Category Archives: shadow finance

Returning Stolen Money: the Nigerian Saga (2002-2018)

Nigeria and Switzerland signed a memorandum of understanding on March 26, 2018 to pave the way for the return of illegally acquired assets…Switzerland said in December 2017 that it would return to Nigeria around $321 million in assets seized from the family of former military ruler Sani Abacha via a deal signed with the World Bank…[T]he memorandum of understanding was ratified between Nigeria, Switzerland and the International Development Association, (IDA), the World Bank’s fund for the world’s poorest countries.

Excerpt from Nigeria and Switzerland sign agreement to return stolen assets, Reuters, Mar. 26, 2018

The Power of Giving Love

Russia’s sale of one-fifth of its state-owned oil company to Qatar and commodities giant Glencore PLC last year had an unusual provision: Moscow and Doha agreed Russia would buy a stake back, people familiar with the matter said.  Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the $11.5 billion sale of the Rosneft stake in December 2016 as a sign of investor confidence in his country. But the people with knowledge of the deal say it functioned as an emergency loan to help Moscow through a budget squeeze.

Moscow agreed with Qatar that Russia would buy back at least a portion of the stake from the rich Persian Gulf emirate, the people said. The Qatar Investment Authority and Glencore, the Swiss-based commodities giant, formed a partnership to buy the 19.5% stake in Russia’s energy jewel at a time when Mr. Putin’s government needed cash. The people with knowledge of the deal say the buyback arrangement was negotiated with involvement from Mr. Putin and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Russia and Qatar saw it as an opportunity to build a bridge between countries that had taken up opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, the people said. One of the people said the buyback would happen in the next 10 years…

Rosneft, the world’s largest listed oil producer, is traded publicly in Moscow, but it isn’t easy to buy and sell large pieces of the company because it remains majority-owned by the Russian state and is an instrument of economic power for Mr. Putin.  The people familiar with the deal said a time-limited structure and a buyback agreement for the deal worked for both Qatar and Russia.

Qatar wanted its Rosneft stake to be temporary, the people said. The emirate believes it will profit from selling the shares back to Russia at a later date, the people said, betting that oil prices will rise and push up Rosneft’s share price. Qatar saw the political benefits of giving Russia access to quick cash as a sort of loan to address a budget deficit that had widened due to lower oil prices, the people said.  After the deal, a range of talks opened between Russian and Qatari businesses on a scale not seen before, Russian news agencies have reported….The deal was called the largest-ever foreign investment in a Russian company.

In an unusual arrangement, the rest of the financing was provided by Russian banks, which contributed EUR2.2 billion, and Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo SpA, which lent EUR5.2 billion to the Glencore-Qatar consortium, according to a Dec. 10, 2016 new release issued by Glencore. The financing is “non-recourse,” Glencore said in the release, meaning the lenders couldn’t pursue Glencore and the Qatar Investment Authority if they weren’t repaid….Under the deal, the Rosneft shares aren’t held directly by Glencore and Qatar but by a U.K. limited liability partnership, according to British corporate records….

After the deal was announced, Mr. Putin awarded one of Russia’s top honors for foreigners — the Order of Friendship — to Qatar Investment Authority’s chief executive, Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Saud Al-Thani, Intesa’s chief executive, Carlo Messina, and Glencore’s chief executive, Ivan Glasenberg.

Excepts from Russia’s Rosneft Stake Sale Had a Twist , Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2017

 

 

 

Big Men, Small Lands: owning property in Africa

Evictions are almost routine for the Ogiek,  a group of around 80,000 indigenous hunter-gatherers who have suffered repeated expulsions since being moved by the British colonial government in the 1930s. Yet this one still came as a surprise: the community is in the middle of negotiating a settlement with the local government that should see formal recognition of its right to live, graze livestock and forage on land it has inhabited for centuries.

In all rich countries, property rights are secure. Formal, legal title makes it easier to buy, sell and develop land. Buyers can be confident that the seller really has the right to sell what he is selling. Owners can use their property as collateral, perhaps borrowing money to buy fertiliser and better seeds. Legally recognising land ownership has boosted farmers’ income and productivity in Latin America and Asia.

But not yet in Africa. More than two-thirds of Africa’s land is still under customary tenure, with rights to land rooted in communities and typically neither written down nor legally recognised. In 31 of Africa’s 54 countries, less than 5% of rural land is privately owned. So giving peasants title to their land seems like an obvious first step towards easing African rural poverty.

However, it has proven extremely hard. Rwanda, for example, rolled out a programme over three years, whereby local surveyors worked with land owners and their neighbours to demarcate and register 10.3m parcels of land.,,,But even a relatively well-organised place like Rwanda has had problems keeping records up to date when land is sold or inherited.

In Kenya a large-scale titling programme was carried out in colonial times and carried over to independence. The first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and his cronies bought the huge estates of white settlers who left. But the system is costly and ill-run. Most Kenyans cannot afford to update titles, and the government has not maintained the registry. Recognising land rights, whether customary or titled, needs to be done as cheaply and simply as possible, says Ruth Meinzen-Dick of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). “The more you increase the cost, the more likely it is that urban elites and men with more ed

Being able to prove you own your land may be a necessary condition for using it as collateral, but a title deed does not guarantee that anyone will lend you money. As Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, two economists, observe in their book “Poor Economics” (2011), banks need a lot more information to judge borrowers’ creditworthiness and be sure of repayment. And the administrative costs of offering very small loans to very small farmers, even those with collateral, are often prohibitive.

And legal property rights offer less protection in countries where big men can flout the law with impunity—a particular problem in Africa.  In recent years land grabs have sometimes made a mockery of customary ownership.

Excerpt from Land ownership: Title to come, Economist, July 16, 2016

 

Cash in Pillows-banking in Afghanistan

cash mattress

One bank with 114 branches in war-torn country; defrauded out of almost all its money; occasional target of terrorists. Ready to bid? That’s what Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan, is hoping. He’s seeking a buyer for Kabul Bank, once the country’s largest. The government took it over in 2010 after its owners were accused of embezzling $825 million using fake loans and spending it on, among other things, 11 villas in Dubai and an airline they used to smuggle cash there. The privatization is a test for Ghani, who wants to show the foreign donors who provide most of his budget that he’s committed to fighting corruption.

New Kabul Bank, as it’s now called, isn’t exactly thriving. The bank has been barred from making loans since the scandal. .. On a recent morning, a branch in Kabul’s Baharistan neighborhood was guarded by five men in military uniforms armed with AK-47 assault rifles. Some of the dust-covered computers weren’t working. A customer trying to make a withdrawal waited for an hour and then was turned away.  “I keep hearing about their system failures,” said the customer, Atiqullah Wali. “It’s better to keep our cash inside our pillows like before.”

When the Taliban was driven out of Kabul in 2001, they left the financial system in disarray, fleeing with all but $30,000 of the central bank’s cash. Into the void stepped Sherkhan Farnood, who was wanted by Russian authorities for allegedly running an illegal money-transfer business. He founded Kabul Bank in 2004 and hired Khalil Ferozi as chief executive officer.
The banking industry boomed as foreign aid poured into Afghanistan, with assets expanding by more than 50 percent a year….Farnood amassed property in Dubai and competed in high-stakes poker tournaments in Europe.

The scheme unraveled in 2010, when the central bank learned of the fraud, ordered Farnood and Ferozi to resign and guaranteed the bank’s deposits to stop a run. An investigation by an independent anti-corruption committee commissioned by the Afghan government found that the executives had stolen an amount equivalent to about one-twelfth of the country’s GDP, mainly by giving loans to themselves and their friends that didn’t have to be repaid. One of the alleged beneficiaries was Mahmood Karzai, brother of then-President Hamid Karzai, who wasn’t charged and said he did nothing wrong……

Excerpt from Looted Lender for Sale as Afghanistan Seeks Buyer for Kabul Bank, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Mar. 4, 2016

Trading for Peanuts: the Illusion of Transparent Markets

stockmarket

Yet investors worry that, in many cases, competition has brought down the visible price of trading by adding hidden costs. Two anxieties stand out. One is the worry that the current set-up of the markets allows high-speed traders to anticipate big orders and “front-run” them, moving prices in an unfavourable direction before an order can be executed. The other is the question of how robust the system is, with regulators still unable fully to explain events like the “flash crash” of 2010, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged by 9% in minutes before rebounding.

Start with fears of front-running. Many institutional investors complain that ultra-fast traders spot big orders entering the market, and race ahead of them to adjust their prices accordingly. Attempts to hide from the speedsters can go awry. In January Credit Suisse and Barclays, two big banks, agreed to pay $154m in fines for misleading clients about the workings of their “dark pools”, where offers to sell and bids to buy are not published. In theory, that protects investors from front-running; in practice, several of the firms running such venues had concealed the central role that high-frequency traders played on them. (Credit Suisse didn’t admit or deny wrongdoing in the settlement.)

There is another, less-often-told side to the story. Speed is necessary to knit together a dispersed set of exchanges, so that investors are immediately routed towards the best price available and so that their orders are the first to get filled. And plenty of high-frequency traders are market-makers; it is their job to adjust prices in response to new information. Nonetheless, the idea that markets are rigged is widespread, not least thanks to the publication of “Flash Boys”, a book by Michael Lewis on the evils of high-speed trading.

One proferred solution is to level the field by slowing things down deliberately. IEX, whose founder is the hero of Mr Lewis’s book, is a trading platform that has applied to the SEC to become an exchange. It uses miles of coiled cable to create a “speed bump” that delays trades to the advantage of institutional investors. The SEC has received more than 400 letters in support of its application, but there is a vigorous debate about whether IEX’s system complies with the requirements of Regulation National Market System (Reg NMS). Some think that the better solution would be to get rid of Rule 611, which in effect requires orders to be sent to the exchange showing the best price, even though such quotes can sometimes be unobtainable in practice. The SEC will vote on IEX’s application by March 21st.

Share Trading, Complicate, then Prevaricate, Economist, Feb. 27, 2016

The Heist: hacking central banks

federal reserve bank ny, Image from wikipedia

Hackers broke into the Bangladesh central bank’s computer systems in early February, 2016, according to the news service, which cited anonymous officials at the financial institution. The attackers stole the credentials needed to authorize payment transfers and then asked the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to make massive money transfers — nearly three dozen of them — from the Bangladeshi bank’s account with the Fed to accounts at other financial institutions overseas.  Four transfers to accounts in the Philippines, totaling about $80 million, worked. But then a fifth request, for $20 million to be sent to an apparently fictitious Sri Lankan nonprofit group, was flagged as suspicious by a routing bank because of the “fandation” error.

Bangladesh’s central bank was able to stop that transaction after the routing bank asked for confirmation. “The Sri Lankan bank did not disburse it immediately, and we could recover the full amount,” the central bank told the Financial Times.  The requests waiting to be processed — amounting to a total of between $850 million and $870 million, according to an unnamed official cited by Reuters — were also halted. So if it weren’t for that typo, the attackers might have escaped with a bigger payday. Bangladesh’s finance minister has blamed the incident on the Federal Reserve and said his government will “file a case in the international court against” the financial institution, according to the Dhaka Tribune. A New York Fed spokesman denied the accusation, telling The Washington Post in a statement that “there is no evidence of any attempt to penetrate Federal Reserve systems in connection with the payments in question” or that the institution’s systems were compromised. The spokesman said the payment instructions were “fully authenticated” using standard methods.

Excerpts from Andrea Peterson Typo thwarts hackers in $1 billion cyber heist on Bangladesh central bank, Washington Post, Mar. 11, 2016

The Money Changers

Gaziantep Turkey, image from wikipedia

More than a year of U.S.-led airstrikes and financial sanctions haven’t stopped Islamic State from ordering supplies for its fighters, importing food for its subjects or making quick profits in currency arbitrage.  This is because of men such as Abu Omar, one of the militant group’s de facto bankers. The Iraqi businessman is part of a network of financiers stretching across northern and central Iraq who for decades have provided money transfers and trade finance for the many local merchants who shun conventional banks….

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Daniel Glaser said these businesses—there are more than 1,600 in Iraq alone—serve as a worrisome portal for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to connect with the world outside its declared caliphate…..People pay cash in one office and a recipient draws the equivalent funds at a distant locale, a Middle Eastern practice known as hawala that predates the modern banking system.  Three Iraqi money-exchange operators say they pay Shiite militias, who are at war with Islamic State, to guard cash shipments that travel the road from Baghdad across their front lines to militant-controlled territory in Anbar province. Iraqi Kurdish fighters, also at war with Islamic State, are bribed to grant passage of cash shipments across their front lines into militant-held areas around Mosul. Both Shiite and Kurdish commanders negotiate flat fees from $1,000 to $10,000, the money changers said.

Islamic State imposes a 2% tax on cash shipments entering its territory, which buys the smuggler protection on the final leg to the exchange houses….

The Cash Routes:  One begins in the narrow streets behind Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and, via Iraqi Kurdish towns, reaches Mosul, the largest city under Islamic State control. Another connects Jordan’s capital of Amman with Baghdad and Islamic State-controlled parts of Iraq’s Anbar province. A third links the city of Gaziantep in southern Turkey with Syrian regions around Raqqa, the administrative capital of Islamic State…

The US financial containment effort is one element of a campaign that includes U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State oil wells. There have also been strikes on vaults in downtown Mosul, which U.S. officials suspect store cash to pay fighters….The Central Bank of Iraq named 142 currency-exchange houses in December that the U.S. suspected of moving funds for Islamic State. The central bank banned them from its twice-monthly dollar auctions, hoping to keep U.S. bank notes from the terror group, which, like much of Iraq, operates as a cash economy….

Before Islamic State seized Mosul, the city of nearly two million people had 40 banks and around 120 licensed money changers and remittance facilities, according to Iraq’s central bank and money changers.Only banks and remittance facilities are licensed to transfer money domestically or abroad. But money changers have long flouted these rules and provided such services in Mosul, the economic powerhouse of northern Iraq.  Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul in June 2014, followed by other cities in Iraq and eastern Syria, swiftly shut down local banks. The terror group looted bank vaults of hundreds of millions of dollars, according to U.S. estimates.  The U.S. and regional governments took immediate steps to sever bank branches in Islamic State territory from the international banking network, declaring off-limits transactions with the identification code of seized branches.That left money changers as the sole providers for a region covering several million people. A currency office owner from Anbar province said in late summer of 2014 his offices were handling $500,000 a week in money transfers in and out of Islamic State. Fees for such services were 10%, he said. Before the Islamic State takeover, fees were between 3% and 5%….

ISIS  in 2015 banned exchange houses from approving the transfer of funds outside of Islamic State without a receipt showing the client had paid a 10% religious tax, known as “zakat.”..

For years, participants in the twice-monthly dollar auction by the central bank included money-exchange houses that would buy dollars at the official rate and sell them for a profit on the street. The rate difference in the past year was as much as 7 percentage points….

The Central Bank of Iraq has an account at the Fed, funded largely by oil reserves, and regularly withdraws large shipments of new $100 bills from a Fed facility in Rutherford, N.J. They travel by chartered plane to Baghdad.The Fed last summer (2015) temporarily shut off deliveries over concerns the notes were going to Islamic State through the exchange houses. A cash crisis loomed until shipments resumed in August, 2015 when Iraq agreed to turn over more records.

Many exchange companies based in Islamic State territory—or their correspondent offices elsewhere in Iraq—participated in the auctions until mid-December 2015, when the U.S. pressured Iraq to ban dozens of companies believed to be working with the terror group.Money changers who still participate in the currency auction doubt the effectiveness of the black list. Iraq has no mechanism to ensure that the owners of banned companies don’t get around the restrictions by simply opening new firms or by hidden ownership stakes in other exchange firms.“Iraq doesn’t have investigators or auditors,” said Abu Omar, the money-exchange owner. “Iraq has officials who expect bribes.”

Excerpts from Local Cash Network Fuels Islamic State Finances, Wall Street Journal , Feb. 25, 2016