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Saturday, 21 February 2009

Antiguans to suffer

ST. JOHN'S (Antigua) - REGULATORS in the Caribbean took over Antiguan banks owned by Texas financier R. Allen Stanford on Friday, hoping to contain damage to the local economy as US investigators explore an alleged fraud scheme involving billions of dollars.

The Bank of Antigua suffered a run on deposits, even though it has not been named in the fraud complaint by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. A failure of the local bank could have severe consequences in the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank said in explaining its intervention.

The SEC complaint filed Tuesday focuses on the billionaire's offshore investment bank, Stanford International Bank Ltd., where an estimated US$8 billion (S$12 billion) is now being controlled by a team of accountants working for Vantis Business Recovery Services. Antigua's banking regulatory commission said it appointed the British firm as receiver to protect 'the reputation and integrity' of its banking sector.

Private international banking has been used worldwide to protect assets from economic crisis, hyperinflation, political instability and high taxes. Such 'cross border assets' reached US$4.6 trillion in June 1999, with US$900 billion, or 20 per cent, stored offshore in some 13 Caribbean island nations, according to the most recent data available from the International Monetary Fund.

US authorities allege that Stanford lured these clients by promising unrealistic returns on certificates of deposit and other investments. And offshore banking experts say he chose an ideal headquarters - an island where he could acquire power, prestige and even a knighthood to help win investors' confidence while keeping enforcement agencies at bay.

While these clients' life savings are now at risk, experts say red flags were clearly flying in Antigua, one of the world's least-regulated and least-transparent banking havens.

'In the offshore world, you have a hierarchy and Antigua is at the bottom,' said David Marchant, an offshore banking analyst based in Miami, Florida. 'Antigua was the wild west and Stanford was the chief cowboy', Stanford was warmly welcomed in 1990 as Antiguan politicians sought to diversify their tourism-dependent economy. Before long, he acquired dual Antiguan citizenship, became the largest private employer and developed a level of influence over local regulators that worried US watchdogs.

Stanford also has had considerable influence in Washington, where his campaign donations, mostly to Democrats, reached a peak as efforts to strengthen financial regulations died in the Senate.

As the SEC and FBI pursue civil and criminal probes of Stanford's vast holdings, jobs are in jeopardy across Antigua, an island of some 80,000 people where rolling green hills are dotted with palm trees and the occasional stone foundations of old windmills from when sugar plantations were the main business of the former British colony. -- AP

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