STOCKHOLM/FRANKFURT – Money laundering allegations involving Sweden and Denmark have shattered faith in the open Nordic business culture, prompting demands for tighter controls on the banks held responsible.
Ranked among the least corrupt countries by anti-graft campaign group Transparency International, Sweden and Denmark have been rocked by investigations into Danske Bank and Swedbank, knocking billions off their value.
Politicians, regulators and investors now want closer policing and more stringent penalties, unwinding a system where the state largely trusted banks to keep themselves in check.
“Openness is key in our society. This is a system built on trust and that trust has decreased quite substantially,” Swedish financial markets minister Per Bolund told Reuters.
“It’s not enough to fire one person,” Bolund said of Swedbank’s dismissal last week of Birgitte Bonnesen as chief executive, adding that an overhaul of its controls was needed, in a clear signal of future government action.
“That has to go all the way from the top to the bottom.”
Sweden has yet to announce substantial reforms following the emergence of money laundering allegations against Swedbank which originated in Europe’s Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia.
Latvia, a former Soviet state with a large Russian-speaking minority, had modeled itself as a financial bridge for Russians moving money to Europe. Similar profitable activity took place in Estonia, but has now become a reputational liability.
Danske Bank has been ejected from Estonia after admitting 200 billion euros ($225 billion) of suspicious money movements flowed through its branch there between 2007 and 2015. And it is also pulling out of neighboring Baltic states.
Danish academic Gert Svendsen, author of ‘Trust’, says the scandals risk undermining a central tenet of Nordic culture.
“People become happier if you can do things based on trust. That explains why Swedes and Danes are quite happy,” he said.