I’m not smart enough to know what the most appropriate AML rules are, but I think I am smart enough to know that the current rules are not.
In his first major speech, the new European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets, Jonathan Hill, talked (amongst other things) about innovation in digital money and virtual currencies, saying that:
when considering electronic financial services, we need to strike the appropriate balance between guarding against fraud, hackers and money laundering and maintaining ease of use for customers.
He is right about this, of course, but I wonder what the benchmark for determining what is “appropriate” is? I don’t think we should cripple the development of digital money by applying benchmarks that are so stringent, so rigorous, so absurd that they stop progress completely. We should be building digital money systems that are better than cash, yes, but to pick on one of the Commissioner’s specific points, we should not be applying utterly inappropriate, expensive and pointless anti-money laundering (AML) rules, especially when Europe as a whole is doing nothing about cash.
I noticed this in a story in “The Times” (21st August 2014). The story is headlined “Playboy Saudi prince ‘blackmailed’ after Paris ambush” and concerns the theft of £400,000 in cash from a 12 car convoy taking the entourage of the prince to Le Bourget airport. (The newspaper reports that, in a plot worthy of a John Grisham novel, the theft of the cash may have been a cover for the theft of documents containing sensitive information.) Now, if you or I were to carry more than €4,700 into or out of France, we would have to declare it to customs. However at Le Bourget, as “The Times” puts it, such controls are not “strictly” applied. Not strictly applied, as a phrase, means (I’m sure) not applied at all, so rich people can fly as much cash as they like in and our of France in their private planes. For those without private plans, though, the cross-border payments infrastructure is less facilitating.
In addition, money-laundering regulations are putting impossible demands on systems designed to serve the poor, requiring, for instance, “know your customer” procedures like taking copies of ID documents for anyone receiving an international payout.
So you can’t help but wonder what the point of stringent KYC/AML/ATF controls over people sending part of their meagre paycheque from the UK back to Somalia or from South Africa back to DRC are, when rich people with private planes can import and export unlimited amounts of untraceable cash? The impact of such controls, as far as I can see, is twofold: firstly, criminals and terrorists use cash so we can’t monitor their activities and, secondly, the costs of sending money are higher than they should otherwise be.
Africa pays a “remittance supertax” of nearly $2bn a year due to the higher-than-average cost of sending money to the continent, according to… The Overseas Development Institute,
Average remittance fees for sending money to Africa are around 12% (as opposed to the global average of 8% and the UN target of 5%). And remember, these fees fall on people sending money home to their families.
The biggest challenge for the MSB sector is adapting and responding to the global banking de-risking agenda, which is threatening the development and recovery in emerging economies and post-conflict states around the world.
Now, it’s not as if the powers that be do not know about this problem. The international body that is charged with reviewing such things is the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and in their February 2013 paper on “Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Measures and Financial Inclusion” [PDF] they themselves point out overly prescriptive legislation can cause payment organisations to be so risk-averse that millions of people are excluded from global remittances. And, as Consult Hyperion has noted in its work for the UK government in this area, payments organisations are wary of offering services even when they think they comply with such overly prescriptive legislation because of their worries about future turns of events. As Neil Burton, who knows a thing or two about international payments, wrote earlier this year:
Easily said, but less easily resolved, when fines are in excess of $1bn, and the right to operate in the US is at risk.
Surely there is something fundamentally wrong with a set of legislative arrangements that mean that the rich can ship money around freely but the poor have to pay 12% to transfer tiny amounts. The current system cannot be “appropriate” whichever way you look at it.