The Real 'Housewives' of HSBC

Woman boarding a private jet
Women listed as "housewives" by HSBC aren't always what they'd seem. Photo: Shutterstock

It was just a day in the life of a housewife.

Hanne Tox, a Danish woman then 57 years old, stopped by HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) in 2005, to discuss her account.

It seemed a little complicated. A bank employee noted, "Acct holder living in Denmark, i.e. critical as it is a criminal act having an acct abroad non declared. … issue could be solved by … alternatives such as creating an Off-shore company."

Months later, Tox visited her bankers again. This time, Tox spent the night in Zurich at one of the world’s most luxurious and historic hotels. “Opened in 1844 by Johannes Baur,” the hotel’s website notes, the property hosted the world premiere of the first act of Richard Wagner’s "Die Walküre" and “Baroness Bertha von Suttner convinced…the Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel of the necessity for an international peace prize.”

"Acct. holder stayed at Baur au Lac which she very much enjoyed," according to her bank file.

The next day, she received a "withdrawal of DKK 100k [Danish kroner] (we just handed out the cash),"  at the time equivalent to about $16,000.

Then, “after this visit Mrs. H.T. flew back home."

Mrs. H.T., as the bank referred to Tox, is identified as an “assistant and housewife” in the bank’s data identifying clients’ professions. For Tox, whose husband is recorded as having died in 2003, it appears an accurate, if understated, description of how she spends her days.

Tox did not respond to an ICIJ request for comment.

The description of her visit comes from the files of HSBC Private Bank (Switzerland) obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Le Monde. The data contain account holder names, deposits and other individual information that show that the bank was sometimes willing to accommodate unsavory clients, some of whom were not housewives but convicted felons and arms traffickers.

When accounts list a profession (and many don’t) housewife pops up with amazing frequency, more often than such logically lucrative professions as doctors, lawyers and diamond dealers. It may be used to describe a wealthy married woman, but it’s also applied in some cases to women who include industry pioneers, architects, journalists, teachers, princesses and heiresses.

A HSBC "housewife's" visit to Zurich

The fact that the private bank considered, or at least described, these women as housewives could account for their high numbers among accounts where professions are listed. Housewives accounted for more than 7,300 of the clients listed by profession in HSBC’s files, outweighing two other categories that suggest no paid compensation. “Without profession” and “student” together added up to fewer than 4,000.

Housewife:  advertising pioneer 

Mary Wells LawrenceOne of the women dubbed a housewife by HSBC is advertising industry ground-breaker Mary Wells Lawrence. Lawrence, now 86, founded the advertising firm Wells Rich Green in 1966, when women executives were scarce as they are in Mad Men. She became one of the best-paid women in business as well as the first woman to head a corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Among the phrases she helped create during her advertising career were “I Love New York,” pioneering the use of the familiar heart symbol for the word Love in a stylized logo; “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk; “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” (Alka Seltzer); and “At Ford, quality is Job 1.”

Her marriage to Braniff airline executive and former HSBC client Harding Lawrence, who died in 2002, set the two of them on “a life of chic entrepreneurial power coupledom that has been virtually unmatched since,” according to The New York Times. It was a “commuter marriage” during which the couple divided their time between the U.S., a Caribbean island, and a lavish property in the French Riviera where they hosted parties attended by luminaries reportedly including Princess Grace of Monaco, Frank Sinatra, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, according to Forbes. Not the stuff of most housewives.

The files obtained by ICIJ show that she was beneficial owner of four accounts – two of them still open by 2006. Out of those two, one was held under the name of a Bahamas offshore company, Five Angels Investment Limited, and contained a maximum amount of $138.5 million in 2006/2007. The other account, named Sandia Corporation Limited, held as much as $1.9 million during those years.

Lawrence’s address is listed in HSBC files as The Terrasses, Mustique, a private islandin the Caribbean nation of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. The names of Lawrence and her late husband are two of only three individual names found in HSBC’s files with an address on Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a small but secretive player in the world of offshore tax havens.

Lawrence did not respond to repeated requests for comment from ICIJ. 

While many of the housewives listed aren’t as professionally successful as Lawrence, others are extraordinary in ways that don’t normally come to mind when someone is described as a housewife.

Housewife:  Saudi princess

Princess Lolowah al-Faisal Al SaudA Saudi princess and one of the Middle East’s most vocal advocates of women’s education, Lolowah al-Faisal Al Saud, also appears as a “housewife.”

Princess Lolowah, 67, is one of nine children of former Saudi King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud by his fourth wife. She was educated in Lausanne, Switzerland, and grew up in the luxurious Shubra palace in Ta’if, former summer home to Saudi kings in the middle of a fig- and honey-rich region. She is a niece of the new king Salman, and sister of Saudi Arabia’s current foreign minister and of the country’s former ambassador to the U.K. and the U.S.

Princess Lolowah is the vice chair of the board of trustees of Effat University, the first private nonprofit university for women in Saudi Arabia. Now divorced, she travels the world speaking on women’s issues and is a regular attendee of the World Economic Forum, where in 2007 she declared her support for a woman’s right to drive in Saudi Arabia. In 2012, she told a university audience that “the road is still long” for women in Arab countries.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Princess Lolowah led a Saudi “charm offensive,” according to a rare interview with the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper.

According to the leaked files, she was –along with other Saudi royal family members- the beneficial owner of one account, which was held under the name of Pearl Enterprises Limited and which had an address in the Cayman Islands. The account had as much as $1.75 million in 2006/2007. A series of HSBC account managers had a “right of inspection” for the account, including one who described himself on his LinkedIn profile as “responsible for managing and administering a portfolio of ultra high net worth private trusts and companies for a variety of the bank’s international clients.”

The files do not specify the role that Princess Lolowah held in relation to two other accounts opened with HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) between 2002 and 2003. The first one to be opened was closed before 2007. The second one, to which she was connected along with eight other members of the royal family, was held under the name of The Effat Charitable Foundation Ltd. The maximum amount it had in 2006/2007 was $31.2 million.

Princess Lolowah did not respond to ICIJ’s repeated requests for comment.

Housewife: finance executive turned fugitive

Khunying Patcharee Wongpaitoon, a Thai businesswoman turned fugitive who died some years ago, was connected to an account with HSBC when she was investigated for one of the country’s earliest examples of share price manipulation. The leaked files do not specify her precise connection to the account. 

Described in the news media as a “wealthy businesswoman,” Wongpaitoon, whose HSBC account was open from 1992 to 1994, was one of a number of executives accused of corporate crimes that led to the collapse in February 1993 of First City Investment Finance Public Company Limited. The company was later bailed out by the Thai government.

According to Thailand’s The Nation newspaper, Wongpaitoon avoided arrest by becoming a fugitive until the statutory limit for prosecutions had passed. The daughter of a former Thai deputy prime minister, Wongpaitoon was declared bankrupt in 1999 after defaulting on a $2.4 million bank loan guarantee, but later became solvent again, the newspaper reported. In 1998, the businesswoman was also embroiled in allegations that her company benefited from construction contracts awarded by the city of Bangkok, whose governor at the time was her brother.

Housewife: fashion house heiress

Nina RicciArlette Ricci is the heiress to the multimillion dollar fortune of her grandmother Nina and father Robert Ricci who together established one of France’s oldest fashion houses and a global perfume giant. The Nina Ricci’s fashion label, which sought to “make women look beautiful with a youthful sparkle,” was founded in 1932 and the first bottle of perfume followed over a decade later. The Nina Ricci label is now owned by a Spanish conglomerate.

In its files, HSBC describes the 73 year-old Ricci as a housewife and an heiress. Elsewhere, Ricci is known as a theater director, having staged a version of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in Hungary in 2011.

Ricci was the beneficial owner of an account under the name of Panama-based company Parita Compania Financiera S.A., which held a maximum amount of $22.5 million at some point in 2006/2007. The detailed notes left by HSBC staff in Ricci’s file include a visit by the heiress/housewife in April 2005 to “withdraw some Euros.”

Ricci is listed as an attorney for another account, Myr Associates Inc., which held $1.9m and was closed in 2006. A third account under the name Positano, closed in 1989, does not explicitly state Ricci’s role.

Of the 3,000 citizens on HSBC’s list that French authorities received in 2009, Ricci was one of only dozens charged with tax fraud by the French Justice Department in relation to undeclared Swiss accounts, according to media reports. Police reportedly arrested Ricci in 2011 at her central Paris home and held her in custody for 48 hours.

“We dispute the amounts and the events as related in the accounts from the Falciani files and all ties with these [offshore] companies,” Ricci’s lawyer, Jean-Marc Fedida, told journalists in 2013, adding that Ricci spends much of the year living in the Swiss chalet she bought in 2008.

The French investigation into Ricci’s HSBC accounts is ongoing. 


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