HSBC admits “failings” in its Swiss arm

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On 9 February, numerous newspapers such as France’s Le Monde and Britain’s The Guardian published allegations about how HSBC Swiss’ subsidiary helped notorious personalities to hide billions of dollars of assets in order to dodge taxes.

“We acknowledge and are accountable for past compliance and control failures”, HSBC replied, also saying that it has “taken significant steps over the past several years to implement reforms and exit clients who did not meet strict new HSBC standards”.

This inquiry, called SwissLeaks, is based on documents obtained late January by a consortium of journalists, ICIJ, via Le Monde, putting the light on the HSBC practices. Le Monde got access to files which concerned over 106,000 clients from 200 countries holding accounts in the HSBC Swiss arm based in Geneva.

According to Le Monde, quoting investigators, €180.6bn assets passed through HSBC Swiss arm on accounts held by 100,000 clients and 20.000 offshore companies, between 9 November 2006 and 31 March 2007. The French newspaper underlined that this period is linked to the theft of digital files from HSBC Private Bank by a French former computer engineer for HSBC in Geneva, Hervé Falciani.

In 2008, Falciani transmitted the stolen data to French authorities after trying to sell it. Known as the “Falciani list”, the data includes names of 3,000 French citizens suspected of hiding total assets of €5.7bn in tax havens via the HSBC Swiss subsidiary. Some 72 of them will face court soon in Paris to respond to charges of their alleged fraud. Most of the French clients affected by the scandal have reportedly put their tax affairs in order.

Falciani was charged in December 2014 for “industrial espionage”, “data theft” and “breach of industrial and banking secrecy” by the attorney general of Switzerland.

HSBC Private Bank has been taken to court, charged with “illicit selling of banking and financial services” and “money laundering of the proceeds of tax evasion” in Belgium and France in November 2014. One magistrate in charge of the Belgian investigation targeting HSBC Private Bank is considering the possibility of issuing international arrest warrants against the present group directors in Switzerland as well as in Belgium.

The HSBC affair is putting the spotlight on Swiss banking secrecy, which will end in 2018, as announced by the Swiss authorities last October.

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