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

Are Legislative Changes to US AML Rules Finally on the Way? Some Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Subcommittee Hearing

Although the United States has been a leader in the fight against global corruption in some respects—particularly in its vigorous enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and, at least until recently, its diplomatic efforts—there is widespread agreement in the anticorruption community that the United States has not done nearly enough to address the flow of dirty money, much of it stolen by kleptocrats and their cronies, to and through the United States. Effectively addressing this problem requires updating the US legislative framework, a task made difficult by the checks and balances built into the federal legislative process, coupled with high levels of political polarization. Yet there are reasons for cautious optimism: Thanks in part to skillful lobbying efforts by several advocacy groups, and aided in part by the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives in the most recent mid-term elections, it looks as if there’s a real chance that the current Congress may enact at least some significant reforms.

Three of the reform bills under consideration are the subject of a hearing to be held tomorrow (Wednesday, March 13, 2019) before the House Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security, International Development, and Monetary Policy. That hearing will consider three draft bills: (1) a draft version of the “Corporate Transparency Act” (CTA); (2) the “Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Rewards Act” (KARRA); and (3) a draft bill that currently bears the unwieldy title “To make reforms of the Federal Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering laws, and for other purposes” (which I’ll refer to as the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) Amendments). The subcommittee’s memo explaining the three proposals is here, and for those who are interested, you can watch a live stream of the subcommittee hearing tomorrow at 2 pm (US East Coast time) here.

For what it’s worth, a few scattered thoughts on each of these proposals: 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

Unexplained Wealth Orders and London Property Bargain Hunters: Part II

Last week I dangled before readers hunting for a home in an upscale London neighborhood the possibility that prices might take a sudden nose dive. Britain’s recently enacted law on Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO) authorizes law enforcement agencies to seize a property if the owner cannot show it was bought with monies honestly come by. Given estimates some 40,000 U.K. properties can’t pass this test, I suggested it was possible the London real estate market could soon be flooded with properties for sale at bargain basement prices as those fearing an UWO try to dump them before law enforcers confiscate them.

But to the great disappointment of GAB readers looking for bargains on London properties, I explained that another new law makes this scenario highly unlikely.  Those trying to offload a property purchased with criminally obtained money are, under U.K. law, committing the crime of laundering money, and thanks to the recent tightening of the U.K. money laundering rules, British real estate agents must alert authorities to any transaction where they suspect money laundering.  With enactment of the UWO law, selling a property of questionable provenance now at less than full market price would scream money laundering. So loudly that no real estate agent no matter how hard of hearing could ignore it.

While the post dampened the hopes of readers thinking the UWO law might shave a couple of million pounds off a place in Mayfair, Knightsbridge, or other neighborhood where many anticorruption activists now dwell (okay, or more likely wish they dwelled), it did serve my real purpose: to prompt reader reactions.    And so it did. Continue reading

The New Frontier: Using Artificial Intelligence To Help Fight Corruption

In January 2018, scientists from Valladolid, Spain brought a piece of inspiring news to anticorruption advocates: they created an artificial intelligence (AI) system that can predict in which Spanish provinces are at higher risk for corruption, and also identifies the variables that are associated with greater corruption (including the real estate tax, inflated housing prices, the opening of bank branches, and the establishment of new companies, among others). This is hardly the first example of computer technology being used in the fight against corruption. Governments, international organizations, and civil society organizations have already been mining “big data” (see, for example, here and here) and using mobile apps to encourage reporting (see, for example, here and here). What makes the recent Spanish innovation notable is its use of AI.

AI is a cluster of technologies that are distinct in their ability to “learn,” rather than relying solely on the instructions specified in advance by human programmers. AI systems come in several types, including “machine learning” (in which a computer analyzes large quantities of data to identify patterns, which in turn enables the machine to perform tasks and make predictions when confronted with new information) and more advanced “deep learning” systems that can find patterns in unstructured data – in hundreds of thousands of dimensions – and can obtain something resembling human cognitive capabilities, though capable of making predictions beyond normal human capacity.

AI is a potentially transformative technology in many fields, including anticorruption. Consider three examples of the anticorruption potential of AI systems:

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Guest Post: Are Public UBO Registers a Good or a Bad Proposition? A Further Reply to Professor Stephenson

Today’s guest post, from Martin Kenney, the Managing Partner of Martin Kenney & Co., a law firm based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), continues an ongoing debate/discussion we’ve been hosting here at GAB on the costs and benefits of public registries of the ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs) of companies and other legal entities. That debate was prompted by the UK’s decision to mandate that the 14 British Overseas Territories create such public registries, and Mr. Kenney’s sharp criticism of that decision in a post he published on the FCPA Blog. That post prompted reactions from Rick Messick and from me. Our pushback against Mr. Kenney’s criticisms stimulated another round of elaboration on the critique of the UK’s decision, with a new post from Mr. Kenney and another from Geoff Cook (the CEO of Jersey Finance). I subsequently replied, explaining why I did not find Mr. Kenney’s or Mr. Cook’s criticisms fully persuasive. Today’s post from Mr. Kenney continues that exchange:

Public [UBO] registers are rather cheap political playing to the gallery, saying “Aren’t we wonderful to have done this?” – ignoring the fact that what we have established in the UK does not work properly….  It seems to me outrageous that the UK Government, who lack a lot in the area of anti-money laundering, should thus seek to impose on their overseas territories measures – often, where they cannot be afforded economically, that go far beyond what the UK has.

Lord Flight (Conservative), Member of the House of Lords, Speech to the House of 21 May, 2018, Debate on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill [HL] 

The fact that Professor Stephenson welcomes a good discussion and has opened the doors to his blog once again, means it would be impolite of me to not provide a response to his latest observations.

From the outset, I will stress that I will not seek to address every point Professor Stephenson makes. However, having addressed those below, if there are others he wishes me to respond to, I will endeavor to do so. Continue reading