This summer BNP Paribas, one of the five largest banks in the world, agreed to a $9 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The settlement figure may seem nothing short of economic shock and awe; indeed it was the largest criminal penalty in U.S. history. What could justify such a staggering fine and was the DoJ too heavy-handed in its tactics against the French-based bank?
The $9 billion figure was not created out of thin air. It correlates to the value of transactions that BNPP helped to push through the U.S. financial system on behalf of Sudanese, Cuban and Iranian interests. These countries have been subject to U.S. sanctions under the U.S. International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). The sanctions restrict, among other things, trade and investment activities involving the U.S. financial systems, including processing U.S. dollar transactions through the States. BNPP chose to ignore those sanctions. What’s worse, the Statement of Facts that the DoJ published with its press release states that BNPP used cover payments to conceal the transactions it processed through its New York location and other U.S.-based banks. It also removed identifying information about the sanctioned entities and used complicated payment structures in order to prevent the transactions from being blocked when transmitted through the U.S. BNPP helped to finance oil and petrol exports for both Sudan and Iran. And the bank’s involvement in Sudan has been instrumental to the country’s foreign commerce market. All told, BNPP’s actions effectively undermined the U.S. sanctions, opening the U.S. financial system to those countries.
BNPP’s actions justify DoJ prosecution as U.S. authorities certainly have jurisdiction over U.S.-based activities. A stiff penalty also seems in order, given the bank’s blatant disregard for both the legal violations and their ramifications. The DoJ quotes a May 2007 BNPP Paris executive memorandum: “In a context where the International Community puts pressure to bring an end to the dramatic situation in Darfur, no one would understand why BNP Paribas persists [in Sudan] which could be interpreted as supporting the leaders in place.”
But did the DoJ go too far when it imposed $9 billion in sanctions? As of the date of the settlement, the fine more than doubled the enforcement agency’s highest criminal penalty on record. (Of course, big settlements with banks are becoming the norm: the DoJ recently settled with Bank of America for $16.5+ billion and with JP Morgan Chase for $13 billion.) The $9 billion penalty may not have had the desired impact of shock and awe the U.S. may have sought. Instead of being perceived as a show of force with a deterrent effect, some of the international community has reacted with disdain. Not surprisingly, this includes the French, who have been quite vocal about their feelings. The French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, said the fine was an “unfair and unilateral decision.” The French Finance Minister Michel Sapin questioned its legality by pointing out that the offending transactions were not illegal under French law.
It is not as though the U.S. is jumping across the pond and punishing a French bank on French soil for activity in France. The actions in question took place through U.S. markets and therefore make U.S. prosecution justifiable. But the French finance minister’s statement demonstrates the U.S.’s waning credibility abroad. Sapin did not stop at the BNPP settlement – he went on to question the entire monetary regime based upon the U.S. dollar: “Shouldn’t the euro be more important in the global economy?” The U.S. should not ignore this growing antipathy. Nor should we take for granted our economic or political authority. Examples like this settlement, or the largely resented Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, may not be seen as a show of force but rather as an act of bullying. As we throw our weight around, others are considering whether the cost of doing business with us is just too high. If we keep it up, we could find ourselves at a table of one.