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