Fraud on a Global Scale

IF the global banking scandal involving the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) results in tougher and better coordinated oversight of international finance, perhaps the lesson will be worth the price.Although the general nature and scope of BCCI's rogue operations are known, lurid details continue to be disclosed almost daily. The bank, through its branches in about 70 countries, has reportedly made hundreds of millions of dollars in unrepaid sweetheart loans to Middle East wheelers and dealers; fraudulently shuffled funds around to cover up losses; bankrolled terrorist groups (and perhaps CIA covert operations); and facilitated the looting of national treasuries by corrupt heads of state. Time magaz ine reported that a Pakistan-based unit engaged in smuggling guns and drugs. In the United States, a BCCI branch in Florida last year pleaded guilty to laundering drug money. Ongoing investigations of the same branch have uncovered kickbacks and pay-offs in an export deal financed by the bank. BCCI also secretly gained control of two American banks. On July 5, at the instigation of the Bank of England, regulators in Britain, Luxembourg (where BCCI is chartered), the US, and four other countries seized BCCI's assets in their jurisdictions. Since then, authorities in numerous other countries have taken similar actions. It may take years for BCCI's operations to be untangled and for the bank to be restructured or liquidated. In the end, depositors in numerous countries are likely to lose money. How could this have happened? For misconduct of this magnitude to have gone on for two decades, banking regulators and law-enforcement officials in many countries must have almost willfully averted their eyes. Investigations that are being launched will need to thoroughly probe the negligence or wrongdoing that allowed BCCI to flourish. Beyond BCCI itself, however, the scandal should prompt the international community to reassess financial regulation, disclosure, and enforcement mechanisms in the context of the new global financial environment. Today money moves across borders around the clock, with the speed that computers and fiber optics make possible. While the global market offers enormous opportunities, it also creates dangers of fraud and market manipulation on a worldwide scale. Regulators should see to it that BCCI becomes a te st case that precludes even more sophisticated criminal networks in the future.

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