HSBC Probe Signals Big Bank Legal Crackdown

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- British banking giant HSBC ( HBC) has more than doubled the earnings hit it's expecting from U.S. regulators in a multi-year money laundering probe that the lender now says may prompt criminal charges.

In earnings released on Monday, HSBC increased its provision for a U.S. Senate-backed money laundering probe by $800 million to a total of $1.5 billion, and it cautioned investors total legal counts could run "significantly" higher. The embattled bank also said that it is "likely" to face criminal and civil charges in relation to the probe.

The disclosure follows a settlement with U.S. regulators by competitor Standard Chartered ( BCS) that totaled $340 million, and indicated that as regulatory probes widen, the worst may still be to come for banking giants.

"The final amount of the financial penalties could be higher, possibly significantly higher," HSBC said in a Monday statement released with earnings. "The resolution of at least some of these matters is likely to involve the filing of corporate criminal as well as civil charges," the bank added.

HSBC's comments and new legal provision come on the heels of a Senate committee probe that concluded in July HSBC's anti money-laundering controls were ineffective, giving terrorists and drug cartels access to the U.S. banking system. In August, Standard Chartered paid New York State regulators $340 million for its alleged violation of U.S. financial sanctions against Iran.

While the size HSBC's provision surprised some investors and caused shares to fall sharply in Monday trading, legal challenges have hung over the financial sector for years and may yet escalate.

The largest lenders in the U.S. and Europe like JPMorgan ( JPM), Bank of America ( BAC), Citigroup ( C), Deutsche Bank ( DB) and Barclays ( BCS) face a litany of potential costly legal and regulatory settlements, which only cloud a bleak outlook for banking conglomerates.

In particular, global banking giants face the prospect of hundreds of millions or billions in legal costs tied to the alleged manipulation of interest rates.

Already, Barclays has accepted a near $500 million fine for its manipulation of interest rates, a settlement that indicated widespread fraud throughout the financial sector. The fine cost company CEO Bob Diamond his job and indicated other major banks may yet take a similar hit, as a global probe intensifies.

In late October, Barclays also said it may be fined by U.S. regulators for alleged manipulation of energy trading markets and it said that lawmakers are also looking into whether the British bank violated the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Barclays said the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is probing the bank's power trading unit and could levy penalties shortly. The regulator subsequently asked for a fine of $470 million, however a settlement is yet to be reached.

U.S. lenders like Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan also face big potential costs tied to interest rate manipulation, and uncertainty continues to loom over the impact of housing crisis-related lawsuits.

Meanwhile, amid a sharp drop in trading, IPO and M&A volumes, some large investment banking players like UBS ( UBS) are retreating from Wall Street areas that once were a key driver of profits.

In late October, UBS, one of the largest investment banks in Europe and owner of a football-field sized Stamford, Conn., trading floor, said on Tuesday it is throwing in the towel on many of its trading businesses amid a plan to cut 10,000 jobs that acknowledges the bank can no longer earn money from much of the trading that once dominated Wall Street.

Earlier in October, Citigroup ( C) ousted its long-time CEO Vikram Pandit, in a move that signals the bank may refocus on traditional Main Street lending businesses over Wall Street trading, where Pandit had cut his teeth.

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Taken as a whole, the negative news emanating from the likes of HSBC, Barclays, UBS and JPMorgan signal that as financial sector giant's head into 2013, the industry outlook remains muddled by scores of legal challenges.

-- Written by Antoine Gara in New York

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