Europe’s Money Laundering Scandals Expand with Criminal Probe of ABN Amro

By Ruben Munsterman and Wout Vergauwen | September 27, 2019

Europe’s widening money laundering scandals took a new turn as ABN Amro Bank NV disclosed a criminal probe over alleged failures to check on clients and report suspicious transactions, a further sign of woe in an industry already struggling to grow profitability.

Shares of the state-controlled bank slumped the most since its 2015 initial public offiering and its bonds fell after the Dutch prosecutor opened a criminal probe into its alleged failures to check on clients and report suspicious transactions.

The Dutch probe adds to a series of money-laundering cases that have engulfed lenders, highlighting weaknesses in the region’s efforts to fight the flow of illicit funds. Only this week, the former head of Danske Bank in Estonia, the unit at the center of a $220 billion money-laundering scandal, was found dead on Monday. On Tuesday, Germany’s Deutsche Bank AG received a visit from law enforcement officials over its role in the scandal.

ABN Amro said in July said that it needs to review all of its 5 million retail clients after receiving a warning from the Dutch central bank. It took a 114 million-euro ($125 million) provision for the checks in the second quarter, after already setting aside 85 million euros at the end of last year for stepping up financial crime prevention in commercial banking and the credit card business.

The bank said at the time that sanctions may be imposed by the authorities but said it hadn’t made a provision for a possible fine as the “amount cannot be estimated at this time.”

Increased compliance costs and possible penalties add to the headwinds confronting European banks. Negative interest rates, lackluster economies, and Brexit are already taking a toll on profitability, forcing more lenders forcing the lenders to pass rising costs on to customers.

“There’s so much uncertainty for the shareholders now,” said KBW analyst Jean-Pierre Lambert by phone. “The big question is whether there’s actual money laundering involved in this case. That’s what the prosecutor’s investigation probably is trying to find out.”

ABN Amro’s Dutch rival, ING Groep NV, paid a record fine last year and acknowledged “serious shortcomings” in its efforts to prevent financial crime.

ABN Amro dropped as much as 14% in Amsterdam trading and was down 13% at 16.25 euros as of 3:16 p.m. The Dutch bank’s Additional Tier 1 bonds fell the most in six months following news of the probe.

What Bloomberg Intelligence Says:

“It’s impossible to estimate the extent of any wrong-doing at this stage. The lender took a 114 million-euro provision in 2Q, after the Dutch central bank required it to review all domestic retail clients under customer due diligence requirements, so it has already begun addressing the issue.” — Philip Richards, BI banking analyst.

The investigation and the resulting share price drop may make it harder for the Dutch government — which still owns 56% after a bailout in 2009 — to sell off the rest of its stake as it pledged to do during the bank’s IPO. Meanwhile, the bank is still looking for a new chief executive officer after Kees van Dijkhuizen announced in June that he will leave when his term ends in April.

Following the ING fine and the central bank’s criticism, the largest Dutch banks have been stepping up compliance spending, including adding more staff to their crime prevention teams. Earlier this month, five of the country’s largest lenders said they are exploring a system to jointly monitor transactions in the fight against money laundering after the government pledged to clear legal hurdles that might prevent them from doing so.

“With the low interest rates and a looming recession, the banking sector is already in a very difficult position,” said Mediobanca analyst Robin van den Broek. “The money laundering issue comes on top of that. And I don’t think ABN Amro is the only one in Europe with these problems.”

Photograper: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

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