Standard Chartered accused of over $250bn of illegal transactions to Iran

"You fucking Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?"

Standard Chartered, the British bank, stands accused of having run a major operation to facilitate money transfers in and out of Iran, in violation of American sanctions against the company. The amount of money it is thought moved totals $250bn, and would have earned Standard Chartered millions in fees.

The New York department of financial services said in a statement that:

Motivated by greed, [Standard Chartered] acted for at least ten years without any regard for the legal, reputational, and national security consequences of its flagrantly deceptive actions.

The full complaint claims jaw-dropping levels of arrogance on the part of the bank. When London was informed of concerns by the head of American operations that US law was being systematically broken, the group director replied:

You f---ing Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?

In order to facilitate the trades without being found out, the banks employees had to strip the information that the trades were coming from Iran out of the wire transfer. And when volume grew too high to manage, they automated the systems:

When SCB anticipated that its business with Iranian Clients would grow too large for SCB employees to “repair” manually the instructions for New York bound wire transfers, SCB automated the process by building an electronic repair system with “specific repair queues,” for each Iranian Client.

Once the bank realised that the heat was on, it started getting even more tricksy. It asked its auditor, Deloitte, to delete any mention of the activities from its report:

Having improperly gleaned insights into the regulators’ concerns and strategies for investigating U-Turn-related misconduct, SCB asked D&T to delete from its draft “independent” report any reference to certain types of payments that could ultimately reveal SCB’s Iranian U-Turn practices. In an email discussing D&T’s draft, a D&T partner admitted that “we agreed” to SCB’s request because “this is too much and too politically sensitive for both SCB and Deloitte. That is why I drafted the watered-down version.”

And eventually even moved their compliance department to India to forestall the regulators:

Outsourcing of the entire OFAC compliance process for the New York branch to Chennai, India, with no evidence of any oversight or communication between the Chennai and the New York offices.

What's really scary is that even the "good guys" - the people at Standard Chartered who were raising questions - reveal breathtaking attitudes towards breach of law. The head of American operations, who first told London of his concerns, is quoted as writing:

Firstly, we believe [the Iranian business] needs urgent reviewing at the Group level to evaluate if its returns and strategic benefits are . . . still commensurate with the potential to cause very serious or even catastrophic reputational damage to the Group. Secondly, there is equally importantly potential of risk of subjecting management in US and London (e.g. you and I) and elsewhere to personal reputational damages and/or serious criminal liability.

Reread that first point. He is not saying "we have broken the law, and need to stop", but instead "we have broken the law, and need to review its returns and strategic benefits to make sure it's worth doing". That is evidence of internalised corruption to a worrying degree.

The bank itself rejects "the position and portrayal of facts made by the New York State Department of Financial Services", according to its statement. Its major position is that the vast majority of its transactions to Iran were legal, and the the DFS has misinterpreted a point of law. It claims just $14m worth of transactions broke the regulations, and that it brought those to the regulator's attention as soon as it knew.

Standard Chartered had been one of the banks which made it through the crisis relatively unchanged. That looks set to change now.

Standard Chartered faces severe allegations. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.