Bank De-risking: An Emerging Threat to Caribbean SIDS’ Survival

Alicia Nicholls

De-risking actions by banks in advanced economies are an emerging threat to Caribbean SIDS’ financial inclusion and sustainable development. This reduced risk appetite by foreign banks is in response to an increasingly stringent regulatory environment aimed at combating the twin threats of money laundering and terrorist financing. De-risking actions have impacted Caribbean countries in two main ways: the severance of correspondent banking relationships with regional banks and the denial or withdrawal of services to money transfer operators. The net result is that Caribbean SIDS face the threat of being cut out of the global financial system, while the fall-out from the loss of remittances and the impact on their financial sectors, cross-border trade and investment could pose serious threats to these states’ economic growth  and sustainable development prospects.

What is De-Risking?

In an increasingly inter-connected world where money can be moved across the globe with the click of a mouse, anti-money laundering efforts and efforts targeted at combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) are national and global security priorities particularly for the US and European countries.

The regulatory authorities and courts in these countries have taken a zero tolerance approach towards their banks found to have willingly or unwillingly facilitated financial crimes like money laundering and tax evasion. Banks are increasingly facing tougher regulatory policies and sanctions and face the threat of onerous penalties, prosecution, private lawsuits and reputational damage if they are found to have facilitated financial crime

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s risk based approach requires that “countries, competent authorities and banks identify, assess, and understand the money laundering and terrorist financing risk to which they are exposed, and take the appropriate mitigation measures in accordance with the level of risk”.

However, in response to an ever stricter regulatory environment, an increasing number of banks in advanced economies are seeking to reduce their risk exposure by engaging in “de-risking”. That is, instead of managing risk in line with the FATF’s risk-based approach, they are avoiding risk altogether by terminating or restricting business relationships with clients, regions or in sectors deemed to be high risk.

Driving Factors of De-Risking

The Caribbean is increasingly seen as a high risk area for banking. This state of affairs is regrettable as Caribbean countries have expended significant time, funds and effort to make themselves compliant with international standards and best practices, including updating their anti-money laundering legislation. Caribbean states have also signed Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) agreements with the US government.

Despite these efforts, Caribbean countries have had to continuously duck from the target placed on their backs by authorities in advanced economies. The US Department of State’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2015 identified several countries, including  in the Caribbean, as ‘jurisdictions of primary concern’ for money laundering and financial crimes. Coupled with the frequent ‘tax haven’ smear, this only reinforces the notion that dealing with Caribbean banks is literally a risky business.

Banks in advanced economies are increasingly wary of the exposure to risks of financial crime inherent in corresponding banking relationships. Correspondent banking relationships are entered into bilaterally between banks and allow banks to offer their services in a country in which they have no physical presence through the use of a correspondent bank in that foreign jurisdiction. A correspondent bank can conduct business transactions, receive deposits and make payments on behalf of the other bank. In effect, the bank is placing its faith on the due diligence and transaction monitoring rigor of the correspondent bank, increasing the risk it can be unwittingly used as a vehicle for money laundering.  As such, a major manifestation of de-risking is the severing of correspondent bank relationships with banks in countries and regions perceived to be “high risk”.

A second manifestation of de-risking by banks is seeking to limit their exposure by getting out of higher risk sectors, such money transfers, through the denial or withdrawal of bank accounts and services to money transfer operators for fear of unwittingly assisting in terrorist funding and money laundering.

Impact of De-Risking on Caribbean SIDS

The impact of de-risking is already being felt in the region. Only a limited number of foreign banks have correspondent relationships with Caribbean banks and this number has been decreasing. This has made it difficult for Caribbean banks to find corresponding banks in advanced economies for the completion of transactions. Just this year the Bank of America cut its correspondent banking relationship with Belize Bank and Atlantic Bank International in Belize, compromising these banks’ ability to execute US dollar bank drafts, wire transfers and foreign currency transactions. In most cases banks are ending correspondent relationships without evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the regional bank and without giving clear reasons for their actions.

Correspondent banking relationships are Caribbean SIDS’ links with the international financial system. The severing of this link can potentially wreck economic havoc on Caribbean countries’ economies by excluding them from the global financial system. A reduction of accessible financing for cross border transactions and of services for transmitting and authenticating payments has implications for the ability of individuals and businesses in Caribbean states to pay for and engage in the trade of goods and services across borders.

The remittances business has also been a casualty of bank de-risking. Remittances are an important source of foreign exchange inflows to Caribbean economies, particularly in Jamaica and Guyana, where they are much more impactful than official development aid.  Remittances, which are usually sent through money transfer, are a lifeline for poor households which depend on monies sent by relatives living abroad to meet their daily needs.

As a result of the high due diligence costs compared to the relatively low profits from remittances services, many banks see it in their best interest to simply sever their ties with money transfer operators in ‘high risk’ regions. In the Cayman Islands, which unlike Jamaica and Guyana is a net exporter of remittances, Fidelity Bank ceased its money transfer business with Western Union making it difficult for migrants there to repatriate remittances back to their families. Difficulties in receiving remittances due to higher fees or the unavailability of money transfer services compromise the financial well-being of dependent households and individuals, with implications for poverty reduction and eradication.

Caribbean SIDS are not the only ones affected by de-risking policies. Last year it was reported that the Central Bank of Seychelles had to swoop in to the rescue of an offshore bank, the Bank of Muscat International (BMI) Offshore Bank after the Bank of China (Johannesburg) and JP Morgan months earlier ceased correspondent banking relations, making it unable to process outward foreign transactions. In war-torn Somalia where there is a high dependence on remittances banks have been ceasing money transfers to that country for fear of sanctions by the US government, with devastating consequences on dependents. Even charities and aid groups operating in ‘high risk’ countries have felt the brunt of banks’ de-risking policies.

Global Recognition of the De-Risking Phenomenon

In recognition of the de-risking phenomenon, the FATF has reiterated the risk-based approach to AMT/CFT on a case-by-case basis as opposed to the wholesale de-risking which many banks are doing. The Global Center has begun an exploratory study on de-risking in the financial services industry, while the World Bank has launched a survey of 19 member countries (excluding the EU) to assess the impact of de-risking on remittance flows. The findings are expected to be published later this year. This month the Financial Stability Board (FSB) released its report to the G20 on actions taken to assess and address the decline in correspondent banking.

In the interim findings of its qualitative study on de-risking the G-24/Alliance For Financial Inclusion identified several drivers of de-risking and outlined several proposals for stemming the tide of de-risking.  Moreover, among the points highlighted by the recently held G-24/AFI Policymakers’ Roundtable on Financial Inclusion in Peru on the theme “Stemming the tide of De-Risking through Innovative Technologies and Partnerships” was that de-risking could have the unintended consequence of driving consumers to smaller informal providers, which only enhances the AML/CFT risk.

Several Caribbean countries have sounded the alarm about the de-risking threat. Prime Minister of Belize, the Rt. Hon. Dean Barrow raised the issue in his speech at the Summit of the Americas, noting that “our financial and trade architecture cannot survive this phenomenon“. At the recently held Institute of Chartered Accountants of Barbados (ICAB) Conference, the Minister of Finance of Barbados, the Hon Christopher Sinckler, drew attention to the ‘fresh threat’ currently posed by bank de-risking to the international business and financial services sectors of Barbados and other Caribbean SIDS.

The Bottom Line

The threat posed to Caribbean SIDS by de-risking is real, with implications for trade, investment and remittances flows which are critical to the financial stability, inclusion and sustainable growth of regional economies. The worst part is that this is only just the beginning. A balance needs to be struck between AML/CFT regimes on the other hand with the interests of SIDS and their people to conduct business and transfer money on the other. Caribbean countries and other affected SIDS need to leverage their collective strengths to raise awareness about the real and negative fall-out of this phenomenon for their economies and the urgent need for international solutions to the issue of de-risking. Their survival depends on it.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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