HSBC's heady cocktail of dirty linen and laundered drug money


TIPPING POINT:Giles Morgan’s blood was up, his dudgeon high. As the group head of sponsorship at HSBC, he had a very specific bone to pick with two very specific golfers.

It was the eve of last October’s HSBC Champions event at Mission Hills in China and though the field was decent and the purse was huge for the final WGC tournament of the year, the two biggest draws in the sport would not be teeing it up the following morning. Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods had instead chosen to play a match between themselves elsewhere in China for a reported US$3m in appearance fees. This did not go over well.

“Both have sent me apologies,” Morgan sniffed, “but this is an event which should be regarded by all players as it is by the tours and the media as one of the top events in the world. Therefore I feel strongly that the top players should be here. I believe that golfers have a responsibility to their sponsors. Without the sponsors there isn’t professional golf. I speak on behalf of the industry.”

Whether it was quite his place to do so or not, you could see where he was coming from. HSBC pony up a hefty pile of millions each year in sports sponsorship all over the world. From the Wimbledon tennis championships to the British Open in golf, from the Badminton horse trials to the Lions tour in rugby, they’re official banking partner this and core sponsor that and brand ambassador the other.

The HSBC Champions event has only existed since 2005 but in that time has elbowed its way into fairly exalted status on both major golf tours, with a prize fund that tips the scales at around US$7m. Of all the events worldwide that carry the HSBC name, this is the one with the greatest star power attached. Or at least it is when Rory and Tiger play in it.

Still, given what was about to come down the tracks from the United States Justice Department about HSBC, you’d have thought that this might be a time for them to wind their neck in just a little bit. At the very least, it probably wasn’t a great time to be reminding sportspeople – reminding anyone, for that matter – of their responsibilities.

For not six weeks later, US Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer stood behind a podium in Brooklyn, New York and had this to say about HSBC.

“Today, we are here to announce a historic criminal resolution involving one of the world’s largest banks. 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 through HSBC subsidiaries, and to facilitate hundreds of millions more in transactions with sanctioned countries.

“From 2006 to 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, the Norte del Valle Cartel in Colombia, and other drug traffickers laundered at least $881 million in illegal narcotics trafficking proceeds through HSBC Bank USA.

“These traffickers didn’t have to try very hard. They would sometimes deposit hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, in a single day, into a single account, using boxes designed to fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows in HSBC Mexico’s branches.”

So just to be clear, what Breuer was saying was that the world’s third biggest bank – one with 110 million customers and branches in 88 countries – had over a period of five years been exactly what was required for one of the world’s most ferocious and feared drug cartels to maximise its profits.

And that even when customers turned up in their banks – in Mexico during the bloodiest drug war of our lifetime, remember – with boxes specially created to move as much money as possible off the streets in one go, HSBC did nothing about it. In the end, they were fined just short of $2bn, a record sanction for the offence.

Now, fun and all as it is to take out the slingshot and pepper a behemoth bank on a Monday morning, this column isn’t about HSBC. It’s about sponsorship.

More specifically, it’s about just what people are willing to have sport sponsored by and what they’re not. You will see the HSBC logo quite a bit between now and the summer because of the various Lions launches and press conferences that will take place.

You’ll see it in these pages and in the pages of every newspaper here and in the UK and Hong Kong and Australia. That’s what they pay the Lions for, that’s what they get.

But will you hear a single one of the voices who regularly rail against alcohol sponsorship of sport open their mouths in all that time? Will even one politician stand up and say that sport should not be taking sponsorship from an institution that has been sanctioned for allowing drug cartels to launder money through it? Or do we only do this with easy targets like the hurling championship?

Sport is sport. Sponsorship sustains it at every level, from the lowliest shopkeeper buying a set of jerseys to the planet’s third biggest bank feeling puffed up enough to scold the best golfers in the world for not genuflecting in front of it.

Of course HSBC should continue their sports sponsorships and golf and rugby and tennis and eventing should gather in their dollars, secure in the knowledge the act of turning up at a HSBC-sponsored event won’t lead us all into a life of drug crime.

Still, next time somebody suggests getting Guinness out of the Gah, you know where to point them, don’t you?

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