Tag Archives: money laudering

The Economic Choking of Somalia: the role of the United States

somalia currency

For Mohamed Abdulle, sending money to his family in Somalia means a trip to a high street in Stratford, East London, home to a large expatriate community. Once there he hands over cash, a telephone number and a name, usually that of his grandmother who lives in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, to an agent. A few minutes later Mr Abdulle, who works as a shop assistant, gets a text message letting him know the cash has arrived on the other side. This fast and reliable system, developed during decades of war in Somalia, is used by hundreds of thousands in the global diaspora, as well as by some UN offices and aid agencies to pay staff.

Perhaps not for much longer. Barclays, a big retail bank, has served notice that it will close the accounts of some 250 money-transfer businesses. The bank said the decision followed a routine legal review. Some money remitters “don’t have the proper checks in place to spot criminal activity,” the bank says, or could “unwittingly” be financing terrorists.

Barclays was among the last British banks willing to deal with agents who cheaply transfer money to poor countries. Many European banks have become nervous about such cash transfers after the American government last year forced HSBC, another big British bank, into a $1.9 billion settlement over allegedly shoddy money-laundering controls…..

Meanwhile, a group of 100 academics and other notables [petition] written to the British government asking it to avert a humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. An estimated 40% of Somalia’s population depends on money sent from abroad. A recent study showed that three-quarters of recipients need the money to buy essentials, such as food and medicine.

“This will mean children being pulled out of school, people going hungry or not getting medicines they need,” said Laura Hammond, a lecturer at the University of London. The Somali Money Services Association, another British trade body, warned that the consequences of the closure of the accounts would be “worse than the drought” that ravaged Somalia two years ago and killed tens of thousands.

So far attention has focused on Somalia, where years of conflict have destroyed the banks and left no real alternatives to cheap money transfers. But the 250 firms put on notice by Barclays also include some serving Ghana and Nigeria, as well as India and Bangladesh. More sophisticated and expensive competitors such as Western Union may now benefit. A reduction in competition in the African remittance market will drive up prices.  Africans already pay more than any other migrant group to send money home. The cost of remitting to sub-Saharan Africa, typically around 12%, is three percentage points higher than the global average…

Some observers are calling for the creation of new institutions that could replace private banks. One suggestion is a “remittance bank” hosted by the UN or a multilateral agency. Another is a code of conduct worked out by remitters, banks and regulators. “This needs to be driven by government,” says Leon Isaacs of the International Association of Money Transfer Networks. “Or the banks won’t get the comfort they want.”

African money transfers: Let them remit, Economist, July 20, 2013, at 43

See also

Family Ties: Remittances and Livelihoods Support in Puntland and Somaliland Study Report (pdf)

The Flight of Gold: what Afghanistan, China and Iran have in common

gold

Packed into hand luggage and tucked into jacket pockets, roughly hewed bars of gold are being flown out of Kabul with increasing regularity, confounding Afghan and American officials who fear money launderers have found a new way to spirit funds from the country.  Most of the gold is being carried on commercial flights destined for Dubai, according to airport security reports and officials. The amounts carried by single couriers are often heavy enough that passengers flying from Kabul to the Persian Gulf emirate would be well advised to heed warnings about the danger of bags falling from overhead compartments. One courier, for instance, carried nearly 60 pounds of gold bars, each about the size of an iPhone, aboard an early morning flight in mid-October, according to an airport security report. The load was worth more than $1.5 million.

The gold is fully declared and legal to fly. Some, if not most, is legitimately being sent by gold dealers seeking to have old and damaged jewelry refashioned into new pieces by skilled craftsmen in the Persian Gulf, said Afghan officials and gold dealers.  But gold dealers in Kabul and current and former Kabul airport officials say there has been a surge in shipments since early summer. The talk of a growing exodus of gold from Afghanistan has been spreading among the business community here, and in recent weeks has caught the attention of Afghan and American officials. The officials are now puzzling over the origin of the gold — very little is mined in Afghanistan, although larger mines are planned — and why so much appears to be heading for Dubai.

“We are investigating it, and if we find this is a way of laundering money, we will intervene,” said Noorullah Delawari, the governor of Afghanistan’s central bank. Yet he acknowledged that there were more questions than answers at this point. “I don’t know where so much gold would come from, unless you can tell me something about it,” he said in an interview. Or, as a European official who tracks the Afghan economy put it, “new mysteries abound” as the war appears to be drawing to a close.

Figuring out what precisely is happening in the Afghan economy remains as confounding as ever. Nearly 90 percent of the financial activity takes place outside formal banks. Written contracts are the exception, receipts are rare and statistics are often unreliable. Money laundering is commonplace, say Western and Afghan officials.  As a result, with the gold, “right now you’re stuck in that situation we usually are: is there something bad going on here or is this just the Afghan way of commerce?” said a senior American official who tracks illicit financial networks.

There is reason to be suspicious: the gold shipments track with the far larger problem of cash smuggling. For years, flights have left Kabul almost every day carrying thick wads of bank notes — dollars, euros, Norwegian kroner, Saudi Arabian riyals and other currencies — stuffed into suitcases, packed into boxes and shrink-wrapped onto pallets. At one point, cash was even being hidden in food trays aboard now-defunct Pamir Airways flights to Dubai.

Last year alone, Afghanistan’s central bank says, roughly $4.5 billion in cash was spirited out through the airport. Efforts to stanch the flow have had limited impact, and concerns about money laundering persist, according to a report released last week by the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.  The unimpeded “bulk cash flows raise the risk of money laundering and bulk cash smuggling — tools often used to finance terrorist, narcotics and other illicit operations,” the report said. The cash, and now the gold, is most often taken to Dubai, where officials are known for asking few questions. Many wealthy Afghans park their money and families in the emirate, and gold dealers say more middle-class Afghans are sending money and gold — seen as a safeguard against economic ruin — to Dubai as talk of a postwar economic collapse grows louder. But given Dubai’s reputation as a haven for laundered money, an Afghan official said that the “obvious suspicion” is that at least some of the apparent growth in gold shipments to Dubai is tied to the myriad illicit activities — opium smuggling, corruption, Taliban taxation schemes — that have come to define Afghanistan’s economy.

There are also indications that Iran could be dipping into the Afghan gold trade. It is already buying up dollars and euros here to circumvent American and European sanctions, and it may be using gold for the same purpose.  Yahya, a dealer in Kabul, said other gold traders were helping Iran buy the precious metal here. Payment was being made in oil or with Iranian rials, which readily circulate in western Afghanistan. The Afghan dealers are then taking it to Dubai, where the gold is sold for dollars. The money is then moved to China, where it was used to buy needed goods or simply funneled back to Iran, said Yahya, who like many Afghans uses a single name.

Excerpt, MATTHEW ROSENBERG, An Afghan Mystery: Why Are Large Shipments of Gold Leaving the Country?, NY Times, Dec. 15, 2012

Money Laundering: the HSBC case

HSBC avoided a legal battle by agreeing Tuesday (Dec. 11, 2012) to pay $1.9 billion to settle a U.S. money-laundering probe.  Europe’s largest bank by market value will pay the biggest penalty ever imposed on a bank after facing accusations it transferred funds through the U.S. from Mexican drug cartels and on behalf of nations such as Iran that are under international sanctions…It’s the latest scandal to hit banks since the financial crisis started in 2008. Hours earlier, Standard Chartered PLC, another British bank, signed an agreement with New York regulators to settle a money laundering investigation involving Iran with a $340 million payment…

Money laundering by banks has become a priority target for U.S. law enforcement. Since 2009, Credit Suisse, Barclays, Lloyds, and ING have all paid big settlements related to allegations that they moved money for people or companies that were on the U.S. sanctions list.  HSBC conceded that its anti-money laundering measures were inadequate and that it has taken big steps in beefing up its controls. Among other measures, it has hired a former Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence as its chief legal officer….

Jimmy Gurule, a former assistant U.S. Attorney General and currently a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said the settlement made a “mockery” of the criminal justice system.  “The message sent by the U.S. Department of Justice is that if you are going to engage in large-scale money laundering for Mexican drug cartels, make sure and do it within the scope of your employment working for a bank because you won’t be prosecuted regardless of the egregious nature of your criminal conduct,” he said.

A U.S. law enforcement official said the sum HSBC was paying would include $1.25 billion in forfeiture — the largest ever in a case involving a bank — and $655 million in civil penalties….Under what is known as a deferred prosecution agreement, the financial institution will be accused of violating the Bank Secrecy Act and the Trading With the Enemy Act, the official said. The source spoke only on condition of anonymity because officials were not authorized to speak about the matter on the record.

Last summer, a Senate investigation concluded that HSBC’s lax controls exposed it to money laundering and terrorist financing.  In regard to HSBC and Mexico, the Senate investigative committee reported that in 2007 and 2008 HSBC Mexico sent about $7 billion in cash to the United States. It said such a large amount indicated illegal drug proceeds.  HSBC affiliates also skirted U.S. government bans on financial transactions with Iran and other countries, according to the report from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. And HSBC’s U.S. division provided money and banking services to some banks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh thought to have helped fund al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, the report said.

The report also blamed U.S. regulators, claiming they knew the bank had a poor system to detect problems but failed to take action.  Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the committee chairman, cited instances in which HSBC had promised to fix deficiencies after being sanctioned by regulators but failed to follow through.  Levin also said the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the U.S. agency that oversees the biggest banks, tolerated HSBC’s weak controls against money laundering for years and said agency examiners who had raised concerns were overruled by their superiors.

HSBC, which in 2011 had net income of $16.8 billion and operates in about 80 countries, has grown quickly in recent years by acquiring banks around the world that became its affiliates. Its far-flung subsidiaries operated with a degree of autonomy that left top bank officials with less than full authority and control, experts say. Each affiliate had its own officer to oversee compliance with laws to prevent money laundering.

HSBC to pay $1.9B to settle money-laundering case, Associated Press, Dec. 11, 2012