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Swedbank under shareholder scrutiny over money-laundering report

Swedbank under shareholder scrutiny over money-laundering report
FILE PHOTO: Swedbank's logo is pictured on its Lithuanian headquarters in Vilnius, Lithuania, in this May 10, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo -
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Ints Kalnins(Reuters)
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By Johan Ahlander and Esha Vaish

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Swedbank is facing pressure from some of its biggest shareholders to reveal more about what it knew about allegations of money-laundering linked to Danske Bank.

Six of Swedbank's top 20 investors, collectively holding around 14.5 percent of its shares, told Reuters they were seeking more information from the Swedish lender, after a media report last month linked it to the scandal involving Danske.

The Swedish TV programme, aired on Feb. 20, alleged that at least 40 billion Swedish crowns (3.25 billion pounds) had moved between Swedbank and Danske accounts between 2007 and 2015. The report prompted an investigation by financial watchdogs in Sweden and Estonia.

Swedbank's chief executive Birgitte Bonnesen said at the time that she could not comment on specific transactions due to Swedish banking secrecy laws. The bank is due to complete an external report, commissioned by Bonnesen after investor pressure, before its annual general meeting on March 28.

"We are having a dialogue with the company on the issues that we think we need more information on to be able to continue to be investors in the company," Magdalena Wahlqvist Alveskog, acting CEO of Handelsbanken Asset Management which is Swedbank's 11th largest investor with a 1.85 percent holding, told Reuters.

Alveskog said that her asset management fund had questioned Swedbank at the time of the Danske Bank revelations and said she had not been happy with the answers Swedbank had given.

Danske Bank is being investigated in five countries over some 200 billion euros ($226 billion) of suspicious payments from Russia, ex-Soviet states and elsewhere that were found to have flowed through its Estonian branch. Several other European and overseas banks have been drawn into the scandal.

Bonnesen, Swedbank's head of Baltic banking between 2011 and 2014 and Chief Audit Executive between 2009 and 2011, said on Jan. 29 that she saw no links between Swedbank and the Danske Bank money laundering scandal. But on Feb. 20, she said she could not guarantee every suspect transaction had been detected.

A spokesman for AMF, Swedbank's fifth largest investor with a 4.77 percent stake, said more transparency was needed.

"We are waiting for the results of the investigation and then we will make further decisions about how to act at the annual meeting and so forth," the spokesman said.

Bonnesen and Lars Idermark, Swedbank's chairman, declined to comment, while three other board members approached by Reuters either declined to comment or did not respond.

Swedbank's head of communications, Gabriel Francke Rodau, said Bonnesen had expressed in recent days that she had reflected over her style of communication.

Bonnesen said in an interview with Swedish news agency TT on Tuesday that her answers after the Feb. 20 TV report had been correct but that she could have given more context and nuance.

FACTS ON THE TABLE

AMF and Alecta, Swedbank's third largest investor with 4.86 percent of its shares and a Swedish pension fund holding about 85 billion euros under management, have representatives on the committee that selects Swedbank's board.

Alecta called on the bank to get "all facts on the table regarding the alleged shortcomings".

"If we do not crack down harder on money laundering, we are playing fast and loose with European citizens pension savings," Alecta's chief executive Magnus Billing said in an email.

Swedish fund Lannebo, another top 20 investor, said Swedbank's management, including Bonnesen, had made mistakes in dealing with the fallout from the Swedish TV report.

"Bonnesen could have communicated differently due to the importance of trust in a bank. That trust has now been harmed ..." Maria Nordqvist, Lannebo's head of responsible investments, said.

A fifth top-20 Swedbank investor, who declined to be identified, said that the results of the external report would be critical in deciding on its next steps.

And Hans Ek, acting head of SEB Investment Management AB, told Reuters that he had regular discussions with Swedbank, including on the issue of money laundering allegations, which was high on its agenda for Nordic financial firms.

Norway's sovereign wealth fund, one of the world's biggest investors, did not comment directly on Swedbank but is also watching developments closely.

"We expect that the companies are dealing with serious issues in a very profound and diligent way. We have no indication that this is not the case at the moment," said Yngve Slyngstad, CEO of the fund, which held 2.03 percent of Swedbank shares at the end of 2018.

A further seven shareholders contacted by Reuters did not respond or declined to comment.

(Additional reporting by Gwladys Fouche and Alister Doyle in Oslo; Editing by Alexander Smith)

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