By Karen Freifeld
NEW YORK (Reuters) - French bank BNP Paribas on Wednesday agreed to pay $350 million to New York’s banking watchdog to resolve a probe of misconduct in its foreign exchange business, which the regulator said enhanced the bank's profits at customers' expense.
More than a dozen traders and salespeople in New York and other trading hubs manipulated foreign exchange rates and engaged in other illegal activity while the bank failed to properly supervise the business, the New York Department of Financial Services (DFS) said in a statement.
BNP Paribas said it "deeply regrets the past misconduct," which occurred between 2007 and 2013, the bank said in a statement Wednesday. The company said it has since strengthened its control and compliance systems, and that the fine would be covered by existing provisions.
The bank's traders colluded with rivals in online chat rooms, executed fake trades and improperly shared confidential customer information with traders at other banks, DFS said.
Sales personnel also misled customers about prices, and used hand signals while on the phone to decide whether to add undisclosed markups, according to the regulator.
BNP Paribas is the latest bank fined for failing to stop traders from trying to manipulate foreign exchange rates. In 2014 and 2015, seven other global banks paid a total of more than $10 billion after being accused by UK and U.S. authorities of cheating clients to boost their own profits.
“Participants in the foreign exchange market rely on a transparent and fair market to ensure competitive prices for their trades for all participants,” DFS Superintendent Maria Vullo said in the Wednesday statement.
BNP Paribas "paid little or no attention to the supervision of its foreign exchange trading business," allowing traders to break the law and abuse customer trust, Vullo said.
Several BNP Paribas employees involved in the misconduct were fired, while others were disciplined or resigned earlier, according to the regulator.
In one example cited by DFS, a trader in BNP Paribas' New York office used a variety of schemes to manipulate currencies including the South African rand.
For instance, the trader executed fake trades during overnight hours to move rates, often unwinding or cancelling the trades within seconds of their being placed, DFS said.
He referred to others colluding with him to manipulate the rand as a "cartel," and he dubbed the group "ZAR domination" after the rand's trading symbol, the regulator said.
Elsewhere, a BNP Paribas trader in Tokyo improperly shared customer information on the trading of yen with seven rival traders, according to DFS. The group used a chat room named "We Reign," and circulated a codebook to identify clients, central banks and other market participants through their personal emails.
The bank's electronic trading platform also allowed it to take advantage of clients through a "last look" function that let it reject deals, the regulator found.
Deutsche Bank and other banks are still under investigation by DFS related to their electronic foreign exchange platforms, according to a person familiar with the matter.
A spokeswoman for Deutsche Bank on Wednesday declined to comment on that investigation.
(Reporting By Karen Freifeld; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Marla Dickerson)