Credit Suisse Tax Evasion Fine is Just That: Fine

 Credit Suisse Tax Evasion Fine is Just That: Fine

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the US government, which gave its PR team little to work with.

Credit Suisse pled guilty this week to helping more than 22,000 Americans evade taxes by stashing their cash in Swiss bank accounts — a notable event on several levels, PR included.

The deal represents the first criminal conviction of a major global bank in more than a decade. Criminal charges, it has been widely thought, are a death knell for institutions that cop to them. Credit Suisse agreed to pay $2.6 billion — the largest penalty ever in a US criminal tax case. Prosecutors huffed and puffed about how significant this plea is: US Attorney General Eric Holder warned, “No bank is too big to jail.”

But…nobody’s going to jail, at least nobody at the top. While the conviction generated a lot of media, the general impression is: It’s not so bad. Credit Suisse wasn’t forced to reveal any client names, and it can keep operating in the US. The bank’s CEO told analysts he expects little business impact from the agreement. Indeed, Credit Suisse stock actually rose after the deal was announced.

No doubt the US faced a conundrum: Regulators wanted to inflict serious pain, but too harsh a penalty might be so destabilizing as to spark unintended (and unwelcome) consequences. After all, the threat of banking failures precipitated the last global recession. So they walked a line — and that’s exactly how the media read it.

THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for the US government, which gave its PR team little to work with.

THE PR TAKEAWAY: Actions speak louder than words. Are we really shocked, shocked, to discover that Swiss banks help people hide money? Yes, the fine is big, but even the general public has become inured to banks paying massive sums. If the US really wanted to send a message to tax evaders and the banks who love them, regulators needed to be more visible: name-and-shame clients, or put some white collars in orange jumpsuits. There’s nothing like a CEO in handcuffs to really command attention.

US vs. HSBC: Two PR Punches for the Price of One

 US vs. HSBC: Two PR Punches for the Price of One

The PR Verdict: “A” (PR Perfect) for the US government.

Everybody likes two bites at the PR cherry, and US prosecutors may have had their way when it comes to the latest fines levied against British banking giant HSBC. The headlines that HSBC was set to pay a record $1.9 billion penalty for ignoring possible money laundering came out on Tuesday. The announcement wasn’t official, but mysteriously there it was, hours before the official drop date.

News this big can’t be kept under wraps for long. HSBC was expected to agree to pay $1.9 billion to settle a probe in connection with money laundering from narcotics traffickers in Mexico. Also alleged was that HSBC intentionally allowed prohibited transactions with Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Burma while facilitating transactions with Cuba. Headline-making stuff.

Tuesday’s papers carried front-page stories with astonishing levels of detail, helpfully provided by the very trusty “people briefed on the matter.” Once the news was out, Wednesday ‘s media coverage gave even more detail. “HSBC is being held accountable for stunning failures of oversight — and worse — that led the bank to permit narcotics traffickers and others to launder hundreds of millions of dollars,” read the official government statement on day two. Not unlike statements from the previous day, only this time it wasn’t attributed to someone “briefed on the matter.”

The PR Verdict: “A” (PR Perfect) to the US government for what seems like a well-orchestrated PR campaign to maximize publicity.

The PR Takeaway: For really big news, use the “Curtain Raiser.” The old PR trick of releasing information the day before the official launch can not only give useful indications of market reactions but, as in this case, allows the headlines to announce the big numbers on day one and stretch the news to a second day by providing more detail. Maximum publicity for the prosecution; as anyone knows, more is better than less.

SAC Capital and the Art of Halting an Investor Stampede

 SAC Capital and the Art of Halting an Investor Stampede

The PR Verdict: “A” (PR Perfect) for SAC Capital. (Pictured: Steven Cohen)

The clock is ticking for SAC Capital Advisors, the hedge fund run by Steven Cohen, now linked to an insider trading case that the government is touting as one the largest of its kind. As regulators are said to be “closing in” on the fund, SAC clients, whose money is managed by the firm, now have 90 days to decide if they’ve had enough and want their money back. Should they redeem, or keep their money there?

SAC, which manages over $14 billion, recently confirmed to investors that the firm might face civil charges over the alleged insider trading scheme that has already led to the arrest of a former employee. Normally, news like this would have investors rushing for the exits, provoking a disastrous run on the fund. But if the firm intends to emerge from its latest legal worries with an ongoing business, reassuring investors while being transparent about its legal woes is the immediate PR challenge.

Not all investors are happy; some have indicated they want to redeem. One French bank has reportedly cashed in its chips already. But other large investors are on the record as saying they will reserve judgment and keep their money with SAC, reiterating their faith in the firm and its management. To SAC investors wavering about what to do, public confirmation from co-investors that their money is staying put is just the sort of signal they’re looking for. At the moment, some clever PR is calming a situation that could otherwise become very risky.

The PR Verdict: “A” (PR Perfect) for SAC Capital. Endorsement from others is always better than tooting your own horn.

The PR Takeaway: If you want the message about you to be heard, let your friends say it. SAC ‘s recent coverage contains a surprising number of reputable and well-known investors confirming that they are sticking with the firm – at least, for the moment. For SAC management seeking to reassure investors, it’s the best sort of message, and one that it couldn’t deliver itself.

To read more, click here.

 

 

 

Dept. of Financial Services to Standard Chartered: “J’accuse!”

 Dept. of Financial Services to Standard Chartered: Jaccuse!

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for New York’s Dept. of Financial Services. Great splash, but now what?

What’s the fastest way to generate a headline and claim your PR moment in the sun? How about a surprise PR missile in the middle of a sleepy summer? Announce to the media that colossal wrongdoing has been uncovered, and presto; you now have more publicity than TomKat’s divorce.

Top marks, then, to New York State’s Department of Financial Services (DFS), who late on Monday stunned the markets with an accusation that venerable British bank Standard Chartered was hiding some $250 billion worth of transactions with the Iranian government. Benjamin Lawsky, superintendent of the DFS, gave the media a summer gift by calling Standard Chartered a “rogue institution.” He said the firm “carefully planned its deception” of US authorities using “fraudulent” procedures and “forging business records” to stage a “staggering cover-up.” Markets were stunned. Shares in Standard Chartered fell more than 16 percent, and the bank’s executives – as well as other bigwig US regulators, were caught unaware by the revelations.

Eight long hours after the headlines had been screaming of criminal activity, Standard Chartered limped out with a statement. The firm rejected the accusations and said “well over 99.9 per cent” of Iranian transactions complied with US regulations. The sums of money were nothing like $250 billion, more like  $14 million, said one source, a result of  “small clerical errors,” nothing more.

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for New York’s DFS. Great splash, but now what? Where is the chorus of other regulators outraged at this alleged wrongdoing?

The PR Takeaway: Be careful what you wish for. Great job in getting the headlines, but now comes the tough part! Despite the nicely packaged and damning sound bites, it could be lonely out there for NY’s accuser as UK politicians begin to comment that this issue seems more about undermining foreign banking firms than substantive wrongdoing. This story may no longer turn on straightforward “did they or didn’t they” facts, and instead become a wider issue regarding PR grandstanding and regulatory overreach. If that’s the case, the splashy headlines might have been better delayed until all the other regulators were in the pool.

UPDATE: OUCH! Since publication, Standard Chartered have now agreed to a puzzling $340 million penalty. Rather embarrassing for the bank that was so outraged over being publicly shamed for what it said was only $14 million dollars of faulty transactions.  Now the firm has agreed to pay $340 million in penalties… hmm… does this math add up?

Should the DFS have waited until they had backup, or were they right to go ahead and shout “J’accuse!”? Give us your PR Verdict!

Romney’s Offshore Accounts Wash Up Again

 Romneys Offshore Accounts Wash Up Again

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Mitt Romney.

Things are looking a little uncomfortable for Mitt Romney as chatter builds about his offshore tax dealings. Vanity Fair this month went into forensic details over Romney’s affairs, describing the “murky world of offshore finance, revealing loopholes that allow the very wealthy to skirt tax laws.”

While there is no smoking gun, it is clear that Romney’s financial advisers were disciples of tax minimization. Trouble is, no one likes to read about a presidential candidate with offshore accounts. As Newt Gingrich said repeatedly during his campaign, “I don’t know of any American president who has had a Swiss bank account.”

So far Team Romney has given a robust response: Romney’s affairs are in a blind trust and have been for some time. Romney is a smart businessman who doesn’t want to pay more tax than is necessary, but his team insists he pays the full whack of tax, according to U.S. rules, no matter where the assets are located. But is this enough to cut the chatter?

The PR Verdict: “C” (Distinctly OK) for Romney’s handling of the issue so far. But what is the unanswered question that won’t go away?

The PR Takeaway: If a story won’t die, listen carefully for the question that is going unanswered. In this case, Romney’s campaign has done an impressive job in batting back the questions–they have disclosed some (certainly not all) of his tax records and details about his tax bill and trusts. The nagging issue continues to be; why was the money sent  offshore in the first place? Until Team Romney comes up with a convincing soundbite (if there is one), they should keep including the issue in their presidential debate rehearsals.

What do you think about Mitt Romney’s offshore accounts? Give us your PR Verdict, below!