Investors may well cheer the actual number. HSBC stock, which fell slightly on Monday in London trading, has gained 4 percent since the bank's November 5 warning.

What's more, HSBC will enter a deferred-prosecution agreement, the WSJ reports, which is essentially probation: The company will admit to violating the Bank Secrecy Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act. It will get a stern warning and promise to clean up its act.

Such a deal would make a "mockery of the criminal justice system," former Treasury Department official Jimmy Gurule, now a University of Notre Dame law-school professor, told Reuters last week.

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