The 2008 financial crisis underscored the critical importance of well-managed banks in global economies. In response, regulators worldwide were granted enhanced authority to rein in major institutions, aiming to curb risks, greed, and corruption. However, recent events reveal that this approach isn’t foolproof.

On April 11, 2024, a startling case emerged in Vietnam: a businesswoman faced a death sentence for orchestrating fraudulent loans totaling US$44 billion (£35bn) from one of the nation’s largest banks, Saigon Commercial Bank (SCB). Truong My Lan bypassed Vietnamese law by using numerous shell companies to acquire over 90% ownership of SCB, far exceeding the legal limit of 5%. The loans, constituting nearly 10% of Vietnam’s GDP for 2024, comprised a staggering 93% of the bank’s lending portfolio. Lan’s audacious scheme, including hoarding cash in her basement, led to her arrest in 2022 and triggered a bank run on SCB, placing it under state control thereafter.

This egregious case highlights inherent vulnerabilities within banks, which rely on deposits to fund loans. While banks typically lend out the majority of deposits, retaining only a fraction as reserves for withdrawals, they face liquidity crises if unable to meet sudden large withdrawal demands. The SCB debacle underscores the imperative of robust banking regulation, particularly post-2008, mandating higher capital and liquidity reserves to withstand financial stress.

Corruption’s pernicious influence on the financial sector is glaring. Studies indicate its destabilizing effects, hampering lending and escalating the risk of banking crises. Vietnam’s “Blazing Furnace” anti-corruption campaign, of which the SCB trial was a part, exemplifies efforts to combat corruption’s corrosive impact on governance and the economy.

However, a contentious viewpoint suggests that corruption, under certain circumstances, can spur economic activity. Advocates argue that in bureaucratic quagmires, corruption expedites processes, facilitating project commencement, job creation, and contract allocation. While not advocating for corruption, this perspective underscores its nuanced effects.

Yet, regulatory regimes aren’t immune to corruption. Overbearing regulations post-crisis may inadvertently foster corrupt practices, offering opportunities for regulatory favors and graft. International cooperation, exemplified by bodies like the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, fosters collective adoption of banking regulations, mitigating corruption risks across member states.

While extreme cases like Vietnam’s may seem remote in advanced economies, ongoing vigilance is imperative. Even well-intentioned regulations can succumb to the very corruption they aim to prevent. Constant scrutiny and collaborative oversight are essential to maintain integrity and stability in the global financial system.