July 1, 2015
Yesterday over coffee, a friend of mine leaked the news that JP Morgan’s private banking division here in Singapore is going to start charging negative interest rates.
I almost fell out of my chair.
He’s a successful hedge fund manager and one of their best customers. So when he received the notice, he rang up his private banker and demanded to know why.
Between ridiculously low interest rates (banks are closing loans here for 0.9% or lower) and the increasing costs of compliance, “we can’t make money anymore…” was the response.
It certainly paints a clear picture of how screwed up the entire financial system is.
Compliance is a major component in this. Bankers around the world are buried up to their eyeballs in paperwork and regulations now.
They can’t make a move or approve a single transaction without first doing anti-money laundering, terrorist financing, and tax evasion due diligence.
Imagine it like this: your banker rings you up tomorrow and says,
“The government of China requires us to have all of our depositors fill out this paperwork. So I need you to send this form back to me ASAP…”
You'd probably think it was a joke.
Or at a minimum think, “Wait, what? I'm not Chinese. You're not a Chinese bank. Who cares about some stupid Chinese regulation?”
And you'd be right.
Except that's precisely what the United States is doing right now.
All over the world, bankers are contacting their customers and forcing them to fill out paperwork to comply with idiotic US government regulations. Even when there's no connection to the US.
Here in Singapore, the bankers are completely miserable about it.
They're so angry for having to call customers and say, “Yes I know you're in India, and I know we're in Singapore, and I know you've been a customer for 10 years. But you still have to fill out this US government form or else we'll close your account.”
It's ridiculous– all of this because the US government is bankrupt.
A few years ago they passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA)– a major part of their crusade to stamp out tax evasion and bring in more tax revenue.
FATCA is now in full force. Banks all over the world have been forced to enter into information sharing agreements with the IRS, meaning that they have to report on all of their customers and force them to fill out meaningless forms.
Needless to say, this costs a lot of money.
If you own a business, you can just imagine how frustrating and expensive it would be to have your employees toil away on senseless paperwork instead of… you know, doing real business.
The US government tells us that all of these disclosure programs have brought in about $6.5 billion in tax revenue.
Yet the costs of compliance are estimated to cost at least $8 billion, with some estimates over 10x higher.
Now that's a neat trick. Uncle Sam gets the money and passes off the costs to everyone else.
And those who don't comply with America's rules are destroyed.
The most blatant example of this was last year, when a French bank was fined $9 billion for doing business with countries that Uncle Sam didn't like.
Bear in mind, this was a French bank, not an American bank.
They violated no French laws. Yet they had to pay the US government $9 billion for doing business with places like Cuba.
(Ironically, Cuba is now BFFs with the United States, but it's not like the bank is going to get a refund.)
More recently, the US government destroyed an Andorran bank that was accused of weak anti-money laundering controls.
And a few years ago they took down the oldest private bank in Switzerland.
Every bank in the world has seen these incidents, and they're scared. They could be next.
And that's why you can't get a single financial transaction done anymore without first submitting a mountain of paperwork to prove that you're not a terrorist. Or financing terrorists. Or laundering money. Or doing business with the Axis of Evil.
Even outside of banking it has become utterly ridiculous.
A friend of mine here runs one of the largest bullion depositories in Singapore; he wanted to buy some raw gold and have it made into bars, so he contacted a refiner.
The refiner said, “Sure no problem. I just need you to send us some compliance documentation before we get started.”
Then he sent a list of no fewer than 22 items that he needed to submit– copies of licenses, passports, certificates, etc.
22 items. Just to have a refiner make some gold bars. Ridiculous.
So obviously they're not going to waste their time. Which means there's some business that could have been done, but won't, simply because of the compliance costs.
The US government has really screwed the world on this. Paperwork is the priority. Not business.
And all because America is bankrupt.
This trip to Singapore has been very eye-opening for me as I'm just now starting to understand how much people within the financial system despise the US government.
They feel like they're being forced at gunpoint to be volunteer spies and tax collectors, simply because US politicians have been financially irresponsible.
And to me, it's the biggest sign yet that America's financial dominance is coming to an end. They've essentially engineered it themselves by alienating the whole world.
The transition isn't going to be smooth. And it won't happen overnight. But there will come a time, and likely soon, when the United States gets displaced.
And the rest of the world can hardly wait.