Are foreign banks being shaken down by the U.S. government for cash? France seems to think so.
France’s largest bank, BNP Paribas (BNP), could soon be hit with an unprecedented $10 billion fine for violating U.S. banking laws, which has put French bankers and politicians on the warpath. Some believe the fine is some sort of ploy by the U.S. government to destabilize the European banking sector. Others see it as a way to chase foreign banks off U.S. shores, clearing the way for big U.S. banks like Goldman Sachs (GS), Bank of America (BAC), Morgan Stanley (MS), and Citigroup (C) to fill the void.
France’s far-right National Front Party, hot off of a surprising win in last week’s European parliamentary elections, is fanning the anti-American flames, accusing the U.S. government of “racketeering.” On Wednesday, François Hollande, France’s left-leaning president, sent a personal letter to President Obama on the BNP affair, calling the fine “disproportionate.”
Could the U.S. government truly be conspiring to bring down French and other European banks just so Wall Street can gain an edge over its foreign rivals? Viewed in isolation, it is easy to see why some feel that way. But the U.S. has shown over and over that it is willing to do whatever it can to make sure the world financial system runs smoothly. The idea that it would purposely attempt to destabilize it seems pretty farfetched.
President Obama is set to meet François Hollande for dinner Thursday night in Paris. The two were supposed to talk about “important” stuff, like, the growing crisis in Ukraine, but it seems that BNP will dominate the conversation. But before Obama meets up with Hollande in Paris tonight, he might decide to send him a little note of his own. Here’s how it might go:
Can’t wait to see you! I’m just kicking back on Airforce One at the moment–love this sturdy American-made Boeing aircraft.
So, the last time we got a chance to really chat face-to-face must have been back in February, before that wild state dinner at the White House. Good times, right? By the way, sorry again about not inviting your new girlfriend–silly protocol. And sorry for making you drink all that cheapo wine. It had to be American, for obvious reasons, but it still couldn’t be any of the “good stuff.” Everyone hates a wine snob. Those guys poll lower than Congress.
Anyway, I got your note, and frankly, I am surprised. When did you get all buddy-buddy with the banks, let alone BNP? Didn’t you say something a couple years back when you were running for president that you considered the banks, like all banks, your “enemy”? That really shook up Wall Street.
But I guess we all have to appeal to our base. Speaking about your base, what the heck happened last week at the European parliamentary elections? I mean, losing to the Conservative Party is one thing, but losing to the far-right conservatives of the National Front is another.
But, really, listen, there is no DOJ mandate to skewer French banks, European banks, or American banks. BNP might have made billions over the years skirting U.S. sanctions by illegally processing transactions, trades, or something financial with the likes of Iran, Sudan, and Cuba. While I know France has economic relations with these guys, we don’t. Your banks knew the rules–if you do business with these countries, you can’t be using our currency. I mean, BNP must have known it was up to no good–why else would they have done all this work out of Geneva?
Anyway, perpetrators of financial fraud in the U.S. usually end up paying fines and restitution equal to around three times what they made off their shady dealings. I saw that BNP had set aside only $1.1 billion to cover any fines from this case. They must have been dreaming, François! Is BNP saying it only made like $350 million off their dealings with Iran, Cuba, and Sudan over the years? Why don’t you ask Jean-Laurent Bonnafé, BNP’s chief executive, how much the bank made. You might find that $10 billion figure is really a gift.
This nonsense over BNP isn’t really that big of a deal. I am more concerned with talk that the U.S. is somehow intentionally squeezing foreign banks for sport. While we have fined foreign banks lately for violating U.S. law, we have also fined U.S. banks as well. Just last year, J.P. Morgan agreed to pay a $13 billion fine for misdeeds related to its mortgage mess. Did the bank collapse? No. That’s because we didn’t ask J.P. Morgan for the money until we knew it could pay without any undue stress to its financials. We wouldn’t be asking for the money unless we knew BNP could pay. Did you know we had been investigating them since 2007?
Look, there will never be a “perfect” time to drop a financial bomb like this one on any bank, but today seems like the best time in nearly six years to do so. BNP’s core capital ratio, which measures economic strength, is only expected to fall one lousy percentage point due to the fine, going from 10.5% to 9.5%. That’s below the 10% minimum threshold you guys in Europe are forcing your banks to comply with, but it isn’t so much that BNP will be forced to sell off assets in a crazy fire sale to meet code.
Besides, 10% is such a high minimum–maybe you guys should cut your own banks a little more slack. It might help that sluggish growth rate of yours perk up a bit. If there is a run on a bank, you really think it makes much of a difference if it is holding 10% of its capital in its vaults vs. 5%?
Ben Bernanke, the former head of our central bank (the Fed), taught me the only way to combat a banking crisis is to throw lots and lots of money at the problem as soon as you can. Even if it took him throwing money out of a helicopter to end the crisis, he’d do it. (That’s how he got the nickname “Helicopter Ben.”) It doesn’t matter if that money lands on a bank based in Chicago or one based in Paris. If it restores confidence, then so be it.
Listen, I know you said the banks were your “enemy” and all, but have you ever chatted with the heads of your biggest banks about what we did for them during the financial crisis? You know that BNP has been credited with kicking off the financial crisis back in August 2007 when it halted redemptions at three of its hedge funds, right? That set off the panic that caused banks to stop lending to one another–the credit crunch.
Why do you think BNP told its investors in those hedge funds that they couldn’t pull their money out? It wasn’t just U.S. banks that bought and sold those toxic mortgage-backed securities–French banks did too.
But thanks to Ben and his helicopter, everyone who needed money to get through the crisis had it. Indeed, eurozone banks were at one point indebted to the Fed to the tune of $350 billion. In April 2008, BNP borrowed something like $29 billion from the Fed to keep its head above water–in one day. Dexia, which BNP partially acquired during the crisis, was the biggest foreign borrower under the Fed’s emergency lending program. On New Year’s Eve of 2008, Dexia borrowed nearly $60 billion. I didn’t even know Europeans worked on New Year’s.
That was just one of the ways the Fed helped out your banks. You remember AIG (AIG), right? Do you know why the U.S. government bailed them out to the tune of some $182 billion? It wasn’t because we love insurance companies; it was to make sure the banks that AIG had done deals with wouldn’t be left holding the bag.
Why an insurance company was trading with banks is beyond me, but it happened. To make a long story short, because we are landing right now, the Fed paid full value for securities that at the time were worth half that amount. Of the banks we (as in the U.S. taxpayer) bailed out, Société Générale, a French bank, garnered the biggest windfall. The U.S. government cut SocGen a check for $16.4 billion for securities that were worth only $8.4 billion, equating to an $8 billion gift. Deutsche Bank got $4.9 billion above the market value of its securities with AIG, while Calyon, that other French bank, and UBS got an extra $1.9 billion and $1.8 billion, respectively, above the market value of their holdings with AIG.
What about BNP? It was paid $4.9 billion for its securities held with AIG. Not sure how much it made in the end, but it was probably a lot.
I hope you now realize we have France’s back. A lot of this occurred when George W. Bush was president, and we all know how he felt about France after you guys refused to help us in our invasion of Iraq. Let’s not forget the primary reason why I am coming to France today. It isn’t because I’m dying to dine with you at that hot new restaurant in Paris (even though I am), but it’s because of the 70th anniversary of the allied landing at Normandy, where Americans led the way to free France from Nazi occupation.
We might not always see eye-to-eye on everything, but when push comes to shove, we will be there–even when you aren’t. It’s just the way we operate. Now, go tell BNP to shut up and pay up so we spend our dinner talking about more interesting stuff, like the World Cup, or cheese.