Archive for the ‘Corporations and economic sanctions’ Category

UBS’s Ill-Fated Quest for Financial Glory

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

UBSUBS seems to be in the news these days more often in connection with its legal problems than in its role as a major financial services company.

This is a result both of some dubious cases brought against it and numerous instances of serious misconduct on the part of the Swiss company. UBS, after all, a corporation that not long ago had to pay $1.5 billion to settle charges that it helped manipulate the LIBOR interest rate index.

In the dubious category is a case brought by a group of its U.S. customers who tried to collect damages from the bank after it had revealed their secret accounts and they had to pay hefty penalties to avoid tax evasion charges for unreported income. A U.S. appellate court in Chicago recently upheld a lower court’s dismissal with a ruling that was, in more than one sense, dismissive. U.S. Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner wrote that UBS “has no duty to treat [the plaintiffs] like children or illiterates, and thus remind them that they have to pay taxes on the income on their deposits.” Posner went on to state: “This lawsuit, including the appeal, is a travesty. We are surprised that UBS hasn’t asked for the imposition of sanctions on the plaintiffs and class counsel.”

This is not to say that UBS was blameless. The lawsuit came after a former UBS banker turned whistleblower had revealed how the bank actively assisted wealthy Americans seeking to hide income from the IRS. Federal prosecutors targeted UBS, which in 2009 had to pay $780 million and sign a deferred prosecution agreement to settle criminal charges of having defrauded U.S. tax authorities.

The feds then pressured UBS to hand over account information on more than 50,000 U.S. customers. UBS and the Swiss government, seeking to retain the country’s tradition of bank secrecy, resisted but in the end agreed to spill the beans on a smaller group of depositors. Using that information, the IRS went after a bunch of those tax dodgers, some of whom then foolishly thought they could use the courts to get UBS to cover their tax bills.

UBS recently prevailed in another lawsuit filed in response to a different instance of its misconduct. In 2004 the U.S. Federal Reserve fined the bank $100 million for violating U.S. trade sanctions by engaging in currency transactions with parties in countries such as Iran and Libya. Based on that, a group of Americans who had been injured in Hamas and Hezbollah attacks while in Israel sued UBS in 2008 under the Anti-Terrorism Act, arguing that the bank was liable for damages in light of its dealings with Iran, which is said to back those groups. The U.S. appeals court in New York has just upheld a dismissal of the case, though it ruled that the trial judge was wrong in holding that the victims lacked standing to bring the action in the first place.

UBS’s success in these two cases pales in comparison to the damage that its reputation has suffered both from the larger matters that prompted them and from a series of other scandals that have embroiled the company through most of the 15 years since it was created from the merger of two of Switzerland’s three big banks: Swiss Bank Corporation and Union Bank of Switzerland.

After the deal was completed, UBS’s chief executive at the time, Marcel Ospel, set out on an ambitious mission to make the company the world leader in investment banking. It was an ill-fated quest.

When UBS sought to increase its U.S. presence with the acquisition of brokerage house PaineWebber, it inherited a slew of legal problems relating both to PaineWebber’s own deceptive practices in the sale of limited partnerships and those the U.S. firm in turn took on when it bought Kidder Peabody, including a scandal in which a trader fabricated $350 million in trading profits to hide what were actually huge losses.

UBS’s U.S. operation was later caught up in the controversy over conflicts of interest between research and investment banking (UBS paid $80 million as its share of the settlement) and was sued by several U.S. state governments relating to its sale of auction-rate securities. UBS settled the actions by agreeing to pay a total of $150 million in penalties to the states and buy back more than $18 billion of the securities.

After getting bailed out to the tune of some $65 billion by the Swiss government during the financial meltdown in 2008, UBS had to pay $160 million to settle federal and state charges relating to bid-rigging in the municipal securities market. Just after that, UBS was sued by the Federal Housing Finance Agency in an action seeking to recover more than $900 million in losses suffered by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from mortgage-backed securities purchased through UBS. (The case is pending.)

UBS faced criticism in 2011 after it came to light that a young trader named Kweku Adoboli working in the bank’s London offices had racked up more than $2 billion in losses. Adoboli was later found guilty of fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison, while UBS was fined £29 million by British regulators for supervisory failures.

And late last year, there was the resolution of the LIBOR manipulation case. In addition to the $1.5 billion in penalties, a Japanese subsidiary of UBS pleaded guilty to a charge of felony wire fraud in U.S. federal court. (By having a foreign subsidiary take the fall, UBS shielded its U.S. operations.) The repercussions of the LIBOR case did not disappear. During a subsequent hearing on the matter in the British Parliament, several former UBS executives were accused of “gross negligence and incompetence.” So much for the dream of financial glory.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on UBS, which can be found here.

Patriotism is for the Little People

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

ING’s “Your Number” ad campaign touts the financial services company’s ability to help customers figure out how much they need to save for retirement.  We’ve just learned that ING’s own number is $619 million, the amount it had to pay to settle charges of having violated federal law by systematically concealing its prohibited transactions with Iran and Cuba.

The penalty agreed to by Netherlands-based ING is the largest in a series of cases in which major banks have been accused of doing business with countries targeted by U.S. economic sanctions. One of those banks is JPMorgan Chase, whose CEO Jamie Dimon just appeared before Congress to explain billions of dollars in trading losses and was treated with deference by most members of the Senate Banking Committee. It was just ten months ago that JPMorgan paid $88 million to resolve civil charges related to thousands of prohibited funds transfers for Iranian and Cuban parties.

JPMorgan got off a lot cheaper than some European banks, which were hit with criminal as well as civil charges. Apart from ING, Lloyds Banking Group paid $350 million in 2009, Credit Suisse paid $536 million that same year, and Barclays paid $298 million in 2010. Yet even those amounts did not cause much pain for the large institutions. In fact, they were undoubtedly happy to pay the penalties as part of arrangements that allowed them to avoid more serious legal consequences. They all were granted deferred prosecution deals under which they avoided a formal criminal conviction by vowing to clean up their act. A frustrated federal judge in the Barclays case called the settlement a “sweetheart deal” but approved it nonetheless.

The most comprehensive U.S. economic sanctions currently in force are aimed at Cuba, Iran, Burma/Myanmar, Sudan and Syria. More limited sanctions regimes apply to various other countries such as North Korea and Somalia. The Cuban sanctions, which date back to 1962, were adopted under the rubric of the World War I-era Trading with the Enemy Act. More recent restrictions are based primarily on the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1976.

Starting in the George W. Bush Administration, attention was directed from countries as a whole to designated individuals and organizations from those countries and others deemed to be acting against U.S. interests, including alleged terrorists and terrorist financiers. These parties are included in a list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons maintained by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC), which enforces the civil provisions of the sanctions laws.

Violations of these laws did not begin with the recent bank cases. In 2002 the Corporate Crime Reporter obtained documents from OFAC revealing previously unreported enforcement actions against companies such as Boeing, Citigroup, General Electric, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. The agency had brought 115 cases over a four-year period. Over the past decade, OFAC has been more open about its enforcement actions, but fewer U.S. companies are being targeted.

The reason is not that American firms have gotten more ethical, but rather because many of them have in effect been allowed to sidestep the law. In December 2010 the New York Times revealed that the Treasury Department has been granting licenses to many large companies to sell goods to Iran under an exceedingly broad interpretation of the agricultural and humanitarian exemptions. Among the products that sneaked in under those loopholes were cigarettes and chewing gum.

Whatever one thinks of the wisdom or efficacy of economic sanctions, the way in which large companies have related to them says a lot about corporate power. It’s clear that, whenever possible, they will put their commercial interests ahead of strict compliance with the law and adherence to the foreign policy objectives of their own government and those of its allies. When individuals collaborate with enemy nations they risk indefinite detention. When corporations do so, they receive affordable fines while avoiding serious legal consequences. Even admitted violators such as ING, Credit Suisse, Lloyds and Barclays do not end up on OFAC’s blacklist.

The late real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley once said that paying taxes is only for the little people; apparently, patriotism falls into the same category.