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

Fixing India’s Anti-Money Laundering Regime

In the past year, India has been among the most zealous countries in the world in stepping up the fight against money laundering and related economic and security issues. The effort that probably got the most attention was last year’s surprise “demonetization” policy (discussed by Harmann in last week’s post), which aimed to remove around 85% of the total currency in circulation. But to assess India’s overall anti-money laundering (AML) regime, it’s more important to focus on the basic legal framework in place.

The most important legal instrument in India’s AML regime is the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, which was enacted in 2002, entered into force in 2005, and has been substantially amended since then. The Act defines a set of money laundering offenses, enforced by the Enforcement Directorate (India’s principal AML agency), and also imposes a range of reporting requirements on various institutions. Furthermore, the law gives the Enforcement Directorate the authority to freeze “tainted assets” (those suspected of being the proceeds of listed predicate offenses), and to ultimately seize those assets following the conviction of the defendant for the underlying offense.

How effective has India been in its stepped-up fight against money laundering? On the one hand, over the past year (since the demonetization policy was announced), banks logged an unprecedented increase of 706% in the number of suspicious transaction reports (STRs) filed, and reports from last July indicated that the total value of the assets frozen under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act in the preceding 15 months may have exceeded the cumulative total of all assets frozen in the prior decade-plus of the law’s operation. And the government further reported that its crackdown on shell companies had discovered around $1.1 billion of unreported assets.

Yet these encouraging numbers mask a number of serious problems with India’s AML system, problems that can and should be addressed in order to build on the momentum built up over the past year. Here let me highlight two areas where greater reform is needed: Continue reading

Artful Transactions: Corruption in the Market for Fine Arts and Antiques

The fascination surrounding art theft and forgery has long been the subject of much exploration. Only more recently, however, has the art market come under increased scrutiny regarding its connection to money laundering and corruption. It’s not just that stolen artworks often end up in the hands of criminals: even the market for non-stolen art is especially vulnerable to money laundering and corruption. With more banks cracking down on illicit activities, art has become an “efficient instrument for hiding cash.” As an article in the New York Times observed, no business seems “more custom-made for money laundering, with million-dollar sales conducted in secrecy and with virtually no oversight.”

Considering the attention paid by anticorruption and anti-money laundering activists to the role of the real estate market and the market for other luxury goods to facilitate money laundering and bribery, it is perhaps a bit surprising that there hasn’t been more attention to the art market—which is perhaps even more deserving of scrutiny. Continue reading

Building Booms and Bribes: The Corruption Risks of Urban Development

Windfall gains often create opportunities for corruption. The big inflow of money increases the opportunities and incentives for kickbacks and bribery as a means to capture new funds. Well-known examples of this phenomenon include disaster relief efforts, resource booms, and humanitarian aid. Yet the concern is not limited to those contexts. Changes in the price and value of land in a given area can also create the opportunity for windfall, and associated corruption risks.

The corruption risks in the land sector and real estate industry have been discussed broadly as pervasive; routine land administration and land grabbing provide ample opportunities for corruption to flourish where land governance is weak. Yet these discussions sometimes overlook another sort of corruptogenic windfall in land markets, one that is often hiding in plain sight: the effects of gentrification of urban centers. Experiences from cities around the world exemplify three common ways in which these windfall gains from gentrification provide opportunity for corruption. Continue reading

Five Things Washington Should Do to Help Latin America Curb Corruption

The following is based on a March 24 talk I gave at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations.  It is posted in a slightly different form on “Latin America’s Moment,” the Council’s blog on Latin America.

One of the most promising developments in U.S. foreign relations is the all out war on corruption being waged across Latin America.  From “Operation Car Wash” in Brazil to investigations of presidential wrongdoing in Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama, across the region independent, tenacious prosecutors and investigators are out to end the massive theft of state resources that for so long has hobbled political development and throttled economic growth.  Americans should be cheering for these corruption warriors, for we have much to gain if they succeed.  Less corruption translates into more stable, reliable political allies; it means faster, more equitable growth and that means shared prosperity and less northward migration.  Finally, less corruption in government will offer American firms new opportunities. Think what the end of corruption in Brazilian public works would mean for U.S. engineering and construction companies.

But given the stakes in Latin America’s corruption war, America should be doing more than cheering from the sidelines.  It should be doing everything it can – without infringing the sovereignty or sensibilities of Latin neighbors – to see its corruption warriors succeed.  Here are five things to start with: Continue reading

When Transparency Isn’t the Answer: Beneficial Ownership in High-End Real Estate

Earlier this month Transparency International UK published a report entitled “Corruption on Your Doorstep: How Corrupt Capital Is Used to Buy Property in the UK.” The Britain-specific recommendations are part of TI’s broader “Unmask the Corrupt” campaign, a call by TI, and echoed by others, to establish public registries of beneficial ownership. A similar call to unveil the individuals behind the shell corporations used to buy luxury condos in Manhattan garnered a lot of attention stateside during last month’s New York Times “Towers of Secrecy” series on the city’s high-end property market (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). The anticorruption rationale for mandating disclosure of real property beneficial ownership seems straightforward: As both the TI-UK report and the NYT series argue, buying real property in New York and London is an appealing way to launder stolen funds, because high-end real estate purchases allow a corrupt actor to inject millions of dollars into the legitimate market without having to deal with pesky anti-money laundering regulations, completing the purchases through shell companies that disguise the true beneficial owner. Requiring public disclosure of the beneficial owners of real property would in theory have two related benefits: First, requiring purchasers to reveal beneficial ownership information up front would dissuade some from using real property as a means of laundering money, and second, if law enforcement authorities have ready access to this information, it will make it easier to instigate and conduct investigations, as well as to seize assets later on.

Indeed, transparency in real property beneficial ownership seems like the kind of thing all anticorruption advocates should support, which is why it may seem a little counterintuitive when I say TI and others are taking the wrong tack. Pushing for central public registries of beneficial ownership of real property will not likely achieve the two objectives, and may have serious drawbacks. Here’s why: Continue reading