 12 regional banks is overseen by boards comprising community and business leaders, as well as bankers. The regional Fed boards aren’t involved in monetary policy decisions, but they do choose their banks’ presidents, who do participate in the policy-making process.
Ms. Pramaggiore, whose term is set to end this year, is a so-called Class C director at the Chicago Fed. These directors are appointed by the Washington-based Fed board of governors to represent the community, and they are supposed to show “proven leadership credentials,” according to the central bank. The Fed also says Class C directors need to be experienced with the banking and financial services.
A spokesman from the Chicago Fed said that Ms. Pramaggiore’s retirement from Exelon “does not affect her eligibility to serve out the remainder of her term or continue as chair of the board.” Neither the Fed board nor Ms. Pramaggiore immediately responded to requests for comment.
While the Fed board is part of the federal government, the 12 regional banks operate in a hybrid public/private structure. Local private banks own shares of their respective regional Fed banks, even though those private banks have no direct control over their respective Fed bank’s activities, while the Fed in Washington keeps close oversight over the regional Fed banks.
Connie Razza, who serves as chief of campaigns and policy with the Center for Popular Democracy, a left-leaning advocacy group, questioned whether it is appropriate for Ms. Pramaggiore to retain her Fed role with “an ethical shadow hanging over her.”
Bank Accused of Breaching Money Laundering Laws—23 Million Times
Westpac, Australia’s second-largest bank, failed to carry out due diligence on 12 customers with known child-exploitation risks, Austrac said.
Australia’s second-largest bank has been accused of the biggest breach of the country’s money laundering and terrorism financing laws in history, including failing to detect transfers that may have been used to facilitate child exploitation in Asia.
Westpac Banking Corp. allegedly breached money laundering laws more than 23 million times, including failing to report in a timely way about $7.5 billion in international transfers, Australia’s financial-intelligence agency said in a court filing Wednesday.
Each individual breach could attract a fine of up to $21 million Australian dollars (US$15.7 million).
Australia’s banks once held a reputation for being among the world’s safest and most profitable for investors, but a series of scandals in recent years has rocked the country’s top financial institutions. The country’s biggest lender, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, last year settled a case involving more than 53,800 money laundering contraventions for A$700 million plus legal costs, the largest corporate civil penalty ever paid in Australia. It could have faced penalties of more than A$1 trillion.
“We know we have to do better,” said Westpac Chief Executive Brian Hartzer, telling reporters that the bank agreed with the statement of claim filed by the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, or Austrac.
The bank had self reported to the agency what it said was a failure to report a large number of international fund transfers, and Mr. Hartzer said Westpac should have identified and rectified the failings sooner. He added that he accepted there was a need for accountability within the bank, but declined to say whether he would step down.
The alleged infractions, which occurred between 2013 and 2019, were “the result of systemic failures in its control environment, indifference by senior management and inadequate oversight by the board,” Austrac said in court documents. “They have occurred because Westpac adopted an ad-hoc approach to money laundering and terrorism financing risk management and compliance.”
That led to a failure to properly assess and monitor the risks in moving money in and out of the country and to carry out appropriate due diligence on customers—who were known for child-exploitation risks—sending money to the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
The regulator is alleging Westpac failed to carry out due diligence on 12 of its customers to manage known child-exploitation risks. In one case, when a customer who had served jail time for child exploitation opened a number of Westpac accounts, only one was promptly identified as indicative of child exploitation. The customer continued to send frequent low-value payments to the Philippines through accounts that weren’t being monitored appropriately, Austrac said.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was “absolutely appalled” by the allegations, calling on the country’s banks to “lift their game.”
Westpac shares fell 3.3% to A$25.67 on Wednesday, underperforming the broader market and the other major banks. The lender this month reported its first decline in annual profit in four years, dented by a sharp rise in provisions for customer refunds and lawsuits.
Mr. Hartzer, who has been Westpac’s CEO since early 2015, said the bank had invested heavily to improve the management of financial crime risks, including enhancing automatic detection systems. He pledged to personally get to the bottom of the claims, including those that emerged in the financial agency’s investigation of links with child exploitation.
New Zealand’s central bank said Wednesday it was looking closely at the Australian financial-intelligence agency’s claims to see if they were relevant to Westpac’s subsidiary in New Zealand.
Recent scandals have rocked Australia’s big lenders, leading to a number of executive departures and a judicial probe last year that revealed a string of issues including inappropriate lending, collecting fees from dead customers for financial advice and lying to regulators.
A Credit Suisse Banker Helped Fuel $2 Billion Debt Fraud
Andrew Pearse used the millions he was paid to travel with his mistress, start a business and recruit a professional rugby player to coach his son’s team.
Andrew Pearse said he negotiated his first bribe while sipping vodka at a hotel in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, in February 2013.
His employer, Credit Suisse Group AG CS -1.50% , was financing a $370 million coastal security contract between Mozambique and Privinvest Group, a shipbuilder owned by Lebanese billionaire Iskandar Safa.
Poolside after deal meetings, Mr. Pearse said he and a Safa lieutenant struck an agreement for Mr. Pearse to receive millions in cash. In exchange, Privinvest would pay a lower fee on Credit Suisse’s loan for the Mozambique security contract.
Mr. Pearse, 50 years old, needed the money. He was having an affair with a colleague and wanted to leave Credit Suisse and start a financial boutique with her.
Soon, according to Mr. Pearse, Privinvest was backing his boutique firm and paying him to get Credit Suisse to lend even more to the Mozambique projects, which expanded beyond maritime security surveillance systems to include fishing boats and a shipyard. His life became a whirl of clandestine meetings, secret bank accounts and exotic travel.
It all came to an end in January with Mr. Pearse’s arrest in London. In July, Mr. Pearse pleaded guilty in Brooklyn federal court to wire fraud, saying he conspired to defraud investors in the Mozambique deals. His former lover, Detelina Subeva, and another former Credit Suisse colleague, Surjan Singh, both pleaded guilty to laundering illicit funds.
Mr. Pearse told the court this fall that ambition and love drove him to take $45 million from Mr. Safa’s Abu Dhabi-based company. In October, Mr. Pearse was the star government witness in the trial of a Safa lieutenant, Jean Boustani, whom the U.S. Justice Department has accused of fraud and money laundering in $2 billion of debt deals in Mozambique. A verdict in Mr. Boustani’s trial could come as soon as Monday.
Mr. Boustani has denied paying bribes and disputed Mr. Pearse’s account of the payments. He said Privinvest backed Mr. Pearse’s boutique investment firm and paid him a share of revenue.
A Privinvest spokesman said that no bribes were paid and Privinvest is proud of its work in Mozambique.
Lawyers for Mr. Pearse, Ms. Subeva and Mr. Boustani declined to comment, and a lawyer for Mr. Singh didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The trial came at a sensitive time for Credit Suisse, which drew fire in September for hiring investigators to spy on a banker who left for a competitor. That episode and the Mozambique deals added to questions about the bank’s oversight following client tax-evasion scandals and regulatory failings in recent years. The Swiss bank arranged financing for two of the three Privinvest projects that ultimately defaulted on their debts.
Mr. Pearse, in his testimony, said he was able to manipulate the bank’s controls and claimed other senior bankers had side deals with clients.
Credit Suisse says it is a victim of rogue employees in the Mozambique deals and is cooperating with authorities. Chief Executive Tidjane Thiam has sought to repair the bank’s reputation by starting an ethical investing division and a campaign to ensure all debts are disclosed when countries borrow.
New Zealand-born Mr. Pearse joined Credit Suisse in 2000. The bank was pouring money into emerging markets, and Mr. Pearse rode the wave to head a group making loans to foreign companies and governments.
His team included Ms. Subeva, a Princeton graduate from Bulgaria, and Mr. Singh, a longtime friend.
By 2012, Mr. Pearse was looking to leave investment banking and spend more time with Ms. Subeva, who, like him, was married with a young family. Mr. Pearse’s search for funding grew more urgent after colleagues spotted the two canoodling in a restaurant, according to his court testimony and a person familiar with the matter.
By that September, Mr. Pearse glimpsed a route out. He worked with Mr. Boustani on the $370 million loan for Privinvest’s security contract, and he said they bonded.
Early the next year, Mr. Pearse pitched a boutique that would help Privinvest finance similar projects. In Maputo, he said he told Mr. Boustani that the $49 million financing fee that Privinvest was paying could be lowered. His aim was to “curry favor” with Messrs. Boustani and Safa so they would invest in his new company, Mr. Pearse later told the court.
Over a bottle of vodka at the Radisson Blu hotel, Messrs. Boustani and Pearse agreed Privinvest would pay Mr. Pearse $5.5 million in exchange for an $11 million reduction in the fee, Mr. Pearse recounted in court. “I remember it very clearly because it was a significant point in my life where it was the first time I’d been offered a kickback,” Mr. Pearse said.
Mr. Boustani in testimony said Privinvest made payments to Mr. Pearse to start his new business.
A few weeks later, at Mr. Safa’s compound in the south of France, Mr. Safa agreed to back Mr. Pearse’s startup and pay it fees for additional loans, according to Mr. Pearse’s testimony.
Mr. Pearse left Credit Suisse, but told Mr. Singh, who remained, that he could earn a few million dollars by pushing Credit Suisse to make more loans, according to testimony from both men. Mr. Singh told the court he was “ashamed to say” he criminally received $5.7 million.
Messrs. Pearse and Singh set up bank accounts to receive the payments in Abu Dhabi, where Mr. Boustani helped obtain residency documents. Mr. Pearse posed as a tube welder. Mr. Singh posed as an archives clerk, stripping off his jacket and tie in a visa-processing center filled with laborers so he would “fit in more,” he told the court.
Mr. Boustani said in court testimony the visas the two men received were to work at the investment boutique, and the job titles came from Privinvest visa quotas.
Mr. Pearse’s new firm thrived, and he and Ms. Subeva traveled together for work and pleasure, including to Bali, the Seychelles and Montego Bay in Jamaica. He started an energy business buying oil rights, and hired a former professional rugby player from New Zealand to coach his son’s high school team in southeast England.
By 2015, the Mozambique projects were failing amid an oil rout and were at risk of defaulting on their debts, which Credit Suisse and other banks had sold to investors around the world.
When Credit Suisse decided to stop lending, Mr. Boustani threatened to write to Mr. Singh on his bank email to demand the return of $3.7 million Privinvest had paid him, Mr. Singh said in court. He said he refused. Mr. Pearse took him on a trip to Paris to create a cover story for payments Privinvest and Mr. Pearse had made to him, Mr. Singh testified.
On the Eurostar train, they tapped out a document describing fees for fictitious investments that Mr. Boustani was supposed to have made for Mr. Singh.
Mr. Boustani testified in court that the actual Privinvest payment was to recruit Mr. Singh to Mr. Pearse’s boutique. Mr. Pearse said he paid Mr. Singh $2 million for getting Credit Suisse to continue the financing.
In 2016, Mozambique restructured some debts and The Wall Street Journal reported on irregularities in the deal, prompting international donors to halt aid and triggering an economic contraction in the impoverished country.
U.S. firms holding the debt began selling out as prices fell. Mutual-fund manager AllianceBernstein took a loss of about $22 million, according to court testimony.
U.S. and U.K. authorities investigated. They got a breakthrough when Credit Suisse found personal email addresses of some alleged conspirators in deal correspondence. The DOJ issued warrants to get the messages from email providers at the end of 2017, and over the next year developed a case alleging that $200 million out of Mozambique’s $2 billion in borrowings went to bankers and Mozambican officials.
Mr. Pearse and Ms. Subeva’s on-and-off affair cooled, but they kept working together. On Dec. 31, 2018, they texted New Year’s greetings.
A few days later, they were arrested in London. Both face up to 20 years in prison.
Shipbuilding Executive Found Not Guilty in Mozambique Debt Fraud Trial
Justice Department had accused Jean Boustani of wire fraud, securities fraud and money laundering.
A federal jury in Brooklyn found a Lebanese shipbuilding executive not guilty of fraud and money-laundering charges related to $2 billion of debt deals in Mozambique, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Jean Boustani, a salesman for shipbuilder Privinvest Group, was found not guilty on charges of wire fraud, securities fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering related to the debt raised to pay for contracts between Privinvest and Mozambique.
The verdict could hinder the Justice Department’s efforts to police alleged corruption in emerging-markets finance. It also delivered a victory for Privinvest and its owner, Lebanese businessman Iskandar Safa.
The Justice Department indicted Mr. Boustani, three Credit Suisse AG bankers, another Privinvest employee and three Mozambican officials in December, charging them with conspiring to use millions of dollars from the debt deals to pay bribes and kickbacks. The case is part of a new strategy by the U.S. to curb corruption by pursuing individual executives and officials.
Mr. Boustani was arrested in January in Brooklyn after being sent there by authorities in the Dominican Republic who detained him during a holiday with his wife.
“The jury’s verdict completely exonerates Mr. Boustani and confirms what Privinvest has said for the past four years—there was absolutely no wrongdoing with respect to the Mozambique maritime projects,” a spokesman for Privinvest said in a statement. “We deeply regret that an innocent man had to endure nearly a year in jail due to the U.S. government’s overreach.”
The spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the verdict. A spokesman for Credit Suisse declined to comment.
The country defaulted in 2017 on $2 billion of debt meant to build coastal security, fishing and shipbuilding projects after much of the borrowed money went missing.
The three bankers pleaded guilty to some charges and cooperated with the Justice Department in its case. One of the Mozambican officials, former Finance Minister Manuel Chang, has been detained for almost a year in South Africa, awaiting a ruling on whether he will be extradited to the U.S. or to Mozambique, where he also faces fraud charges.
Traders Got Advance Feed of Bank of England News Conferences
The central bank shut down an audio feed after it was used to offer traders a competitive advantage.
The Bank of England shut down an audio feed of market-sensitive information after it was used to offer some traders a competitive time advantage.
The feed supplies investors and central-bank watchers with audio from the news conferences by Gov. Mark Carney in the minutes after interest-rate decisions are published. Small changes in language from bank officials on the future path of interest rates can often move the pound or U.K. government bonds.
The audio feed, meant to be a backup to the main audio and video feed provided by Bloomberg LP, has been “misused by a third-party supplier to the Bank since earlier this year to supply services to other external clients,” the central bank said in a statement, without identifying the supplier.
Traders have long sought to gain access to market-sensitive information as quickly as possible, and the rise of electronic and algorithmic trading has made such information even more valuable.
The bank, which also didn’t identify the clients who received the information from the backup-audio supplier, said it was in the dark about the alleged misuse. “This wholly unacceptable use of the audio feed was without the Bank’s knowledge or consent,” the central bank said.
Statisma News and Data Ltd., an audio-delivery technology company, says on its website that it has covered public events in the U.K. since 2010 including Bank of England news conferences. It said in a statement published on its website Thursday, “We DO NOT carry embargoed information and we DO NOT release information without it first being made available to the public.” A Statisma spokesman couldn’t be reached for further comment.
On April 29, a tweet from an account linked to Statisma’s website enticed customers to watch government news conferences through its feed. “Hear the news first…up to 10 seconds faster than watching them live on TV,” the tweet said. The tweet appears to have been taken down Thursday.
Another tweet, posted Nov. 7, the same day that Mr. Carney was set to speak, said, “Sign up for a free trial at statisma.com to hear him first.”
A YouTube account that purported to be from Statisma News posted videos of Bank of England press conferences along with links to charts showing how the pound moved when Mr. Carney was speaking. This included a news conference on August 2, 2018, the day the bank raised interest rates for only the second time in a decade.
Statisma’s website said it is a unit of Encoded Media Ltd. Encoded Media describes itself as a media streaming company, founded in 2003, with the original aim of serving the finance industry. The companies share common directors according to U.K. corporate filings. Encoded executives couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Bank of England declined to comment on Statisma’s statement or on the social media posts from the @StatismaComms Twitter account. The monetary authority said Thursday it had referred the case to the Financial Conduct Authority, the U.K.’s market watchdog. Any misuse of the feed would likely fall foul of market abuse regulations, a person familiar with the FCA’s oversight role said.
The European Central Bank appears to have run into a similar issue. In September it started providing a low-latency or ultrafast audio feed of its press conferences, after the bank discovered that some companies were trying to sell access to a faster feed than the official video webcast, which has a delay of about 30 seconds. Audio-only feeds tend to be faster than video.
The new ECB audio feed has a delay of about three seconds, to help ensure a level playing field for listeners, an ECB spokesman said.
The Bank of England holds its news conferences at its fortresslike headquarters in the City of London. Reporters given access to rate decisions ahead of time are held in a “lock in” in the basement without internet access. After the decision is released, reporters move upstairs to an auditorium where the press conference takes place.
The press briefings often offer more detail and nuance than the official statements published on the central bank’s website. There are also question-and-answer sessions where the responses from policy makers at the BOE, including Mr. Carney, offer more spontaneous responses which have the potential to move markets.
“Having information a few seconds early—where fractions of a second make a difference—could be hugely advantageous,” said Ben Watford, partner and head of hedge funds at global law firm Eversheds Sutherland.
In 2017, the U.K. government restricted how it distributed economic data to markets after The Wall Street Journal documented how the information was leaking to traders before publication.
Central banks, including the U.S. Federal Reserve, have also come under criticism in recent years for giving preferential access to big investors, who can glean future policy decisions from the meetings.
The Fed said Thursday that it “aims to make its press conferences available as widely as possible by streaming them live directly to the public and through accredited news organizations, “ according to a spokesman. “We only use systems that are open for broad distribution.”
The Fed has a pool arrangement with three news organizations. One of them at a time is allowed to attend a press conference and broadcast live, sharing the footage with the others for distribution.
The Fed doesn’t have a separate audio-only feed.
Information leaks at central banks don’t occur often but are potentially consequential when they do.
Several years ago, the Federal Reserve mistakenly emailed market-sensitive minutes of a monetary-policy meeting to a group of people, including investors, a full day before the document was scheduled to be released to the public.
In 2017, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond President Jeffrey Lacker resigned after revealing his involvement in a 2012 leak of confidential information about Fed policy deliberations.
The alleged breach comes at a sensitive time for the Bank of England. Mr. Carney is set to step down at the end of January after serving in the job since 2013. While generally respected for his handling of monetary policy, he has also drawn sharp criticism from investors and politicians for what some say have been overly pessimistic predictions about the effects of Brexit on the economy.
Boris Johnson’s incoming government, fresh off last week’s election victory, has yet to name a successor.
Central Banks In Africa
The news marks the second time this year that a son of a former African president has been named in an investigation involving defrauding his country’s central bank. In March, Angolan prosecutors said José Filomeno dos Santos, a son of the country’s long-term leader José Eduardo dos Santos, was a suspect in an illegal transfer of $500 million from the central bank to the U.K. The funds were eventually frozen by U.K. authorities and returned to Angola. Mr. Filomeno dos Santos has said he is cooperating with the investigation. Probes Reveal Central, US-Based, International Banks All Have Sticky Fingers
The son of the former president, the former central bank governor and 15 officials are under investigation
Officials in Angola have charged four men in connection with an alleged plot that would have been one of the biggest of its kind.
An accountant walked up to a teller at a suburban London branch of HSBC Holdings PLC and asked to transfer $2 million to Japan. The teller pulled up the account and stared at her screen. There was $500 million in the account.
After asking the accountant some questions, she told him she couldn’t make the transfer. Then she filed a report to her superiors.
HSBC quickly found out where the money had come from. Three weeks earlier, in mid-August of 2017, officials at the central bank of Angola had sent $500 million of the country’s reserves to a company registered to the accountant’s modest storefront office between a cafe and barber shop in a gritty London neighborhood.
Authorities in Angola now allege the $500 million transfer was illegal, part of a convoluted plot to defraud the southern African country in the final weeks of President José Eduardo dos Santos’s 38-year rule. If Angolan prosecutors are right, the HSBC teller had helped thwart one of the biggest attempted bank heists ever.
Investigators unraveling the transaction for Angola have identified a cache of forged bank documents and an “Ocean’s Eleven”-style cast of characters, including a smooth-talking Brazilian based in Tokyo and a Dutch agricultural engineer. Their alleged plan, said Angolan government officials in court documents and interviews with The Wall Street Journal, was to siphon fees and cash from the central bank while pretending to set up a $35 billion investment fund.
The group convened in glamorous spots in London, a coastal resort in Portugal and Angola’s capital, Luanda, with at least one meeting attended by President dos Santos. The money trail they left led investigators to international banks, shell companies and a Japanese firm whose mission is described on its website as “assets liberation.”
“One looks at this and thinks, ‘Wow, what’s going on here?’” says José Massano, Angola’s new central-bank governor, who is trying to piece together how his bank almost lost a chunk of its foreign-exchange reserves. “It is the kind of thing that shouldn’t really happen.”
Last month, prosecutors in Angola announced a variety of criminal charges against a son of Mr. dos Santos, the former central-bank governor and two others in relation to the alleged fraud. In the U.K., Angola has sued four men, including the Brazilian and the Dutch engineer, to recover €25 million the central bank paid to set up the multibillion-dollar fund, which never materialized.
The defendants in the U.K. civil case deny wrongdoing and say they did legitimate work on an investment fund, under contract, for which they received fees. After being named a suspect by Angola prosecutors in March, Mr. dos Santos’s son said he is cooperating with the investigation, and the former central-bank governor couldn’t be reached for comment. One of the other two men charged denied wrongdoing; the other couldn’t be reached for comment.
Angola’s lawyers say the country may have fallen victim to a decades-old type of get-rich-quick scheme, typically used to defraud individuals or companies, not sovereign states. Investors are told they can make huge returns through a private market in “bank guarantees.” There is no such market, and the U.S. Treasury Department and Securities and Exchange Commission have warned that such offers are always fraudulent.
This account of the case is based on interviews with Angolan officials, bankers, people involved in the legal cases and documents related to the U.K. lawsuit, including sworn statements and a judicial ruling.
In June of last year, a letter marked “confidential” arrived at Angola’s finance ministry for then-President dos Santos, 76 years old, who was preparing to step down after elections that August. Angola was reeling from double-digit inflation, and its currency had plunged since the 2014 oil bust.
The letter, bearing a BNP Paribas SA logo and the signature of the French bank’s chairman, made a compelling proposal. BNP Paribas and other European banks would help Angola create a $35 billion fund, refinance debt and get hard currencies for imports.
The letter named two deal coordinators: Hugo Onderwater, a Dutch agricultural engineer living in Portugal, and Jorge Pontes Sebastião, a childhood friend and business partner of President dos Santos’s son. Mr. Pontes, 40, a slim man whose bodyguard carries his briefcase to meetings, was until recently president of an Angolan bank; Mr. Onderwater, 55, tall and sandy-haired, has a business converting waste to energy, according to U.K. court filings by the two men. The two had met in 2016 to discuss financing for an Angolan government food-quality agency, then broadened the idea into an Angola investment fund, according to a court statement by Mr. Pontes.
Days after the letter arrived, Angola’s finance minister and central-bank governor flew to a meeting in Cascais, near Lisbon. The president’s son, José Filomeno dos Santos, then in charge of Angola’s sovereign-wealth fund, came with them to represent the state, according to a U.K. court filing. His father had approved looking into the project, according to Mr. Pontes’s statement.
In a seaside hotel, Mr. Onderwater, the Dutch engineer, and Mr. Pontes presented slides for a new fund to help diversify Angola’s economy, to be managed by a “qualified trust company” in London, according to excerpts from the presentation in U.K. court documents. A slide listed banks said to be supporting the project, including the European Central Bank.
The ECB says it was never involved in the project, and BNP Paribas says the letter with its logo and chairman’s signature was forged.
Mr. Onderwater later told the U.K. court the banks mentioned were merely examples of possible participants, and that he only saw the BNP Paribas letter during court proceedings.
Angola’s finance minister, Archer Mangueira, was skeptical of the plan. His department questioned the experience of the two deal coordinators and wondered about the project’s “true developers.”
Nevertheless, in July of last year, the central-bank governor, Valter Filipe da Silva, signed an agreement with Mr. Pontes to set up the fund.
That same month, the central bank started transferring €24.85 million ($28.9 million) from its Commerzbank AG account in Frankfurt to an account of Mr. Pontes at Banco Comercial Português SA in Lisbon, for fees due under the agreement, U.K. court documents show.
Mr. Onderwater received €5 million of that money, using some to buy property in Lisbon and rural Devon, England, investigators for the Angolan finance ministry found.
Another €2.4 million went to a Tokyo company called Bar Trading, headed by another alleged participant in the plan, 51-year-old Brazilian Samuel Barbosa da Cunha. His role was to act as “trustee” of Angola’s $500 million seed money for the new fund, in charge of obtaining the “bank guarantees” and financial instruments that were supposed to transform the country’s money into $35 billion, according to Mr. Pontes’s testimony and other U.K. court filings.
Mr. Pontes told the U.K. court Mr. Barbosa was brought into the deal by Mr. Onderwater, a claim Mr. Onderwater denies. Lawyers for Mr. Onderwater said recently in a written statement that the bank guarantee was “solely an internal Angolan matter.”
Bald and hulking, Mr. Barbosa described himself as an expert in buying and selling such guarantees on his company website and in correspondence with clients reviewed by the Journal. His LinkedIn biography says he has 30 years of financial experience and an economics doctorate from Boston University. The school’s library has no record of a dissertation, and a spokeswoman for the school couldn’t confirm his attendance or a degree after searches by his name, hometown and birthdate.
At the end of July 2017, Mr. Barbosa headed for London. First, he touched down in Riga, Latvia, where he boasted to a friend that he was working on a big deal with Angola’s central bank, the friend says.
Mr. Barbosa and the friend had teamed up before, persuading retirees in Florida and Canada and an Australian company to invest in bank guarantees promising up to 550% monthly returns, according to people who gave them money and documents they provided to those people, which were reviewed by the Journal. A representative of the Australian company filed complaints about the friend and Mr. Barbosa to U.K. authorities, alleging fraud, according to the documents.
U.K. regulators declined to comment. Mr. Barbosa didn’t respond to requests for comment, and the friend denied working with Mr. Barbosa or any involvement in the alleged fraud.
One day in August of last year, Messrs. Onderwater and Pontes sent instructions to the central-bank governor to transfer $500 million to the trustee, Mr. Barbosa, according to evidence cited by the U.K. court. They provided the details of an HSBC account of a company called Perfectbit Ltd., registered to the London accountant’s storefront office and listed on Bar Trading’s website as an overseas subsidiary.
Two days later, central-bank officials entered Perfectbit’s account details into the Swift network, a bank-owned consortium that handles millions of daily payment instructions. The money moved from the central bank’s Standard Chartered PLC account in London to Perfectbit’s HSBC account. The transaction didn’t prompt any extra checks by either bank, people familiar with the matter say.
“There is a hole in the international finance system that allows for transfers to be made with minimal information,” says Shane Shook, a cybersecurity consultant.
The central bank’s Swift message code indicated—inaccurately—that the money was for intrabank business with HSBC rather than headed to an HSBC customer, according to bank documents reviewed by the Journal. HSBC noticed the discrepancy later, when it started probing the transfer.
Once the $500 million was in Perfectbit’s account, the accountant made Mr. Barbosa and an associate owners of the company. The accountant, Bhishamdayal Dindyal, kept signing power on the HSBC account.
Over the next few weeks, the accountant and an associate of Mr. Barbosa’s each visited HSBC branches trying to access the cash, unsuccessfully, according to Angola’s U.K. court claim. The associate said in a later court statement that $26,999.99 from the HSBC account was paid as a fee for Perfectbit’s work on the fund.
After the alert teller in the suburban London branch filed a report about the enormous balance, HSBC suspended the account for review.
In Angola, a power shift was under way. President João Lourenço, inaugurated in September 2017, launched an anticorruption drive, and his finance minister, Mr. Mangueira, still suspicious of the central bank’s new investment fund, started an investigation.
Seeking answers, Mr. Mangueira took the central-bank governor, Mr. da Silva, to London again to meet with the three organizers of the deal—Messrs. Onderwater, Pontes and Barbosa. The former president’s son, Mr. Filomeno dos Santos, came along, too, this time in support of the deal organizers, U.K. court filings show.
In an hourslong meeting at the elegant Cavalry & Guards Club, Mr. Barbosa batted away questions about his and his colleagues’ qualifications. He said a European bank had guaranteed Angola’s $500 million, according to a U.K. court filing. That day, a letter was sent to President Lourenço saying Angola’s $500 million was guaranteed by Switzerland’s Credit Suisse AG , and had swelled to $2.5 billion from transactions by the trustee.
Credit Suisse says it didn’t guarantee the money and documents in its name were forged.
As he listened to Mr. Barbosa, Mr. Mangueira recalled in an interview, he became convinced the Brazilian was the mastermind of a fraud. He had the air of a “vendedor da banha da cobra,” Mr. Mangueira said—Portuguese for a snake-oil salesman.
Back in Angola, President Lourenço gave Mr. da Silva, the central-bank governor, 24 hours to get the $500 million back, according to U.K. court filings. That didn’t happen, and he resigned without any public explanation.
With the deal collapsing, Perfectbit wrote to HSBC last Nov. 9 asking the bank to return the nearly $500 million in its account to the central bank, according to a U.K. court statement from Mr. Barbosa. He said Perfectbit was asked to make the request by the company owned by Messrs. Pontes and Onderwater that had hired Perfectbit to act as trustee.
Eight days later, Angola’s finance ministry filed the U.K. lawsuit against the three organizers of the deal—Messrs. Pontes, Onderwater and Barbosa—and Mr. Barbosa’s associate. A judge froze the $499,972,438 remaining in the HSBC account. The U.K.’s National Crime Agency, an entity akin to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, opened a criminal investigation.
A few days later, Mr. Barbosa’s associate was arrested by police at Heathrow Airport and released under investigation. He denies wrongdoing.
The accountant, Mr. Dindyal, who isn’t a defendant in the lawsuit, was arrested at home in December and also released under investigation. He declined to comment.
Messrs. Pontes, Onderwater and Barbosa all say their companies operated under contracts with the central bank or each other and deny wrongdoing.
A judge in the U.K. civil case said in a written April ruling that Mr. Pontes and his company “appear to contend (in effect) that they are victims of a fraud perpetrated by Mr. Onderwater. Mr. Onderwater appears to contend (in effect) that he is a victim of the fraud of Dr. Barbosa and Dr. Pontes.”
U.K. authorities returned the $500 million to the Angolan central bank, but prosecutors in Angola are proceeding with their criminal fraud case.
They charged Mr. Filomeno dos Santos, the former president’s son, and Mr. Pontes with money laundering, criminal association, falsification of documents, influence peddling and stealing through fraud.
Mr. da Silva, the former central-bank governor, was charged with criminal association, embezzlement and money laundering. The fourth man, a central-bank employee, was charged with criminal association and embezzlement.
Mr. Filomeno dos Santos was dismissed from the sovereign-wealth fund this year. He hasn’t commented since the charges were announced. In a previous statement to Angola state television, he said he was cooperating with the investigation.
Mr. Pontes denies the criminal charges. In an email statement through his lawyers, he said Angola’s €24.85 million was voluntarily returned in June as part of negotiations to settle the U.K. civil case, and that he will “continue to act in good faith in his commercial dealings.”
The former central-bank governor, Mr. da Silva, hasn’t commented publicly and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Messrs. Onderwater and Barbosa likely will keep their payments unless Mr. Pontes takes his own legal action against them, according to people familiar with the U.K. civil case, which remains open.
In June, several photos appeared on Mr. Barbosa’s Facebook page. One shows him puffing on a cigar, another grinning from a business-class cabin.
The son of Angola’s former president, who served as chief of the country’s sovereign-wealth fund, was arrested on allegations he misappropriated billions of those funds. It could mark the fall of the dos Santos family in the country.
JOHANNESBURG — In a continuing shake-up of Angola’s old order, the once-untouchable son of the nation’s longtime dictator has been arrested on corruption charges, state news media announced on Tuesday.
The Angolan government said that José Filomeno dos Santos, the former head of the oil-rich African nation’s $5 billion sovereign wealth fund, had been detained. He had been charged earlier with the fraudulent transfer of $500 million from the fund to an account in Britain.
Mr. dos Santos is the highest-profile figure from the government of his father, José Eduardo dos Santos, who led Angola for 38 years, to face prosecution. During his father’s long rule, which was marked by a nearly decade-long oil boom, the presidential family and close allies amassed great fortunes through their grip on oil, diamonds and other resources.
In the twilight of his presidency, Mr. dos Santos installed two of his children to key economic posts. In addition to his son’s role at the sovereign wealth fund, his daughter, Isabel, already known as the richest woman in Africa, was named to lead Angola’s state oil company, Sonangol.
In what had appeared to be a carefully scripted transfer of power, Mr. dos Santos, who has suffered from health problems in recent years, gave up the presidency last September to a trusted aide, João Lourenço. The transfer was completed this month when Mr. dos Santos gave up leadership of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the party that has controlled Angola since liberation from Portugal in 1975.
But in his first year in power, Mr. Lourenço turned quickly on the former first family, forcing his predecessor’s children from their top posts. In Angola’s small ruling class, the dos Santos family had attracted increasing anger for failing to share the spoils of the nation’s government-controlled economy with a wider circle of people.
Corruption has continued to undermine Angola’s economy while the new government has taken only tentative steps to open up an authoritarian political climate, experts said. It is far from clear whether Mr. Lourenço’s government has gone after his predecessor’s children to clean up the economy or simply to grab their assets.
“Whether the new president will wage a fair, deep and prolonged fight against corruption remains to be seen,” said Fernando Macedo, a political scientist who has taught at Lusíada University in Luanda, the Angolan capital.
So far, Mr. Macedo said, the new government has carried out easy changes, including liberalizing the state news media and allowing political demonstrations.
The National Assembly has created laws to open up sectors of the economy, but the effects have still to be felt on the ground, said Francisco Miguel Paulo, an economist at the Center for Studies and Scientific Research at Catholic University of Angola.
The arrest of the younger Mr. dos Santos, who was charged in March with fraud involving the $500 million transfer, was aimed at pressing the former first family and its allies to return some of their assets to Angola, Mr. Paulo said.
“If they can arrest the son of the former president, it means there will not be impunity for anyone,” Mr. Paulo said.
Authorities in Liberia said they were investigating the disappearance of $104 million in newly printed bank notes intended for the central bank, in a possible fraud equal to 5% of gross domestic product.
The justice ministry on Wednesday confirmed that 15 officials, including the son of former president and Nobel Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the former central bank governor, were under investigation and had been banned from leaving the country.
Liberian officials said the bank notes—more than 16 billion Liberian dollars—were ordered by the central bank from overseas printers but disappeared between November and August. The money, packaged in canvas bags and 20-foot-high sealed containers, was cleared through Liberian customs between November and August but never made it to the central bank’s headquarters in the capital, Monrovia, the officials said.
The government said the matter was being taken extremely seriously because it had national-security implications.
The disappearance is a blow for Liberia’s crisis-addled economy as it recovers from the commodity-price crash and devastating Ebola epidemic that has claimed more citizen’s lives than in any other nation.
Liberia, a Virginia-sized nation founded in 1847 by freed slaves, is rich in diamonds, oil and timber but remains one of the world’s poorest nations with a gross domestic product per capita of $729, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Some analysts said news of the missing funds threatened to poison the political atmosphere just nine months after the government’s first peaceful transition in seven decades.
“Expectations are high after last year’s elections,” said Musa Ziamo, a Monrovia-based independent analyst, “Masses are very anxious and many are facing economic hardship.”
Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, won the Nobel Prize in 2011. She was widely credited for restoring order to a country devastated by recurrent civil wars that ended in 2003. But Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, known to Liberians as Ma Ellen, was also criticized for nepotism—following the elevation of two of her sons to senior government positions—and failing to fight corruption.
Justice Minister Frank Musa Dean said the money had been ordered during the administration of Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, who was succeeded by former football star George Weah in January. A spokesman said the central bank is cooperating with the investigations, but declined to comment further.
Former central bank governor Frank Weeks, who left his position in March, said he was “not aware of any money that went missing” during his tenure. Ms. Johnson Sirleaf’s son Charles couldn’t be reached for comment.
On Thursday, investigators pored through central bank records to determine whether they had established the full impact of the missing funds. Liberia doesn’t have its own mint and the central bank is the only body with the power to order new currency.
Authorities discovered the disappearance from customs records that showed the shipments had arrived and been cleared but were never placed in the custody of the central bank. Several senior police officers in charge of security at the ports are among those under investigation.
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