On June 30, U.S. authorities announced a stunning $9 billion fine on French bank BNP Paribas for violations of financial sanctions laws that the United States had imposed on Iran, Sudan and Cuba. In essence, BNP had surreptitiously conducted business with countries that the United States had sought to isolate diplomatically (sometimes unilaterally in the case of Cuba). Although BNP is not technically under the jurisdiction of American regulators, and the bank had apparently not broken any laws of its home country, the fine was one of the largest ever issued by the United States and the largest ever levied on a non-U.S. firm. The Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve made clear that unless BNP forks over the $9 billion (equivalent to one year's of the company's total earnings), the U.S. will prevent the bank from engaging in dollar-based international transactions. For an institution that makes its living through such transactions, that penalty is the financial equivalent of a death sentence. The fine will be paid.
It is widely rumored that Germany's Commerzbank will be the next European institution to face Washington's wrath. It is rumored that it will face a penalty of at least $500 million, an amount that is roughly equivalent to one year of the bank's income.
As if choreographed by a financial god with a wicked sense of humor, the very next day marked the official implementation of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), a new set of laws that will require all foreign financial institutions to routinely and regularly report to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service all the financial activities of their American customers. The law also requires that institutions report on all their non-American customers who have ever worked in the U.S. or those persons who have a "substantial" connection to the U.S. (Inconveniently the law fails to fully define what "substantial" means). Failure to report will trigger 30% IRS withholding taxes on any dollar-based transactions made by clients who the U.S. has determined to be American...either by birth, marriage, or simply association.
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