A Better Way to Fight Money Laundering – American Banker quotes Jim Richards and Others

Jim Richards was quoted in an August 2019 American Banker article titled “Is There a Better Way to Fight Money Laundering?” by Victoria Finkel. AB Link

The article is well-researched, well-written, and accurately and fairly makes the point that there are better ways to fight money laundering, but there are impediments. Like all articles, though, the editors are required to edit, and quotes are often trimmed to fit the flow, cadence, and tone of the article.

Below are the two quotes that are in the article. I’ll add the context for each.

“Everybody in the regime wants to try to make it more efficient and effective, but everybody’s got a different definition of efficient and effective,” said Jim Richards, the former global head of financial crimes risk management for Wells Fargo and the founder of RegTech Consulting.

What was not included in the article was the next sentence, where I stated that:

“The prudential regulators are focused on safety and soundness, or how we do our jobs: conducting risk assessments, writing policies and procedures, risk rating and performing due diligence on our customers, documenting and validating the models developed for monitoring transactions, and documenting the reasons why we don’t file a suspicious activity report. Law enforcement, on the other hand, is focused on how well we do our jobs: providing timely, actionable intelligence to law enforcement in order to fight financial crime. And since it is the regulators, not law enforcement, that are examining us, our focus is rightly on compliance – how we do our jobs – and not on how well we provide intelligence to law enforcement.”

The article also quotes Greg Baer of the Bank Policy Institute, who has this take on the dilemma of being examined on how we do our jobs, not on how well we do our jobs:

“The examiners who determine compliance are not allowed to know, in all but rare cases, what becomes of the suspicious activity reports that are filed,” Baer of the Bank Policy Institute said. “So that compliance rating is driven far more by things like, are there written policies and procedures, has there been strict one hundred percent adherence to those policies and procedures, rather than the efficacy of the SARs that are filed. What that leads to is, AML is examined much the same way as any other function — through a check-box kind of approach,” Baer said. This in turns shifts the balance with regard to bank priorities, with compliance becoming the main focus. That includes an over reliance on defensive SARs and a fixation on minutiae, according to industry experts.”

John Byrne, a long-time industry expert, is also quoted:

“We have these laws for one reason and one reason alone — and that’s to get valuable data and information in the hands of law enforcement, so there can be a reaction,” said John Byrne, an expert on anti-money-laundering issues and vice chairman of AML RightSource. “When regulators are criticizing banks for being a couple of days late in a filing or putting a company on a cash reporting exemption list by error, that’s a problem.”

The next Richards quote deals with the lack of actionable feedback on the reports that are being filed:

“What the CFOs and the CEOs are saying is, what are we getting for all this money we’re pumping into the AML/BSA regime?” said Richards, the former Wells Fargo executive. “Can we produce fewer alerts and have it cost less and investigate fewer cases and file better SARs? The answer to that is maybe — but we don’t know what a better SAR is.”

We don’t know what a better SAR is because the feedback SAR filers get from regulators, law enforcement, and FinCEN is scattered and ad hoc, at best, and non-existent, at worst. I have written about the need for feedback through what I have called TSV SARs, or Tactical or Strategic Value SARs, on multiple occasions. See, for example, https://regtechconsulting.net/money-laundering-terrorist-financing-general/fincens-fy2020-report-to-congress-reveals-its-priorities-and-performance/

The American Banker article has some other excerpts that deserve mention. First is an estimate of the amount of illicit funds in the US financial system:

“The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that as much as $2 trillion is illegally laundered around the world each year — while law enforcement reportedly catches less than 1% of that. As much as $300 billion in illicit funds make their way through the U.S. financial system in a given year, according to the Treasury Department.”

The estimate of the amount of illicit funds flowing through the US financial system is close to the amount of illicit funds reported by SAR filings!

In 2018, banks and credit unions filed ~975,000 SARs. Based on some empirical data and some conversations with BSA Officers, the average depository institution SAR reports ~$245,000. In 2018, MSBs filed ~875,000 SARs. Those average about $36,000. “Others” filed another $275,000 SARs, and I’ll guess that those averaged ~$50,000. The total? Almost $300 billion. And that doesn’t include a percentage of the 18 million Currency Transaction Reports: if the average CTR reported $20,000 and 20% of the CTRs involved illicit funds, that would add another $70 billion being reported by financial institutions. So it may not be a reporting issue at all.

So, financial institutions are reporting over $300 billion in potential illicit funds flowing through the US financial system every year. But what percentage of the total flow of funds is illicit? Based on excerpts from the 2015 and 2018 US National Money Laundering Risk Assessments, the total annual flow of funds through the two main wire transfers systems (Fedwire and CHIPS), ACH, debit cards, and cash is about $2 quadrillion dollars. So the illicit funds flowing through the US system represent about 0.0001% of the total funds. Interesting …

A second excerpt that caught my eye is the following:

“… broad AML legislation recently introduced by a bipartisan group of senators — Mark Warner, D-Va., Doug Jones, D-Ala., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Mike Rounds, R-S.D. — would require the Department of Justice to report annually on how frequently law enforcement agencies use Bank Secrecy Act reporting as part of their investigations.”

What is interesting is that while it would be great to have a new law to compel the Justice Department to report annually on how law enforcement is using BSA reports, there already is a law that compels the Treasury Department to report semi-annually on how law enforcement is using BSA reports, and it is not being enforced! Take a look at the USA PATRIOT Act’s section 314(d). Once again, I’ve written about this: https://regtechconsulting.net/aml-regulations-and-enforcement-actions/sar-feedback-what-ever-happened-to-section-314d/

Hopefully, this well-researched, well-written American Banker article will be well-received by everyone who has an interest in seeing the US BSA/AML regime become more effective, more efficient, and better serve the global, national, and local financial systems and financial institutions as we continue the fight against financial crime.