Legal troubles haunt banks

HSBC has put money aside for legal expenses, while US prosecutors have reopened investigations into Standard Chartered.

HSBC, Europe's biggest bank by assets, announced a $1.6bn charge for legal expenses that caused its third-quarter profits to miss expectations. They rose marginally to $4.6bn.

The bank is now walking away from a target to achieve a cost-income ratio a widely watched efficiency gauge for the sector of around 55% by 2016.

Meanwhile, Standard Chartered revealed that US prosecutors have reopened investigations into whether the bank withheld evidence of Iranian sanctions violations.

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Lastly, RBS is to provide the City of London fraud squad with free training and advice on financial crime.

What the commentators said

Shareholders are "gagging for a clean set of results" from a bank, said Alistair Osborne in The Times. "No chance." The eye-catching elements of HSBC's report are the so-called "significant items" all $1.6bn of them.

We haven't heard any more about abetting drug-money laundering in Mexico. But "there's a smorgasbord of PPI mis-selling, forex-rigging and asset-backed shenanigans". It is also embroiled in a criminal tax-evasion investigation in France.

Yet banks still like to pretend that such fines and charges are one-offs. "They're not."

HSBC has admitted that these one-offs will recur, probably for a couple of years, noted Paul Davies in The Wall Street Journal.

On top of these penalties and provisions, spending on extra legal and regulatory staff to meet the demands of the post-crisis environment is climbing fast; the bank is hiring 100 compliance officers a week. No wonder the cost-income ratio target has been ditched.

As for RBS, its misdeeds are seemingly endless, ranging from Libor-fiddlingto mis-selling interest-rate hedging products. So it's no wonder peopleasked whether Bernie Madoff was unavailable when they heard that the bank would be helping the City of London police, said James Moore inThe Independent.

While the police were at it, wondered Chris Blackhurst inthe same paper, why didn't they askFred Goodwin to come in and"impart his considerable expertise"?

Andrew Van Sickle

Andrew is the editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He grew up in Vienna and studied at the University of St Andrews, where he gained a first-class MA in geography & international relations.

After graduating he began to contribute to the foreign page of The Week and soon afterwards joined MoneyWeek at its inception in October 2000. He helped Merryn Somerset Webb establish it as Britain’s best-selling financial magazine, contributing to every section of the publication and specialising in macroeconomics and stockmarkets, before going part-time.

His freelance projects have included a 2009 relaunch of The Pharma Letter, where he covered corporate news and political developments in the German pharmaceuticals market for two years, and a multiyear stint as deputy editor of the Barclays account at Redwood, a marketing agency.

Andrew has been editing MoneyWeek since 2018, and continues to specialise in investment and news in German-speaking countries owing to his fluent command of the language.