Money Laundering Laws Are Absurdly Annoying, Costly, and Darn-Near Pointless
Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government (as well as other governments around the world) began to adopt policies based on the idea that crime could be reduced if you somehow could make it very difficult for criminals to use the money they illegally obtain. So we now have a a bunch of Money Laundering Laws and regulations that require financial institutions to spy on their customers in hopes that this will inhibit money laundering.
There is zero evidence that the Money Laundering Laws have produced a decline in criminal activity. But while the underlying theory may sound reasonable, such laws in practice have been a failure. There’s no evidence that these laws, which impose heavy costs on business and consumers, have produced a reduction in criminal activity.
Instead, the only tangible result seems to be more power for government and reduced access to financial services for poor people.
And now we have even more evidence that these Money Laundering Laws don’t make sense. In a thorough study for the Heritage Foundation, David Burton and Norbert Michel put a price tag on the ridiculous Money Laundering Laws, regulations, and mandates that are ostensibly designed to make it hard for crooks to launder cash, but in practice simply undermine legitimate commerce and make it hard for poor people to use banks.
Oh, and these rules also are inconsistent with a free society. Here are the principles they say should guide the discussion.
The United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights, particularly the Fourth, Fifth, and Ninth Amendments, together with structural federalism and separation of powers protections, is designed to…protect…individual rights. The current financial regulatory framework is inconsistent with these principles. …Financial privacy can allow people to protect their life savings when a government tries to confiscate its citizens’ wealth, whether for political, ethnic, religious, or “merely” economic reasons. Businesses need to protect their private financial information, intellectual property, and trade secrets from competitors in order to remain profitable. Financial privacy is of deep and abiding importance to freedom, and many governments have shown themselves willing to routinely abuse private financial information.
And here are the key findings about America’s current regulatory morass, which violates the above principles.
The current U.S. framework is overly complex and burdensome… Reform efforts also need to focus on costs versus benefits. The current framework, particularly the anti-money laundering (AML) rules, is clearly not cost-effective. As demonstrated below, the AML regime costs an estimated $4.8 billion to $8 billion annually. Yet, this AML system results in fewer than 700 convictions annually, a proportion of which are simply additional counts against persons charged with other predicate crimes. Thus, each conviction costs approximately $7 million, potentially much more.
By the way, the authors note that their calculations represent “a significant underestimate of the actual burden” because they didn’t include foregone economic activity, higher consumer prices for financial services, lower returns for shareholders of financial institutions, higher financial expenses for unbanked individuals, and other direct and indirect costs.
And what are the offsetting benefits? Can all these costs be justified?
Hardly. David and Norbert point out that we’re all paying more and getting very little in return for the higher burdens.
The original goal of the BSA/AML rules was to reduce predicate crimes, such as illegal drug distribution, rather than money laundering itself. Judged by this standard, very little empirical evidence suggests that the rules have worked as designed. In fact, even though BSA/AML rules have been expanded consistently throughout the past four decades, it remains difficult to discern any net benefit of the overall BSA/AML regulatory framework. Even though there is no clear evidence that the rules materially reduce crime, the BSA/AML bureaucracy began relentlessly expandinginternationally—primarily through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—more than two decades ago. One comprehensive study reports that even though the FATF proceeds as if these rules have produced only public benefits, “[t]o date there is no substantial effort by any international organization, including the International Monetary Fund, to assess either the costs or benefits of” this regulatory framework. In fact, BSA/AML regulations have been sharply criticized as a costly, ineffective approach to reducing crime. …compliance costs are high for financial companies, with a disproportionate burden falling on smaller firms…, where hiring even one additional employee can lower the return on assets by more than 20 basis points. Other research suggests that the increasing compliance burden in the banking industry is at least partly responsible for the trend toward consolidation and the disappearance of smaller banks. …an American Bankers Association (ABA) publication highlights a small bank that reports it has to dedicate more than 15 percent of its employees to compliance-related tasks. An ABA survey also suggests that the cumulative cost associated with compliance has caused banks to offer fewer services and raise fees, thus harming consumers. …the BSA/AML regime has been a highly inefficient law enforcement tool. At the very least, a high degree of skepticism about further expansion of these and similar requirements is in order. Given the billions of dollars spent annually by the private sector on the existing elaborate and costly AML bureaucracy, a serious data-driven cost-benefit analysis of the existing system is warranted.
If anything, I think they’re being too nice.
The cost-benefit analysis already exists. The Money Laundering Laws and regulations don’t work.
Let’s expand our look at the issue. The Wall Street Journal notes that the current approach has myriad negative consequences as banks sever relationships with customers (in a process called “derisking”) because they don’t want to deal with the hassle, expense, and liability of money-laundering red tape.
…financial firms, faced with strict penalties over counterterror and anti-money-laundering rules, have severed accounts of thousands of customers in recent years over fears of heightened risk. The consequences of shuttered accounts were detailed this week in a Wall Street Journal investigation showing how money-transfer firms whose bank accounts have been closed have been pushed out of the global banking system. In addition, nonprofit organizations operating in Syria and Lebanon have faced challenges after losing their bank accounts. …In February of this year, more than 50 nonprofits asked the U.S. Treasury to publicly affirm that nonprofit organizations aren’t inherently high risk. …Two studies by the World Bank in late 2015 found that money-service businesses—which include money transmitters—and foreign banks were both seeing account closures at increasing rates.
This process has made life much more difficult for people and businesses seeking to engage in legitimate commerce.
Not to mention that the government abuses the enormous powers it has accumulated, as we can see from the Obama Administration’s odious “Operation Choke Point.”
Another report from the WSJ explains that the rules actually make it harder for law enforcement to monitor the people who might actually be doing bad things.
U.S. banks have closed thousands of accounts held by people and organizations considered suspicious, high-risk or difficult to monitor—including money-transfer firms, foreign banks and nonprofits working abroad. Closing accounts for fear their customers may be up to no good evicts