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Tuesday, March 10, 2015, 09:54

Argentina wants HSBC to repatriate US$3.5b

By Reuters

 Argentina wants HSBC to repatriate US$3.5b
Stuart Gulliver, Group Chief Executive of HSBC, leaves the Houses of Parliament in London, on March 9, 2015, after giving evidence to the Government's Public Accounts Committee. (AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS)

BUENOS AIRES/LONDON - Argentina wants HSBC Holdings Plc to repatriate US$3.5 billion that it says the bank's Argentine branch moved offshore to help clients evade taxes and move capital abroad, the country's tax chief said on Monday.

The South American country last November charged HSBC with helping more than 4,000 clients evade taxes by stashing their money in secret Swiss bank accounts. HSBC Argentina rejected the charge, saying it respected Argentine law.

Europe's largest bank already faces probes in several countries into allegations it helped its clients evade taxes.

"We would like to know, firstly if HSBC Holdings PLC supported the behaviour of the authorities of the Argentine branch," tax chief Ricardo Echegaray said on Monday, according to a copy of the speech he gave in Argentina's London embassy.

"Secondly, we expect the repatriation of funds by HSBC Holdings PLC, that to our knowledge amount to 3.5 billion dollars."

HSBC said in a statement it was cooperating with Argentine authorities in their probe.

Britain has asked Argentina for information about its investigation into HSBC.

HSBC last month admitted failings in compliance and controls in its Swiss private bank after media reports alleged it helped wealthy customers conceal millions of dollars of assets in a period up to 2007. It added its Swiss business had been transformed since 2008 and client accounts closed.

Argentina also disclosed that on Sunday, it raided HSBC offices in Argentina and it has sent requests for information to tax authorities in "tax administrations in the Virgin Islands, Uruguay and Bermuda."

If HSBC clients were forced this year to cough up taxes they evaded by moving their funds offshore, the windfall would come at an opportune moment for Argentina's cash-strapped government.

The bank also faces investigation by U.S. authorities who have stepped up efforts to establish whether it helped Americans evade taxes.

In 2012, HSBC paid a record US$1.9 billion fine after US authorities said it had become the preferred financial institution for drug traffickers and money launderers between 2006 and 2010.

HSBC Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver said he was the right person to run Europe's biggest bank and fix problems of the past after British lawmakers berated it for allowing "industrial-scale tax avoidance" at its Swiss arm.

Gulliver faced more than two hours of hostile questioning from the lawmakers on Monday, along with a former head of HSBC's private banking and one of its non-executive directors, over a tax evasion scandal that has rocked the bank.

The CEO admitted scrutiny of his own affairs had damaged the bank, however. "My inability to convince anyone that these arrangements were not put in place for reasons of tax evasion have caused reputational damage to the bank. But the fact is I've complied with the tax laws," he said.

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