Anticorruption advocates have long thought that real estate and money laundering go together like a horse and carriage. At least in the United States. With a little help from a friendly lawyer, a corrupt official or other big time criminal has until recently been able to use an anonymous shell company to hide their money by buying a luxury mansion or pricey condominium. Because the real estate registry listed the company, not the crook, as the owner, the real owner’s identify was hidden. From law enforcement, the media, and civil society.
In 2016 the U.S. government made a start on ending this abuse. It began to require the disclosure of the beneficial owner of any corporation which paid cash for properties in cities where real estate purchases were likely used to hide stolen money. Initially, and as expected, the new rule seemed to have the desired effect: all cash purchases of real estate appeared to drop significantly — indicating a gaping loophole in the antimoney laundering laws had been plugged.
But the first paper published by the Anticorruption Data Collective finds to the contrary. Authors Matt Collin of the World Bank and Brookings Institution, Florian M. Hollenbach of the Copenhagen Business School, and David Szakonyi of George Washington University report the rule had no impact “on the number of, the total price volume, or the share of corporate all-cash purchases in targeted counties.” Indeed, they could find “little difference in the patterns of corporate all-cash purchases versus a ‘placebo’ outcome that should not be affected by the policy.”
Beneficial ownership disclosure is a favorite reform of anticorruption advocates. One that would seem to have an obvious, immediate salutary effect. Why didn’t it here?
The authors offer two reasons, and suggest there could be others. Their paper demands careful attention. One because of the implications for beneficial ownership disclosure rules, and second, and more importantly, because it shows how important it is to carefully assay anticorruption reforms. Their paper is here and comments are welcomed. And GAB looks forward to more work by the Anticorruption Data Collective.