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Archive for the ‘Financial Privacy’ Category

I wrote a four-part series about how governments are waging a war against cash, with the first two columns looking at why politicians are so interested in taking this radical step.

  • In Part I, I looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, I reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.

Part III and Part IV are also worth reading, though I confess you’ll just get additional evidence to bolster what I wrote in the first two columns.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of what happens when a government seeks to curtail cash. It happened in India last November, and I wrote about the disruption that was caused when the government banned certain notes.

But maybe the short-run costs were acceptable because there are long-run benefits. That’s certainly possible, but the evidence suggests that the Indian government is doing long-run damage.

Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute has a new column on what’s happening with India’s economy. He is not impressed.

There is certainly a long-standing and extensive corruption problem. The discussion of “black money” has become so absurd, however, that it has little relation to corruption. …Taking currency notes out of circulation in a surprise move late last year was said to target black money inside the country. Seizure of cash was justified by a huge amount of hidden funds. …For political reasons, black money is being wildly exaggerated as an economic issue. …Directly related to hoping there is trillions in black money is wanting to tax those mythical trillions. All governments chase revenue but India’s pursuit seems especially misguided. …Good policy enhances competition and individual economic rights for the sake of greater productivity and personal income. Being obsessed with black money, tax revenue, and GDP growth does nothing to enhance competition or individual rights and leaves ordinary Indians worse off.

India’s central bank is even more critical, bluntly stating that the plan failed, as reported by the BBC.

Indians returned almost all of the high-currency notes banned in last year’s shock government crackdown on illegal cash, the central bank says. It said 15.28tn rupees ($242bn) – or 99% – of the money had made its way back into the banking system. Ministers had hoped the move would make it difficult for hoarders of undeclared wealth to exchange it for legal tender. The news that it did not will raise questions about the policy, which brought chaotic scenes across India. …Many low-income Indians, traders and ordinary savers who rely on the cash economy were badly hit. …As per the RBI data, it’s safe to say that demonetisation has been a failure of epic proportions. …Agriculture, the rural economy and property – which rely largely on cash transactions – were sectors hit by the ban. It also contributed to a slowdown in economic growth.

Indeed, the former head of the central bank warned the government ahead of time that the plan wouldn’t work. Here are some details from a Bloomberg story.

Raghuram Rajan was governor of the Reserve Bank of India in February 2016, when he was asked by the government for his views on demonetization… “Although there may be long-term benefits, I felt the likely short-term economic costs would outweigh them, and felt there were potentially better alternatives to achieve the main goals,” he wrote in the book. “I made these views known in no uncertain terms.” …speculation has raged over who thought up the policy, with the debate getting more divisive last week as a slew of data showed demonetization contributed to a growth slump without meeting its targets. …the cash ban devastated small businesses. More than 1.5 million jobs were said to be lost and newspapers reported deaths linked to the decision.

Rajan correctly observed that the best way to boost tax compliance is with low tax rates.

“It’s not that easy to flush out the black money,” Rajan had said, using the local term for cash stashed away illegally to avoid tax. He added that he’d rather focus on the incentives for black money, such as tax rates.

Amen. This is a point I’ve made over and over and over and over again.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express also has a column, written by a former Chief Economist at the World Bank, on how demonetization has been a failure.

…a wealth of analysis and data have become available. Demonetisation’s half-anniversary is a good time to take stock of this historic decision. The verdict is clear. It was a monetary policy blunder. It achieved next to nothing, and inflicted a large cost on the poor and the informal sector. …demonetisation took the wind out of India’s sails. My calculation is that around 1.5 percentage points of growth were lost to it.

A column in the Harvard Business Review pours cold water on the notion that demonetization is an effective way of reducing corruption.

The original reason given for the drastic demonetization action was to expose the so-called “black” market, fueled by money that is illegally gained and undeclared for tax purposes. …banks were estimated to have received 14.97 trillion rupees (around $220 billion) by the December 30 deadline, or 97% of the 15.4 trillion rupees’ worth of currency demonetized. …These rates of deposits defied expectations that vast troves of undeclared wealth would not find their way back to the banks and that black marketeers would lose this money since they would not be able to deposit their undeclared cash without being found out. This didn’t happen.

It probably “didn’t happen” because the government was wildly wrong when it claimed that cash was the problem.

…when corrupt people need places to park their ill-gotten gains, cash normally is not at the top of their list. Only a tiny proportion of undeclared wealth is held in cash. In an analysis of income-tax probes, the highest level of illegal money detection in India was found to be in 2015–2016, and the cash component was only about 6%. The remaining was invested in business, stocks, real estate, jewelry, or “benami” assets, which are bought in someone else’s name.

Indeed, the Washington Post reports that the new notes already are being used for illegal purposes.

For the first few weeks of demonetization, it was common to meet Indians who felt that their collective suffering and inconvenience was justified because it would ultimately usher in a less corrupt, more equal India. But as the initiative enters its second month, more and more reports are emerging of seizures of vast quantities of hoarded cash in the new notes. Like water reaching the sea, the corrupt, it seems, have found ways to navigate around the government’s new obstacles. …A sense is building that while millions of Indians languish in ATM lines, the old black money system is simply restarting itself with the new notes.

The real story is that the corruption is caused by government, not cash.

The biggest question is how people are getting their hands on such huge stashes of the new currency. …one way: visiting your local politician.

What’s especially disappointing is that the United States government took money from American taxpayers and used those funds to encourage India’s failed policy.

And here are some excerpts from a report by the Hindu.

The United States on Wednesday described India’s demonetisation drive as an “important and necessary” step to curb illicit cash and actions. “…this was, we believe, an important and necessary step to crack down on illegal actions,” Mark Toner, State Department spokesperson, said in response to a question. …Acknowledging that the move inconvenienced people, Mr. Toner said it was “a necessary one to address the corruption.”

It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. government was encouraging India’s bad policy during the waning days of the Obama Administration, so it’s possible that taxpayers no longer will be funding bad policy now that Trump is in the White House.

I hope there’s a change, but I won’t hold my breath. The permanent bureaucracy has a statist orientation and it takes a lot of work for political appointees to shift policy in a different direction. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that will happen

P.S. The Indian government also is hurting the nation – and poor people – with a value-added tax. Bloomberg has a report on some of the misery.

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the country’s new goods and services tax on July 1, Ansari said he was earning 6,000 rupees ($93) a day selling leather jackets, wallets, bags and belts. But India’s new tax classified leather products as luxury items and raised the rate to 28 percent — more than double the 13.5 percent tax levied until June 30. Since then, his business has collapsed. “My business is down nearly 75 percent,” Ansari said… India’s vast informal economy — which accounts for more than 90 percent of the workforce — is struggling under India’s new tax rates…broader pain being felt by many small-and-medium-sized businesses in India’s informal sector, said K.E. Raghunathan, president of the All India Manufacturers Organisation.

The bottom line is that India needs more economic liberty, building on some good reforms in the 1990s. Unfortunately, politicians today are delivering bigger government.

P.P.S. If you want to read about some symptoms of India’s bloated government, the country has a member in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, it also produced the most horrifying example of how handouts create bad incentives, and it mistreats private schools to compensate for the wretched failure of government schools.

P.P.P.S. Here’s a very powerful factoid. America has many immigrant populations that earn above-average incomes. But, by far, Indian-Americans are the most successful.

Just imagine, then, how fast India would grow and how rich the people would be with Hong Kong-style economic liberty?

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Republicans promised voters all sorts of pro-growth reforms. They assured us that they learned a lesson about the dangers of expanding government and calling it “compassionate conservatism.”

Give us control of both Congress and the White House, they said before the election, and we’ll move our agenda to limit government and drain the swamp in Washington.

  • Repeal Obamacare!
  • Cut tax rates!
  • Slash wasteful spending!
  • Reform entitlements!
  • Eliminate senseless red tape!

Of course, now that they’re in power, they’re getting cold feet. It now appears there will be reform of the disastrous Obamacare law, but not full repeal. Moreover, tax cuts are being jeopardized by a risky scheme for a $1 trillion “border-adjustable” tax hike. Based on Trump’s recent address to Congress, I’m also not holding my breath for much-needed spending cuts and entitlement reform. And it’s unclear whether we’ll see much progress cutting back on the mountains of regulation hindering economic vitality.

Even the easy promises may not be fulfilled.

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) is an odious law enacted back in 2010 when the left controlled all the levers of power. It’s horrible legislation that threatens the rest of the world with financial protectionism (a 30 percent levy on all money flowing out of the United States) unless foreign governments and foreign financial institutions agree to serve as deputy tax collectors for America’s anti-competitive worldwide tax system.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the Republican platform endorses the repeal of this onerous law.

But will GOPers deliver on that promise? Especially if the left unleashes the kind of demagoguery we often see in Congress and that we saw from Obama during the 2008 campaign?

I guess time will tell, but if the goal is good policy (and keeping promises), this law deserves to be tossed in the trash.

I’ve previously explained that FATCA is so brutal that it has led many overseas Americans to give up their citizenship simply because FATCA made their lives miserable. They couldn’t open bank accounts. They had trouble finding places to manage their investments. Even retirement accounts became a nightmare.

Some people said that these difficulties were just temporary and would disappear once everyone learned how the law operated.

Hardly. Let’s start with some data from a Bloomberg story that should be a wake-up call for the crowd in Washington.

The number of Americans renouncing their citizenship rose to a new record of 5,411 last year, up 26 percent from 2015, according to the latest government data. …Since Fatca came into being, annual totals for Americans renouncing citizenship have reached their four highest historic levels.

And here’s a chart showing this dismal trend.

The Wall Street Journal opines on this issue today.

…the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (Fatca) became law in 2010 to go after fat cats stashing money abroad, these pages have reported that it has led the IRS to treat law-abiding Americans as criminals. …Under Fatca, Americans must now report overseas holdings of more than $50,000 even if they owe no taxes, or else face crushing fines. For foreign financial institutions, the penalty for not giving the IRS what it wants to know about their American clients is a 30% withholding penalty on any U.S.-sourced payment to these institutions. …With the GOP controlling Congress and White House, the time is ripe for Republicans to make good on their pledge and give Fatca the heave-ho.

Amazingly, even the “taxpayer advocate” at the IRS recognizes the law is a disgrace, reversing the presumption of innocence in the Constitution.

The IRS has adopted an enforcement-oriented regime with respect to international taxpayers. Its operative assumption appears to be that all such taxpayers should be suspected of fraudulent activity, unless proven otherwise.

This is a remarkable development. I’ve groused before that the IRS’s taxpayer advocate has a bad habit of advocating for the IRS rather than the American people, so FATCA must be really bad to generate a report that actually defends the rights of taxpayers.

It’s also bad news for financial institutions.

An article in the Economist has some very remarkable admissions, including the fact that compliance costs will be at least twice as high as the tax revenue that ostensibly is being generated.

FATCA’s intrusiveness has caused concern among banks and fund managers. It raises big questions about data privacy. Compliance costs, mostly borne overseas, are likely to be at least double the revenue that the law will generate for America. The necessary overhauls of systems and procedures and the extra digging around to identify American clients could add $100m or more to a large bank’s administrative costs. No wonder bankers have dubbed FATCA the Fear And Total Confusion Act. An OECD tax official describes the law as “awful, in a way, like a nuclear bomb” but also sees it as “a remarkable leap forward for transparency”. …A further concern is the risk of misuse of information by corrupt administrations, or rogue government employees, such as the sale of personal financial data to would-be kidnappers.

It’s also revealing that an OECD bureaucrat thinks that an “awful…nuclear bomb” can be seen as a “remarkable leap forward.” I guess that’s the attitude we should expect from leftist bureaucrats who are exempt from paying tax on their own bloated salaries.

But I call it disgusting and I desperately hope that Trump gets rid of the subsidies that American taxpayers send to this parasitical Paris-based bureaucracy.

But I’m digressing.

Let’s now focus on how the law is an attack on the sovereignty of other nations (and how it creates a precedent that will be used to attack America’s fiscal sovereignty).

Some leftists justify this wretched law by saying it only targets so-called tax havens. But Trinidad and Tobago is hardly in that category. Yet because FATCA applies to the entire world, a senior official in that country very much hopes Trump will follow through on promises in the Republican platform to repeal the misguided legislation.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the leader of the opposition coalition in parliament, recently…discovered that the GOP had called for repeal of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca, which is best understood as a license for IRS imperialism. …Mrs. Persad-Bissessar wrote Donald Trump in January asking if he will keep this promise. …Mrs. Persad-Bissessar, a former prime minister, wants to know because the Trinidad and Tobago parliament is now considering changing the nation’s laws to accommodate Fatca.

Repeal would be good for T&T, but it also would be good for the USA.

Americans have an even bigger stake in the answer. …the law has become another example of gross federal overreach, adding another burden on Americans overseas who are already paying taxes where they live. The 2010 law has almost no parallel anywhere, for good reason. While most nations limit their taxes to income earned within their borders, the U.S. is among the smaller group of nations that taxes its citizens on global income. …The roughly eight million Americans working overseas have been hit hardest by this bad law. Some foreign banks and financial institutions have responded simply by refusing to take American customers, on grounds that Fatca requirements are more trouble than the business is worth. For similar reasons others do not want Americans as business partners. Many others of modest means who owe no U.S. taxes can still find themselves hit by hefty fines and penalties because they have fallen afoul of the reporting requirements.

Heck, even if the law isn’t repealed, Trump can defang it.

…the whole Fatca edifice has been built on the intergovernmental agreements that Treasury has negotiated with more than 100 countries—agreements for which there is no statutory authority or Congressional ratification. Mr. Trump could take the teeth out of Fatca by announcing he has suspended negotiations for future agreements and won’t enforce the ones we have. …Let’s hope President Trump gives the answer that Americans deserve, by making clear he intends to deliver on the GOP pledge to dismantle a bad law that never should have been passed.

Amen.

The law is also running into problems in Israel, another nation that hardly fits the “tax haven” definition. A Forbes columnist has a dismal assessment of this intrusive and destructive law.

…the Israeli High Court’s temporary injunction against the enforcement of America’s controversial global tax law FATCA should serve as “a wake-up call” for other nations to rethink enforcing this “toxic, flawed and imperialistic legislation,” according to the boss of a leading independent financial firm that advises high-net-worth individuals (HNWI’s) and expats globally. …“Justice Meltzer’s action should be championed,” deVere’s Green asserts, who is an outspoken critic of FATCA. “His wise caution should serve as a wake-up call for other countries to rethink enforcing this toxic, flawed, damaging legislation that is being imposed on sovereign states around the world by the U.S.” …FATCA could indeed be described as a “masterclass” in fiscal imperialism and unintended consequences. But also of concern is that the US is increasingly secret in matters of financial data. It’s no wonder some have labelled it “horrific” and a nightmare for financial institutions. …Perhaps unsurprisingly there a growing trend and an overwhelming number of U.S. citizens are giving up their American citizenship (citizenship abdications), which has been revealed by the U.S. Treasury Department. And, according to a survey conducted in early 2015 by deVere itself almost three quarters (73%) of Americans living overseas expressed the view that they were tempted to relinquish their U.S. passports.

Canada also is unhappy that the U.S. is engaging in an extraterritorial revenue grab.

Some 7m Americans outside the country (1m of them in Canada), along with an unknown number of “US persons”, are now caught in FATCA’s net. …Ms Hillis is fighting back through the courts. She and Gwen Deegan, an artist who has lived in Canada since she was five, filed a suit claiming that the Canadian government’s co-operation with FATCA violates a tax treaty and constitutional protections against discrimination. …If Ms Hillis and Ms Deegan win in court, Canada’s government will face an awkward choice between complying with the decision and exposing Canadian banks to huge penalties. The Alliance for the Defence of Canadian Sovereignty, which is paying the women’s legal expenses, has harvested donations from China, Vatican City and beyond.

These examples are why I wrote back in 2011 that Obama united the world…in opposition to bad US policy.

An article from CNBC highlights how bad the law is.

With an estimated 9 million Americans currently living overseas, the U.S expatriate community is comprised of a wide variety of people from all walks of life. ..The one nagging truth that is both common and unique to all of these individuals? They remain effectively fettered to the U.S. tax system. Unlike almost every other tax regime in the world, the U.S. taxes its citizens no matter where they reside. Thus, even if you expect never to return, you should expect to have to file an annual tax return. …As many expats can attest, it has become more difficult to open or maintain a bank account overseas without having to sign an IRS Form W-9 or other U.S. tax-related documentation. This increasingly common bank procedure is a result of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which requires foreign banks and other financial institutions, among other things, to gather and report information to the IRS about their U.S. customers or face stiff tax-withholding penalties on U.S. investments.

The last sentence is that excerpt deserves some attention. The FATCA law is so onerous that it is advantageous for many to simply not invest in the American economy.

And that means less growth and prosperity for the rest of us.

But that’s just part of the story.

Because the United States has imposed this awful law on the rest of the world, other nations now want to do the same thing. Indeed, the tax-aholics at the OECD have modified a Multilateral Convention and turned it into an Orwellian regime for promiscuous collection and sharing of data by almost every government. This scheme, sometimes referred to as the Global Account Tax Compliance Act because of its similarity to FATCA (I call it a nascent World Tax Organization), will boomerang on America because of the presumption that we’re obliged to change our tax and privacy laws so that foreign governments can tax investments in the United States.

Thankfully, Senator Rand Paul heroically is blocking this evil pact.

Let’s close with a semi-amusing description of FATCA.

But if you prefer my more dour approach, here’s what I said a few years ago about FATCA for a Chinese network.

I’ve been criticizing this awful legislation from the beginning. Hopefully Congress and the Trump Administration will give me one less thing to worry about.

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Back in 2009, I shared the results of a very helpful study by Pierre Bessard of Switzerland’s Liberal Institute (by the way, “liberal” in Europe means pro-market or “classical liberal“).

Pierre ranked the then-30 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development based on their tax burdens, their quality of governance, and their protection of financial privacy.

Switzerland was the top-ranked nation, followed by Luxembourg, Austria, and Canada.

Italy and Turkey were tied for last place, followed by Poland, Mexico, and Germany.

The United States, I’m ashamed to say, was in the bottom half. Our tax burden was (and still is) generally lower than Europe, but there’s nothing special about our quality of governance compared to other developed nations, and we definitely don’t allow privacy for our citizens (though we’re a good haven for foreigners).

Pierre’s publication was so helpful that I’ve asked him several times to release an updated version.

I don’t know if it’s because of my nagging, but the good news is that he’s in the final stages of putting together a new Tax Oppression Index. He just presented his findings at a conference in Panama.

But before divulging the new rankings, I want to share this slide from Pierre’s presentation. He correctly observes that the OECD’s statist agenda against tax competition is contrary to academic research in general, and also contrary to the Paris-based bureaucracy’s own research!

Yet the political hacks who run the OECD are pushing bad policies because Europe’s uncompetitive governments want to prop up their decrepit welfare states. And what’s especially irksome is that the bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries while pushing for higher fiscal burdens elsewhere in the world.

But I’m digressing. Let’s look at Pierre’s new rankings.

As you can see, Switzerland is still at the top, though now it’s tied with Canada. Estonia (which wasn’t part of the OECD back in 2009) is in third place, and New Zealand and Sweden also get very high scores.

At the very bottom, with the most oppressive tax systems, are Greece and Mexico (gee, what a surprise), followed by Israel and Turkey.

The good news, relatively speaking, is that the United States is tied with several other nations for 11th place with a score of 3.5.

So instead of being in the bottom half, as was the case with the 2009 Tax Oppression Index, the U.S. is now in the top half.

But that’s not because we’ve improved policy. It’s more because the OECD advocates of statism have been successful in destroying financial privacy in other nations. Even Switzerland’s human rights laws on privacy no longer protect foreign investors.

As such, Pierre’s new index basically removes financial privacy as a variable and augments the quality of governance variable with additional data about property rights and the rule of law.

P.S. When measuring the tax burden, the reason that America ranks above most European nations is not because they impose heavier taxes on rich people and businesses (indeed, the U.S. has a much higher corporate tax rate). Instead, we rank above Europe because they impose very heavy taxes on poor and middle-income taxpayers (mostly because of the value-added tax, which helps to explain why I am so unalterably opposed to that destructive levy).

P.P.S. Also in 2009, Pierre Bessard authored a great defense of tax havens for the New York Times.

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President Trump says he wants to roll back the burden of regulation. Give the morass of red tape that is strangling the economy, this is a very worthy goal.

It’s also a daunting task. Fixing the sprawling regulatory state is the modern version of cleaning the Augean stables and I’m not brimming with confidence that Trump and his appointees have Herculean powers.

That being said, if they’re deciding where to focus their deregulatory efforts, cost-benefit analysis would be a very useful guide. Simply stated, go after the red tape that imposes the highest costs while yielding the fewest benefits.

And if that’s the approach, so-called anti-money laundering regulations should be on the chopping block. Banks and other financial institutions are now being forced to squander billions of dollars in order to comply with laws, rules, and red tape that require them to spy on all their customers. The ostensible purpose of AML policies is to discourage criminal behavior, but experts have concluded that this approach has been a failure.

To the extent that AML policies have had an impact, it’s been negative. In addition to high costs and inefficiency, the laws and regulations have disproportionately harmed poor people.

Richard Rahn, in a column for the Washington Times, says AML laws are the modern version of prohibition, well-meaning in theory but counter-productive in practice.

Money laundering fits under the definition of vague law because, unlike murder or robbery, it is not a crime of an act but one of “intent.” …This leads to many problems and substantial prosecutorial abuse. It is not only banks and financial institutions that are supposed to know the source of their clients’ funds, but also such diverse people as car dealers, pawnbrokers, real estate agents, and on and on. Often, it is not considered good enough to know the source of a customer’s funds (often a near-impossibility), but the source of the funds of the customer’s customer. …The result is that banks and other financial institutions increasingly refuse to open accounts for low-income people… There is a very high fixed cost for banks and others to do “due diligence” on their customers — the costs being roughly the same for a $5,000 deposit, a $500,000 deposit or a $5,000,000 deposit. Given the massive penalties banks and other financial institutions are subject to for making even an unintentional mistake, their safest course of action is to drop small customers. …Recent academic and think tank studies show the situation only getting worse — all cost and no gain. …the poor, including poor countries, and the honest pay a huge price for all of the additional compliance costs, which reduces productive global capital formation and real incomes.

And the price isn’t trivial for the nations that get targeted, as I pointed out in testimony to the Organization for American States.

A working paper from the Center for Global Development digs into the numbers.

The past fifteen years have seen an unprecedented level of attention on anti-money laundering…issues by financial regulators…the total value of fines levied by regulators peaked at $15 billion in 2014 in the US alone. …Between 2010 and 2015, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international group tasked with setting common AML standards across the globe, added over fifty different countries to an internationally-recognized list of high risk countries. …there are growing concerns that this increase in regulatory activity is leading to a chilling effect on cross-border economic activity as banks limit their exposure to high risk clients or jurisdictions, a process known as ‘de-risking’… This contraction of the correspondent banking network has sounded a number of alarm bells, as these services are seen as being crucial for most cross-border services… The ICC survey reported that over 40% of respondents felt that AML and know-your-customer (KYC) requirements were a significant impediment to trade finance, with nearly 70% reporting they declined transactions that year…a large number of money transfer companies in the US, the UK and Australia have lost access to banking services as a result of banks’ desire to reduce their exposure to regulatory risk, potentially leading to a reduction to a decrease in formal remittances to developing countries, a critical source of development finance… The combined effect of all of these pressures should be leading to declines in the aggregate flow of cross-border payments.

And here are the results of the new empirical research in the study.

The combination of large scale fines, higher compliance costs and international naming-and-shaming has – anecdotally – led many banks to withdraw from certain lines of business or geographic areas, to the potential detriment of cross-border economic activity. …We find evidence that greylisting by the FATF is consistent with up to a 10% reduction in the number of payments received by an affected country. …Issues of economic impact aside, these results suggest there is more work to be done on assessing both the effectiveness and the efficiency of the global AML/CFT regulatory regime. …First, the reduction in payments received by countries subject to greater regulatory scrutiny raises the spectre of potential losses to these countries. Second, that there is either no effect or a positive effect of FATF greylisting on the number of payments leaving a designated country suggests that increased scrutiny may not do much to prevent illicit money from leaving high risk countries and entering the international financial system at large.

In other words, lots of costs, mostly borne by poor people and poor nations, but no evidence that criminals and terrorists are being stopped.

Rather than imposing lots of red tape and requiring banks to spy on everybody, it would be much better if the government followed normal rules in the fight against crime. By all means, it should investigate real crimes, collect evidence and build cases (within proper limits), and work to punish those who inflict harm on others.

But don’t squander resources in ways that aren’t effective.

Some have suggested that it would make sense to have banks monitor a discrete list of potential bad guys rather than promiscuously spy on all customers.

That might be a step in the right direction, but this story from the UK-based Times shows that this approach leaves something to be desired.

A controversial “blacklist” used by British banks to identify terrorists and potential money launderers has grown so bloated that it includes details of a three-year-old member of the royal family… World-Check, a database of more than two million “high-risk” individuals including criminals and senior politicians, is used by 49 of the world’s 50 biggest banks to carry out compliance checks on existing and potential clients. Customers who are flagged up face extra scrutiny and their accounts…hundreds of individuals were included partly on the basis of unverified blog posts and even far-right or extremist websites.

Wow. Since some of my leftist friends consider International Liberty a “far-right” and “extremist” website, this doesn’t bode well for me. I guess I’m lucky that I still have a bank account.

Here’s more from the story.

Thousands of others were listed on the database, which dates from 2014, only because they were relatives or friends of minor public figures. …Maud Windsor…was listed at nine months old. The apparent justification was that she was a family member of a “politically exposed person” (PEP), a reference to her father, who is the son of Prince Michael of Kent and 43rd in line to the throne. …Other British PEPs on the database include Sir Neil Cossons, a historian and former chairman of English Heritage. …Heather Wheeler, a Conservative MP listed on the database, told parliament this year that her bank of 30 years informed her that she was “high risk” and that it “would not deal with me anymore and that it was closing my account.”

These absurd results are driven by government policies that force financial institutions to treat all customers as potential crooks.

And given the huge fines that are being levied on banks and other firms, you can understand why they drop customers and charge high fees. They are forced to act defensively.

Thomson Reuters, the media company that makes millions of pounds compiling and selling the database, does not inform individuals if they are included and banks have no obligation to tell clients why they have been denied services. …Many financial institutions have become risk-averse… “You have an arms race where there’s this immense pressure to build a ‘robust’ database,” one expert on World-Check said. “They’ll pack this database with as many names of individuals as possible. You end up getting a ton of false positives.”

And some of those “false positives” are mentioned in this video I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. Statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together a few years ago by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one supposed haven among the 28 nations listed.

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

P.P.P.S. But when you look at the real-world horror stories that result from these laws, you realize that the current system on money laundering is no laughing matter.

P.P.P.P.S. And you won’t be surprised to learn that the statists have learned the wrong lesson. They see that AML laws have been a failure and think the right response is to go nuclear and ban cash entirely.

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The War against Cash is a battle that shouldn’t even exist. But politicians don’t like cash because it’s hard to control something that people can freely trade back and forth. So folks on the left are arguing that governments should ban or restrict paper money.

  • In Part I, we looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, we reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.
  • In Part III, written back in March, we examined additional arguments by people on both sides of the issue and considered the risks of expanded government power.
  • In Part IV, a few months ago, there was additional discussion of the dangers that would be unleashed if politicians banned cash.

Now let’s add a fifth installment in this series, and we’ll focus on the destructive turmoil resulting from India’s decision earlier this month to ban “large” notes.

The Financial Times explains what happened.

India unexpectedly scrapped all larger-denomination banknotes overnight… Prime Minister Narendra Modi said 500 and 1,000 rupee notes — worth around $7.50 and $15, respectively — would cease to be legal tender from midnight on Tuesday. The announcement stunned Indians, who were given four hours’ notice that much of their cash would be “mere paper”. RBI data suggests that the Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes account for 86 per cent of the value of all cash in circulation in India at present. …The shock move is the latest step by Mr Modi’s administration to crack down on the vast shadow economy, which remains beyond the reach of India’s tax authorities.

Before delving into why this is an unfortunate development, I can’t resist pointing out that banknotes worth $7.50 and $15 are neither large nor inappropriate for an economy at India’s level of development.

When the United States had a similar level of per-capita GDP (back in the late 1800s), there were $500 and $1000 notes. Yet America didn’t have serious problems with corruption and tax evasion. So why should the existence of far smaller bills be a problem in India today?

I’ll return to that question in the conclusion, but let’s first look at the impact of Prime Minister Modi’s unilateral attack on currency. A column in the New York Times explains why the policy does more harm than good.

On Nov. 8, the Indian government announced an immediate ban on two major bills that account for the vast majority of all currency in circulation. …In the two weeks after the measure was announced, millions of Indians stricken with small panic rushed out to banks; A.T.M.s and tellers soon ran dry. Some 98 percent of all transactions in India, measured by volume, are conducted in cash. …So far its effects have been disastrous for the middle- and lower-middle classes, as well as the poor. And the worst may be yet to come.

The ripple effect of the policy is large and unpleasant.

…demonetization is a ham-fisted move that will put only a temporary dent in corruption, if even that, and is likely to rock the entire economy. …Anyone seeking to convert more than 250,000 rupees (about $3,650) must explain why they hold so much cash, or failing that, must pay a penalty. The requirement has already spawned a new black market to service people wishing to offload: Large amounts of illicit cash are broken into smaller blocks and deposited by teams of illegal couriers. Demonetization is mostly hurting people who aren’t its intended targets. Because sellers of certain durables, such as jewelry and property, often insist on cash payments, many individuals who have no illegal money build up cash reserves over time. Relatively poor women stash away cash beyond their husbands’ reach.

As is so often the case, the bogeyman of terrorism is being used as a rationale for bad policy, even though everyone realizes that terrorists won’t be affected.

When the government announced demonetization, it also justified the measure as a way to curb terrorism financing that relies on counterfeit rupee notes… Catching fake notes already in circulation neither helps trap the terrorists who minted them nor prevents more such money from being injected into the economy. It simply inconveniences the people who use it as legal tender, the vast majority of whom had no hand in its creation.

I’m sympathetic, by the way, to the notion that the government should fight counterfeiting. Crooks printing up fake notes is even worse than central banks printing up too many real notes.

In any event, this indirect attack on the shadow economy imposes considerable costs on regular Indians.

In a country like India, where the illegal economy is so intimately intertwined with the mainstream economy, one inept government intervention against shadow activities can do a lot of harm to the vast majority, who are just trying to make a legitimate living.

Writing for Bloomberg, Elaine Ou has a negative assessment of this proposal.

India is conducting a big test of the idea that getting rid of cash can help address crime and corruption. Unfortunately, it might achieve nothing more than a lot of inconvenience. Criminals and corrupt officials often conduct business in cash, because it’s hard to trace. So in a sense it’s logical to assume that abolishing cash will help reduce criminal activity. …This rationale has led Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare a surprise cancellation of the nation’s two highest-denomination notes, effectively invalidating 86 percent of total currency in circulation. Anyone with outstanding notes must either deposit them in a bank — potentially incurring a tax — or exchange them for replacements in strictly limited sums.

Ms. Ou explains that the policy will be traumatic for the hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t have bank accounts.

In a country where most transactions are conducted in cash, many people have been unable to pay for necessities like food or medical services. Banks have had to work overtime to handle the exchange, bringing other financial services to a halt. It’s certainly likely that the sheer trauma will leave people less keen to hoard rupees, creating a big incentive to move economic activity out of cash and into banks. Except that a huge number of Indians don’t have a bank account.

In any event, she points out, banning cash won’t have much impact on corruption since politicians and public officials have plenty of ways to extort wealth from the productive sector.

…the prevalence of cash is far from a foolproof indicator of criminality and corruption. Consider Nigeria, which is perceived as one the world’s most corrupt countries and has a currency-to-GDP ratio even lower than Sweden’s… Nigerians have abandoned cash because they have so little trust in government-issued currency. Instead of using banks, they tend to transact in mobile airtime minutes. …Those with more substantial wealth put it in foreign currency. By undermining faith in its cash notes, India may go the way of Nigeria. Villagers are already resorting to barter. …corrupt public officials were believed to have their wealth in real estate and gold.

A news report highlights the real-world impact of the Indian government’s bad policy. Starting with the impact on a poor single mother.

With demonetisation, Sayyed’s family has been forced to cut costs across the board to make sure their limited cash resources don’t get exhausted faster than the banks can exchange money. “Last week it took me four hours of waiting in line to get my old notes exchanged,” said Sayyed. “And because no one had change for a Rs 2,000 note, I had to buy ration on credit for six whole days.” Vegetables and foodgrains, says Sayyed, have grown more expensive in the past 10 days, because of the impact of demonetisation on wholesalers and retailers.

And the impact on a small-business owner.

His salon, which charges Rs 40 for a haircut, used to make anywhere between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200 on the weekend. But now, he said, that has fallen to Rs 500. …How is he coping with this liquidity crunch? Not by going cashless. In part because he doesn’t have a bank account. “I tried to open one but they wanted too many proofs of identity,” Sharma said.

By the way, Sharma is a victim of pointless anti-money laundering laws, something even the World Bank recognizes as being particularly harmful for the poor.

A farmer also has been hit hard.

It has been three weeks since Vedagiri’s single acre of land had been tilled and paddy seedlings had been sown. …“The cooperative bank cannot lend us money now, so for the whole of last week, our crop has been standing without pesticides,” said Vedagiri. Several times last week, Vedagiri and the other farmers of Royalpattu were turned away by bank employees. New currency notes have been slow to reach most rural cooperative banks across India. While sowing the crop, Vedagiri had employed 20 labourers. But he has been unable to pay any of them since he had not still received the rest of the money…Vedagiri does not know how he will get through this cropping season without incurring a loss.

Bloomberg reports on some of the bizarre unintended consequences of this bad policy.

Indian ingenuity is being stretched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cash ban to crackdown on unaccounted money. India’s cash economy has been thrown into turmoil since Modi announced last week that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes would cease to be legal tender and would have to be deposited at banks by year-end, leaving about one-seventh of currency in circulation. …Here are some unintended consequences. Indian defense jets are on standby to airlift cash from mints across India to remote corners of the country. …wealthy Indians rushed to make costly purchases with unaccounted cash. One luxury watch outlet in north-west Mumbai saw 45 units of Rolex watches sold on a single day, according to a representative of a watchmaker, who was present when the sales took place. Demand matched what the shop would usually sell in a month and the store had to turn away customers… A new gold rush also emerged soon after Modi’s announcement. “Jewelers who had shut shop for the day on Nov. 8 had to reopen their stores within a couple of hours and were selling gold up to 4 a.m.,” Chirag Thakkar, a director at gold wholesaler Amrapali Group, said by phone… Customers paid as much as 52,000 rupees per 10 grams, almost double the current prices, he said. …About half of an estimated 9.3 million trucks under the All India Motor Transport Congress were off the road eight days after the announcement as drivers abandoned vehicles mid-way into their trips after running out of cash, according to Naveen Gupta, secretary general of the group. India’s roads carry about 65 percent of the country’s freight. Drivers don’t have enough money for food, truck maintenance and to make payments at border check posts. …Compounding the problem of pumping new money into the system is the need to reconfigure the country’s 220,000 cash machines so that they can dispense the new 500 and 2,000 rupee notes, which do not fit into existing ATM cash trays.

To be fair, some of these costs are transitory in nature, so it’s important to distinguish between those consequences and others that might linger.

Though the part of this story that doesn’t make sense is that the government plans on issuing new high-value banknotes. So the Prime Minister is not actually banning large banknotes (or even all non-digital currency), which is the usual goal of the war-on-cash crowd.

So why did the Modi cause so much turmoil with an overnight ban rather than allow for an orderly transition? I’m assuming that the answer has something to do with inconveniencing those with large cash holdings, some of whom will be crooks or counterfeiters or corrupt public officials.

As already noted, the battle against counterfeit currency surely is worthwhile.

But I have considerable doubts about whether this currency swap will have much impact on the shadow economy or public corruption.

And that brings me back to the rhetorical question I posed early in this column about why the United States didn’t have massive problems with crime and public corruption back in the late 1800s (when our per-capita GDP was akin to India’s today according to the Maddison data), even though we had banknotes that were far more valuable ($500 and $1000 compared to $7.50 and $15).

The answer, at least in part, is that the United States had a very tiny government. Government spending consumed at most 10 percent of economic output, with most of that spending at the state and local level. And there was no income tax.

And since people weren’t penalized for earning money and creating wealth, there was no incentive to be part of the shadow economy. And since government was small, there weren’t that many favors to distribute, so there wasn’t much need to bribe politicians or bureaucrats.

If Prime Minister Modi wants a vibrant, above-ground economy with minimal corruption, maybe that’s the path he should follow.

Let’s close with a very sage warning from Richard Fernandez’s column in PJ Media.

Money in its various forms has become the new battleground between a State that needs to reward its constituencies with and the actual economy which produces most of the real goods and services required to do it. The sad experience of command economies suggests in end the Real always wins over the Official.  As Ramesh Thakur said of India’s demonitization policy: “a better solution would have been to shift the balance of economic decision-making away from the state to firms and consumers; simplify, rationalize and reduce taxes; cut regulations and curtail officials’ discretionary powers; eliminate loopholes; and widen the tax net.”

And my favorite Russian-Irish-Californian economist also has a very apt summary of this issue.

Remember, if the answer is more government, you’ve asked a very silly question.

P.S. If he wants more future prosperity, Modi also should make sure the government no longer attacks private schools.

P.P.S. And it also would be a good idea to reform civil service rules so that it doesn’t take two decades to get rid of no-show bureaucrats.

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Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government (as well as other governments around the world) began to adopt policies based on the idea that crime could be reduced if you somehow could make it very difficult for criminals to use the money they illegally obtain. So we now have a a bunch of laws and regulations that require financial institutions to spy on their customers in hopes that this will inhibit money laundering.

But while the underlying theory may sound reasonable, such laws in practice have been a failure. There’s no evidence that these laws, which impose heavy costs on business and consumers, have produced a reduction in criminal activity.

Instead, the only tangible result seems to be more power for government and reduced access to financial services for poor people.

And now we have even more evidence that these laws don’t make sense. In a thorough study for the Heritage Foundation, David Burton and Norbert Michel put a price tag on the ridiculous laws, regulations, and mandates that are ostensibly designed to make it hard for crooks to launder cash, but in practice simply undermine legitimate commerce and make it hard for poor people to use banks.

Oh, and these rules also are inconsistent with a free society. Here are the principles they say should guide the discussion.

The United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights, particularly the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments, together with structural federalism and separation of powers protections, is designed to…protect…individual rights. The current financial regulatory framework is inconsistent with these principles. …Financial privacy can allow people to protect their life savings when a government tries to confiscate its citizens’ wealth, whether for political, ethnic, religious, or “merely” economic reasons. Businesses need to protect their private financial information, intellectual property, and trade secrets from competitors in order to remain profitable. Financial privacy is of deep and abiding importance to freedom, and many governments have shown themselves willing to routinely abuse private financial information.

And here are the key findings about America’s current regulatory morass, which violates the above principles.

The current U.S. framework is overly complex and burdensome… Reform efforts also need to focus on costs versus benefits. The current framework, particularly the anti-money laundering (AML) rules, is clearly not cost-effective. As demonstrated below, the AML regime costs an estimated $4.8 billion to $8 billion annually. Yet, this AML system results in fewer than 700 convictions annually, a proportion of which are simply additional counts against persons charged with other predicate crimes. Thus, each conviction costs approximately $7 million, potentially much more.

By the way, the authors note that their calculations represent “a significant underestimate of the actual burden” because they didn’t include foregone economic activity, higher consumer prices for financial services, lower returns for shareholders of financial institutions, higher financial expenses for unbanked individuals, and other direct and indirect costs.

And what are the offsetting benefits? Can all these costs be justified?

Hardly. David and Norbert point out that we’re all paying more and getting very little in return for the higher burdens.

The original goal of the BSA/AML rules was to reduce predicate crimes, such as illegal drug distribution, rather than money laundering itself. Judged by this standard, very little empirical evidence suggests that the rules have worked as designed. In fact, even though BSA/AML rules have been expanded consistently throughout the past four decades, it remains difficult to discern any net benefit of the overall BSA/AML regulatory framework. Even though there is no clear evidence that the rules materially reduce crime, the BSA/AML bureaucracy began relentlessly expanding internationally—primarily through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—more than two decades ago. One comprehensive study reports that even though the FATF proceeds as if these rules have produced only public benefits, “[t]o date there is no substantial effort by any international organization, including the International Monetary Fund, to assess either the costs or benefits of” this regulatory framework. In fact, BSA/AML regulations have been sharply criticized as a costly, ineffective approach to reducing crime. …compliance costs are high for financial companies, with a disproportionate burden falling on smaller firms…, where hiring even one additional employee can lower the return on assets by more than 20 basis points. Other research suggests that the increasing compliance burden in the banking industry is at least partly responsible for the trend toward consolidation and the disappearance of smaller banks. …an American Bankers Association (ABA) publication highlights a small bank that reports it has to dedicate more than 15 percent of its employees to compliance-related tasks. An ABA survey also suggests that the cumulative cost associated with compliance has caused banks to offer fewer services and raise fees, thus harming consumers. …the BSA/AML regime has been a highly inefficient law enforcement tool. At the very least, a high degree of skepticism about further expansion of these and similar requirements is in order. Given the billions of dollars spent annually by the private sector on the existing elaborate and costly AML bureaucracy, a serious data-driven cost-benefit analysis of the existing system is warranted.

If anything, I think they’re being too nice.

The cost-benefit analysis already exists. The laws and regulations don’t work.

Let’s expand our look at the issue. The Wall Street Journal notes that the current approach has myriad negative consequences as banks sever relationships with customers (in a process called “derisking”) because they don’t want to deal with the hassle, expense, and liability of money-laundering red tape.

…financial firms, faced with strict penalties over counterterror and anti-money-laundering rules, have severed accounts of thousands of customers in recent years over fears of heightened risk. The consequences of shuttered accounts were detailed this week in a Wall Street Journal investigation showing how money-transfer firms whose bank accounts have been closed have been pushed out of the global banking system. In addition, nonprofit organizations operating in Syria and Lebanon have faced challenges after losing their bank accounts. …In February of this year, more than 50 nonprofits asked the U.S. Treasury to publicly affirm that nonprofit organizations aren’t inherently high risk. …Two studies by the World Bank in late 2015 found that money-service businesses—which include money transmitters—and foreign banks were both seeing account closures at increasing rates.

Amen.

This process has made life much more difficult for people and businesses seeking to engage in legitimate commerce.

Not to mention that the government abuses the enormous powers it has accumulated, as we can see from the Obama Administration’s odious “Operation Choke Point.”

Another report from the WSJ explains that the rules actually make it harder for law enforcement to monitor the people who might actually be doing bad things.

U.S. banks have closed thousands of accounts held by people and organizations considered suspicious, high-risk or difficult to monitor—including money-transfer firms, foreign banks and nonprofits working abroad. Closing accounts for fear their customers may be up to no good evicts from the financial system the innocent as well as those the U.S. government would most like to watch, a consequence not anticipated by Washington. Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry this month acknowledged the potential danger. “Transactions that would have taken place legally and transparently may be driven underground,” he told an international conference of bankers and regulators in Washington. …Fearing steep financial penalties for failing to spot a wayward customer, many banks now shun anyone who looks risky. That leaves ostracized companies to seek alternatives—such as toting bags of cash overseas—a practice that allows hundreds of millions of dollars to leave the global banking system… “The whole flow of money goes underground, and that becomes counterproductive to the original purpose of being able to track” it, said Dilip Ratha, head economist of the World Bank’s unit that studies remittances. “It’s a bit paradoxical.” U.S. officials said they didn’t intend banks to close whole categories of customer accounts.

So potential bad guys are harder to track.

And financial institutions waste lots of money (which translates into higher costs for consumers).

Risky accounts should be managed, officials said, not avoided altogether. …Western Union said it now spends $200 million a year watching for suspicious activity… J.P. Morgan Chase & Co….now has about 9,000 employees dedicated to anti-money-laundering and has cut off thousands of customers viewed as higher-risk. …Jaikumar Ramaswamy, a Bank of AmericaCorp. compliance executive and former federal prosecutor, said, “I’m surprised at how much of my time is spent not focusing on the guilty but chasing the innocent.” Instead of looking for needles in haystacks, he said, the system demands banks “turn over every piece of hay.”

The good news is that some nations are looking to adopt a more rational approach, as evidenced by this Bloomberg report from 2015.

The U.K. government said it will look to relax anti-money laundering controls as part of a plan to save British companies 10 billion pounds ($15.4 billion) over the next five years. …The government said it wants to protect the country without putting “disproportionate burdens” on legitimate businesses. …“This new review is about making sure the rules we have to protect our strong financial services industry from abuse are not unintentionally holding back new and existing British business,” Business Secretary Sajid Javid said. “I want firms to come forward and tell us where regulation is unclear or its enforcement ineffective.”

Though, as reported by the Times, the U.K. government has a bizarrely inconsistent approach to these issues. Even to the point of threatening to steal people’s property unless they can somehow prove that it was purchased with innocent money.

People who amass suspicious quantities of wealth in Britain will be ordered to prove that it was not obtained through corruption, under proposals being considered by the Home Office. New “unexplained wealth orders”, which would reverse the burden of proof to compel the recipient to justify the source of the questionable cash.

Sigh.

Here’s a novel idea. Why doesn’t law enforcement engage in actual, old-fashioned police work. In other words, instead of having costly burdens imposed on everybody, governments should use the approach which historically has successfully reduced crime – i.e., policies that increase the likelihood of apprehension and/or severity of punishment.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Instead, we actually get politicians and policy makers coming up with schemes to expand the burden of money laundering laws. Some of them want to ban the $100 bill, or perhaps even ban cash entirely. All so government can more closely monitor the private financial choices of innocent people.

If you want more information, here’s a video I narrated on this topic for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

Last but not least, let’s return to the Heritage study, which includes this very important warning about a very risky and dangerous treaty that may be considered by the U.S. Senate.

…the willingness to impose costs on the private sector and to violate the privacy interests of ordinary people should be less in the case of information sharing for tax purposes than for the purposes of preventing terrorism or crime. Moreover, tax-information-sharing programs are quite often a veiled attempt to stifle tax competition from low-tax jurisdictions. Tax competition is salutary and limits the degree to which governments can impose unwarranted taxation. …The U.S. Senate is currently considering the “Protocol Amending the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters,” which would impose a wide variety of new information-reporting requirements on financial institutions to help foreign governments collect their taxes. A second treaty—worse than this protocol—is the follow-on OECD treaty known as the “Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement on Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information.” This follow-on treaty implements both the protocol and the 311-page OECD “Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters.” Together, the protocol, the Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement, and the OECD Standard constitute the three main parts of a new automatic information-exchange regime being promoted by the OECD and international tax bureaucrats. If the U.S. ratifies the protocol and implements the new OECD standard, Washington would automatically, and in bulk, ship private financial and tax information—including Social Security and other tax identification numbers—to Argentina, China, Colombia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Russia, and nearly 70 other countries. In other words, foreign governments that are hostile to the U.S., corrupt, or have inadequate data safeguards, would automatically have access to private financial (and other) information of some U.S. taxpayers and most foreigners with accounts in the U.S.

A truly awful pact. And keep in mind it also would be the genesis of a World Tax Organization.

P.S. Since we closed by discussing the intersection of tax and money laundering, 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 a few years ago by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

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

P.P.P.S. But when you look at the real-world horror stories that result from these laws, you realize that the current system on money laundering is no laughing matter.

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The War against Cash continues.

  • In Part I, we looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, we reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.
  • In Part III, written back in March, we examined additional arguments by people on both sides of the issue and considered the risks of expanded government power.

Now it’s time for Part IV.

Professor Larry Summers of Harvard University is President Obama’s former top economic adviser and he’s a relentless advocate of higher taxes and bigger government. If he favors an idea, it doesn’t automatically make it bad, but it’s surely a reason to be suspicious. So you won’t be surprised to learn that he wrote a column for the Washington Post applauding the move in Europe to eliminate €500 notes. Indeed, he wants to ban all large-denomination notes.

There is little if any legitimate use for 500-euro notes. Carrying out a transaction with 20 50-euro notes hardly seems burdensome, and this would represent over $1,000 in purchasing power. Twenty 200-euro notes would be almost $5,000. Who in today’s world needs cash for a legitimate $5,000 transaction? …Cash transactions of more than 3,000 euros have in fact been made illegal in Italy, while France has placed the limit at 1,000 euros. …In contrast to the absence of an important role for 500-euro notes in normal commerce, these bills have a major role facilitating illicit activity, as suggested by their nickname —“Bin Ladens.” …Estimates by the International Monetary Fund and others of total annual money laundering consistently exceed $1 trillion. High-denomination notes also have a substantial role in facilitating tax evasion and capital flight.

Who “needs cash” for transactions, he asks, but isn’t the real issue whether people should have the freedom to use cash if that’s what they prefer?

Also, in dozens of trips to Europe since the adoption of the euro, I’ve never heard anyone refer to the €500 note as a “Bin Laden,” so I suspect that’s an example of Summers trying to demonize something that he doesn’t like.

But perhaps the most important revelation from his column is that he admits there’s no evidence that crime would be stopped by his plan to restrict cash.

To be sure, it is difficult to estimate how much crime would be prevented by stopping the creation of 500-euro notes. It would surely impose some burdens on criminals and might interfere with some transactions, which is not unimportant.

Unsurprisingly, he wants to coerce other governments into restricting high-value notes.

Europe has led on a significant security issue. But its action should be seen as a beginning, not an end. As a first follow-on, the world should demand that Switzerland stop issuing 1,000-Swiss-franc notes. After Europe’s action, these will stand out as the world’s highest-denomination note by a huge margin. Switzerland has a long and unfortunate history with illicit finance. It would be tragic if it were to profit from criminal currency substitution following Europe’s bold step. …There would be a strong case for stopping the creation of notes with values greater than perhaps $50.

Summers isn’t the only academic from Harvard who is agitating to restrict cash. Prof. Kenneth Rogoff (who’s also the former Chief Economist at the IMF) recently wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal explaining his hostility.

…paper currency lies at the heart of some of today’s most intractable public-finance and monetary problems. …There is little debate among law-enforcement agencies that paper currency, especially large notes such as the U.S. $100 bill, facilitates crime: racketeering, extortion, money laundering, drug and human trafficking, the corruption of public officials, not to mention terrorism.

At the risk of bursting his balloon, cash played almost no role in the most notorious terrorist event, the 9-11 attacks. And Rogoff admits that bad guys would use easy substitutes.

There are substitutes for cash—cryptocurrencies, uncut diamonds, gold coins, prepaid cards.

So he then dredges up the argument that cash facilitates tax evasion.

Cash is also deeply implicated in tax evasion, which costs the federal government some $500 billion a year in revenue. According to the Internal Revenue Service, a lot of the action is concentrated in small cash-intensive businesses, where it is difficult to verify sales and the self-reporting of income.

I addressed these issues in Part I of this series, but I’ll simply add that the academic evidence shows that lower tax rates are the best way of boosting tax compliance (as even the IMF has admitted).

To his credit, Rogoff acknowledges that his preferred policy would reduce the rights of individuals.

Perhaps the most challenging and fundamental objection to getting rid of cash has to do with privacy—with our ability to spend anonymously. But where does one draw the line between this individual right and the government’s need to tax and regulate.

His main argument is that our rights should be reduced to give government more power. He especially wants central bankers to have more power to impose Keynesian monetary policy.

Cutting interest rates delivers quick and effective stimulus by giving consumers and businesses an incentive to borrow more. It also drives up the price of stocks and homes, which makes people feel wealthier and induces them to spend more. Countercyclical monetary policy has a long-established record, while political constraints will always interfere with timely and effective fiscal stimulus.

Yes, he’s right. Activist monetary policy does have a long-established track record. It played a key role in causing the Great Depression, the 1970s stagflation, and the recent financial crisis.

Hooray, Federal Reserve!

And Rogoff wants the arsonists at the Fed to have more power to create boom-bust cycles.

In principle, cutting interest rates below zero ought to stimulate consumption and investment in the same way as normal monetary policy, by encouraging borrowing. Unfortunately, the existence of cash gums up the works. If you are a saver, you will simply withdraw your funds, turning them into cash, rather than watch them shrink too rapidly. Enormous sums might be withdrawn to avoid these loses, which could make it difficult for banks to make loans—thus defeating the whole purpose of the policy. Take cash away, however, or make the cost of hoarding high enough, and central banks would be free to drive rates as deep into negative territory as they needed in a severe recession. …if a strong dose of negative rates can power an economy out of a downturn, it could bring inflation and interest rates back to positive levels relatively quickly, arguably reducing vulnerability to bubbles rather than increasing it.

Needless to say, I disagree with Rogoff and agree with Thomas Sowell that an institution that repeatedly screws up shouldn’t be given more power.

Especially since I’m concerned that the option to use bad monetary policy may actually be one of the excuses that politicians use for not fixing the problems that actually are hindering growth.

So, yes, instead of expanding their power, I want to clip the wings of the Federal Reserve and other central banks.

Now let’s consider the harm that would be caused by restricting or banning cash. Two professors from NYU Law School looked at some of the logistical issues of a shift to digital money. The echoed some of the points raised by Summers and Rogoff, but they also pointed out some downsides. Such as government being able to monitor everything we buy.

…centralization of banking under this system would also create a Leviathan with the power to monitor and control the personal finances of every citizen in the country. This is one of the chief reasons why many are loath to give up on hard currency. With digital money, the government could view any financial transaction and obtain a flow of information about personal spending that could be used against an individual in a whole host of scenarios.

It also would cause a mess because so many people around the world rely on dollars, something that’s beneficial to the U.S. Treasury and foreigners from places with untrustworthy central banks.

…a transition to digital currency might come at a large cost for the U.S. in particular, because the dollar remains the world’s de facto reserve currency. The U.S. collects enormous seigniorage revenue that accrues to the economy when the Federal Reserve prints dollars that are exported abroad in exchange for foreign goods and services. These bank notes ultimately end up in countries with less reliable central banks where locals prefer to hold U.S. currency instead of their own. Forfeiting this franchise as the world’s reserve currency might be too costly, as the U.S. currency held abroad exceeds half a trillion dollars, according to reliable estimates.

Professor Larry White of George Mason University (also a Senior Fellow at Cato) writes about what he calls “currency prohibitionists.”

The rhetoric of the anti-high-denomination gang has gotten increasingly shrill.  …Charles Goodhart in September called the European Central Bank and the Swiss National Bank “shameless” for issuing “vastly high-denomination notes,” namely the €500 and SWF 1000, “which are there to finance the drug deals.” …I have an alternative suggestion for removing $100 bills from the illegal drug trades:  Legalize the trade.  …My suggestion would reduce the demand for high-denomination currency.

Nice plug for sensible libertarian policy.

But even if one favors drug prohibition, that doesn’t mean currency prohibition will be effective.

Today’s high-denomination-currency prohibitionists, like today’s drug prohibitionists and yesterday’s alcohol prohibitionists, only think about the supply side.  But does anyone think that banning the $100 bill during Prohibition (when it had a purchasing power more than 11 times today’s, as evaluated using the CPI) and even higher denominations would have put a major dent in the rum-running business, if an army of T-Men couldn’t? …eliminating high denomination, high value notes we would make life harder” for such criminal enterprises.  No doubt.  But we would also make life harder for everyone else.  The rest of us also find high-denomination notes convenient now and again for completely legal and non-controversial purposes, like buying automobiles and carrying vacation cash compactly.  …currency prohibitionists too often regard those who defend high-denomination notes not as intellectually honest but mistaken opponents, but rather as morally suspect characters.  Larry Summers goes out of his way to smear an ECB executive from Luxembourg (who has had the temerity to ask for better evidence before accepting the case for prohibiting high-denomination notes)… The case for prohibiting large-denomination currency, to summarize, is largely based on guilt by association or on wishful thinking about the benefits of allowing greater range of action to discretionary monetary policy.

On the topic of crime and cash, an article for the WSJ debunks one of the left’s main talking points. If using cash is supposed to be a sign of criminal activity, why are the world’s two most cash-friendly nations also two of the safest and crime-free countries?

Are Japan and Switzerland havens for terrorists and drug lords? High-denomination bills are in high demand in both places, a trend that some politicians claim is a sign of nefarious behavior. Yet the two countries boast some of the lowest crime rates in the world. The cash hoarders are ordinary citizens… The current hoarding in Switzerland and Japan thus underscores one of many ways in which cash is a basic tool of economic liberty: It lets people shield themselves from monetary policies that would force their savings into weak economies that can’t attract sufficient spending or investment on their own. These economies need reforms that boost incentives to work and invest, not negative interest rates and cash limits that raid the bank accounts of law-abiding citizens.

A column by Sarah Jeong in Bloomberg explores some of the additional implications of cash restrictions.

…wherever information gathers and flows, two predators follow closely behind it: censorship and surveillance. The case of digital money is no exception. Where money becomes a series of signals, it can be censored; where money becomes information, it will inform on you. …the Department of Justice began to come under fire for Operation Choke Point…the means were highly dubious. …the DOJ got creative, and asked banks and payment processors to comply with government policies, and proactively police “high-risk” activity. Banks were asked to voluntarily shut down the kinds of merchant activities that government bureaucrats described as suspicious. The price of resistance was an active investigation by the Department of Justice. …Where paternalism is bluntly enforced through a bureaucratic game of telephone, unpleasant or even inhumane unintended consequences are bound to result. …the cashless society offers the government entirely new forms of coercion, surveillance, and censorship. …As paper money evaporates from our pockets and the whole country—even world—becomes enveloped by the cashless society, financial censorship could become pervasive, unbarred by any meaningful legal rights or guarantees.

Her observation on Operation Choke Point is very important since that campaign has been a chilling example of how government abuses its power in the financial sector.

Megan McArdle’s Bloomberg column touches on some additional concerns.

What’s not to like? Very little. Except, and I’m afraid it’s a rather large exception, the amount of power that this gives the government over its citizens. Consider the online gamblers who lost their money in overseas operations when the government froze their accounts. Now, what they were doing was indisputably illegal in these here United States, and I am not claiming that they were somehow deeply wronged. But consider how immense the power that was conferred upon the government by the electronic payments system; at a word, your money could simply vanish. …Unmonitored resources like cash…create a sort of cushion between ordinary people and a government with extraordinary powers. Removing that cushion leaves people who aren’t criminals vulnerable to intrusion into every remote corner of their lives. …If we want to move toward a cashless society — and apparently we do — then we also need to think seriously about limiting the ability of the government to use the payments system as an instrument to control the behavior of its citizens.

For what it’s worth, one way of getting the benefits of a cashless world without the risks is with private digital monies such as bitcoin.

Steve Forbes nails the issue.

Gaining attention these days is the idea of abolishing high denominations of the dollar and the euro. This concept graphically displays the astonishing stupidity–and intellectual bankruptcy–of today’s liberal economic policymakers and the economics profession. …The ostensible reason is to help in the fight against terrorists, bribers, drug dealers and tax evaders by making it more inconvenient for these bad guys to move around and store their ill-gotten cash. …The notion that such evildoers as the Mexican drug cartels and ISIS will be seriously disrupted by the absence of the Benjamin–”These sacks of cash are too heavy now. Let’s surrender!”–is so comical… Monetary expert Seth Lipsky pithily points out in the New York Post, “When criminals use guns, the Democrats want to take guns from law-abiding citizens. When terrorists use hundreds, the liberals want to deny the rest of us the Benjamins.”

Excellent point. Politicians should concentrate on restricting the freedom of bad guys, not ordinary citizens.

So what are the implications of the war against cash? They aren’t pretty.

The real reason for this war on cash–start with the big bills and then work your way down–is an ugly power grab by Big Government. People will have less privacy: Electronic commerce makes it easier for Big Brother to see what we’re doing, thereby making it simpler to bar activities it doesn’t like, such as purchasing salt, sugar, big bottles of soda and Big Macs.

Steve raises a good point about tracking certain purchases. Imagine the potential mischief if politicians had a mechanism to easily impose discriminatory taxes on disapproved products.

He also notes that the war on cash is motivated by a desire to more effectively implement an ineffective policy.

Policymakers in Washington, Tokyo and the EU think the reason that their economies are stagnant is that ornery people aren’t spending and investing the way they should. How to make these benighted, recalcitrant beings do what they’re supposed to do? The latest nostrum from our overlords is negative interest rates. If people have to pay fees to store their money, as they do to put their stuff in storage facilities, then, by golly, they might be more inclined to spend it.

And Steve correctly observes that bad monetary policy is now an excuse to not fix the problems that actually are contributing to economic stagnation.

Manipulating the value of money and controlling interest rates, i.e., the price of money, never works. Money measures value. It is a claim on services and is a tool for facilitating commerce and investing. The reason economies around the world are in the ditch–which is fueling anger, discontent and ugly politics–is structural, government-created barriers: unstable money, suffocating rules and too-high rates of taxation.

James Grant, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, is not impressed by the anti-cash agitprop and specifically debunks some of the arguments put forth by Rogoff. He starts with some very sensible observation that politicians should reform drug laws and tax laws rather than restricting our freedom to use cash.

Terrorists traffic in cash, Mr. Rogoff observes. So do drug dealers and tax cheats. Good, compliant citizens rarely touch the $100 bills that constitute a sizable portion of the suspiciously immense volume of greenbacks outstanding—$4,200 per capita. Get rid of them is the author’s message. Then, again, one could legalize certain narcotics to discommode the drug dealers and adopt Steve Forbes’s flat tax to fill up the Treasury. Mr. Rogoff considers neither policy option. Government control is not only his preferred position. It is the only position that seems to cross his mind.

Grant makes the (obvious-to-folks not-in-Washington) point that restricting cash to enable Keynesian monetary policy is akin to throwing good money after bad.

Mr. Rogoff lays the blame for America’s lamentable post-financial-crisis economic record not on the Obama administration’s suffocating tax and regulatory policies. The problem is rather the Fed’s inability to put its main interest rate, the federal funds rate, where it has never been before. In a deep recession, Mr. Rogoff proposes, the Fed ought not to stop cutting rates when it comes to zero. It should plunge right ahead, to minus 1%, minus 2%, minus 3% and so forth. At one negative rate or another, the theory goes, despoiled bank depositors will stop saving and start spending. …What would you do if your bank docked you, say, 3% a year for the privilege of holding your money? Why, you might convert your deposit into $100 bills, rent a safe deposit box and count yourself a shrewd investor. Hence the shooting war against currency. …In the topsy-turvy world of Mr. Rogoff, negative rates would be the reward to impetuousness and the cost of thrift. …Never mind that, in post-crisis America, near 0% interest rates have failed to deliver the promised macroeconomic goods. Come the next crackup, Mr. Rogoff would double down—and down.

And he echoes the insights of Austrian-school scholars about how easy-money policies are the cause of problems rather than the cure.

Interest rates are prices. They impart information. They tell a business person whether or not to undertake a certain capital investment. They measure financial risk. They translate the value of future cash flows into present-day dollars. Manipulate those prices—as central banks the world over compulsively do—and you distort information, therefore perception and judgment. The ultra-low rates of recent years have distorted judgment in a bullish fashion. True, they have not, at least in America, ignited a wave of capital investment—who needs it in a comatose economy? They have rather facilitated financial investment. They have inflated projected cash flows and anesthesized perceptions of risk (witness the rock-bottom yields attached to corporate junk bonds). In so doing, they have raised the present value of financial assets. Wall Street has enjoyed a wonderful bull market. The trouble is that the Fed has become hostage to that very bull market. The higher that asset prices fly, the greater the risk of the kind of crash that impels new rounds of intervention, new cries for government spending, bigger deficits—more “stimulus.”

Let’s close with the good news is that Switzerland doesn’t seem very interested in following Europe and the United States down the primrose path of seeking to curtail monetary freedom.

Manuel Brandenberg, a lawmaker in the Swiss canton of Zug, loves cash. …That belief in bills is shared by many of his compatriots, who have a penchant for hard currency even when electronic options are available. In a country whose wealth managers flourished thanks to banking secrecy, citizens often cherish the untraceable privacy conferred by notes and coins. “Cash is property and cash is freedom,” said Brandenberg… Unlike their neighbors, the Swiss have no plans to reconsider banknote denominations — 10, 20, 50, 100 and 200 francs. Not even the highest of 1,000 francs ($1,040). …The predilection for notes and coins is evident on the streets of Zurich, where a number of stores don’t take plastic — among them Belcafe at Bellevue, a busy transport hub in the center. …Roughly 20 percent of purchases — including large sums for jewelry — were paid in cash, then-Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf told parliament in 2014. …“There’s no reason to change things,” said Rickli. “I don’t want the state to know who goes to what restaurant. That’s none of the government’s business.”

Thank goodness for the “sensible Swiss.” On so many issues, Switzerland is a beacon of common sense and individual freedom.

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