* Top HSBC compliance exec announces his exit
* US Senate report calls bank 'pervasively polluted'
* HSBC apologizes, promises to change
* Senator Levin says bank put revenue over the law
* Shares down 1.7 pct; analysts expect $1 bln fine
By Carrick Mollenkamp
WASHINGTON, July 17 Officials of HSBC Holdings
Plc pledged to a U.S. Senate panel on Tuesday that the
bank is changing the way it polices illicit funds, but senators
were skeptical the bank could deliver on promises it had broken
HSBC's top compliance officer announced he was stepping down
and that the bank will shut down businesses in secret havens
such as the Cayman Islands, but those offers did not blunt the
senators' allegations that the bank sacrificed propriety for
The hearing by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on
Investigations came a day after it released a 400-plus-page
report detailing how the British bank acted as a financier to
clients routing funds from the world's most dangerous corners,
including Mexico, Iran and Syria.
While money laundering problems at HSBC have been flagged by
regulators for nearly a decade, the criticism comes at a
sensitive time for the banking industry.
Banks are facing accusations of greed tied to allegations
that international banks for years tried to rig the global
lending benchmark rate Libor and other scandals, including a
trading bet gone awry at JPMorgan Chase & Co.
The hearing brought HSBC's own scandal squarely into the
Senator Carl Levin, who chairs the panel, read what he said
was a 1993 statement from HSBC that asked its group members to
comply with the letter and spirit of laws, and said it sounded
similar to the commitments offered by HSBC on Tuesday.
"Do you agree, given past commitments have not been kept,
that the bank has a heavy burden of proof that they mean what
they say?" Levin asked one panel of witnesses consisting of
HSBC's top legal officer and the head of HSBC's U.S. operations.
Levin later added that others would judge HSBC's
accountability. "We are not in the prosecution business here, we
are in the oversight business."
The bank is still facing a Justice Department investigation,
with a potential fine that dwarfs the record $619 million that
ING agreed in June to pay to settle similar claims.
Reuters own investigation into HSBC found persistent lapses
in the bank's anti-money laundering compliance since 2010, after
years of being scolded for lax practices.
Levin, who suggested the bank's charter could be at risk if
it did not do better, pressed HSBC officials on whether they
looked the other way on suspicious activity if it meant profits.
"Your test apparently for opening an account is first, how
much revenue it would produce. But what about the second test
Mr. Lok?" Levin asked former executive Christopher Lok. "What
about a test of, is the bank involved in wrongdoing?"
David Bagley, the outgoing compliance executive, told the
hearing that while reforms had been made, it was time for him to
go. "I recommended to the group that now is the appropriate time
for me and for the bank, for someone new to serve as the head of
group compliance," he said.
Bagley also told the panel the bank would close thousands of
Caymans accounts as part of its renewed compliance efforts.
The Senate report said HSBC had little oversight of client
accounts housed in a shell operation in the Cayman Islands, well
known for offering secret accounts and a limited tax regime. By
2008, the Cayman accounts held $2.1 billion.
Bagley was on a panel with other executives, but some of the
toughest questions were reserved for Stuart Levey, who joined
the bank in January as chief legal officer. He had been the
Treasury Department's top official on terrorism finance from
2004 to 2011 -- during which time he was involved in cracking
down on HSBC for Iran-related transgressions.
Levin battered Levey with questions about whether the bank
would follow U.S. law or Cayman law in cases of conflict and
whether HSBC would improve its own internal sharing of
information to help cut down on illicit activity.
Levey placed much of the blame on HSBC's rapid expansion,
but said the bank is now better at spotting risky activities.
To some extent Levey and HSBC Bank USA CEO Irene Dorner were
able to deflect the harshest criticism by pointing out that they
were relatively new to their jobs, and had taken them up after
the worst of the bad acts had happened.
"We've committed within the company ... to maximize the
sharing of info for risk management purposes," Levey said.
"We've decided that's the value that we're going to pursue, we
need to share information."
The changes Bagley and Levey talked about are coming at a
significant cost to the bank, as spending on anti-money
laundering systems and staff have increased substantially.
Dorner said the bank now has 892 full-time anti-money laundering
FAILED TO MEET STANDARDS
HSBC shares closed 1.7 percent lower in London trade.
Analysts warned that the bank faced huge financial penalties but
said political risk may be a greater threat.
"(The) most important consequence is that the bank is now
under the microscope ... at a very bad time where banks are used
as scapegoats by politicians globally," analysts at Italian bank
Mediobanca said in a research note, adding that they expect HSBC
to face a $1 billion fine as well.
The Senate report alleged that HSBC did regular business in
areas tied to drug cartels, terrorist funding and tax cheats.
It detailed how between 2007 and 2008, HSBC's Mexican
operations moved $7 billion into the bank's U.S. operations.
Both Mexican and U.S. authorities warned HSBC that the amount of
money could only have reached such a level if it was tied to
illegal narcotics proceeds, the report said.
It also examined banking HSBC did in Saudi Arabia with Al
Rajhi Bank, which the report said has links to
HSBC had company in the Senate's harsh spotlight -- the
report was also highly critical of the Office of the Comptroller
of the Currency, a major U.S. bank regulator.
The OCC took enforcement action against HSBC in 2010, more
than seven years after the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and
the New York State Banking Department issued their own criticism
of HSBC's money-laundering detection systems.
Levin pounced on Grace Dailey, the former deputy comptroller
for large bank supervision at OCC, demanding to know why more
action had not been taken and sooner.
"We probably did not appreciate the systemic nature of some
of those issues," Dailey said. "We could have and should have
taken formal enforcement action, with the benefit of hindsight."
Levin was quick to dismiss the notion of hindsight and put
one of his sharpest comments of the day to Thomas Curry, who
took over as Comptroller of the Currency less than four months
ago and who expressed his regrets for the OCC's inaction.
"This is pretty feeble enforcement," Levin said.