The Bad News Is There Is No Rock Bottom

When things are going bad, people often set out in the wrong direction. It happens all the time and it only makes things worse. The Justice Department’s decision to fine HSBC, a British bank that is Europe’s largest, $1.92 billion was enough to show how wrongheaded American policy is putting belief before truth.

If we believe as hard as we can, and say something over and over while we hide the process from the public, we can rob the country blind, dominate the Congress, and even bring shame to a wounded veteran and former Presidential candidate and Senate leader who, in a wheel chair at age 89, asked the Senate to vote to approve a UN treaty establishing a pledge to full rights for the disabled. This no-brainer only requested the US approve something it had already done; in fact, the US Disabilities Act was the model for the UN treaty. But instead of watching the Senate endorse a treaty that reflects established success in global leadership for the disabled, Bob Dole, former senator from Kansas, watched from the Senate floor as the members of his own party voted the treaty down.

The reason? The fear that the UN treaty with no enforcement or monitoring power, which calls each nation to review its progress for an annual report, would impose yet-to-be-expressed and completely unrelated standards for home schooling on American families. The treaty’s opponents claimed that US honor would obligate the country—each state, city, hamlet and home–to voluntarily submit to the treaty’s principles (whose goals have nothing to do with home schooling!) even if we disagreed. Except that we had agreed to the goals and signed the treaty, but it had not been approved by the Senate.

So an imaginary commitment was used to bring shame to a man who had served his party and his country with real commitment and honor. The imagined idea trumped the real ideals and practices firmly in place, without threat to hamlet or home. Bob Dole, a disabled veteran, watched the Senate vote use the idea of honor to bring shame to the US, before the world.

But things got worse quickly, in the name of justice. The British chartered Hong Kong bank, HSBC, agreed to the US Justice Department’s imposition of $1.92 billion in fines and penalties for the bank’s actions in financing terrorism and crime. HSBC had thousands of violations of the US’ Trading With The Enemy Act. HSBC moved trillions by wire transfers and other means for groups including al-Qaeda and Colombian and Mexican drug cartels for over a decade. The bank’s actions were so far out of control that the Justice Department claimed that no pattern of individual behavior could be established, so egregiously was the total institutional default on every standard and regulation aimed at denying legitimate banking services to global terrorism and crime. Shades of Catch-22! The Justice Department is claiming so many people were engaged in providing traditional banking to criminals and terrorists that it is impossible to tell who was at fault because the entire sphere of activity became routine practice,with its own procedures and rules! In other words, the bank was too big and too greedy to be bad!

Doing the bank’s spree, institutional Mexican drug traffickers made HSBC branches throughout Mexico their bank of choice. Bloomberg News reports the cartels were using special boxes to speed up transactions. The estimates of illegal money laundered range to $9.4 billion, but no one is really sure. For example, 2,300 transactions from March 2004 to June 2010 document $430 million in transfers that violated US sanctions against transactions with Burma, Cuba, Iran, Libya and Sudan. In one case, 32,000 ounces of gold bullion were purchased for the central bank of Iran. HSBC also acted as a technical adviser for interested parties, often telling people and organizations in sanctioned countries how to transfer remittances in and out of the US without the illegal activity being detected.

In the meantime, HSBC is moving out of its office tower in Buffalo, NY to save costs, adding to Buffalo’s decline.

You want to know how these things get started? They begin with statements like this, from a Justice Department official, cited by Bloomberg:

“As bad has HSBC’s conduct was, this is not a case where the HSBC people intended to create money laundering. What they did do was they affirmatively violated the Bank Secrecy Act, they did not have the controls in place that they needed to do. This was insidious and wrong and had occurred over decades of time and we’ve held them very much accountable. I’m not sure you can find a more robust resolution.”

It will take HSBC 41 days to earn the amount of its fine from its profits. That what the Justice Department is calling robust. Robust? HSBC will finish paying off its fines with the profits made before the 2013 President’s Day holiday, in time for the white sales.

If you think it can be worse, it will.