The New York State Department of Financial Services’ accusations against Standard Chartered Bank make for riveting reading, but will they actually have a meaningful impact on the bank’s customers in Pakistan? The answer: not really.
The New York state regulator has made thundering allegations that Standard Chartered was involved in as much as $250 billion worth of illicit transactions involving Iranian entities that were subject to US sanctions. If one reads the order issued by the regulator on Monday, it makes Standard Chartered sound like a den of shady financial characters.
Yet most neutral observers have now come to agree that the accusations against the bank seem unusually harsh. The Wall Street Journal reported that even the Bank of England, Standard Chartered’s regulator, felt the need to come to its defence, saying that the New York state regulator should temper its allegations and seek cooperation with British regulators.
Standard Chartered itself has hit back, claiming that the regulators are grossly exaggerating the extent of the problem. In a press release issued on Tuesday (Pakistan time), the bank said that the value of the transactions that did not comply with US regulations amounted to less than $14 million.
Yet regardless of the he-said, she-said, what is at stake is Standard Chartered Bank’s ability to do business in New York. The state regulator has threatened to revoke its licence to do business in New York. Most analysts following the situation – quoted by the Financial Times – view that outcome as highly unlikely. But, for argument’s sake, suppose the worst does happen and Standard Chartered loses the ability to do business in New York. What does that mean for the average Pakistani depositor of the bank?
The bank’s business in rupees – the overwhelming bulk of its deposits and lending – will remain completely unaffected. Standard Chartered is not accused of violating any Pakistani laws. But what about those who use the bank for US dollar accounts or for trade financing? Would they be affected?
Yes, but not as much as one might think. For a bank to lose the ability to do business in New York means that it loses the ability to use the Clearing House Interbank Payment System, known as Chips. This system is the most widely used by all financial systems that conduct financial transactions in US dollars. So if Standard Chartered gets kicked out of New York, does that mean they cannot do business in dollars?
Not exactly. There is another system that the bank could use, one that is run by the United States Federal Reserve, known as Fedwire. The Federal Reserve has not initiated any action against the bank, so it would be able to use the system, even if it gets kicked out of New York (a highly unlikely scenario in the first place).
The Financial Times reports that Fedwire has higher transaction costs than Chips, so even in the worst case scenario, Standard Chartered’s customers would still be able to use dollar accounts and access trade financing, though probably at a slightly higher cost than before.
The more likely scenario, however, is that the bank will simply be asked to either pay a fine or enter into a settlement agreement with the regulator. This will hit its global earnings for 2012, but will leave its business largely intact. It is likely, however, that the bank will be forced to adopt stricter compliance measures, which may eventually translate into slightly higher transaction costs for its customers.
It is unclear if any of the bank’s Pakistani clients have expressed any worries about this case. Standard Chartered’s spokesperson was not available for comment when contacted by The Express Tribune. But the bank did put out a press release on Tuesday, assuring its clients that is not guilty of any wrongdoing.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2012.