115th Congress, Congress, Corruption, Crime, House of Representatives, Issues, Regulation, Senate, Terrorism

New Legislation on Money Laundering Doubles Down on Failure

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Thanks to decades of experience and research, we now know several things about so-called anti-money laundering (AML) laws.

Photo: Images Money, Flickr

It’s not that the theory behind these laws is without merit. The original notion was that perhaps we could reduce crime by figuring out ways to prevent crooks from utilizing the banking system. That’s a worthy goal. But it turns out that it doesn’t work.

For all intents and purposes, AML laws are a misallocation of law-enforcement resources.

So you would think that policy makers would be endeavoring to repeal these counterproductive rules and regulations, right?

But you would be wrong. Some of them actually want to double down on failure. To be more specific, four senators have introduced a bill to make these laws more intrusive and onerous.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein, along with Senators John Cornyn and Sheldon Whitehouse, today introduced legislation that modernizes and strengthens criminal laws against money laundering – a critical source of funding for terrorist organizations, drug cartels and other organized crime syndicates.  The Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing, and Counterfeiting Act of 2017 updates criminal money laundering and counterfeiting statutes, and promotes transparency in the U.S. financial system.

It’s quite possible that these politicians actually think this new law will somehow reduce all the bad things they put in the bill’s title (I’m surprised they didn’t add tooth decay and cancer to the list).

But if past experience is any guide, the real-world result will be more abuse of law-abiding citizens.

Writing for the Blaze, Justin Haskins warns how the new legislation can endanger innocent people.

Four U.S. senators have proposed legislation that would significantly expand the power of the federal government to seize citizens’ money when traveling in or out of the United States. …several troubling provisions in the law could put law-abiding American citizens at risk of losing tens of thousands of dollars for doing nothing more than failing to fill out a government form. Under current federal law, travelers transporting $10,000 or more in cash or other monetary instruments are required to report those funds to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Failure to report funds, even if unintentional, can lead to the seizure of the money and criminal or civil penalties.

That approach already produces horrible abuses of innocent people.

And imagine what will happen if this new law is enacted.

The Combating Money Laundering, Terrorist Financing and Counterfeiting Act would expand “monetary instruments” covered under current law to include “prepaid access devices, stored value cards, digital currencies, and other similar instruments.” This is particularly problematic because digital currencies, such as Bitcoin, are theoretically always transported by the owner of the digital currency account wherever he or she goes, which means digital currency owners with accounts valued at $10,000 or more must always report their funds or risk having them seized. Even more troubling is the law treats all blank checks as though they are financial instruments valued in excess of $10,000 if the checking account contains at least $10,000, which means if a traveler accidently fails to report a blank check floating around in his or her luggage, the account holder could face stiff penalties — even if there is no suspicion of criminal activity.

Some of you may be thinking that it’s okay to subject innocent people to abuse if it achieves a very important goal of stopping terrorists.

But that’s not happening. In a must-read article for Foreign Affairs, Peter Neumann points out that AML laws are grossly ineffective in the fight against Islamo-fascism.

…the war on terrorist financing has failed. Today, there are more terrorist organizations, with more money, than ever before. …Driven by the assumption that terrorism costs money, governments have for years sought to cut off terrorists’ access to the global financial system. They have introduced blacklists, frozen assets, and imposed countless regulations designed to prevent terrorist financing, costing the public and private sectors billions of dollars.

And what’s the result of all this expense?

It hasn’t stopped terrorism.

…there is no evidence that it has ever thwarted a terrorist campaign. Most attacks require very little money, and terrorists tend to use a wide range of money-transfer and fundraising methods, many of which avoid the international financial system. …Terrorist operations are cheap, and according to a 2015 study by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, over 90 percent of the jihadist cells in Europe between 1994 and 2013 were “self-funded,” typically through savings, welfare payments, personal loans, or the proceeds of petty crime. …many jihadists have used their own savings and welfare payments or taken out small loans; others have borrowed money from their friends or family. …Financial tools cannot stop lone attackers from driving cars into crowds.

But it has imposed major burdens on innocent parties.

…the focus on the financial sector proved ineffective; it has also harmed innocent people and businesses. To address policymakers’ demands, financial institutions have “de-risked” their portfolios, shedding investments and clients that might be linked to terrorist financing. …De-risking, moreover, has resulted in the de facto exclusion of entire countries, mostly poor ones such as Afghanistan and Somalia, from the global financial system. The bank accounts of refugees, charities that operate in regions torn apart by civil war, and even Western citizens with family links to so-called risk countries have been closed. Practically no Western bank now offers cash transfers to Somalia, for example, although 40 percent of the population depends on remittances from abroad.

And what is the author’s bottom line?

Simply stated, the current system is a failure.

Instead of continuing to look for needles in a haystack, governments should overhaul their approach to countering terrorist funding… Otherwise, they will waste time and money on a strategy that cannot deliver security for many more years to come. .. Policymakers need to acknowledge that the war on terrorist financing, as it has been conducted since 2001, has often been costly and counterproductive, harming innocent people and companies without significantly constraining terrorist groups’ ability to operate.

I agree.

Indeed, I wrote an article for Pace Law Review, published back in 2005, that made many of the same points, including a lot of attention on theoretical role of cost-benefit analysis.

Law enforcement policy should include cost/benefit analysis so that resources are best allocated to protect life, liberty, and property. This should not be a controversial proposition. Cost-benefit analysis…already is part of the public policy process. For instance, few people would think it is acceptable for a city of 10 million to have just one police officer. Yet it is also true that few would want that city to have five million police officers. In other words, there is a point where additional law enforcement expenditures – both public and private – exceed the likely benefits. Every government makes such decisions. Cost-benefit analysis applies to aggregate resource allocation choices, such as how many police officers to employ in a city, but also to how a given level of resources are utilized. In other words, since there are not unlimited resources, it makes sense to allocate those resources in ways that yield the greatest benefit. On a practical level, city officials must decide how many officers to put on each shift, how many officers to assign to different neighborhoods, and how many officers to allocate to each type of crime. The same issues apply in the war against terrorism. Officials must decide not only on the level of resources devoted to fighting terrorism, but they also must make allocation decisions between, say, human intelligence and electronic surveillance.

Now let’s shift from theory to evidence.

I argued AML laws didn’t pass the test.

…while anti-money laundering laws theoretically help the war against terror, this does not mean that they necessarily are justified by cost-benefit analysis. A…book from the Institute for International Economics…strongly supports anti-money laundering laws and advocates their expansion. But the authors admit that these laws imposed costs of $7 billion in 2003, yet they admitted that, “While the number of suspicious activity reports filed has risen rapidly in recent years…total seizures and forfeitures amount to an extremely small sum (approximately $700 million annually in the United States) when compared with the crude estimates of the total amounts laundered. Moreover, there has not been an increase in the number of federal convictions for money laundering.” The private sector bears most of the cost of anti-money laundering laws, but the authors also note that, “Budgetary costs for AML laws have tripled in the last 20 years for prevention and quadrupled for enforcement.” The key question, of course, is whether these costs are matched by concomitant benefits. The answer almost certainly is no. …the government seizes very little dirty money. There are only about 2,000 convictions for federal money laundering offenses each year, and that number falls by more than 50 percent not counting cases where money laundering was an add-on charge to another offense.

Let’s close with passages from a couple of additional articles.

First, Richard Rahn explains why all anti-money laundering laws are misguided in a very recent column for the Washington Times.

…what is even more shocking is the extent to which various government organizations monitor and, in many cases, restrict financial freedom, and seize assets without criminal conviction. …The government argues that it must collect financial data and then share it with many domestic and foreign government organizations in order to stop tax evasion, money laundering, drug dealing, other assorted criminality, and terrorist finance — all of which sounds good at first glance, until one looks at what really happens. If you think that the war on drugs has been a failure, look at the war on money laundering, tax evasion and terrorist finance for an even bigger failure. …money laundering is a crime of intent, rather than actions, in which two different people can engage in the same set of financial transactions, but if one has criminal intent he or she can be charged while the other person is home free. Such vague law is both ripe with abuse and difficult to prove. …The financial information that government agencies now routinely collect is widely shared, not only with other domestic government agencies, but increasingly with foreign governments — many of which do not protect individual liberty and other basic rights.

And here are some excerpts from a column in Reason by Elizabeth Nolan Brown.

American and British banks are monitoring customers’ contraception purchases, DVD-rental frequency, dining-out habits, and more in a misguided attempt to detect human traffickers… Their intrusive and ineffective efforts come at the behest of government agencies, who have been eager to use asset-forfeiture powers… The U.S. and U.K. banks RUSI researchers interviewed said they were happy to help law enforcement prosecute human traffickers and had little problems turning over financial records for people already arrested or under investigation. But proactively finding potential traffickers themselves proved more difficult. As RUSI explains, “the often unremarkable nature of transactions related to” human trafficking made finding criminals or victims via transaction monitoring a time-consuming and unfruitful endeavor. Yet financial institutions are boxed in by regulations that threaten to punish them severely should they participate in the flow of illegally begotten money, however unwittingly. The bind leaves banks and other financial services eager to cast as wide a net as possible, terminating relationships with “suspicious” customers, monitoring the bank accounts of people they know, or turning their records over to law enforcement rather than risk allegations of not doing enough to comply.

In other words, these laws are a costly – but ineffective – burden.

Which is what I said in this video for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. In closing, I should point out that statists frequently demagogue against so-called tax havens for supposedly being hotbeds of dirty money, but take a look at this map put together by the Institute of Governance and you’ll find only one low-tax jurisdiction among the 28 nations listed.

Even the State Department’s most recent list of vulnerable jurisdictions shows only a handful of international financial centers.

Yes, places Cayman and Bermuda are on the list, but so are countries such as Canada, China, India, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, and the United Kingdom. In other words, it’s basically a random list of jurisdictions rather than a helpful guide.

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

This is a guest post by Dan Mitchell “a high priest of light tax small state libertarianism”

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