Will US Financial Deregulation help mitigate the de-risking phenomenon?

Alicia Nicholls

The exigencies of complying with a complex and often confusing maze of overlapping regulations, coupled with steep fines for compliance breaches, have been identified as principle drivers for United States-based global banks’ restriction and termination of correspondent banking relationships with respondent banks in other jurisdictions. As part of his promise to “Make America Great Again”, US President Donald Trump has pledged to cut the regulatory noose argued to be strangling US enterprise and growth. Will this deregulatory push have the unintended spin-off of mitigating the de-risking phenomenon facing several countries around the world, including Caribbean States?

President Trump has been adamant that ‘burdensome’ regulations passed during the Obama administration to avert a repeat of the Global Economic and Financial Crisis of 2008, have been fetters on US business activity and prosperity. While most available data point to the contrary, the Trump Administration and Corporate America posit that Obama-era regulations like the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (2010) have reduced bank profitability and risk appetite, culminating in dampened bank lending to consumers and businesses.

President Trump has so far signed two executive actions on financial deregulation. The latter, an executive order dated February 3, 2017, sets out seven core principles for regulating the US Financial System. It mandates Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, to consult with the heads of the member agencies of the Financial Stability Oversight Committee (FSOC) and to submit to the President within 120 days a review of “laws, treaties, regulations, guidance” inter alia, which among other things inhibit regulation in sync with the Core Principles. There has been reportedly a shift towards more ‘pro-business’ regulators. Perhaps most telling, in contrast to his anti-Wall Street rhetoric during the campaign, President Trump has picked several former bankers (notably Goldman Sachs) for key cabinet and administration positions, including for Treasury Secretary.

Stringent compliance burdens and costs, as well as uncertainty about the interpretation of the regulations, are major drivers for banks’ avoiding, rather than managing risks. Will an unintended consequence of financial deregulation in the US be a mitigation of the de-risking phenomenon? While at first blush this conclusion may appear tempting, I respectfully submit that this may be an overly optimistic view, at least at this early stage, for the reasons which I outline below.

Firstly, the Trump Administration has set its cross-hairs firmly on the Dodd Frank Act which President Trump termed a “disaster”. This Act, which is hundreds of pages long, was passed in the aftermath of the Great Recession. It includes, for instance, rules against predatory lending, sets measures to deal with banks which become “too big to fail”, prohibits proprietary trading by banks for their own profit (Volcker Rule), inter alia. While Dodd Frank is not perfect and has been blamed for contributing to de-risking, repealing it would not only create an environment for a resumption of the pre-crisis risky behaviours by banks and other financial institutions. It would set the stage for a repeat of 2008, in much the same way that deregulation during the 1990s to early 2000s, including changes to the (now repealed) Glass-Steagall Act, laid the groundwork for the Great Recession, almost a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Secondly, Dodd-Frank is just one aspect of the de-risking problem. There appears to be no indication that the Trump Administration intends to tackle the constellation of other regulations, including international anti-money laundering, countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT), tax and banking regulations (Basel III), with which banks, including in the US, must comply.

In the World Bank’s seminal 2015 global survey on the Withdrawal from Correspondent Banking, some 95% of large banks had cited “concerns about money-laundering/terrorism financing risks” as a driver for withdrawing from correspondent banking relationships. However, it is unlikely that the Trump Administration will try to rollback AML/CFT rules. President Trump’s ‘America First’ ethos has a strong national security undertone. Weakening the US’ AML/CFT rules would likely make him appear ‘soft’ on money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism. International pressure is also a factor as the US’ last Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Mutual Evaluation Report (2016) highlighted some AML/CFT weaknesses, including gaps in timely access to beneficial ownership information.

Thirdly, replacing existing regulators with so-called pro-business regulators does not necessarily mean that there will be a more lenient approach to fines imposed on banks for compliance breaches. Unlike popular belief, most of the large banks which have been made to pay record fines had indeed knowingly committed serious AML/CFT breaches.

Fourthly, even if financial deregulation in the US eases the regulatory pressure on US global banks, it does not affect two core problems which appear to be driving the de-risking of regional banks, namely the perceived unprofitability of providing correspondent banking services to indigenous Caribbean banks, and the Caribbean region’s unjustified characterisation as a ‘high risk’ region for conducting financial services. In the previously mentioned World Bank 2015 Survey, some 80% of large banks cited “lack of profitability of certain foreign CBR services/products” as a driver of exiting correspondent banking relationships.

Further to the latter point, Caribbean countries, particularly international financial centres (IFCs) are consistently and unjustifiably placed on US government lists deeming them as money laundering threats, despite the fact that no Caribbean IFC is currently on any CFATF list of ‘high-risk and non-cooperative jurisdictions’. The most notorious example of this unfair practice is the US’ annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, the latest edition of which listed 21 Caribbean jurisdictions without providing (as usual) any evidence to support the conclusions drawn.

Caribbean countries are consistently branded as tax havens in spite of the fact that all Caribbean countries have signed intergovernmental agreements (IGAs) with the US Government pursuant to the extra-territorially applied US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) passed in 2010. Most Caribbean governments have already passed implementing legislation to bring their IGAs into force. In addition, while the US has opted not to be a part of the OECD’s Common Reporting Standard, several Caribbean countries have elected to be early adopters!

Added to this is that compliance officers in overseas banks usually view the Caribbean as a “collective” and not as individual countries; any perceived risks in one country are transposed to the Region as a whole.

Granted, it is still early days of the Trump Administration and the findings of the Treasury Secretary’s report on which regulations may possibly be earmarked for axing would not be known for some time. What does help, however, is where there is clarification of the rules through clearer guidance. For instance, for a long time it was unclear how far banks’ due diligence requirements were to go. In addition to knowing their customer (KYC), there appeared to be a growing consensus that banks were also supposed to know their customer’s customers (KYCC).  Definitive guidance through the FATF Guidance in October 2016 showed that KYCC was not required. Turning to the US, that same month the US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) released guidance to assist banks in the periodic risk reevaluation of foreign correspondent banking relationships.

However, the Region would be well-advised not to expect any serious mitigation of the de-risking phenomenon stemming from US financial deregulation. Despite being a ‘pro-business’ administration, it should be remembered that the overriding goal of the Trump Administration’s regulatory rollback is to “Make America Great Again”, point blank. Any spill-over positive benefits to the Caribbean from Trumpian financial deregulation would be welcomed but unintended, and it is more likely that the regulatory rollback may perhaps be more harmful than helpful to the region.

There is no panacea for the de-risking phenomenon as it is caused by a multiplicity of factors. Regional governments and private sector stakeholders should continue their lobbying and advocacy efforts, including engagement with key US administration officials, regulators and the banking sector. Given the Trump Administration’s ‘America First’ disposition, lobbying efforts which emphasises the implications that possible derisking-related economic and social destabilisation in the Caribbean may have on the US’ homeland security would be more impactful than pure moral suasion.

These advocacy efforts should also highlight to US officials and to US correspondent banks Caribbean countries’ own efforts at continuously improving their AML/CFT frameworks and the compliance efforts of Caribbean banks. Regional banking stakeholders should also continue to explore the possibility of investing in technologies such as Know Your Customer (KYC) utilities and legal entity identifiers (LEIs) to assist in customer due diligence (CDD) information sharing between themselves and their US correspondents.

These were part of the remarks I gave as a panellist at the Barbados International Business Association (BIBA) International Business Forum 2017

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 also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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