The Global Community Must Take Further Steps to Combat Trade-Based Money Laundering

Global trade has quadrupled in the last 25 years, and with this growth has come the increased risk of trade-based money laundering. Criminals often use the legitimate flow of goods across borders—and the accompanying movement of funds—to relocate value from one jurisdiction to another without attracting the attention of law enforcement. As an example, imagine a criminal organization that wants to move dirty money from China to Canada, while disguising the illicit origins of that money. The organization colludes with (or sets up) an exporter in Canada and an importer in China. The exporter then contracts to ship $2 million worth of goods to China and bills the importer for the full $2 million, but, crucially, only ships goods worth $1 million. Once the bill is paid, $1 million has been transferred across borders and a paper trail makes the money seem legitimate. The process works in reverse as well: the Canadian exporter might ship $1 million worth of goods to the Chinese importer but only bill the importer $500,000. When those goods are sold on the open market, the additional $500,000 is deposited in an account in China for the benefit of the criminal organization. Besides these classic over- and under-invoicing techniques, there are other forms of trade-based money laundering, including invoicing the same shipment multiple times, shipping goods other than those invoiced, simply shipping nothing at all while issuing a fake invoice, or even more complicated schemes (see here and here for examples).

As governments have cracked down on traditional money-laundering schemes—such as cash smuggling and financial system manipulation—trade-based money laundering has become increasingly common. Indeed, the NGO Global Financial Integrity estimates that trade misinvoicing has become “the primary means for illicitly shifting funds between developing and advanced countries.” Unfortunately, trade-based money laundering is notoriously difficult to detect, in part because of the scale of global trade: it’s easy to hide millions of dollars in global trading flows worth trillions. (Catching trade-based money laundering has been likened to searching for a bad needle in a stack of needles.) Furthermore, the deceptions involved in trade-based money laundering can be quite subtle: shipping paperwork may be consistent with sales contracts and with the actual shipped goods, so the illicit value transfer will remain hidden unless investigators have a good idea of the true market value of the goods. Using hard-to-value goods, such as fashionable clothes or used cars, can make detection nearly impossible. Moreover, sophisticated criminals render these schemes even more slippery by commingling illicit and legitimate business ventures, shipping goods through third countries, routing payments through intermediaries, and taking advantage of lax customs regulations in certain jurisdictions, especially free trade zones (see here and here). In a world where few shipping containers are physically inspected (see here, here, and here), total failure to detect trade-based money laundering is “just a decimal point away.”

The international community can and should be doing more to combat trade-based money laundering, starting with the following steps:

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The Case for Governments Maintaining PEP Registries

Financial institutions are obliged to apply enhanced client due diligence to politically exposed persons (PEPs) in order to comply with anti-money laundering (AML) and other regulations. Yet there are no official, government-sponsored or government-endorsed sources for identifying PEPs. As a result, financial institutions typically rely on private firms to identify PEPs across the globe. But this reliance is problematic. With barely any independent oversight into how these firms compile their lists, there is no way to ensure the lists are accurate, and there’s at least some evidence that they aren’t: Many of the vendors on which financial institutions rely were found to have “incomplete and unreliable PEP lists” in the past and these commercial databases also produce thousands of false positives due to people with identical names. Given these problems, very few AML officers rely solely on those external databases; they are forced to supplement the private vendor lists with ad hoc internet searches on Google, Linkedin, and other sources, often relying on Google-translations of foreign media articles. This does not seem very reliable. Some civil society groups have sought to contribute to the identification of PEPs by creating online registries, drawing on publicly accessible data on the international level and the national level. But none of these attempts has been comprehensive enough for AML purposes, and civil society organizations probably would not have the resources to compile PEP lists that would be suitable for financial institutions to use for screening clients on a sustainable, ongoing basis.

It is time to change how we approach the task of identifying PEPs for AML and related purposes. A couple of years ago, Professor Stephenson asked on this blog whether there should be a public registry of PEPs, sponsored and maintained by national governments or by an inter-governmental body such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Such an idea is not entirely revolutionary. The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) hints at something along these lines in Article 52(b)(2), which instructs each state party “in accordance with its domestic law … [and] where appropriate, [to] notify financial institutions within its jurisdiction … of the identity of particular natural or legal persons to whose accounts such institutions will be expected to apply enhanced scrutiny,” though the “where appropriate” and “in accordance with domestic law” qualifiers mean that there’s no concrete obligation here. Some countries, such as Australia, have undertaken to circulate lists of PEPs to financial institutions. And the European Union, in its Fifth AML Directive, required Member States to compile a list of government positions that are considered “politically exposed,” though the Directive does not require governments to name the actual persons holding those positions at any given time.

Yet these measures all fall well short of the possibility that Professor Stephenson raised in his post: official PEP lists compiled and maintained by governments. Professor Stephenson framed his post as merely posing the question whether this would be a good idea. I want to argue for what I believe is the correct answer to that question: Not only should governments maintain PEP registries, but the international community, through bodies such as the FATF and the UNCAC Conference of States Parties, ought to require governments to create and maintain such registries, using an internationally-standardized set of functional criteria to identify which public positions should be considered to be politically exposed.  Continue reading

The EU Needs a Centralized AML Authority

The European Union had a tough year. As if the refugee crisis, the rise of nationalist and far-right parties, and the Brexit affair weren’t enough, the 2018 headlines of European newspapers were crowded with a seemingly endless parade of money laundering scandals. Perhaps the most egregious was the case of Danske Bank, the largest bank in Denmark and a major retail bank in northern Europe. According to Danske Bank’s own report, between 2007 and 2015 the bank’s Estonian branch processed more than US$230 billion in suspicious transactions. The investigation, which is still ongoing, has already been dubbed the largest money laundering scandal in history. And there are plenty of others. In September 2018, for example, the Dutch bank ING Groep NV admitted that criminals used its accounts to launder money and agreed to pay a record US$900 million in penalties. And then in October 2018, after a string of scandals, Malta became the first EU Member State to receive an official European Commission (EC) order to strengthen enforcement of its anti-money laundering (AML) rules. By the end of 2018, it became apparent that the EU’s entire AML system needed a major overhaul.

The EU’s current AML legal framework is comprised of several components:

  • The first element is the set of so-called AML Directives, the most recent of which (the sixth) was adopted in 2018. These Directives require Member States to achieve certain legal results, but do not specify the particular measures that Member States must adopt.
  • Second, following the AML Directives, all EU Member States have adopted national AML laws and regulations that provide detailed guidance on a variety of topics, including the specification of different entities’ AML responsibilities, the sanctions for AML system breaches, and so forth.
  • The third important component of the EU’s AML framework is the EU Regulation on information accompanying transfers of funds, which is meant to harmonize across Member States the provision of payers’ and payees’ information when persons are transferring and receiving funds. In contrast to the AML Directives, this EU regulation, like other such regulations, has a direct legal effect on all Member States. Therefore, the information accompanying transfers of funds is identical in all Member States.

Taken together, these various instruments comprise one of the most stringent AML systems in the world, at least on paper. Perhaps for that reason, many commentators, including EU and EC officials themselves, attribute the spate of money laundering scandals plaguing EU countries not so much to weaknesses in the substantive regulations but rather to poor implementation—in particular, the fragmentation of AML oversight. Last October, Bruegel, an influential European think tank, presented a report calling for the establishment of a new centralized European AML authority—one that would work closely with national law enforcement agencies and be empowered to impose fines. ECB Chief Supervisor Danièle Nouy, who is intimately familiar with the problem, seems to agree at least to some extent. After one of last year’s many money laundering scandals, she suggested that “we need a European institution that is implementing in a thorough, deep, consistent fashion this legislation in the Euro area.” In fact, the proposal to create a more centralized EU AML architecture has been around for a while. It seems that the EU has finally decided that the time has come to do something like this, as the European Central Bank (ECB) announced last November that it would set up a central AML supervision office.

To understand the justification for creating a new centralized EU AML agency, one must first understand the extent to which, under the current system, supervisory and enforcement responsibility for the EU’s AML system is divided among several institutions, and the problems that this can create: Continue reading

Ownership Transparency Works: Geographic Targeting Orders in the US Real Estate Market

The anticorruption community, along with those concerned about tax evasion, fraud, and other forms of illicit activity, has made anonymous company reform a high priority on the reform agenda. It’s not hard to see why: Kleptocrats and their cronies, as well as other organized criminal groups, need to find ways to hide and launder their assets, and to do so in ways that are difficult for law enforcement authorities to trace. Moreover, those whose legitimate sources of income would be insufficient to obtain luxury assets would like to conceal their ownership of such assets, as the ownership itself could arouse suspicion, and might make the assets more vulnerable to forfeiture.

So-called “know-your-customer” (KYC) laws in the financial sector have made it much more difficult—though, alas, far from impossible—for account owners to conceal their identities from the banks and government overseers, at least in the US and most other OECD countries. But it is still far too easy for criminals to purchase substantial assets in wealthy countries like the United States while keeping their identities hidden. All the bad actor needs to do is, first, form a company in a jurisdiction that does not require the true owner of the company to be disclosed and verified to the government authorities, and, second, have this anonymous shell company purchase assets in a transaction that is not covered by KYC laws. Step one is, alas, still far too easy. Though we often associate the formation of these sorts of anonymous shell companies with “offshore” jurisdictions like the British Virgin Islands, in fact one can easily form an anonymous shell company in the United States. Step two, having the anonymous company purchase substantial assets without having to disclose the company’s owner, is a bit trickier, because you’d need to avoid the banking system. But you can get around this problem by having your anonymous company purchase assets with cash (or cash equivalents, like money orders or wire transfers), so long as no party to the transaction is under obligations, similar to those imposed on banks, to verify the company’s true owner.

One of the sectors where we’ve long had good reason to suspect this sort of abuse is common is real estate, especially high-end real estate. Though money laundering experts had long been aware of the problem, the issue got a boost from some great investigative journalism by the New York Times back in 2015. The NYT reporters managed to trace (with great effort, ingenuity, and patience) the true owners of luxury condos in one Manhattan building (the Time Warner Center), and found that a number of units were owned by shady characters who had attempted to conceal their identities by having shell companies make the purchases.

The US still hasn’t managed to pass legislation requiring verification of a company’s true owners as a condition of incorporation, which would be the most comprehensive solution to the anonymous company problem. Nor has the US taken the logical step of extending KYC laws to real estate agents across the board. But starting back in 2016, the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (known as FinCEN) took an important step toward cracking down on anonymous purchases of luxury real estate by issuing so-called Geographic Targeting Orders (GTOs). And thanks to some excellent research by the economists C. Sean Hundtofte and Ville Rantala (still unpublished but available in working paper form), we have strong evidence that many purchasers in the luxury real estate market have a strong interest in concealing their true identities, and that requiring verification of a company’s ultimate beneficial owners has a stunningly large negative effect on the frequency and aggregate magnitude of anonymous cash purchases. Continue reading

The Road Ahead in Anti-Money-Laundering (AML): Can Blockchain Technology Turn the Tide?

One of the most exciting developments in financial and information technology in the past decade is the emergence of so-called blockchain technology. A blockchain is a database of information distributed over a network of computers rather than located on a single or multiple servers. The first and most famous practical application of blockchain technology is the electronic currency Bitcoin. Bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies using blockchain technologies offer users the equivalent of anonymous cash transactions, and have been linked to illicit transactions in drugs, weapons, and prostitution as they. It is therefore no wonder then that blockchain technology is sometimes viewed as a problem, or at least a challenge, for those interested in fighting financial crime and corruption.

But blockchain technologies have other uses, many of which could in fact aid in the fight against these crimes. In an earlier post on this blog, Jeanne Jeong discussed how blockchain technology could be used managing land records. Another use for blockchain that has occasionally been mentioned (see here and here), but not yet sufficiently pursued, is anti-money-laundering (AML). Currently, banks spend about US$10 billion per year on AML measures, yet money laundering continues to take place on a vast scale. The goal of laundering money is to “wash” illegally obtained money (e.g. through corruption) into “clean” money, making the origins of the money untraceable. Blockchain technologies have five features that could make AML efforts both more effective and less costly:

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