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U.S. Investigating If Swedbank Breached Sanctions Against Russia: SVT

Niklas Magnusson and Hanna Hoikkala

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. authorities are investigating whether Swedbank AB’s Baltic unit allowed money transfers that violated U.S. sanctions against Russia, Sweden’s SVT television said.

SVT’s investigative program Uppdrag Granskning said in a report aired Wednesday that it had uncovered transactions between sanctioned Russian weapons maker Concern Kalashnikov JSC and Kalashnikov USA, a company based in Florida that produces guns based on its namesake’s designs.

The state broadcaster said the “business network” of Russian billionaire Iskander Makhmudov transferred more than 1 million euros ($1.1 million) to Kalashnikov USA while he was both a shareholder of Concern Kalashnikov and the biggest client of Swedbank’s Estonian branch.

SVT said the transfers occurred after the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted Concern Kalashnikov in 2014 as part of its response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, with one of the transactions taking place in February 2017. The broadcaster said U.S. authorities are now investigating, after SVT inquired about the transactions.

Sweden’s oldest bank and biggest mortgage lender is being investigated in Estonia, Latvia, Sweden and the U.S. amid allegations that it may have handled more than $100 billion in potentially suspicious transactions via its Baltic operations. Uppdrag Granskning has been at the forefront of a scandal that has undermined public trust in Sweden’s financial system.

In February, the SVT program broadcast allegations that led to the firing of Swedbank’s chief executive officer and the departure of its chairman and other members of the board. Shares of the lender, which in June named former Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson as its new chairman in an effort to restore confidence, have slumped almost 40% since that report. Swedbank dropped as much as 4.3% on Wednesday.

“Breaking U.S. sanctions would of course be serious, but what emerges today does not indicate that Swedbank has actively done so,” said Joakim Bornold, a savings adviser at Soderberg & Partners in Stockholm. “It’s hard to see this having a larger effect on the share price.”

Neither Concern Kalashnikov nor Kalashnikov USA responded to requests for comment, according to SVT.

A representative for Makhmudov said the metals and mining tycoon and his partner have never controlled Concern Kalashnikov and therefore aren’t subject to sanctions, SVT said. Last year, Kalashnikov USA said it wasn’t violating sanctions because it was selling guns of its own creation, assembled from parts made in the U.S.

SVT said the U.S. sanctions aren’t just about formal ownership but also look at who actually controls a company and whether new owners are being used to avoid penalties.

In an interview with SVT, Swedbank CEO Jens Henriksson said the Stockholm-based lender hasn’t found evidence that sanctions were breached. Swedbank later told SVT that the information the broadcaster provided was known by the bank and is still being investigated.

Swedbank is facing potential fines in Sweden, Estonia and the U.S. Sweden’s financial regulator said in October that findings so far suggest there could be grounds for penalties that could reach 10% of a total annual income. In Estonia, prosecutors have started a criminal investigation into the bank.

In a statement on Nov. 7, Swedbank informed investors that it had been interviewed by SVT as part of a “follow-up on previously aired programs about suspected money-laundering.” In conjunction with that statement, Swedbank said it made about 1 billion kronor before tax on transactions done via its Baltic non-resident business.

Swedbank isn’t alone. Shares of domestic peer SEB AB slumped last week after it revealed it had been contacted by SVT as part of the broadcaster’s investigation into dirty-money flows through the Baltics, and Swedish banks’ connections to the broader laundering scandal that has engulfed Denmark’s Danske Bank A/S.

SEB, the largest lender in the three former Soviet republics after Swedbank, on Nov. 19 said it had already stopped doing business with 95% of the corporate clients SVT identified as part of its investigation. The rest, mainly in Estonia, meet the bank’s screening criteria, SEB said.

(Updates share price, adds further details.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Niklas Magnusson in Stockholm at nmagnusson1@bloomberg.net;Hanna Hoikkala in Stockholm at hhoikkala@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tasneem Hanfi Brögger at tbrogger@bloomberg.net, Brad Cook, Veronica Ek

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