Saturday, September 1, 2018

Will Crypto-currencies Disrupt the Global Financial Secrecy Business?

Ingo Walter

Financial secrecy is central to global finance. It has great value to individuals, businesses, banks, governments and many others. Some even consider secrecy a “human right.” It plays a vital role as a catalyst in creating economic and social benefits that wouldn’t be possible without proprietary information.

But financial secrecy also makes possible the dark underbelly of the system – tax evasion, the narco-plague, human trafficking, organized crime, sanctions-busting and money laundering, terrorism, corruption, espionage, suborning elections, and an array of other nefarious activities. Classic tools include cash transactions and money laundering, as well as clandestine accounts and complex chains between them.

Every once in a while somebody leaks, steals data, cuts deals with prosecutors or otherwise spills the beans on secret financial flows and stashes. The 2015 Panama Papers disclosure, and its trail of red faces among the global rich and famous, is among the latest. So is the eye-watering $4.5 billion diversions from Malaysia’s 1MDB sovereign development fund, first revealed in 2016 with severe political and economic consequences and plenty of international spillovers. Investigations are launched, explanations are offered, blame is pinned, prosecutions follow, and the financial firms involved scramble to “put the matter behind us.”

Now, along come crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, offering total transparency inside their blockchain platforms and anonymity between crypto-wallets and their real owners. Is crypto a threat or an opportunity for those looking for financial secrecy? The answer matters for the future of global finance, and it doesn’t look good for connoisseurs of confidentiality.

If financial secrecy has value there must be a “market” for it. So what’s it worth? That depends on where secret money came from and the consequences of disclosure. The damage can range all the way from increased family tensions to the firing squad.

Who can be trusted with safeguarding financial secrets? The usual candidates range from uncle Harry (known in the family for keeping things confidential) to a whole coterie of lawyers, bankers, accountants and investment advisers, and others who market trust and discretion. Pick the wrong “secret agent” who leaks or can be made to leak, and the game’s over. Traditionally the ultimate gold standard has been highly reputable financial institutions operating beyond national disclosure and enforcement jurisdictions and based in politically and economically stable countries with a tradition of tough secrecy laws and blocking statutes.

Usually you get what you pay for. As long as bankers and other secret agents can convincingly promote secrecy along with professionalism there’s a treasure trove of fees to be earned and high-paying jobs to be had. This is, after all, a global market for financial secrecy with plenty of demand, enough willing suppliers, nice profit margins, and one that is not very capital-intensive. It also carries  –an array of risks. As in any good market, financial secrecy is bought and sold, and both sides can be happy. But in this case happiness usually comes at the expense of somebody else, and it creates exposure to agency problems – what to do if the secret agent starts overcharging or stealing from you? What’s your recourse?

Much has changed in the global financial secrecy game in recent years. After 9/11 the US launched a no-holds-barred search for terrorist financing - a needle in a haystack that caused great misery for ordinary secrecy addicts who happen to come up in the net – a kind of financial “bycatch.” The US applied the 2001 PATRIOT Act, which stiffened anti-money laundering (AML) requirements for banks. The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) of 2010 forced American taxpayers and asset managers worldwide to disclose critical information annually on foreign financial holdings. Predictably, it sent “tax-sensitive” people and foreign banks scurrying for various IRS deals to fess-up and come clean. The FINCen arm of the US Treasury Department is now action-central on money laundering. Other countries have their own approaches, but none can equal the ability of the US Department of Justice and the New York State Department of Financial Services to leverage the global dominance of dollar clearing as a big bazooka in disrupting money laundering and the financial secrecy game.

The long-reigning king of high-quality financial secrecy, Switzerland, was brought into line in a 2015 bilateral tax evasion deal with the IRS and the DoJ, following years of better Swiss cooperation on outright financial crimes. With their US tax evasion business mortally wounded and other countries cracking down as well, many Alpine bankers have had to find other lines of work. Countries like Singapore, ready to eat Switzerland’s lunch, have instead been at pains to promote relatively clean financial platforms. So serious financial secrecy clients have had to consider more questionable venues and take their chances – narrower channels, less reputable countries, less scrupulous characters, fewer legal protections, and higher secrecy costs and risks.

Meantime, the OECD in 1989 created its own principles under the Financial Activities Task Force (FATF) to combat “… combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system.” After a slow start, FATF has become far more effective in implementing sensible standards and coordinating national policies, sometimes motivated by the threat of international blacklisting. The ultimate goal is full exchange of financial information among signatory countries. In short, things have become a lot more challenging in the traditional financial secrecy business.

Along come crypto-currencies – possibly a Godsend for beleaguered secrecy seekers. Here we have a “distributed ledger” that is internally transparent, immutable and verifiable, and does away with central clearing and custody. No need to trust financial intermediaries or governments. Transactions are immediate and low cost. No hold-ups or secret-agent problems. Anonymous crypto-wallets designed to be impervious to prying eyes. Unregulated crypto exchanges in various parts of the world that bridge to conventional currencies. Plus a proliferation of initial coin offerings (ICOs) to widen choice among competing players that offer a dual crypto-currency role - a store of value and means of payment.

In short, here’s a miraculous innovation that is especially appealing to those searching for financial secrecy and weighing it against the associated risks and returns. Guesstimates suggest that plenty of people buy this story today, with maybe half of crypto transactions motivated by illicit activities of some sort.

Not so fast. There are drawbacks. Fraudulent ICO issuers have found an easy mark among buyers blinded by the prospects of confidentiality. Crypto-currency exchanges, which also serve as custodians, have been subject to cyber-attacks and big thefts, with limited or no recourse for victims unwilling to reveal their identities. And there is plenty of scope for shady practices such as classic pump-and-dump market manipulation and “spoofing” in trading practices on some crypto exchanges. For a secrecy-driven stash, it’s buyer beware.

But the real show-stopper is the prospect of linking “anonymous” crypto wallets to real identities. Everything rides on preventing this. If prying eyes can make the connection, which some think is not that difficult, it’s all over for crypto as a financial secrecy tool. Governments have plenty of incentives to obtain insight, ranging from loss of fiscal revenues to cyber-crime, and they have scored some notable successes like the 2013 Silk Road shutdown and the 2017 Bitcoin-enabled hacking indictments handed down in the United States against Russians.

What are the prospects? The high-tech that is your friend can also be your mortal enemy. Reconnecting anonymous crypto identities to people is facilitated by “big data” analytics scraped from a completely transparent transaction record. New artificial intelligence techniques  can help back-out real identities. Assuring secrecy involves higher costs, complexity and reliance on programmers and third-party vendors to run the crypto infrastructure. And the crypto-currency exchanges can be arm-twisted to cooperate. A US Treasury requirement to obtain true client identities for US-based exchanges in 2013 evidently cause a stampede to European-based exchanges - only a temporary solution since the EU has similar requirements pending for 2019.  Comoro Islands, anyone

A lot depends on the success of crypto-currencies themselves – so far comprising less than 1% of the global state-issued money supply - and what they are used for. For now, global crypto-currency regulation among nations is still a dog’s breakfast total bans, registration requirements, taxation, financial market regulation practices and the encroachment of disclosure rules. But that will change.

We know that regulation imposes both benefits and costs on market participants. Benefits of regulation include improved robustness and fair dealing - a few crypto exchanges have already pushed to register with financial certification authorities like the US CFTC in order to gain confidence among investors. The costs include reporting and compliance expenses and capital requirements imposed on exchanges to assure solvency. Crypto-currency players motivated by financial secrecy benefit from regulation, just like everyone else. But they bear extraordinarily costs if the cover of anonymous wallets gets blown and it’s “open kimono” time. Regulation always comes with greater intrusion.

Governments certainly have plenty of incentives to make the link, and they have already scored some notable successes – there are a few coins (ZCash, Monero) that are meant to be more anonymous than Bitcoin and the others, but they are not widely used and it is not clear they’re truly private.

If financial disclosure is bad news for those in need of secrecy and crypto-currencies offered new hope, disappointment may lie ahead. The fast-evolving crypto market is a welcome addition to their secrecy toolbox. But it’s hardly free of tricks and traps, and financial anonymity isn’t assured as crypto matures and attracts greater regulatory attention. It may soon be back to the future – financial secrecy fans and their enablers will continue relying on some of the well-trodden but crypto-refreshed paths to confidentiality. 


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