How the U.S. Should Tackle Money Laundering in the Real Estate Sector

It is no secret that foreign kleptocrats and other crooks like to stash their illicit cash in U.S. real estate (see here, here, here and here).  A recent report from Global Financial Integrity (GFI) found that more than US$2.3 billion were laundered through U.S. real estate in the last five years, and half of the reported cases of real estate money laundering (REML) involved so-called politically exposed persons (mainly current or former government officials or their close relatives and associates). The large majority of these cases used a trust, shell company, or other legal entity to attempt to mask the true owner of the property.

Shockingly, the U.S. remains the only G7 country that does not impose anti-money laundering (AML) laws and regulations on real estate professionals. But there are encouraging signs that the U.S. is finally poised to make progress on this issue. With the backing of the Biden Administration, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Criminal Enforcement Network (FinCEN) has published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) that proposes a number of measures and floats different options for tightening AML controls in the real estate sector. The U.S. is thus approaching a critical juncture: the question no longer seems to be whether Treasury will take more aggressive and comprehensive action to address REML; the question is how it will do so. And on that crucial question, I offer three recommendations for what Treasury should—and should not—do when it finalizes its new REML rules:

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Must the IMF Quantify Grand Corruption? A Friendly-But-Skeptical Reply to Global Financial Integrity

The World Bank and IMF held their annual meetings last week, and it appears from the agenda that considerable attention was devoted to corruption—an encouraging sign that these organizations continue to treat this problem as both serious and relevant to their work. But does addressing the corruption problem effectively require that these organizations make more of an effort to quantify the problem? In a provocative post last week on Global Financial Integrity’s blog, Tom Cardamone (GFI’s President) and Maureen Heydt (GFI’s Communications Coordinator) argue that the answer is yes. In particular, they argue that the IMF should “undertake two analyses”: First the IMF “should conduct an annual assessment of grand corruption in all countries and publish the dollar value of that analysis.” Second, the IMF “should conduct an opportunity cost analysis of [] stolen assets”—calculating, for example, how many hospital beds or vaccines the stolen money could have purchased, or how many school teachers could have been hired.

This second analysis is more straightforward, and dependent on the first—once we know the dollar value of stolen assets (or grand corruption more generally), it’s not too hard to do some simple division to show how that money might otherwise have been spent. So it seems to me that the real question is whether it indeed makes sense for the IMF to produce an annual estimate, for each country, of the total amount stolen or otherwise lost to grand corruption.

I’m skeptical, despite my general enthusiasm for evidence-based policymaking/advocacy generally, and for the need for more and better quantitative data on corruption. The reasons for my skepticism are as follows: Continue reading

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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