Scandal-hit Danske Bank to tighten controls as 2018 profit plunges

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Danske Bank, caught up in one of the world’s biggest money laundering scandals, reported a 28 percent drop in 2018 profit, cut its dividend and promised to spend around $300 million to tighten safeguards against financial crime.

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The bank is being investigated in Denmark, Estonia, Britain and the United States over 200 billion euros ($229 billion) of suspicious payments through its Estonian branch between 2007 and 2015 and could face hefty fines.

Denmark’s largest bank said on Friday it had seen a fall in customer satisfaction both for retail and corporate clients and that it would spend up to 2 billion Danish crowns ($307 million) to step up anti-money laundering efforts, such as improving IT systems and hiring compliance staff.

Interim chief executive Jesper Nielsen said that “2018 has been a challenging year.”

He told Reuters that the bank was cooperating with the U.S. authorities about their investigations, which he said were in their early stages. He said the bank expected to spend more than 200 million Danish crowns on legal fees this year, around the same level as in 2018.

He added that the bank was committed to finishing an internal investigation of the money laundering case, of which it laid out preliminary findings in September last year.

Net profit fell to 15 billion Danish crowns ($2.30 billion) from 20.9 billion for the full year - a drop of 28 percent - due to costs relating to the Estonia case and a drop in trading income from uncertainty in financial markets.

The bank said it had a net loss of 11,000 Danish retail clients last year, less than 1 percent of its total, while it continued to see growth in its corporate business across all Nordic markets.

Danske said it will halt its share buy-back program this year, because it needs to set money aside to deal with potential fines.

The bank proposed a 2018 dividend of 8.5 Danish crowns per share, lower than the 8.64 crowns expected by analysts in a Reuters poll.

Danske also said it expected a net profit in the range of 14-16 billion crowns in 2019, from the 15 billion in 2018, in-line with the 15.04 billion expected by analysts for 2019.

In December, the bank downgraded its forecast for 2018 net profit for the second time to around 15 billion crowns from an earlier forecast of 16-17 billion to reflect weak markets in the fourth quarter.

The bank had already cut the forecast from 18-20 billion crowns in September.

($1 = 6.5230 Danish crowns)

($1 = 0.8740 euros)

Reporting by Teis Jensen. Editing by Jane Merriman and Louise Heavens