Federal agents arrested an HSBC executive as he was trying to fly out of John F. Kennedy Airport on Tuesday evening, charging him with conspiracy to commit fraud for allegedly rigging currency rates. Mark Johnson, 50, head of foreign exchange and cash trading for the bank in London, was arrested as part of a federal investigation into the alleged scam affecting people around the world.
"The defendants allegedly betrayed their client’s confidence, and corruptly manipulated the foreign exchange market to benefit themselves and their bank," Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said in a statement. "This case demonstrates the Criminal Division’s commitment to hold corporate executives, including at the world’s largest and most sophisticated institutions, responsible for their crimes."
As Bloomberg reports, the Justice Department has been looking into exchange-rate rigging for three years, and more than two-dozen traders have been suspended in connection with the investigation. Stuart Scott, HSBC's head of foreign-exchange cash trading for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is being charged alongside Johnson, the feds announced today.
Over two months in 2011, Johnson and Scott allegedly misused inside information provided by a client. The client was using HSBC to convert $3.5 billion into pounds, according to the criminal complaint. Knowing this, Johnson and Scott allegedly bought up pounds for HSBC, lied to the client about having done so, and set up the transaction specifically to spike the price of the pound. The scheme allegedly netted HSBC $8 million.
Johnson splits his time between New York and London. Both he and Scott are U.K. citizens. Johnson is set to be arraigned today in Brooklyn federal court. Wire fraud conspiracy can carry fines and as many as 20 years in prison.
The arrest follows five banks admitting to charges of rigging currency rates in 2015. Citicorp, JP Morgan Chase, Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and UBS paid out more than $5.5 billion after acknowledging that their traders fixed the U.S. dollar-euro exchange rate from 2007 to 2015. However, the banks didn't suffer any consequences that would substantially impact their operations or the daily life of the people responsible. The fixing took place in chat rooms with names such as "The Cartel" and "The Mafia," where traders from the banks would collaborate in finessing the exchange rates to maximize profit on their transactions. At one point late in the criminal conspiracy, four of the banks involved controlled nearly half of the global currency market.
In 2014, HSBC paid $618 million to the U.S. and U.K. to resolve similar allegations. Bloomberg reports that HSBC as a whole is still being investigated by the Justice Department for other currency rigging, and it has said it set aside $1.3 billion to pay possible related fines. The bank made more than $13 billion in net profit last year.
HSBC, as readers may recall, has been involved in a stunningly vast and diverse array of criminal enterprises, even for an international bank. In 2012, it paid out $1.9 billion after the U.S. found—as it had found repeatedly in the preceding decade—that the bank set up shell accounts for Mexican drug cartels to hide hundreds of millions of dollars, and helped Hezbollah, Russian mobsters, and al Qaeda financiers move money, along with countries under sanctions such as Iran, the Sudan, and North Korea. No individual banker involved in the many crimes at issue paid out money or went to jail.
The bank also, as a whistleblower has revealed over the past eight years, has helped hordes of rich people hide their money in accounts with no paper trail, often managed through meetings at cafes and handoffs of suitcases full of cash. The client lists published as a result of the leak have exposed HSBC's tax-evading clients as prominent politicians, arms dealers, terror financiers, and blood diamond traders.
Also on Tuesday, the Federal Reserve announced that it has banned former UBS trader Matthew Gardiner from being involved in banking for life, over his role in rigging currency rates. Gardiner was involved in The Cartel manipulations and is reportedly cooperating with the feds against other traders being personally investigated. Johnson's alleged fraud is believed to be separate.
UBS was one of several banks, along with Brooklyn Nets overlords Barclays, implicated in rigging the London Interbank Offered Rate, or LIBOR, which measures the rate that banks lend to each other at. Many interest rates are pegged to LIBOR, and its fraudulent manipulation over as many as 20 years affected hundreds of trillions of dollars of financial products. Two people involved faced criminal charges, but otherwise, the U.S. government let the banks skate with just fines.
In the case of going light on HSBC's role in facilitating the finances of tyrants, terrorists, and narco-traffickers, then-Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in 2012, "Had the U.S. authorities decided to press criminal charges, HSBC would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the U.S., the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized."
Talking about the leniency for UBS days later, Breuer said, "Our goal here is not to destroy a major financial institution."