|Money Laundering in A Changed World - Part II
Money Laundering in the Wake of the September 11 Attacks
The least important trend is the tightening of financial regulations and the establishment or enhancement of compulsory (as opposed to industry or voluntary) regulatory and enforcement agencies.
New legislation in the US which amounts to extending the powers of the CIA domestically and of the DOJ extra-territorially, was rather xenophobically described by a DOJ official, Michael Chertoff, as intended to "make sure the American banking system does not become a haven for foreign corrupt leaders or other kinds of foreign organized criminals." Privacy and bank secrecy laws have been watered down. Collaboration with off shore "shell" banks has been banned. Business with clients of correspondent banks was curtailed. Banks were effectively transformed into law enforcement agencies, responsible to verify both the identities of their (foreign) clients and the source and origin of their funds. Cash transactions were partly criminalized. And the securities and currency trading industry, insurance companies, and money transfer services are subjected to growing scrutiny as a conduit for "dirty cash".
Still, such legislation is highly ineffective. The American Bankers' Association puts the cost of compliance with the laxer anti-money-laundering laws in force in 1998 at 10 billion US dollars - or more than 10 million US dollars per obtained conviction. Even when the system does work, critical alerts drown in the torrent of reports mandated by the regulations. One bank actually reported a suspicious transaction in the account of one of the September 11 hijackers - only to be ignored.
The Treasury Department established Operation Green Quest, an investigative team charged with monitoring charities, NGO's, credit card fraud, cash smuggling, counterfeiting, and the Hawala networks. This is not without precedent. Previous teams tackled drug money, the biggest money laundering venue ever, BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International), and ... Al Capone. The more veteran, New-York based, El-Dorado anti money laundering Task Force (established in 1992) will lend a hand and share information.
More than 150 countries promised to co-operate with the US in its fight against the financing of terrorism - 81 of which (including the Bahamas, Argentina, Kuwait, Indonesia, Pakistan, Switzerland, and the EU) actually froze assets of suspicious individuals, suspected charities, and dubious firms, or passed new anti money laundering laws and stricter regulations (the Philippines, the UK, Germany). A tabled EU directive would force lawyers to disclose incriminating information about their clients' money laundering activities. Pakistan initiated a "loyalty scheme", awarding expatriates who prefer official bank channels to the much maligned (but cheaper and more efficient) Hawala, with extra baggage allowance and special treatment in airports.
The magnitude of this international collaboration is unprecedented. But this burst of solidarity may yet fade. China, for instance, refuses to chime in. As a result, the statement issued by APEC last week on measures to stem the finances of terrorism was lukewarm at best. And, protestations of close collaboration to the contrary, Saudi Arabia has done nothing to combat money laundering "Islamic charities" (of which it is proud) on its territory.
Still, a universal code is emerging, based on the work of the OECD's FATF (Financial Action Task Force) since 1989 (its famous "40 recommendations") and on the relevant UN conventions. All countries are expected by the West, on pain of possible sanctions, to adopt a uniform legal platform (including reporting on suspicious transactions and freezing assets) and to apply it to all types of financial intermediaries, not only to banks. This is likely to result in ...
The decline of off shore financial centres and tax havens
By far the most important outcome of this new-fangled juridical homogeneity is the acceleration of the decline of off shore financial and banking centres and tax havens. The distinction between off-shore and on-shore will vanish. Of the FATF's "name and shame" blacklist of 19 "black holes" (poorly regulated territories, including Israel, Indonesia, and Russia) - 11 have substantially revamped their banking laws and financial regulators. Coupled with the tightening of US, UK, and EU laws and the wider interpretation of money laundering to include political corruption, bribery, and embezzlement - this would make life a lot more difficult for venal politicians and major tax evaders. The likes of Sani Abacha (late
President of Nigeria), Ferdinand Marcos (late President of the Philippines), Vladimiro Montesinos (former, now standing trial, chief of the intelligence services of Peru), or Raul Salinas (the brother of Mexico's President) - would have found it impossible to loot their countries to the same disgraceful extent in today's financial environment. And Osama bin Laden would not have been able to wire funds to US accounts from the Sudanese Al Shamal Bank, the "correspondent" of 33 American banks.
Quo Vadis, Money Laundering?
Crime is resilient and fast adapting to new realities. Organized crime is in the process of establishing an alternative banking system, only tangentially connected to the West's, in the fringes, and by proxy. This is done by purchasing defunct banks or banking licences in territories with lax regulation, cash economies, corrupt politicians, no tax collection, but reasonable infrastructure. The countries of Eastern Europe - Yugoslavia (Montenegro and Serbia), Macedonia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Albania, to mention a few - are natural targets. In some cases, organized crime is so all-pervasive and local politicians so corrupt that the distinction between criminal and politician is spurious.
Gradually, money laundering rings move their operations to these new, accommodating territories. The laundered funds are used to purchase assets in intentionally botched privatizations, real estate, existing businesses, and to finance trading operations. The wasteland that is Eastern Europe craves private capital and no questions are asked by investor and recipient alike.
The next frontier is cyberspace. Internet banking, Internet gambling, day trading, foreign exchange cyber transactions, e-cash, e-commerce, fictitious invoicing of the launderer's genuine credit cards - hold the promise of the future. Impossible to track and monitor, ex-territorial, totally digital, amenable to identity theft and fake identities - this is the ideal vehicle for money launderers. This nascent platform is way too small to accommodate the enormous amounts of cash laundered daily - but in ten years time, it may. The problems is likely to be exacerbated by the introduction of smart cards, electronic purses, and payment-enabled mobile phones.
In its "Report on Money Laundering Typologies" (February 2001) the FATF was able to document concrete and suspected abuses of online banking, Internet casinos, and web-based financial services. It is difficult to identify a customer and to get to know it in cyberspace, was the alarming conclusion. It is equally complicated to establish jurisdiction.
Many capable professionals - stockbrokers, lawyers, accountants, traders, insurance brokers, real estate agents, sellers of high value items such as gold, diamonds, and art - are employed or co-opted by money laundering operations. Money launderers are likely to make increased use of global, around the clock, trading in foreign currencies and derivatives. These provide instantaneous transfer of funds and no audit trail. The underlying securities involved are susceptible to market manipulation and fraud. Complex insurance policies (with the "wrong" beneficiaries), and the securitization of receivables, leasing contracts, mortgages, and low grade bonds are already used in money laundering schemes. In general, money laundering goes well with risk arbitraging financial instruments.
Trust-based, globe-spanning, money transfer systems based on authentication codes and generations of commercial relationships cemented in honour and blood - are another wave of the future. The Hawala and Chinese networks in Asia, the Black Market Peso Exchange (BMPE) in Latin America, other evolving courier systems in Eastern Europe (mainly in Russia, Ukraine, and Albania) and in Western Europe (mainly in France and Spain). In conjunction with encrypted e-mail and web anonymizers, these networks are virtually impenetrable. As emigration increases, diasporas established, and transport and telecommunications become ubiquitous, "ethnic banking" along the tradition of the Lombards and the Jews in medieval Europe may become the the preferred venue of money laundering. September 11 may have retarded world civilization in more than one way.
About the Author
Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, United Press International (UPI) and eBookWeb and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.