Category Archives: money laundering

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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FATF congratulates Guyana on AML/CFT Improvements

Alicia Nicholls

At its recently held plenary session on October 19-21, 2016, the Paris-based Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) congratulated Guyana on the “significant progress” the country has made in addressing the deficiencies in its framework for anti-money laundering/combatting the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT).

Background

Since its establishment in 1989, FATF has sought to protect the integrity of the global financial system from threats posed by money-laundering (ML), terrorist financing (TF) and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Its main role is setting and promoting standards on these areas and its 40 plus 9 Recommendations are the international standards for AML/CFT and the financing of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. FATF’s work is complemented by the nine FATF-style regional bodies, including the 27-member Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF), of which Guyana has been a member since 2002.

The AML/CFT Mutual Evaluation is a peer review process to evaluate each member country’s level of compliance with FATF’s Recommendations. These reviews are concerned not just with the jurisdiction’s technical compliance with the recommendations but also now with the effectiveness of the country’s AML/CFT systems.

CFATF was very critical of Guyana’s technical compliance with the FATF recommendations in its third round Mutual Evaluation report dated July 2011. Inter alia, the reviewers had highlighted several deficiencies in the Anti-Money Laundering and Countering of the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) Act 2009, the  lack of statistics, staffing shortages and limited staff training. As a result, the country was placed on expedited follow-up and required to report every Plenary. Due to internal political wrangling over the proposed bill’s content, for many sittings Guyana’s legislature could not pass the proposed amended AML legislation.

This inaction, however, had several negative consequences. Starting in May 2013, CFATF had named Guyana among its list of jurisdictions with strategic AML/CFT deficiencies that had not made sufficient progress in addressing them and had warned that if Guyana did not take specific steps by November 2013, not only would it call upon its members to consider implementing counter measures to protect their financial systems from the ongoing ML/TF risks emanating from Guyana but would consider referring the country to the FATF International Cooperation Review Group (ICRG) which analyses the AML/CFT threats from high-risk jurisdictions.

After Guyana had failed to meet the agreed timelines in the action plan, the regional watch body followed through on its threat in its public statement released May 2014 in which it called on its Members to “consider implementing further counter measures to protect their financial systems from the ongoing money laundering and terrorist financing risks emanating from Guyana”.

That language may sound extreme to the reader considering that Guyana is not an international financial centre and any AML/CFT lapse is unlikely to cause even a ripple in the global financial system. Regulatory costs are burdensome for cash-strapped small states which often lack the financial resources and the human resource capacity to meet all the requirements. What little technical assistance is given is often not adequate. As countries which are not members of FATF Caribbean countries also have little say in the regulatory framework or agenda which are often slanted towards the interests of advanced economies.

However, these important inequities aside, a sound AML/CFT framework is important for countries, especially those with porous borders and which are dependent on foreign investment and foreign trade. Having a reputation for a deficient AML/CFT framework could make it difficult for an FDI-dependent country to attract new investment as some parent companies may prohibit the establishment of subsidiaries in a country with a deficient AML/CFT regime. It also increases the country’s risk profile which would make financial transactions and relationships with businesses and persons in that country subject to enhanced due diligence due to the higher level of perceived risk, increasing the chances of its local banks losing their foreign correspondent banking relationships and  thereby restricting its access to the global trade and financial systems.

Guyana’s progress to date

Since coming to power in 2014, the new government in Guyana has been able to implement several reforms to improve the country’s level of compliance with FATF recommendations. These changes have been well-documented in this article by Anand Goolsooran. However, some of those identified in CFATF’s 10th Follow Up Report released June 2016 include the passing of the AML/CFT (Amendment) No.2 Act 2015 in January 2016 and  of the AML/CFT (Amendment) Act No. 15 of 2016 in May 2016 and the issuance of AML/CFT Directives and Guidelines.

As a result, the CFATF assessors concluded as follows:

Guyana has significantly improved its overall level of compliance and most importantly Guyana has fully addressed the core and key Recommendations. While Guyana satisfies the criteria for application to exit the follow-up process, it is still in the FATF ICRG process which it needs to complete first. As such it is recommended that Guyana stay in enhanced follow-up and be required to report on continuing implementation to the next Plenary in November 2016

In mid-September 2016, the visiting FATF/ICRG delegation praised Guyana’s progress towards bringing its framework in compliance with FATF recommendations.  As of October 2016, Guyana is no longer subject to FATF’s on-going global AML/CFT compliance process.  Guyana will continue to work with CFATF to address the outstanding issues with the goal to exit the CFATF follow-up process.

The outcomes of the FATF October 2016 Plenary session may be viewed here.

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.