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Servicing Clients Across Borders Carries Special Risks


On November 25, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) brought charges against a Swiss-based bank that should serve as notice to all non-U.S. banks that maintain relationships with clients who have moved to the U.S., as well as U.S.-based banks that provide services to clients who have relocated to other countries.  The SEC found that HSBC’s Swiss-based private banking arm violated U.S. securities laws by providing investment advisory and brokerage services to U.S. clients without being properly registered as either an investment adviser or a broker-dealer.  HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) agreed to admit wrongdoing and pay $12.5 million to settle the SEC’s charges in a combination of disgorgement, prejudgment interest, and penalties.

How often do financial institutions, foreign or U.S., put themselves in the position of willfully violating the securities and banking laws of other countries?  Pretty routinely, as it turns out.  By way of example, suppose you are a citizen of a European Union country with a local banking relationship.  You work for a large multi-national company that offers you a promotion, but that new job is in New York.  Not one to decline an opportunity, off you go to the Center of the Universe.  You open a new bank account at a local New York bank, but you maintain your European bank relationship because you have a consolidated banking, investment advisory and brokerage relationship there that has worked quite well for you.  The relationship manager at your European bank certainly does not want to give up the revenue stream from your lucrative relationship, particularly now that you are making so much more money and you are willing to purchase and sell stocks more frequently.  Multiply this scenario several times over and before you know it, this certain European bank is routinely providing banking, investment advisory, and brokerage services to U.S. residents without being properly registered to do so.

This same scenario can and often does play out in reverse.  A U.S. citizen moves to a foreign country and maintains his banking, investment advisory and/or brokerage relationships with a financial institution that is not qualified to do business in the client’s new country of residence and before you know it, the U.S. financial institution is in violation of the laws of the country in which its client now resides.  And, not to gratuitously pick on any particular jurisdiction, the provision of such services in some countries pourrait être criminelle.

In the case of HSBC, the SEC found that HSBC Private Bank and its predecessors began providing cross-border advisory and brokerage services in the U.S. more than 10 years ago on behalf of at least 368 U.S. client accounts and collected fees totaling approximately $5.7 million.  HSBC relationship managers traveled to the U.S. on at least 40 occasions to solicit clients, provide investment advice, and induce securities transactions.  These relationship managers were not registered in the U.S. as investment adviser representatives or licensed brokers, nor were they affiliated with a registered investment adviser or broker-dealer (or “chaperoned” by a registered U.S. broker-dealer).  The relationship managers also communicated directly with clients in the U.S. through overseas mail and e-mails.  In 2010, HSBC Private Bank decided to exit the U.S. cross-border business, and nearly all of its U.S. client accounts were closed or transferred by the end of 2011.

According to the SEC’s order, HSBC Private Bank understood there was a risk of violating U.S. securities laws by providing unregistered investment advisory and brokerage services to U.S. clients, and the firm undertook certain compliance initiatives in an effort to manage and mitigate the risk.  The firm created a dedicated North American desk to consolidate U.S. client accounts among a smaller number of relationship managers and service them in a compliant manner that would not violate U.S. registration requirements.  However, certain relationship managers were reluctant to lose clients by transferring them to the North American desk and stalled the process or ignored it altogether.  HSBC Private Bank’s internal review revealed multiple occasions when U.S. accounts that were expected to be closed under certain compliance initiatives remained open.  HSBC Private Bank admitted to the SEC’s findings in the administrative order, acknowledged that its conduct violated U.S. securities laws, and accepted a censure and a cease-and-desist order.

Foreign financial institutions, even those that have U.S. affiliates that are properly registered and regulated as banks, investment advisers, or broker-dealers should undertake a review of their client accounts to determine whether they are providing services that are in violation of applicable law.  It is possible, perhaps even likely, that even if a non-U.S. financial institution has properly registered U.S. entities, services are being provided to certain clients outside of those entities as a result of historical relationships.  U.S. banks should also determine whether they are providing financial services to relocated clients in countries that would either prohibit such services or require some form of notification or registration.  A failure to abide by the laws of non-U.S. countries could also place a U.S. institution in the position of violating certain U.S. laws that require diligence of and compliance with the laws of other countries.