U.S. authorities negotiating with BNP Paribas over alleged sanctions violations at one point suggested that France's biggest bank pay a penalty as high as $16 billion, according to people familiar with the matter.
While the sources said that number was only proposed as a negotiating tactic in response to an offer from BNP of about $1 billion, the dollar figures being thrown around demonstrate what bankers and their allies say is an alarming trend of ever-increasing record penalties.
A $16 billion settlement would have pushed BNP's penalty above the biggest ever for a bank -- JPMorgan Chase & Co, which paid $13 billion last year to resolve a number of civil mortgage-related allegations.
More recently, authorities have been discussing a settlement with BNP in the range of $10 billion, sources have said. U.S. authorities are probing whether BNP evaded U.S. sanctions relating primarily to Sudan between 2002 and 2009, and whether it stripped out identifying information from wire transfers so they could pass through the U.S. financial system without raising red flags.
The New York State Department of Financial Services, one of the five offices negotiating the settlement with BNP, could receive at least $2 billion of an eventual $10 billion deal, according to a source familiar with the matter. That would be more than three times that office's $552 million annual budget this year.
A $10 billion fine would almost wipe out BNP's entire 2013 pretax income of about 8.2 billion euros ($11.2 billion). BNP reserved $1.1 billion against a potential fine.
Representatives of the Justice Department and BNP declined to comment on the negotiations.
In the past two years the U.S. Justice Department has said it's broken records on penalties for corporate misconduct at least seven times, including three times this year alone. The most recent was Credit Suisse in May, which paid $2.6 billion over charges that it helped American evade U.S. taxes, the largest penalty ever levied in a criminal tax case.
Total corporate criminal penalties in the United States overall increased about 647 percent between 2001 and 2012 to about $4.3 billion, according to figures compiled by University of Virginia law school professor Brandon Garrett.
The robust growth in corporate penalties, especially for banks, has defense lawyers questioning how authorities calculate each landmark settlement and how institutions can prepare for such fines they might face.
Banks are also deploying strategies to try to keep the numbers from growing, including enlisting top executives in settlement negotiations