J.P. Morgan Backs Off Russian Payment Halt

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J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (NYSE: JPM) announced Thursday that it has received clearance from U.S. regulators to process a transfer of funds from the Russian embassy in Kazakhstan to an insurance company partly owned by sanctioned Bank Rossiya. Morgan refused Wednesday to process the payment, sparking some hot rhetoric from Russian officials.

In a statement J.P. Morgan said, “Following consultation with our regulators, we are processing this transaction.” Russian foreign ministry officials had called the bank’s original decision not to transfer the funds “unacceptable, illegal, and absurd.” The amount of the transfer was reportedly less than $5,000.

Bank Rossiya was among the institutions and individuals sanctioned by the United States following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The bank is the country’s 15th largest, with $12 billion in assets, and has been described by U.S. officials as the personal bank for senior Russian Federation officials.

J.P. Morgan can be forgiven for being cautious. The Treasury Department’s guidelines indicate that property that is up to 50% owned by a person on the sanction list should be treated “with caution.” The Sogaz insurance company that was to receive the payment is 48.5% owned by Abros, which is wholly owned by a subsidiary of Bank Rossiya.

And J.P. Morgan’s caution is understandable. Violating U.S. rules on sanctions can be very costly. France’s BNP Paribas has set aside $1.1 billion to settle possible fines for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran, according to a report at Reuters.

In a similar case involving credit card transactions, the Treasury Department also allowed Visa Inc. (NYSE: V) to process transactions for SMP Bank, Russia’s fifth largest bank.