Australia threatens ANZ, Deutsche and Citi with criminal charges over share issue

FILE PHOTO - The logo of the ANZ Banking Group is displayed in the window of a newly opened branch in central Sydney, Australia. Picture: REUTERS/David Gray

SYDNEY – Australia is preparing criminal cartel charges against the country’s third-biggest bank and underwriters Deutsche Bank and Citigroup over a $2.3 billion share issue, in an unprecedented move with potential implications for global capital markets.

The pending charges, which can carry hefty fines and 10-year prison terms, threaten to change the way institutional capital raisings are handled around the world, and do further damage to the reputation of Australian lenders already mired in scandal.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said federal prosecutors would charge Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd (ANZ.AX), its Treasurer Rick Moscati, the two investment banks and several more unnamed individuals over the 2015 stock placement.

All three banks denied wrongdoing and vowed to defend the charges, with Citigroup saying the regulator was effectively criminalizing practices long seen as the norm in the financial industry.

“The charges will involve alleged cartel arrangements relating to trading in ANZ shares following an ANZ institutional share placement in August 2015,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said in a statement.

“It will be alleged that ANZ and the individuals were knowingly concerned in some or all of the conduct.”

The third underwriter, JP Morgan, was not named by the regulator as a target and declined to comment.

Australia has some of the toughest anti-cartel laws in the world, however the decision to pursue criminal charges surprised experts given they are harder to prosecute than civil charges.

The move was “almost unique” in Australian corporate history and indicated prosecutors had a high level of confidence in their case, said Andrew Grant, a banking expert at the University of Sydney Business School.

ANZ shares were 2 percent lower on Friday afternoon, while other banks were down less than 1 percent. The broader market was down 0.2 percent.

“It’s probably the last thing they need,” Bell Potter banking analyst TS Lim said.

Rating agency Moody’s said on Friday the charges were “credit negative” for ANZ.

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