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Who Wins The De-Risking Shell Game?

BankRisk_2The volume of evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, grows every day. The story on the surface is simple enough: banks are making the decision to “de-risk” (a polite way to say close the account of) certain types of businesses including money service businesses (MSBs) and digital currency businesses that are considered “too risky” by traditional financial services providers. The unintended consequences have included strained remittance corridors and frustration for businesses struggling to get by without reliable banking services. While these consequences are well documented, there are other unintended consequences of the de-risking phenomenon that have been less widely discussed. These include a growing lack of transparency between some industries and their banking service providers and directly threatens our ability to effectively manage money laundering and terrorist financing risk at both the financial institution and national levels.

It’s a shell game of “hide the risk” – and we’re all losing.

Businesses Are Losing

By now, if you haven’t heard about businesses struggling to survive without access to banking facilities, you would have had to ignore financial media for the past two years. The global effects of de-risking have attracted the attention of the G-20, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the World Bank, and many more. While it’s clear that there are issues in terms of access to banking, let’s be honest with one another: while some businesses will close up shop, many others will take a different tack.

Whether it’s using alternative financial service providers, payment processors, personal bank accounts or merely opening accounts at other financial institutions without revealing the true nature of the underlying activity, businesses will find a way to carry on. I’ve spoken personally to businesses that have taken these approaches, and it has never been their first or most ideal choice. These aren’t criminals carrying on some nefarious business! They are entrepreneurs who would rather be able to provide their real business plan to their banks and explain their activity honestly, but they do not believe that this option is open to them.

Banks Are Losing

Consequently, a bank with a policy that prohibits these types of businesses from holding accounts will deal with businesses that have gone to great lengths to conceal the true nature of their activity. The banks are unaware of the true nature of the activity passing through their accounts, and therefore ill equipped to manage the risk related to these activities. The strain on banking resources must be phenomenal, as banks must constantly devise new ways to interpret patterns of customer activity to detect undeclared MSB or digital currency activity. While it isn’t easy to quantify these costs, I can only surmise that the cost of this detective work must be high, despite being ineffective.

To further muddy the waters, although businesses who fail to provide transparent information to their banks for fear of de-risking may also conduct completely legal activities in a way that starts to look like criminal activity. For example, if you believe that your business banking relationship is not reliable, you may open many accounts (in some combination of personal and business names) and conduct fractions of your banking through each, transferring funds from one account to another as needed to meet your obligations. On the surface, it can seem much like “layering” or “structuring” activity (techniques used by money launderers to make funds more difficult to trace). This further adds to the banks’ burden by creating more activity that must be monitored and investigated.

Entire Nations Are Losing

It has been widely publicized that in some cases like Somalia, entire nations that are dependent on remittance payments from friends and family living and working abroad, are experiencing increased difficulty. Reliable and cost-effective remittance payment providers are a shrinking pool. This seems absurd in a time when technology can facilitate a payment in seconds.

National Security Is Losing

It’s not just far-flung places dependent on remittance payments that are losing. Here at home, we have a national security system that is dependent on our financial intelligence units (FIUs) having access to reliable data. The reliability of that data is undermined at every level by the de-risking shell game:

  • Businesses do not declare the true nature of their activity – and there are no incentives for them to do so;
  • Banks do not understand the nature of their customers’ activities, making it difficult detect potentially criminal activity; and
  • There is likely to be an increase in “false positives” where activity conducted by businesses that do not believe that they can reveal the true nature of their activity to their banks conduct business in a manner that resembles criminal money laundering techniques.

Taken together, this results in the likelihood that key information is not being reported to FIUs correctly. Consequently, it becomes more difficult for law enforcement and other national securities to rely on this data to perform their roles effectively.

Who Is Winning?

There are two potential winners in this game and much like the shell games that you see duping tourists on the streets of large cities, neither is without malevolent intent.

The first are unregistered/unlicensed MSB businesses. These are businesses that have ignored regulatory requirements and carried on business without any FIU reporting. In some cases, these businesses will even minimize their interaction with the local financial system by using foreign bank accounts (and point of sale terminals) to collect customer funds. While the risk of penalty is high, the reward for these businesses (in particular where they are able to complete transactions that pose a challenge for their compliant counterparts) can also be high.

The second is criminal organizations. When legitimate businesses are performing transactions that look like money laundering, detecting true criminal activity becomes exponentially more difficult. I can only assume that the criminals are laughing all the way to the bank.

Shutting Down The Shell Game

De-risking is a complex problem with complex outcomes, but the solution need not be complicated. It does, however, involve the cooperation of all levels of the financial services community: regulators, banking service providers and businesses.

The costs and benefits of de-risking need to be reassessed. Where banking service providers are capable of accepting and managing accounts for businesses considered to be “higher risk” they should do so, with their regulator’s blessing. Rather than perpetuating the shell game, regulators should encourage banking service providers to manage risk (and provide solid guidance with reference to how this should be done). Finally, there should be open communication between banking service providers, regulators and business banking customers. The lines of communication closed by de-risking must be opened, allowing banks to have honest conversations that will provide real insight into their customers’ business and lead to effective long-term risk management.

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