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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