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Archive for the ‘Money Laundering’ Category

Time for another great moment in red tape.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that banks treat customers poorly in part because of bad laws and regulations from Washington.

Money laundering laws were adopted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates. …politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

You may think that only cranky libertarians are unhappy about this system.

But that’s not the case. Three professors with expertise in criminology, justice, sociology, and public policy wrote a detailed assessment of policies on anti-money laundering (AML) and combating the financing of terrorism (CFT).

Given the establishment pedigree of the authors, the finding of the report are rather shocking. The report’s introduction hints that the whole apparatus should be called into question.

To date there is no substantial effort by any international organization, including the IMF, to assess either the costs or benefits of an AML/CFT regime.  The FATF system has proceeded as if  it produces only public and private goods, not public or private “bads” or adverse by-products  against which the “goods” have to be weighed.   The Fund staff itself has raised questions about whether its substantial investment in the 3rd round has yielded adequate returns. It is not known what value that investment produced for the FATF or the Fund’s core objectives.  There needs to be more open acknowledgement of actual and potential financial costs of AML/CFT controls, their potential misuse by authoritarian rulers, and possible adverse effects on populations that rely on remittances and the informal economy, as well as potential negative impacts on NGOs and parts of civil society.

And when you dig into the details of the report, you find some surprisingly blunt language.

Basically, there’s no evidence that these policies work, and lots of evidence that they impose real harm.

Benefits of the FATF AML/CFT system have not been demonstrated. Although there may be benefits known to international organizations, governments, regulators, and intelligence agencies, no systematic efforts have been made by the FATF network of IOs or countries or institutions to demonstrate benefits. …Standards and Methodology proceed as if the implementation of an effective AML/CFT regime delivers only public and private goods and imposes no public or private “bads.” This study has learned of no significant effort by any of the standard-setting or assessor bodies to undertake a cost-benefit analysis… Little consideration has been given, they say, to the costs of implementing an AML/CFT regime, and little evidence has been adduced to demonstrate that the costs produce commensurate benefits in their own or indeed in any other jurisdiction. …Costs are substantial whether construed broadly or narrowly. …Moreover, an AML/CFT regime generates substantial costs on the financial sector in terms of money-laundering compliance staff and software procurement. Entire industries have grown around consulting and advising businesses and governments on AML/CFT compliance… Particularly strong views were expressed by bankers about excessive costs of misplaced demands upon the financial industry for surveillance of customers.

The report notes that poor people are among the biggest victims.

AML laws and regulations may adversely affect access of marginal groups whom FATF documents describe as subject to “financial exclusion” from the formal financial system. The more onerous the burdens placed on individuals, companies, and NPOs in countries where there is a substantial informal and cash economy, the more likely they are to opt out of the formal economy for reasons of cost. …Money laundering and counter-terrorism measures can reduce the volume of overseas remittances to the most vulnerable populations in the poorest countries. …Administrative and financial costs imposed on voluntary associations, most of which are very small and poorly funded, can threaten the survival of small associations

By the way, the World Bank also has acknowledged that these counterproductive laws are very bad for poor people, oftentimes disenfranchising them from the banking system

Last but not least, kudos to the authors for making the very relevant point that the destruction of financial privacy is a boon for authoritarian governments.

Numbers of experienced assessors have observed that a fully functioning AML/CFT regime in some countries has provided tools for authoritarian rulers to repress their political opponents by denying them banking or other facilities, increasing surveillance over their accounts, and prosecuting or penally taxing them for  non-disclosure, in addition to opening up more opportunities for illegal extortion for private gain. This weapon can be applied against persons/organizations already in the formal financial system.

It’s worth pointing out that this also explains why it’s so dangerous to have governments collecting and sharing tax information.

But let’s stick to the issue of money laundering. Now let’s look at two case studies to get a sense of how these laws impose real-world harm.

We’ll begin with an article in The Economist, which looks at how Western Union’s ability to provide financial services has been hampered by heavy-handed (yet ineffective) laws and regulation.

It seems like this is a company providing a very valuable service, particularly to the less fortunate.

Western Union’s services are essential for people who do not have bank accounts or are working far from home. …Western Union helps to bolster trade and disperse the world’s wealth.

But the statists don’t care.

Someone, somewhere, may want to transfer money for a nefarious purpose. And rather than the government do its job and investigate actual crimes, politicians and bureaucrats have decided that it’s easier to make Western Union spy on all customers.

…these laudable activities conflict with another pressing goal: impeding money laundering. Rules to that end require financial institutions to know who their customers are and how they obtained their money. These requirements transform the virtues of Western Union’s model—the openness and breadth of its network and its willingness to process vast numbers of small transactions—into liabilities.

And the heavy boot of government came down on the company, forcing Western Union to incur heavy expenses that make the system far more expensive for consumers.

Western Union struck a far-reaching compliance agreement with Arizona’s attorney-general in 2010. It agreed to adopt 73 changes to its systems and procedures, to install an external monitor to keep tabs on its conduct and to fund the creation of a new enforcement entity, the Southwest Border Anti-Money Laundering Alliance. Many of the recommendations were highly detailed. Western Union has, for example, set up a system to monitor transactions that takes into account factors such as the seasonality of marijuana harvests and illegal immigration. It is conducting background checks on agents and their families. Such efforts have turned out to be difficult and expensive. …Western Union’s shares have been jolted several times. Earlier this month Western Union said it would be subject to independent monitoring for an extra four years. It faces big fines and criminal prosecutions if it fails to meet the stipulations in the compliance agreement.

Let’s look at another real-world consequence of the AML/CFT regime.

You’ve heard of “driving while black,” which describes the suspicion and hostility that blacks sometimes experience, particularly when driving in ritzy neighborhoods.

Well, DWB has a cousin. It’s BWR, otherwise know as “banking while Russian.” And the stereotype has unpleasant consequences for innocent people.

Here are some passages from a story in the New York Times.

We had sold our apartment in Moscow, jumped through an assortment of Russian tax hoops and transferred the proceeds to the United States, where we now lived. It made me nervous to have all that money sitting in one virtual clump in the bank — but not nearly as nervous as having the card connected to it not work. The experience was also humiliating. In one moment, I had gone from being a Citigold client to a deadbeat immigrant who couldn’t pay for her son’s diapers. I called Citibank as soon as I got home. …”Who closed it?” I was working hard not to sound belligerent. “And where is my money?” …It was Citibank. “I see that because your transactions indicated there may be an attempt to avoid complying with currency regulations, Citibank has closed your account,” the woman informed me. …“Why wasn’t I notified?” “The cashier’s check will serve as your notice.” Citibank had fired me as a client.

Why would a bank not want customers?

Because the government makes some clients too costly and too risky, even though there’s no suggestion of wrongdoing.

Other than ethnicity.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. This had happened to other Russian-Americans I know, including one of my closest friends and my father. My friend had opened her account at a local bank in the United States when she got her first job, at age 13. Her accounts were summarily closed in 2008, while she was working in Russia. The bank, which had been bought by Sovereign in the meantime, would not state a reason for firing a client of 27 years. My father, who immigrated to the United States in 1981, had his accounts closed by BankBoston in 2000, when he was a partner in a Moscow-based business. His lawyers pressed the bank on the issue and were eventually told that because Russians had been known to launder money, the bank applied “heightened scrutiny” to accounts that had a Russia connection. It had closed “many” accounts because of what it considered suspicious activity. Like other kinds of ethnic profiling, these policies of weeding out Russian-Americans who have money are hardly efficient.

But the main thing to understand is that the entire system is inefficient.

Laws were adopted with the promise they would reduce crime. But just like you don’t stop crime by having cops hang out at Dunkin’s Donuts, you also don’t stop crime by creating haystacks of financial data and then expecting to make it easier to find needles.

For more information, here’s my video on the government’s failed money laundering policies.

P.S. This map shows you the countries considered most at risk of dirty money, which should make you wonder why anyone is foolish enough to think that higher costs on American banks will make a difference.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize there was such a thing as money laundering humor, but you’ll enjoy this joke featuring President Obama.

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People are getting increasingly agitated about being spied on by government.

The snoops at the National Security Agency have gotten the most attention, and those bureaucrats are in the challenging position of trying to justify massive invasions of our privacy when they can’t show any evidence that this voyeurism has stopped a single terrorist attack.

And let’s not forget that some politicians and bureaucrats want to track our driving habits with GPS devices. Their immediate goal is taxing us (gee, what a surprise), but does anyone doubt that the next step would be a database of our movements?

But the worst example of government spying may be the web of laws and regulations that require banks to monitor our bank accounts and to share millions of reports about our financial transactions with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

Money laundering laws were adopted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

As you might expect, politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

And it’s encouraging banks to treat customers like crap. Check out this ridiculous example included in a BBC report.

Stephen Cotton went to his local HSBC branch this month to withdraw £7,000 from his instant access savings account to pay back a loan from his mother. A year before, he had withdrawn a larger sum in cash from HSBC without a problem. But this time it was different, as he told Money Box: “When we presented them with the withdrawal slip, they declined to give us the money because we could not provide them with a satisfactory explanation for what the money was for. They wanted a letter from the person involved.” Mr Cotton says the staff refused to tell him how much he could have: “So I wrote out a few slips. I said, ‘Can I have £5,000?’ They said no. I said, ‘Can I have £4,000?’ They said no. And then I wrote one out for £3,000 and they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you that.’ ” He asked if he could return later that day to withdraw another £3,000, but he was told he could not do the same thing twice in one day.

Here’s another absurd story.

Peter from Wiltshire, who wanted his surname withheld, had a similar experience. He wanted to take out £10 000 cash from HSBC, some to pay to his sons and some to fund his long-haul travel plans. Peter phoned up the day before to give HSBC notice and everything seemed to be fine. The next day he got a call from his local branch asking him to pay his sons via a bank payment and to provide booking receipts for his holidays. Peter did not have any booking receipts to show.

And another.

Belinda Bell is another customer who was initially denied her cash, in her case to pay her builder. She told Money Box she had to provide the builder’s quote.

Why is the bank treating customers like dirt? Well, because they’re pressured to act that way thanks to anti-money laundering laws, which basically require them to act as if unusual transactions are criminal. In other words, customers are guilty until they prove themselves innocent.

HSBC has said…”We ask our customers about the purpose of large cash withdrawals when they are unusual and out of keeping with the normal running of their account. Since last November, in some instances we may have also asked these customers to show us evidence of what the cash is required for.” “The reason being we have an obligation to protect our customers, and to minimise the opportunity for financial crime…” Money Box asked other banks what their policy is on large cash withdrawals. They all said they reserved the right to ask questions about large cash withdrawals.

They’ve “reserved the right”?!? I think Mr. Cotton was spot on when he groused, “You shouldn’t have to explain to your bank why you want that money. It’s not theirs, it’s yours.”

A few politicians also are unhappy about pointless government-mandated spying.

Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP for Clacton, is alarmed… “All these regulations which have been imposed on banks…infantilises the customer. In a sense your money becomes pocket money and the bank becomes your parent.”

Not let’s look at an example of how anti-money laundering laws lead to foolish intervention in the United States.

We’ll start with a feel-good story from Wired about an entrepreneur coming up with a service that’s desired by consumers.

Mike Caldwell spent years turning digital currency into physical coins. That may sound like a paradox. But it’s true. He takes bitcoins — the world’s most popular digital currency — and then he mints them here in the physical world. …by moving the digital currency into the physical realm, he also prevents hackers from stealing the stuff via an online attack. …You send him bitcoins via the internet, and he sends you back metal coins via the U.S. Postal Service. To spend bitcoins, you need a secret digital key — a string of numbers and letters — and when Caldwell makes the coins, he hides this key behind a tamper-resistant strip. …Caldwell takes a fee of about $50 on each coin he mints.

But our silver cloud has a dark lining.

…he received a letter from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FINCEN, the arm of the Treasury Department that dictates how the nation’s anti-money-laundering and financial crime regulations are interpreted. According to FINCEN, Caldwell needs to rethink his business. “They considered my activity to be money transmitting,” Caldwell says. And if you want to transmit money, you must first jump through a lot of state and federal regulatory hoops Caldwell hasn’t jumped through.

And since the hoops are very expensive, we have yet another example of foolish red tape killing a business.

Running afoul of FINCEN is a risky proposition. In the spring, the Department of Homeland Security seized two bank accounts belonging to Mt. Gox. The reasoning behind the $5 million seizure: Mt. Gox, like Caldwell, hadn’t registered itself as a money transmission business. …Because he runs a bitcoin-only business, Caldwell says there’s no Casascius bank account for authorities to seize. But he adds that he has no desire to anger the feds, whether he agrees with them or not. So he’s cranking out his last few orders.

I’m not saying, by the way, that bitcoins are necessarily a good way to hold wealth.

But I do believe that it’s good to see the evolution of private forms of money as a hedge against bad government policy. As I wrote back in 2011, “I have no way of knowing how well this system will work and how insulated it will be from government interference, but I very much hope it will be successful. Governments will never behave if they think people have no escape options.”

Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats are in the process of trying to shut down that escape option.

P.S. Switching to a different topic, I don’t know if there are any big policy implications, but I was fascinated to find this map in my twitter feed. It shows the first word that pops up when you ask why a country is so ____?

Europe Google Results

Here are my observations, for what it’s worth. Luxembourg and Switzerland are tax havens, so it’s no surprise that they are rich. Other nations should mimic their successful policies.

Norway, meanwhile, is rich because of oil.

I had no idea the Italians were supposed to be racist, though obviously this map merely shows what Google users are searching for, not what’s actually true.

I’m mystified that Macedonia is “important,” though I suspect Greece was similarly labeled because it is the first domino of the European debt crisis. Hardly something to be proud of.

I’m also surprised that Lithuanians are perceived as suicidal. Isn’t that a Swedish stereotype?

Croatia is beautiful, I’ll agree, at least along the coast.

The neglected people from Montenegro don’t even get a word! Heck, even the Kosovars and Moldovans have Google words.

I won’t comment on the stereotype about France, other than to say that the nation did get in the top-10 on a poll for attractiveness.

P.P.S. Since we’re discussing European stereotypes, here’s some politically incorrect terrorism humor from a British friend.

P.P.P.S. Speaking of stereotypes, here’s some polling data on how the Europeans see each other. I’m not sure how to interpret these results, other than to say that trustworthy people apparently are arrogant and lack compassion.

P.P.P.P.S. It goes without saying that I can’t resist the temptation to share these satirical maps on how the Greeks and Brits view their European neighbors.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Since the main topic of this post is money laundering, let’s end with a joke about how President Obama dealt with these foolish laws.

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I realize we’re in the middle of a government shutdown and there’s a debt limit deadline rapidly approaching, but I’m not going to write about fiscal policy today.

Instead, I’m going to share a story about evil and stupid government policy. I guess you could say this is part of my why-decent-people-should-be-libertarian series. Previous editions – all of which highlight examples of innocent people having their lives turned upside down by the state – include these horror stories.

Now watch this powerful video from the Institute for Justice and see whether it’s also an example of heartless and oppressive government.

The answer – if you believe in fairness, decency, and the rule of law – is that this definitely belongs on that list. What the federal government has done to the Dehko family is utterly despicable and a horrifying episode of thievery.

Just as other examples of bureaucratic theft should get us upset.

In the case of the Dehko family, they got in trouble (notwithstanding the fact that they did nothing wrong) because of so-called anti-money laundering laws.

These laws were instituted beginning about 30 years ago based on the theory that we could lower crime rates by making it more difficult for crooks to utilize the financial system.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, at least in theory. But as I explain in this video, these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

As you might expect, politicians and bureaucrats have decided to double down on failure and they’re making anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact. This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

So we’ll see more people victimized, like the Dehko family.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this piece. At what point do well-meaning people connect the dots and conclude that government is a danger to liberty?

And when you draw this obvious conclusion, isn’t it time to become a libertarian?

This doesn’t mean you have to be a pot-smoking, Rand-quoting stereotype. Instead, it simply means that you have a healthy distrust of unlimited state power and you think individuals should have both the freedom and responsibility to manage their own lives.

To see where you stand, here are a couple of quizzes.

A just-for-the-fun-of-it quiz I put together involving pot, police cars, and a tractor.

A thorough quiz on libertarian purity.

Last but not least, if you decide to be a libertarian, I hope you can figure out how to make our cause more popular.

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A reader wants to know if I think the American people are becoming more statist over time.

I’m conflicted. More and more people get lured into some form of government dependency every year, and this suggests Americans eventually will adopt a  European-style moocher mentality.

This worries me.

On the other hand, I periodically see polls suggesting that the American people have very libertarian views on key issues.

These are encouraging numbers. And here’s another bit of good news. A recent poll by Fox News found that a plurality of Americans would not give up personal freedoms to reduce the threat of terrorism. What’s especially remarkable is that this poll took place immediately following the bombing of the Boston Marathon by the welfare-sponging Tsarnaev brothers.

Terrorism Freedom Tradeoff

Interestingly, I had a conversation with a left-leaning friend who said this poll showed that Americans were a bunch of “paranoid nuts” because this poll showed that they viewed their government with suspicion.

But perhaps people are simply rational. I had an intern look up data on the probability of getting killed by a terrorist. He found an article from Reason that reported.

…a rough calculation suggests that in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000.

In other words, the odds of being killed by a terrorist are very low. And with the risk so low, why give up liberty? Particularly when it’s highly unlikely that sacrificing more of your freedom will actually reduce the already-low threat of terrorism.

This reminds me of the money laundering issue. Just a few decades ago, there was no such thing as anti-money laundering laws. Then politicians decided we need these laws to reduce crime.

These laws, we were told, would give law enforcement more tools to catch bad guys and also reduce the incentive to commit crimes since it would be harder for criminals to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

That sounds good, but the evidence shows that these laws have become very expensive and intrusive, yet they’ve had no measurable impact on crime rates.

So how did politicians respond? In a stereotypical display of Mitchell’s Law, they decided to make anti-money laundering laws more onerous, imposing ever-higher costs in hopes of having some sort of positive impact.

This is bad for banks, bad for the poor, and bad for the economy.

So when I see polls showing the American people are skeptical about surrendering freedom to the government, I don’t think they are being “paranoid.” I think they’re being very rational.

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Why do words like “snitch” and “narc” have distasteful connotations?

And why don’t we hold “tattle tales” and “stool pigeons” in high regard?

Is it because we think people should be able to do bad things and get away with it? Do we like misbehavior to go unpunished?

I think the answer to these last two questions is an emphatic NO. Close to 100 percent of people would want the authorities to know if any of us overheard a terrorist plot. Or somehow found out about a murder. Or knew about some dirtbag who had raped someone.

SnitchYet we still don’t like “narcs” and “stool pigeons,” probably because we know that some rules are bad, misguided, or foolish. For all intents and purposes, most Americans have libertarian sensibilities about victimless crimes.

So while we approve of “tattle tales” if it means we catch genuine criminals who violate the rights of others, we look down on the “snitch” who rats out the guy smoking a joint, the jerk who informs the IRS on a small business owner hiding income, and the weasel who tells the local planning gestapo that someone is remodeling their basement without government approval.

I’ve previously shared nauseating stories about Soviet-style tax informant programs in both Chicago and the United Kingdom (where they’re actually encouraging kids to turn in their parents!).

The state of New York is engaging in the same reprehensible tactics, only this time the target is guns rather than money.

Here are some of the nauseating details from a story in the Daily Caller.

For more than a year, New York state has maintained a tip line allowing people to report illegal gun owners and collect a $500 reward. …A February 2012 press release from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office first publicly announced the tip line, saying it was designed to “encourage citizens to report illegal firearm possession.” …On the Facebook page for The Record’s story, several users criticized the tip line for apparently encouraging New Yorkers to spy on each other.

Of course, sometimes the government actually requires us to spy on each other, as is the case with money laundering laws that criminalize innocent behaviors in a costly, intrusive, and ineffective effort to reduce crime.

Not surprisingly, the government is defending this campaign to turn people into stool pigeons for illegitimate reasons.

…a spokesperson for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services defended the program. “This program has been in place for more than a year and is aimed only at getting illegal crime guns off the streets: a goal that every New Yorker can agree with,” wrote Janine Kava, director of public information at NYS DCJS.

What the government should be doing, needless to say, it getting people who do bad things off the street. And that means investigating, arresting, prosecuting, and punishing those who abridge the rights of other people.

It does not mean arbitrarily criminalizing inanimate objects such as guns.

And as this young lady says, the government should only get the guns of law-abiding people under very particular circumstances.

P.S. Andrew Cuomo also happens to be a former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, where he infamously was in charge of imposing so-called affordable lending requirements that helped start the bad Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac policies that eventually led to the housing bubble and financial crisis.

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I’ve complained many times about the pointless nature of anti-money laundering laws. They impose very high costs and force banks to spy on their customers, but they are utterly ineffective as a weapon against criminal activity. Yet politicians and bureaucrats keep making a bad system worse, and the latest development is a silly scheme to ban $100 bills!

It also seems that poor people are the main victims of these expensive and intrusive laws. According to a new World Bank study, half of all adults do not have a bank account, with 18 percent of those people (click on nearby chart for more info) citing documentation requirements – generally imposed as part of anti-money laundering rules – as a reason for being unable to participate in the financial system.

But this understates the impact on the poor. Of those without bank accounts, 25 percent said cost was a factor, as seen in the chart below. But one of the reasons that costs are high is that banks incur regulatory expenses for every customer, in large part because of anti-money laundering requirements, and then pass those on to consumers.

Here are some of the key points in the World Bank report.

The data show that 50 percent of adults worldwide have an account at a formal financial institution… Although half of adults around the world remain unbanked, at least 35 percent of them report barriers to account use that might be addressed by public policy. …The Global Findex survey, by asking more than 70,000 adults without a formal account why they do not have one, provides insights into where policy makers might begin to make inroads in improving financial inclusion. …Documentation requirements for opening an account may exclude workers in the rural or informal sector, who are less likely to have wage slips or formal proof of domicile. …Analysis shows a significant relationship between subjective and objective measures of documentation requirements as a barrier to account use, even after accounting for GDP per capita (figure 1.14). Indeed, the Financial Action Task Force, recognizing that overly cautious Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (AML/CFT) safeguards can have the unintended consequence of excluding legitimate businesses and consumers from the financial system, has emphasized the need to ensure that such safeguards also support financial inclusion.

One would hope honest leftists, who claim to care about the poor, would join with libertarians to roll back absurd anti-money laundering requirements. Heck, one would hope honest conservatives, who claim to be against pointless red tape, would join the fight as well.

Here’s the video I narrated on the general topic of money laundering laws. I think it makes very good points, but I wish this data had been available when I did the video so I could explain how low-income people are the main victims.

Last but not least, I should point out that statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

P.S. You probably didn’t realize you could make a joke involving money laundering, but here’s one starring President Obama.

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I’ve periodically written about the overall cost of regulation, and I’ve also highlighted the onerous costs of proposals such as the Dodd-Frank bailout bill.

This blurb from the IFC Review may give readers a sense of the regulatory onslaught facing financial institutions.

Banks and other financial services firms had to deal with 60 regulatory changes each working day during 2011, according to a report from Thomson Reuters Governance, Risk & Compliance, reports City AM. Regulators around the world announced 14,215 changes in 2011, a 16 per cent increase from the 12,179 announcements in 2010. The report shows that the majority of regulatory activity, 57 per cent, came from the US… Scott McCleskey, head of financial services regulation at the GRC unit, said: “This growth in activity also has an effect on the level of compliance spending leaving less to lend, invest, and do the other core activities which will be necessary to revive the global economy.”

Wow, an average of 60 regulations every single day. Great for lobbyists and politicians. Not so good for competitiveness and prosperity.

Now let’s touch on just one specific part of the regulatory burden. Banks and other financial firms must deal with a costly array of laws and regulations as part of the government’s war on money laundering. This video explains the issue.

Now let’s consider whether we’re getting any bang for the buck. We know anti-money laundering (AML) laws impose very high costs and make it difficult for many poor people to get banking services.

But are there some offsetting benefits? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no. Professor Jason Sharman explains, starting with an explanation of the scope and cost of AML policies.

It is now just over 20 years since the first international anti-money agreements were concluded….Since then, the monitoring and implementation of AML standards have morphed into a global industry. …A vast array of financial institutions, from banks to brokers, insurance firms to casinos, money remitters to hedge funds, have now been conscripted into monitoring their clients for signs of suspicious financial activity. All this has imposed substantial costs on governments, private financial firms, and, indirectly, consumers, with the burden being especially significant for International Financial Centres.

He then raises a very important question, but one that everyone else seems to ignore.

…it is disconcerting how seldom the most obvious questions about this system are asked. First amongst these is whether AML standards actually work. That is to say, is there any less money laundered now than there was 20 years ago?  Is there any less predicate crime that gives rise to these dirty funds in the first place? Despite all the evaluations performed by the FATF, other international organisations, national governments and the army of private AML experts that has grown up, it is striking that these sort of first-order questions are almost never asked, let alone answered.

Given the incompetence of government, you won’t be shocked to learn that the bureaucrats view the laws as an excuse for empire building and bloat.

Surprisingly, however, one can read through thousands of pages of FATF reports, covering everything from football to free-trade zones, without finding much, if any, attention devoted to these measures. Instead, the international surveillance and monitoring system that judges almost every country to see whether they have ‘the right stuff’ in AML terms has tended to foster a bureaucratic game of goal displacement: means to an end have become ends in themselves.

And what about stopping crime?

The most careful studies of effectiveness (both in absolute terms and relative to the cost) have been done by those outside the system, for example scholars like Peter Reuter, Edwin Truman, Jackie Harvey and Michael Levi. Each of these observers notes the mismatch whereby we have an incredibly extensive and intrusive policy apparatus, but very little knowledge about the results produced. On the basis of the fragmentary evidence that is available, however, it is hard to see any impact that AML rules have made on the incidence of crime.  The general conclusion is that the expansion of the AML regime owes more to a political imperative to ‘do something’ in response to hot-button issues like crime or terrorism, rather than any track record of success.

Remarkable. Billions upon billions of regulatory costs. The immeasurable loss of privacy because of government-mandated snooping and spying. Yet all for naught.

And now the statists are even talking about getting rid of the $100 bill, making life even more inconvenient.

Maybe the answer is less regulation? Maybe the answer is that politicians and bureaucrats should do cost-benefit tests? But those types of rules would mean less government and more freedom, so don’t hold your breath.

P.S. This map shows you the countries considered most at risk of dirty money, which should make you wonder why anyone is foolish enough to think that higher costs on American banks will make a difference.

P.P.S. You probably didn’t realize there was such a thing as money laundering humor, but you’ll enjoy this joke featuring President Obama.

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Feel free, of course, to insert the name of another politician if you’re an Obama fan.

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President Obama walks into the Bank of America on Martha’s Vineyard to cash a check. As he approaches the cashier he says “Good morning Ma’am, could you please cash this check for me”?

Cashier: “It would be my pleasure sir. Could you please show me your ID”?

Obama: “Truthfully, I did not bring my ID with me as I didn’t think there was any need to. I am President Barrack Obama, the president of the United States of America!!!!”

Cashier: “Yes sir, I know who you are, but with all the regulations and monitoring of the banks because of know-your-customer rules and anti-money laundering laws, etc, I must insist on seeing ID”

Obama: “Just ask anyone here at the bank who I am and they will tell you. Everybody knows who I am”

Cashier: “I am sorry Mr. President but these are government rules and I must follow them.”

Obama: “I am urging you please to cash this check.”

Cashier: “Look Mr. President this is what we can do: One day Tiger Woods came into the bank without ID. To prove he was Tiger Woods he pulled out his putting iron and made a beautiful shot across the bank into a cup. With that shot we knew him to be Tiger Woods and cashed his check. Another time, Andre Agassi came in without ID. He pulled out his tennis racquet and made a fabulous shot whereas the tennis ball landed in my cup. With that spectacular shot we cashed his check. So, Mr. President, what can you do to prove that it is you, and only you, as the President of the United States?”

Obama stood there thinking, and thinking and finally says: “Honestly, there is nothing that comes to my mind. I can’t think of a single qualification I’m really good at”

Cashier: “Will that be large or small bills, Mr. President?”

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P.S. To be serious for a moment, click here to see why anti-money laundering rules are misguided.

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Being the world’s self-appointed defender of so-called tax havens has led to some rather bizarre episodes.

The bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the horrible crime of standing in the public lobby of a hotel and giving advice to low-tax jurisdictions.

On a more amusing note, my efforts to defend tax havens made me the beneficiary of grade inflation and I was listed as the 244th most important person in the world of global  finance – even higher than George Soros and Paul Krugman.

But if that makes it seem as if the battle is full of drama and (exaggerated) glory, that would be a gross exaggeration. More than 99 percent of my time on this issue is consumed by the difficult task of trying to convince policy makers that tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy should be celebrated rather than persecuted.

Sort of like convincing thieves that it’s a good idea for houses to have alarm systems.

And it means I’m also condemned to the never-ending chore of debunking left-wing attacks on tax havens. The big-government crowd viscerally despises these jurisdictions because tax competition threatens the ability of politicians to engage in class warfare/redistribution policies.

Here’s a typical example. Paul Vallely has a column, entitled “There is no moral case for tax havens,” in the UK-based Independent.

To determine whether tax havens are immoral, let’s peruse Mr. Vallely’s column. It begins with an attack on Ugland House in the Cayman Islands.

There is a building in the Cayman Islands that is home to 12,000 corporations. It must be a very big building. Or a very big tax scam.

If lying is immoral, this is a quick black mark on Mr. Vallely rather than tax havens. I’ve already explained, in a post eviscerating an empty-suit Senator from North Dakota, that a company’s home is merely the place where it is chartered for legal purposes. A firm’s legal domicile has nothing to do with where it does business or where it is headquartered.

In other words, there is nothing nefarious about Ugland House, just as there is nothing wrong with the small building in Delaware that is home to more than 200,000 companies. Obama, by the way, demagogued about Ugland House during the 2008 campaign.

Now that we’ve established that the author is a careless and know-nothing hack, let’s see what else he has to say.

Are there any legitimate reasons why anyone would want to have a secret bank account – and pay a premium to maintain their anonymity – or move their money to one of the pink dots on the map which are the final remnants of the British empire: the Caymans, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands?

Actually, there are lots of people who have very compelling reasons to keep their money in havens, and only a tiny minority of them are escaping onerous tax burdens.What about:

o Jews in North Africa and the Middle East?

o Persecuted ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines?

o Political dissidents in places such as Russia and Venezuela?

o Entrepreneurs in thug regimes such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe?

o Families threatened by kidnapping failed states such as Mexico?

o Homosexuals in murderous regimes such as Iran?

As this video explains, there are billions of people around the world that are subject to state-sanctioned (or at least state-permitted) religious, ethnic, racial, political, sexual, and economic persecution. These people are especially likely to be targeted if they have any money, so the ability to invest their assets offshore and keep that information hidden from venal governments can, in some cases, be a life-or-death matter.

And let’s not forget the residents of failed states, where crime, expropriation, kidnapping, corruption, extortion, and economic mismanagement are ubiquitous. These people also need havens where they can safely and confidentially invest their money.

The author of the column is probably oblivious to these practical, real-world concerns. Instead, he is content with sweeping proclamations.

The moral case against is clear enough. Tax havens epitomise unfairness, cheating and injustice. .

But if he is against unfairness, cheating, and injustice, why does he want to empower the institution – government – that is the source of oppression in the world?

To be fair, our left-wing friend does attempt to address the other side of the argument.

Apologists insist that tax havens protect individual liberty. They promote the accumulation of capital, fair competition between nations and better tax law elsewhere in the world. They also foster economic growth. …Yet even if all that were true – and it is not – does it outweigh the ethical harm they do? The numbered bank accounts of tax havens are notoriously sanctuaries for the spoils of theft, fraud, bribery, terrorism, drug-dealing, illegal betting, money-laundering and plunder by Arab despots such as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali, all of whom had Swiss accounts frozen.

But he can’t resist trying to discredit the economic argument by resorting to more demagoguery, asserting that tax havens are shadowy regimes. Not surprisingly, he offers no supporting data. Moreover, you won’t be surprised to learn that the real-world evidence directly contradicts what he wrote. The most comprehensive analysis of dirty money finds 28 problem jurisdictions, and only one could be considered a tax haven.

Last but not least, the author addresses the issue that really motivates the left – the potential loss of access to other people’s money, funds that they want the government to confiscate and redistribute.

Christian Aid reckons that tax dodging costs developing countries at least $160bn a year – far more than they receive in aid. The US research centre Integrity estimated that more than $1.2trn drained out of poor countries illicitly in 2008 alone. …Some say an attack on tax havens is an attack on wealth creation. It is no such thing. It is a demand for the good functioning of capitalism, balancing the demands of efficiency and of justice, and placing a value on social harmony.

There are several problems with this passage, including the (perhaps deliberate) mixing of tax evasion and tax avoidance. But the key point is that the burden of government spending in most nations is now at record levels, undermining prosperity and reducing growth. Why should add more fuel to the fire by giving politicians even more money to waste?

Let’s now shift from the inaccurate ramblings of a left-winger to some real-world evidence. The Wall Street Journal has an article on the Canton of Zug, Switzerland’s tax haven within a tax haven. This hopefully won’t surprise anyone, but low-tax policies have been very beneficial for Zug.

Developed nations from Japan to America are desperate for growth, but this tiny lake-filled Swiss canton is wrestling with a different problem: too much of it. Zug’s history of rock-bottom tax rates, for individuals and corporations alike, has brought it an A-list of multinational businesses. Luxury shops abound, government coffers are flush, and there are so many jobs that employers sometimes have a hard time finding people to fill them. …If Switzerland is the world’s most famous tax haven, Zug amounts to a haven within a haven.

Here’s some of the evidence of how better fiscal policy promotes prosperity. This is economic data, to be sure, but isn’t the choice between growth and stagnation also a moral issue?

Zug long was a poor farming region, but in 1947 its leaders began to trim tax rates in an effort to attract companies and the well-heeled. In Switzerland, two-thirds of total taxes, including individual and corporate income taxes, are levied by the cantons, not the central government. The cantons also wield other powers that enable them compete for business, such as the authority to make residency and building permits easy to get. …businesses moved in, many establishing regional headquarters. Over the past decade, the number of companies with operations of some sort in the canton jumped to 30,000 from 19,000. The number of jobs in Zug rose 20% in six years, driven by the economic boom and foreign companies’ efforts to minimize their taxes. At a time when the unemployment rate in the European Union (to which Switzerland doesn’t belong) is 9.4%, Zug’s is 1.9%.

It turns out that Zug is growing so fast that lawmakers actually want to discourage more investment. What a nice problem to have.

Describing Zug’s development as “astonishing,” Matthias Michel, the head of the canton government, said, “We are too small for the success we have had.” …Zug has largely stopped trying to lure more multinationals, according to Mr. Michel.

Its worth pointing out that the residents of Zug are not some sort of anomaly. The rest of Switzerland is filled with people who recognize the value of limited government.

…the Swiss are mostly holding fast to their fiscal beliefs. Last November, in a national referendum, they overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have established a minimum 22% tax rate on incomes over 250,000 francs, or about $315,000.

Sadly, even though the world is filled with evidence that smaller government is good for prosperity (and even more evidence that big government is bad for growth), statism is not abating.

Indeed, the left’s anti-tax haven campaign continues to gain steam. At a recent OECD meeting, high-tax nations (with the support of the Obama Administration) put in place a bureaucratic monstrosity that is likely to become a world tax organization.

This global tax cartel will be akin to an OPEC for politicians, and the impact on taxpayers will be quite similar to the impact of the real OPEC on motorists.

If that’s a moral outcome, then I want to be a hedonist.

To conclude, here are two other videos on tax havens. This one looks at the economic issues.

And here’s a video debunking some of the usual attacks on low-tax jurisdictions.

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As a grumpy libertarian, I routinely get agitated about taxes, spending, and regulation. As far as I’m concerned, much of government is a racket that uses coercion to reward interest groups with unearned wealth.

But there are degrees of evil. So if you asked me to pick the most reprehensible thing that government does,  “asset forfeiture” might be in second place (hurting poor people to benefit rich people is at the top of my list).

Asset forfeiture occurs when government seizes property that is associated with a crime. That sounds reasonable – and it is reasonable if someone is convicted of, say, bank robbery and the government confiscates the stolen cash and any loot purchased with that money.

But it is not reasonable (or moral, or just, or appropriate) when government seizes assets without a conviction. And it is downright disgusting when the government steals (and I use that word deliberately) the assets of innocent parties.

I’ve already written about this issue (including an example from my county) and highlighted how asset forfeiture gives government bureaucracies a perverse incentive to steal.

Now we have a story from the Wall Street Journal that confirms our worst fears.

New York businessman James Lieto was an innocent bystander in a fraud investigation last year. Federal agents seized $392,000 of his cash anyway. An armored-car firm hired by Mr. Lieto to carry money for his check-cashing company got ensnared in the FBI probe. Agents seized about $19 million—including Mr. Lieto’s money—from vaults belonging to the armored-car firm’s parent company. He is one among thousands of Americans in recent decades who have had a jarring introduction to the federal system of asset seizure. Some 400 federal statutes—a near-doubling, by one count, since the 1990s—empower the government to take assets from convicted criminals as well as people never charged with a crime. …The forfeiture system has opponents across the political spectrum, including representatives of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and the Heritage Foundation on the right. They argue it represents a widening threat to innocent people. “We are paying assistant U.S. attorneys to carry out the theft of property from often the most defenseless citizens,” given that people sometimes have limited resources to fight a seizure after their assets are taken, says David Smith, a former Justice Department forfeiture official and now a forfeiture lawyer in Alexandria, Va.

What’s really amazing is that government officials want to expand this reprehensible practice. The use of “civil forfeiture” is particularly worrisome, as illustrated by this passage.

Top federal officials are also pushing for greater use of civil-forfeiture proceedings, in which assets can be taken without criminal charges being filed against the owner. In a civil forfeiture, the asset itself—not the owner of the asset—is technically the defendant. In such a case, the government must show by a preponderance of evidence that the property was connected to illegal activity. In a criminal forfeiture, the government must first win a conviction against an individual, where the burden of proof is higher.

Here’s a really disgusting example.

Raul Stio, a New Jersey businessman, is caught up in the civil-forfeiture world. Last October, the Internal Revenue Service, suspicious of Mr. Stio’s bank deposits, seized more than $157,000 from his account. Mr. Stio hasn’t been charged with a crime. In a court filing in his pending civil case, the Justice Department alleges that Mr. Stio’s deposits were structured to illegally avoid an anti-money-laundering rule that requires a cash transaction of more than $10,000 to be reported to federal authorities. Mr. Stio made 21 deposits over a four-month period, each $10,000 or less, the filing said. Steven L. Kessler, Mr. Stio’s attorney, says there was no attempt to evade the law and that the deposits merely reflected the amount of cash his client’s businesses, a security firm and bar, had produced. Mr. Stio was saving to buy a house, he says.

I have no idea whether Mr. Stio is a good guy or a crook. But I know that the government shouldn’t be allowed to grab his money without convicting him of a crime. Especially for a supposed offense against absurdly foolish and ill-conceived anti-money laundering laws.

Our Founding Fathers gave us a presumption of innocence and no bureaucrat or politician should be allowed to cancel our constitutional rights.

Asset forfeiture should apply to people like Bernie Madoff. He’s been convicted of operating a Ponzi scheme, so by all means grab every penny he accumulated. But government should follow a simple rule: Convict first, seize second.

And here’s one final section from the story, highlighting how bureaucracies “earn” a profit by abusing forfeiture laws.

Part of the debate over seizures involves a potential conflict of interest: Under a 1984 federal law, state and local law-enforcement agencies that work with Uncle Sam on seizures get to keep up to 80% of the proceeds. Last year, under this “equitable-sharing” program, the federal government paid out more than $500 million, up about 75% from a decade ago. The payments give authorities an “improper profit incentive” to seize assets, says Scott Bullock of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm in Arlington, Va. It’s a particular concern amid current state and local government budget problems, he contends. …Seeming abuses occasionally emerge. In 2008, federal Judge Joseph Bataillon ordered the return of $20,000 taken from a man during a traffic stop in Douglas County, Neb. Judge Battaillon quoted from a recording of the seizure, in which a sheriff’s deputy complained about the man’s attitude and suggested “we take his money and, um, count it as a drug seizure.” The judge’s order said the case produced “overwhelming evidence” that the funds were clean.

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The Washington Post has an interesting report about the huge amount of money that Fairfax County spends to go after gambling. The story cites critics who ask “why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. The answer is obvious – and explicit in the story: “…police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases.” In other words, harassing the gambling business is a profit-making endeavor for police. And it also can be deadly since cops killed an optometrist during a SWAT arrest. The Institute for Justice has a powerful video on the dangers of “policing for profit,” and Fairfax County is just one bad example of how this lures cops into misallocating resources to fight behaviors that shouldn’t even be illegal.
It’s football season, and for millions of Americans that means betting season. …It’s a crime that Fairfax County police take seriously. So seriously that in one recent gambling investigation, they spent — and lost — more than $300,000 in cash to take down a Las Vegas-based online bookie and his group of Fairfax-based associates. …Police critics have long wondered why law enforcement spends valuable time and money on combating sports gambling. In Fairfax, the police rarely publicize their arrests, and the details of their investigations are little known outside the small corps of detectives in the money laundering unit. Unlike drug cases, police in Virginia are allowed to keep 100 percent of the assets they seize in state gambling cases, so other agencies or divisions receive no benefit. And the vast majority of those arrested are placed on probation. “What a waste,” said Nicholas Beltrante, founder of the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability, a group formed earlier this year in part to combat unnecessary police spending. “The police should be utilizing their resources for more serious crimes.” Fairfax’s most notorious gambling investigation ended in disaster. In 2006, an undercover detective lost more than $5,000 while betting on NFL games with optometrist Salvatore J. Culosi — and when the detective called in a SWAT team to make the arrest, an officer shot Culosi once in the heart and killed him. …Since 2004, the squad has seized about $1 million in cash and assets annually, but some of those cases landed in federal court, where money is divided among various agencies, Schaible said. …One case from 2006, that of admitted bookmaker Kyle Peters, resulted in police seizing and keeping $566,940 from his bank accounts. Schaible said such funds are recycled “back into investigating cases. It’s helping us resolve these and fight further crime.”

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There’s a principled Fourth Amendment argument against anti-money laundering laws. In  this video, however, I mostly focus on the cost-benefit issue, explaining that the fight against crime will be more effective if law enforcement is not forced to look for a needle in a haystack.

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Demagogues such as Senator Carl Levin, as well as many other politicians and journalists, often assert that low-tax jurisdictions are havens for dirty money and terrorist financing. From a theoretical perspective, this does not make sense. So-called tax havens have a big incentive to avoid scandal since they are much more vulnerable to reputational risk. Just imagine what would happened, after all, if the 9-11 terrorists had used a bank in the Bahamas instead of a bank in Florida. Critics of low-tax jurisdictions automatically would have assumed that the bank was complicit and the entire financial services industry in the Bahamas would have been crippled – or even destroyed. But because the terrorists used American banks (as well as banks in high-tax European nations and the Middle East), there was not a knee-jerk reaction. People understood that the bank tellers and managers had no way of knowing that the flight school students were actually lunatics.

But this does not stop the anti-tax haven smear campaign. Low-tax jurisdictions are viewed as a threat by politicians since it is much harder to impose bad tax policy in a world where tax competition is allowed to flourish. This is why tax havens are attacked whenever something bad happens. If there is a terrorist attack, blame tax havens. If there is a financial crisis, blame tax havens.

With this in mind, a new report from the University of Basel’s Institute of Governance did some real research and came up with a list of nations where there actually is a high risk of money laundering and terrorist financing. As the map below indicates, only one so-called tax haven is among the 28 countries listed, and that nation was in the lowest-risk category.

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In this short video produced by the French free-market website, Un Monde Libre, I wax poetic about the need to restrain the greed of the political class.

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