On October 6, 2016, Israeli bank Hapoalim Ltd. announced that, in order to cover the costs of a future settlement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ), it will add a $70 million charge to an existing $50 million provision in its third-quarter results. The expected settlement will cover Hapoalim’s role in helping US tax residents to evade their US tax obligations.
In its news release, Hapoalim stated that its representatives held an initial discussion with the DOJ on September 30, 2016, to discuss the future settlement. The bank did not indicate whether $120 million in charges that it booked to date is the actual amount that Hapoalim will pay under its settlement with the DOJ. Rather, the news release emphasizes the uncertainty that still exists with respect to the actual amount.
The issue of the DOJ investigation dates back to the year 2011. In its recent (June 30, 2016) financial statements Hapoalim confirmed that its Swiss subsidiary Bank Hapoalim (Switzerland) Ltd. had been notified by Swiss authorities in 2011 that it was being investigated by the US government as a result of the DOJ’s suspicions that the bank had assisted US clients in evading federal taxes. The Swiss subsidiary could not resolve this issue in 2013 in the DOJ’s Swiss Bank Program due to the fact that it could not be classified as a Category 2 bank.
It is important to remember that the DOJ is not the only institution that is going after Hapoalim. The State of New York is conducting its own review. In its news release, Hapoalim indicated that the $120 million charge is not related to the New York investigation.
While all of this legal uncertainty makes it difficult for Hapoalim to assess its future liability under any deferred prosecution agreement, one can compare its situation with Bank Leumi. In 2014, Bank Leumi Group entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with the DOJ under which it paid $270 million ($157 million of this penalty was allocated to Bank Leumi’s Swiss accounts held by US taxpayers).
If we rely on this precedent, it appears that Hapoalim is greatly underestimating its penalty, because Bank Leumi and Hapoalim are fairly similar in size as well as their actions in soliciting US clients. One also must not forget about the possible future indictments of Hapoalim’s employees (at least in the United States) by the DOJ.