Illicit Financial Flows

by peter reuter

peter reuter is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland.

This post updates the article that Peter Reuter and Richard Messick wrote for the First Quarter 2013 issue of the Review.

Published March 7, 2107

Before inviting high-profile crusaders against international corruption, such as Joseph Stiglitz and Mark Pieth, to join an inquiry into the Panama Papers, it would probably have been wise for Panama’s president, Juan Carlos Varela, to figure out what dirty linen would likely be aired. Indeed, when the president reneged on his promise to publish their report, which revealed how a Panama law firm managed to hide the ownership of billions in assets of foreign clients, it should not have been a surprise that Stiglitz and Pieth went public in their indignation. Their denunciation, ironically, drew much more attention than the report itself ever would have, had it been published in all its technocratic bulk.

The broader lesson to drawn from this debacle, though, is that many countries have much to be embarrassed about when it comes to evading tax collectors and police. Case in point: while the United States is the spear carrier for the tough anti-money-laundering regime run by the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force, it is nonetheless delinquent on major aspects of that regime.

In the “mutual evaluation report” issued in 2016 by the FATF, the United States was rated according to its compliance with 40 recommendations on monitoring and deterring money laundering. The government was found noncompliant in 4 of the 40, including one key issue: Congress has left the matter of registration of corporate ownership up to the states. Accordingly, many of them allow corporate trustees (e.g., law firms) to conceal the beneficiaries.

Not surprisingly, Congress is not about to assert jurisdiction here. Yet, without knowledge of who really owns a corporation, there is no way for financial regulators to determine whether, to take a nonrandom example, Vladimir Putin is hiding his personal fortune in U.S. banks. Or, to be balanced in one’s suspicions, ditto for the family of President Xi Jinping of China.

The Panama Papers revelations are just the latest in a series of blockbuster money scandals. For example, in 2015, the 100,000 accounts of HSBC's Swiss affiliate, which held about $180 billion in assets, were shown to include a large number of likely tax evaders. Switzerland wasn’t the only offender on this score; it followed scandals involving bank accounts in Lichtenstein and Singapore.

Collectively, illicit financial flows amount to a torrent. The French economist Gabriel Zucman (now teaching at the University of California, Berkeley) used data from the Bank for International Settlements to estimate that the owners of at least $7.6 trillion in secretly held assets are probably ducking taxes, regulators or the police.

Pretty much every government professes outrage at the ease with which tax evaders and other criminals hide their money abroad. The meetings of the G20 and G7 nations have issued resolutions on the matter almost every year since the start of the Great Recession. UK Prime Minister David Cameron held a high-profile international conference in 2015 to recommend how best to put some muscle behind the sentiment, only to find himself accused a few months later of having benefited from one of the HSBC accounts set up by his father.

There are some hopeful signs that it is becoming harder to hide assets by transferring them across borders. An increasing number of countries have signed agreements requiring foreign bank account holders to divulge the assets to their country of residence, or to have taxes automatically withheld. There is also some movement to get country-by-country reporting, whereby multinational corporations divulge what they earn in each country. The idea is to make it more difficult to shift profits (legally or illegally) to the lowest tax jurisdictions without publicity. What’s more, global anti-bribery conventions are getting more bite.

But there are also indications that transparency remains a hard political sell. For example, following release of the Panama Papers, the Obama administration proposed a number of regulatory changes that would force banks to establish beneficial ownership of their accounts. But the only change that will definitely be implemented attracted compelling criticism from advocates of transparency. As the online magazine Quartz reported:

The internationally accepted definition of beneficial owner — the actual human being who truly gains from the company’s equity — is altered in the law. Under the new rules, anyone who owns less than 25% of the company need not be reported, and the appointed president of a shell company can be listed as the beneficial owner.

If even the internationally minded Obama administration pulls its punches on cross-border transparency, it is very unlikely that the America-first Trump administration will make anything more than gestures on the issue. And given the reality that the United States must take the lead on money laundering controls because of its tight grip on the international payments system, that could halt the whole global movement toward transparency.

More generally, there is reason to be skeptical that the current anti-money-laundering regime has much to show for itself. The huge fines levied by the United States against BNP Paribas, HSBC and JPMorgan Chase following revelations that they systematically evaded the requirements for establishing effective oversight on billions of dollars in questionable transactions suggest that even the banks most concerned about reputation have higher priorities. Their response to these fines, abandoning whole classes of vulnerable customers because they might be classified as high risk because of the nature of their businesses (e.g., remittance firms for immigrant labor) or location (e.g., Pakistan, Russia), is understandable but deeply troubling.

Controlling the international flows of money generated by crime or seeking to evade taxes ought to be an important goal for both developing and developed countries. But for reasons ranging from the sheer complexity of the problem to the formidable (and arguably growing) influence of kleptocrats in global governance, success is not close.