A Dearth of Data in the De-Risking Debate

As readers of this blog are likely well aware, the fight against grand corruption is closely linked to the fight against money laundering. After all, kleptocrats and others involved in grand corruption need to hide the origins of their ill-gotten wealth. While the criminals who seek to launder their illicit cash are sometimes prosecuted for money laundering, much of the burden of the anti-money laundering (AML) regime falls on banks and other financial institutions. These institutions have obligations to perform due diligence on prospective clients—especially those clients with attributes suggesting high risk—and to report suspicious transaction to the government. Financial institutions can be held liable for failing to fulfill these obligations, and in some cases for their complicity in money laundering schemes. Yet many advocates believe that the current AML framework is not stringent enough, and have called for reforms that would impose additional obligations, and potential liabilities, on the financial institutions that handle clients and transactions that pose a high money laundering risk.

Banks and other skeptics often resist these reforms, arguing not only that the various proposals will do little to reduce money laundering, but also that more stringent AML regulations will lead to a phenomenon known as “de-risking.” This piece of industry jargon refers to the practice of ending or avoiding relationships with individuals or businesses perceived as “high risk” for money laundering. Of course, we want banks to eschew an individual client or transaction with characteristics that suggest a high probability of money laundering. But when banks and others warn about de-risking, they are referring to a phenomenon in which banks refuse to do business with broad categories of clients – for instance, those from particular countries or regions, or in specific lines of business – despite the fact that most of the individuals or firms in that category do not actually present a serious money laundering risk. If the monitoring costs and legal risks associated with certain kinds of accounts are too high relative to the value of those accounts, the argument goes, it’s easier for banks to simply close all of the accounts in the “de-risked” category. But this indiscriminate closure of allegedly risky accounts cuts off many deserving people, firms, and organizations from much-needed financial services.

Is de-risking really a significant problem? Skeptics might observe that the financial industry has incentives to resist more stringent AML regulation, and their warnings of de-risking may be, if not deliberately pretextual, then at least self-serving. That said, other actors, including non-profit groups, have alleged that they have experienced account closures due to de-risking. So the concern is likely a real one. Still, to set rational AML policy, we would want to know not just whether de-risking is a potential problem (it is) or whether it occurs sometimes (it probably does); we would want to know whether it is a systematic and serious problem, one that would likely be exacerbated by a significant enhancement of banks’ AML obligations.

So, what do we know about the extent and magnitude of de-risking in response to AML regulations? The short answer is: not much.

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