BNP Paribas said to agree to record $8.9 billion US fine

The French bank will avoid being tried in court for dealing with US-blacklisted countries such as Cuba and Iran

Luc Olinga
Published30 Jun 2014, 11:34 AM IST
BNP has a strong enough capital base to handle the penalty, but the size of the fine and the temporary suspension of parts of its dollar-handling business will mean a significant hit on its earnings. Photo: Reuters<br />
BNP has a strong enough capital base to handle the penalty, but the size of the fine and the temporary suspension of parts of its dollar-handling business will mean a significant hit on its earnings. Photo: Reuters

New York: French bank BNP Paribas SA has agreed to pay US authorities a $8.9 billion (about 53,400 crore) fine to avoid being tried in court for dealing with US-blacklisted countries, people close to the matter told AFP.

The deal ends months of haggling which saw French President Francois Hollande pressing his US counterpart Barack Obama to intervene and lighten the punishment.

Agreement on the record fine, approved by the bank’s board of directors at a special weekend meeting in Paris, is due to be announced on Monday after markets close at the New York Stock Exchange around 4.00pm local time.

The US justice department and New York banking regulator Benjamin Lawsky will make separate announcements, another person with knowledge of the matter said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

BNP declined requests for a public comment.

At least $2 billion of the fine will go to Lawsky, who is temporarily suspending parts of BNP’s dollar-handling business in the US—key to any major bank’s US operations—for all of 2015.

Sources said the suspension would take place progressively since BNP has operations underway.

BNP, France’s largest bank, has until 31 December to find a bank that agrees to make dollar payments on its behalf.

The deal forces BNP to plead guilty to the bank’s deals from 2002 to 2009 with countries that Washington has blacklisted such as Cuba, Iran and Sudan.

The investigation probed more than $100 billion of transactions, finding that $30 billion of that amount were concealed in order to skirt the sanctions.

Too tough on BNP?

BNP has a strong enough capital base to handle the penalty, but the size of the fine and the temporary suspension of parts of its dollar-handling business will mean a significant hit on its earnings.

BNP chief executive Jean-Laurent Bonnafe reportedly wrote to employees on Friday conceding the bank will be “punished severely”, but stressing that “this difficulty...will not impact our roadmap.”

US authorities have already forced BNP to dismiss three senior officials allegedly linked to the sanctions violations, including its chief operating officer.

Lower bank officials could also be fired as part of the settlement.

Sources say the settlement could include a year-long suspension of the bank’s dollar clearing for oil and gas trading activities in Switzerland, Singapore and France, and suspension of dollar clearing on behalf of other banks and some clients.

That would likely be a blow to the bank’s profits. In 2013 BNP reported total profits of €4.83 billion (about 39,500 crore) on revenues of €38.8 billion. It has already set aside $1.1 billion to cover losses from the case.

BNP has been largely quiet about the allegations and potential penalties during months of negotiations.

Critics have accused Washington of being especially tough with foreign banks, and BNP in particular, while treating US banking transgressions more lightly.

In punishing US banks for financial crisis-related violations, negotiated fines have run into the billions but none has had to plead guilty, an act which could lead to the loss of a banking licence.

In 2012 Dutch bank ING Groep NV paid a relatively paltry $619 million financial crisis, and Britain’s Standard Chartered Plc $670 million. HSBC Holdings Plc, which was also accused of complicity in money laundering, paid $1.9 billion.

None were forced to plead guilty or halt certain banking operations.

But US authorities have become much tougher on banks that are less cooperative in investigations.

‘Negative consequences’

In May, Credit Suisse Group AG pleaded guilty to helping Americans evade taxes and was fined $2.6 billion, over three times the $780 million fine US authorities imposed on fellow Swiss bank UBS AG for the same charges in 2009.

Analysts say the size of the BNP fine relates to the size of the business it did with Sudan and Iran, several times larger than that handled by ING and Standard Chartered.

The BNP controversy has been a thorn in US-France relations. French officials warned in early June that it could cause problems for the huge transatlantic trade treaty under negotiation between the EU and the US.

“Evidently...this risks having negative consequences,” French foreign minister Laurent Fabius ominously warned.

Hollande also raised the issue with Obama during a dinner in Paris.

Fabius said that Hollande had told Obama the case is “very important for Europe and for France”, saying if BNP is weakened it would “create a very negative interference in Europe and its economy”.

But even before the dinner, Obama had signalled he would stay out of a legal issue.

“The rule of law is not determined by political expediency,” he said. AFP

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First Published:30 Jun 2014, 11:34 AM IST
HomeCompaniesBNP Paribas said to agree to record $8.9 billion US fine

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