William F Wechsler. Foreign Affairs. Volume 80, Issue 4. July/August 2001.
Secrets and Lies
As the international financial system has expanded, so too have financial abuses—money laundering, tax evasion, and rogue banking. Globalization is now changing the nature of these age-old problems, threatening to undermine U.S. diplomatic, economic, and even strategic interests. Multilateral efforts have begun to combat these abuses and have already achieved some impressive results. But time is running short for the Bush administration to act, and its decisions now will determine whether these multilateral efforts will continue.
Financial abuses have been around for as long as there have been finances to abuse. Money laundering and tax evasion are often viewed as complicated, boring matters hinging on the minutiae of tax codes and regulatory laws. But that image masks a destructive, often bloody reality. Drug cartels, arms traffickers, terrorist groups, and common criminal organizations use banks to launder their dirty money, making it appear as the product of legitimate business. Tax evaders structure transactions to hide their wealth from legitimate authorities, weakening national tax bases. Corrupt government officials exploit banks to facilitate their own misdeeds, breeding a lawless business culture and undermining public confidence in national financial systems. And the underregulated banking systems that facilitate these abuses have sparked financial meltdowns around the world.
The United States and many of its economic allies have long understood these threats and know that “following the money” can unearth big vulnerabilities in criminal syndicates. Over the years, their governments—remembering that Al Capone was put behind bars for tax evasion rather than murder—developed legal and regulatory regimes to help detect and deter financial abuses. Banks and other financial-service providers were regulated and supervised. Money laundering and tax evasion were criminalized, banks were required to identify and report suspicious transactions, company-incorporation and trust-formation laws were passed to encourage transparency, and law enforcement agencies developed specialized investigative skills.
As criminal organizations began to operate across international borders, national regulators and law enforcement agencies began to share information. In recent decades, international standards for financial transparency were established through such multilateral organizations as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision. But these efforts were not truly global. For the most part, only wealthy countries with well- developed financial systems participated; smaller and less-developed countries were mainly absent from these discussions. This did not seem a problem, however, because most of the world’s funds routinely passed through a small number of highly developed economies. In comparison, the banking systems in the developing and then-communist nations were exceedingly small and not globally integrated.
Even among nations with well-developed financial systems, however, a few countries took different approaches. Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, for example, were notoriously reluctant to disclose information on their secret bank accounts. Moreover, they shared certain features that made their banks attractive to money launderers and tax evaders: both possessed stable political and economic environments, professional work forces, and—most important—physical proximity to more tightly regulated financial centers. A banker in London or Frankfurt needed only to take a brief plane ride with a suitcase full of cash to a colleague in Zurich. Similar trips were regularly made from New York City or Miami to Grand Cayman Island.
These services were enormously profitable. The Cayman Islands, with 35,000 inhabitants, saw its banking assets eventually exceed $670 billion. It became home to 570 banks and trust companies, 2,240 mutual funds, 500 captive insurance firms, and 45,000 offshore businesses. Switzerland, meanwhile, became preeminent in global asset management, controlling up to $2.3 trillion under management, more than half from foreign customers.
Under international pressure in recent years, however, Switzerland and the Cayman Islands have begun restricting their bank secrecy regimes. The Caymans also have begun (albeit slowly) to cooperate with foreign law enforcement, particularly with the United States. Switzerland still refuses to cooperate on international tax matters but is steadily improving its efforts against money laundering. Indeed, Swiss measures to combat money laundering are now superior to U.S. approaches in some areas.
But this is not the end of the story. Just as the international consensus among the leading financial centers began making real progress in the 1990s, another force emerged that undermined those efforts and raised a whole new set of problems: globalization.
Money for Nothing
Thanks to globalization and advances in banking technologies, distant countries are now just a mouse-click away. The bank next door may be doing business halfway around the world. This development has opened up great opportunities for nations that were once too small, too bereft of natural resources, or too physically remote from the rest of the world to benefit significantly from the global economy. A remote, poor country can now make easy money by following the example of Tuvalu, a South Pacific nation that sold its Internet suffix “.TV” to an American company for $50 million (as well as a 20 percent stake in future revenues) and leases its telephone prefix, 688, to a telephone-sex operator for $1.5 million per year.
The lure of quick wealth has generated other ideas as well. For money launderers and tax evaders, the proximity of Switzerland and the Caymans to major financial centers is not as important as it once was. Other countries soon figured out that they too could attract dirty money just by passing a few laws. These laws included provisions to establish strict bank secrecy, criminalize the release of customer information, and bar international law-enforcement cooperation. Other laws involved licensing “brass plate” banks (which have neither physical presence nor personnel) and allowing the creation of anonymous companies and asset-protection trusts, some of which can give ownership to whomever happens to be holding the relevant documents at that moment. Some countries also created offshore regimes with special rules, including tax advantages, that are available only to foreign customers. Others established “economic citizenship” programs, which sell passports to anyone who can afford them, and Internet gambling licenses, which provide convenient cover to those who wish to move large amounts of money. These nations then worked to help their banks set up relationships with established banks elsewhere—an easy matter given modern banking and communications technologies. All that was left was to set up Internet sites touting the advantages of offshore banking, sit back, and watch the registration and licensing fees accumulate. Not surprisingly, almost none of these countries bothered to establish the financial supervisory institutions or examination mechanisms that even approached international standards.
The result was a vast proliferation of rogue banking. In the 1990s, remote South Pacific island nations including Nauru, Niue, and Vanuatu took this path to quick wealth. Small Caribbean nations such as Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, and Grenada also joined in. From the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, a new breed of underregulated financial centers moved from the fringes of the international banking system to full integration into the global economy. Even wealthier countries such as Panama, Israel, Cyprus, and the Philippines—nations that had long-standing aspirations for international banking but inadequate measures to prevent money laundering—found themselves awash in questionable funds.
At the same time, many emerging markets were receiving previously unimaginable influxes of legitimate foreign investment, much of which was channeled through underregulated banking systems. Local financial markets were expanding wildly and attracting international bankers, for whom the prospective returns far outweighed the risks of doing business with such shaky institutions. The growth of international criminal organizations, drug cartels, and terrorist groups also strongly contributed to the proliferation of rogue banking. In turn, these underregulated financial institutions became prime conduits for funds flowing out of developing countries struggling with economic transition, crime, and corruption. Nowhere was this more evident than in the post-Soviet states. Funds from organized crime, government kickbacks, widespread tax evasion, the rape of natural resources, and old-fashioned legal capital flight all went to banks promising secrecy. Technological advances allowed rogue banking to flourish in a globalized world, but demand for no-questions-asked financial services drove the supply.
Hide and Seek
Over time, U.S. officials realized that these developments presented a growing threat to American interests. Weak banking systems and poor supervision have long been recognized as an underlying cause of financial crises and economic downturns around the world. But not until the 1997 Asian financial crisis did policymakers begin to ask difficult questions about underregulated financial centers. These questions touched not only on the structural weaknesses revealed by the crisis—such as lack of transparency, distortions in resource allocations, and endemic corruption—but on the scale and direction of capital outflows once the crisis had emerged. Policymakers also wondered whether financial abuses might undermine the credibility and efficiency of the international financial system. This subject was put high on the agenda of the Financial Stability Forum (FSF), which the G-7 group of rich industrialized nations established after the 1997 crisis to help promote international financial stability, improve the functioning of markets, and reduce systemic risk.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have also begun to assess the extent and damage of financial abuses. For example, IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus estimated in 1998 that money laundering represented two to five percent of global GDP—that is, between $800 billion and $2 trillion per year—an amount large enough to merit the attention of policymakers. Among the deleterious effects of such abuses, he noted, are inexplicable changes in money demand, greater risks to bank soundness, contamination of legal financial transactions, and greater volatility of international capital flows and exchange rates. The OECD came to similar conclusions that year, pointing out that harmful tax practices can distort trade and investment, erode national tax bases, and undermine the fairness of tax structures. Oxfam, an international antipoverty organization, has estimated that developing nations alone lose $50 billion each year in taxes due to these practices.
Because of globalization, even the strong U.S. economy can be affected by global financial abuses. Experts estimate that the U.S. Treasury loses $70 billion annually through offshore tax evasions by individuals. The result is a disproportionate tax burden on law- abiding citizens and fewer resources available for public spending or tax cuts. The 1999 scandal involving $7.5 billion of Russian funds moving illegally through the Bank of New York—with the complicity of senior bank officials—demonstrated that financial abuses from abroad can corrupt important U.S. institutions. And even without insider wrongdoing, U.S. banks are more vulnerable to abuse if wire transfers of dirty money have been bounced through underregulated jurisdictions before entering the United States—something increasingly easy to do.
As important as these economic effects are, however, they pale in comparison with the problems that global financial abuses present to U.S. law enforcement and national security. The Colombian black market peso exchange, for instance, is estimated to transmit $5 billion in drug money each year from the United States to Colombian drug traffickers through a complex series of trade and financial transactions. Domestic investigations of criminal finances are normally difficult enough, often requiring forensic accountants to sift through reams of bank transactions. But when a criminal’s financial trail leads back to a foreign country that categorically refuses to share information, the investigation can end right there. With the globalization of the international banking system and the proliferation of underregulated foreign jurisdictions, U.S. law enforcement increasingly runs into this brick wall. Given their limited resources and previous bad experiences, U.S. investigators sometimes may not even attempt to seek information from some foreign countries.
Multinational crime networks rely increasingly on international financial mechanisms. In December 2000, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies published the first International Crime Threat Assessment, which stressed the growing importance of “safe havens” for international criminal networks. Along with their utility in money laundering, these safe havens are especially useful as staging or transit areas for drugs, arms, and illegal immigrants. In Europe, German intelligence has identified Liechtenstein as a safe haven that some judges, politicians, bank managers, and investment advisers use for illegal financial transactions. Although Liechtenstein has vociferously denied these charges (published in 1999 in Der Spiegel) and successfully refuted some of the specific points made by the Germans, many experts believe that the report’s general conclusions remain sound.
The value of safe havens has not been lost on terrorists such as Osama bin Ladin, who rose to prominence due not to his military exploits but to his ability to raise, manage, and move money for Afghan rebels in the 1980s. He still derives much of his authority and influence from the money under his control. He is said to have inherited about $300 million, and his Al-Qaeda organization maintains legal and illegal enterprises, collects donations from supporters, and illicitly siphons funds from donations to Muslim charitable organizations. The funds are moved through a variety of mechanisms, including underregulated banks in the Middle East and elsewhere, then often transferred into better regulated institutions after the funds’ origins have been suitably obscured. In the trial of those accused of bombing the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, witnesses described Al-Qaeda bank accounts in such disparate places as Dubai, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and London.
Financial abuses are also affecting regime changes around the world. Corruption has always been unpopular among voters. But recently, revelations of secret accounts held in underregulated banks have helped topple governments. In the Philippines, for instance, President Joseph Estrada was impeached and driven from office this past January after it was revealed that he had opened a $10 million trust account under the assumed name of “Jose Velarde.” In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori tried to remain in office even as his intelligence chief and adviser, Vladimiro Montesinos, was caught bribing political officials before becoming a fugitive from justice. Fujimori even led a search team through the Peruvian jungle for the benefit of television cameras. It was only after Swiss authorities announced last November that they had found and frozen $70 million linked to Montesinos that Fujimori had to flee. In Europe, too, financial abuses are undermining politicians. Revelations of secret political slush funds in Liechtenstein ruined former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s reputation; it seems almost everyone associated with the late French President Francois Mitterrand is now reeling from investigations into slush funds involving the formerly state-owned oil company Elf Aquitaine.
Rogue banking can even affect key U.S. strategic interests, such as Russian economic and political development. According to the Russian Central Bank, $74 billion was transferred from Russian banks to offshore accounts in 1998, the year of the ruble devaluation and the Russian financial meltdown; $70 billion of that went to accounts at banks chartered in Nauru. The following year, newspapers reported that Nauru’s banks were involved in the $7.5 billion that illegally moved from Russia through the Bank of New York. A single bank registered in Nauru was identified as the ordering party for more than $3 billion of those funds. Only a few years earlier, Nauru had been less than a footnote in the global banking system—and suddenly it became a factor in U.S.-Russian relations.
Or take sanctions, one of Washington’s most important tools for dealing with states such as Iraq and Yugoslavia. The proliferation of rogue banking has made it harder to enforce these measures. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has found enough ways around U.N. sanctions to keep his regime intact more than a decade after the Persian Gulf War, often using foreign banks that choose to look the other way. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, himself a former banker, used a complex web of financial safe havens (especially in Cyprus) to create offshore companies and accounts that helped him evade the bite of sanctions. One of Milosevic’s schemes involved moving more than $1 billion through a single account in a Cypriot bank between 1991 and 1995—money that helped fund his war machine and cause untold misery.
To be certain, New York, London, and other highly developed, well- regulated financial centers are no strangers to money laundering. It is unavoidable that much of the world’s dirty money flows through these financial centers, given their size, the architecture of the international banking system, and the desirability of placing criminal funds where they can be of most use. But the United States and its partners have long recognized this problem and have been taking increasingly aggressive actions to curb money laundering and other financial abuses. The new problem lies in clamping down on underregulated jurisdictions and the new threats they pose to U.S. interests—and that requires a new strategy.
The Name (and Shame) Game
The Clinton administration realized that any new approach had to focus on stemming the proliferation of underregulated jurisdictions and tackling those jurisdictions that were already established. The strategy also had to recognize the limits of traditional law- enforcement and regulatory channels as well as the relative ineffectiveness of previous diplomatic efforts. Furthermore, any strategy had to be global and multilateral, since unilateral actions would only drive dirty money to the world’s other major financial centers. Yet Washington could not afford to take the “bottom-up” approach of seeking a global consensus before taking action; if the debate were brought to the U.N. General Assembly, for example, nations with underregulated financial regimes would easily outvote those with a commitment to strong international standards. Finally, the strategy had to be politically tenable, given the varied U.S. interests in many nations with underregulated financial sectors.
Led by Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, the Clinton administration worked with its allies to develop a three-pronged strategy focused on rogue banking, money laundering, and tax evasion. Three multilateral organizations—the G-7’s FSF, the FATF, and the OECD—were asked to address these issues separately but to proceed on similar timetables so that they could conclude their work before the G-7 summit in July 2000. The objective was to “name and shame” those nations that had developed underregulated financial centers and threaten appropriate countermeasures if the pressure was not sufficient. The three efforts each followed a “top-down” approach in which nations committed to regulatory and law enforcement regimes would establish international standards and evaluative criteria before engaging with those who lacked the commitment.
The FSF comprised finance ministers, central bankers, and supervisory officials from 11 nations with advanced financial systems. Also represented were international institutions such as the IMF and the Bank for International Settlements, regulatory bodies such as the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and the International Organization of Securities Commissions, and committees of central bank experts such as the Committee on Payment and Settlement Systems. The FSF aimed to compile a list of underregulated offshore centers, decide how to respond to new international developments, and assess their potential to contribute to instability. To these ends, the FSF created a survey that asked banking, insurance, and securities supervisors in both onshore and offshore centers about offshore laws and supervisory practices, the level of resources devoted to supervision and international cooperation, and the degree of cooperation. The FSF then grouped offshore jurisdictions into three categories, from high quality to low quality.1 Its most significant conclusion was that “offshore financial centers that are unable or unwilling to adhere to internationally accepted standards for supervision, cooperation, and information-sharing create a potential systemic threat to global financial stability.” Finally, the FSF identified key supervisory standards, recommending that the IMF take charge of deciding how to assess adherence to these standards and proposing ways to enhance compliance.
For its part, the FATF was responsible for reviewing the countries that resisted global efforts to combat money laundering, both offshore and onshore. This was an expanded mandate for the group, which the G-7 had established in 1989 to set and evaluate international standards against money laundering and which has since grown to include 29 members. The FATF developed 25 criteria for identifying uncooperative nations, focusing on bank regulation, customer identification, the reporting of suspicious activity, international cooperation, and the criminalization of money laundering. It then began to analyze the laws and practices of the 29 nations identified as meriting review. In turn, these nations were allowed to provide their own input and to challenge FATF assessments. In June 2000, the FATF issued a concluding report that identified systemic problems in 15 “noncooperative” jurisdictions and deficiencies in another 14.2
Meanwhile, the OECD was responsible for investigating tax evasion and establishing a consensus—ultimately opposed by only Switzerland and Luxembourg—on how to tackle harmful tax practices. The organization then set out to identify the tax havens that undermine other nations’ tax bases. These havens, according to the OECD, shared four key factors: lack of transparency, lack of effective exchange of information, “ring-fencing” regimes (whereby foreign customers are subject to rules different from those applied to citizens), and no or low effective tax rates. (On the last point, however, the OECD made clear that low taxes alone do not make a country a tax haven. Low taxes are problematic only when combined with harmful tax practices.) Like the FATF, the OECD permitted the countries being reviewed to have their say in the assessment process. In June 2000, the OECD announced that six jurisdictions under review—Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Cyprus, Malta, Mauritius, and San Marino—had committed to eliminate harmful tax practices by the end of 2005 and to embrace international tax standards. Others did not, however, and by the end of the month the OECD released a list of these tax havens.3
In July 2000, the G-7 finance ministers met and endorsed the recommendations of all three initiatives. More pointedly, they also issued formal advisories to their domestic financial institutions, informing them of the FATF actions against money-laundering havens and calling on those institutions to scrutinize transactions involving the nations on the FATF list. This unprecedented step was, in essence, a warning light from the ministers. They also threatened that if listed countries did not take immediate steps to fight money laundering, the G-7 would consider additional measures, such as restricting financial transactions with those jurisdictions and conditioning support from international financial institutions.
Winning Friends and Influencing People
The G-7’s threat was credible and the global reaction was immediate. Markets responded first: the day the FATF released its list, for instance, Standard & Poor’s downgraded its rating for a top Liechtenstein bank. An industry reaction followed, as banks from G-7 nations began to review their relationships with banks from many of the listed countries. Numerous reports emerged of old ties being broken and new relationships being abandoned. Finally, there was a diplomatic reaction: some of the listed countries started complaining about new difficulties in processing international wire transfers and in balancing accounts by settling their daily dollar transactions. After the initial predictable denunciations of the “naming and shaming” initiatives, many of the targeted countries began to make politically difficult pledges to bring their regimes up to international standards. More countries began to cooperate with the OECD. By the beginning of 2001, 32 of the 35 listed tax havens had sought further dialogue with the OECD. The Isle of Man, the Netherlands Antilles, and the Seychelles took the next step and signed commitments to eliminate harmful tax practices; others were working with the OECD to follow suit. The IMF and other international institutions also incorporated anti-money laundering measures into some of their country reviews and assessments.
Steeled by this reaction, key nations began to apply additional pressures where they held special influence. The French came down particularly hard on Monaco, and the British stepped up pressure on their dependencies in the Caribbean and in the English Channel. The European Union began difficult discussions with Luxembourg and Switzerland about their refusal to cooperate on tax matters. The United States abstained from a vote on an IMF program for the Philippines, which Manila interpreted as a sign of increasing concerns about money laundering. Washington also got tough on Panama. After Peru’s Montesinos fled there, Panama told the United States that it would give him asylum only if the United States would rescind its anti-money laundering advisory—a deal that the United States quickly rebuffed.
As a result of this pressure, the short period since the report’s publication has seen substantial progress. By this February, 7 of the 15 targets of FATF action—the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands, Israel, Liechtenstein, the Marshall Islands, and Panama—had completely reinvented their approaches to combating money laundering. For the first time ever, money laundering is a crime in Israel and customer identification is mandatory in the Cayman Islands. Rogue banks have been closed and new law enforcement investigations have begun. Although full implementation of the new laws is yet to be confirmed in most cases, many listed nations have already cooperated more in assisting investigations.
This policy’s success offers several important lessons. First, multilateral efforts can be productive globally without requiring global consensus. Coalitions of the willing can successfully influence and enforce international standards, especially if the coalition partners have a predominant interest in and influence over the subject at hand. In this case, the coalition that drove the FATF, FSF, and OECD process represented the dominant players in the global financial system, so it could effectively set the rules. Second, globalization and the integration of world financial markets give policymakers new abilities to influence events on a global scale. When governments are able to harness market forces, they can incite foreign private actors to lobby their own governments to take action. Third, such multilateral actions are most effective when no special favors are given. During this process, some of the targeted countries urged the United States to protect their interests; at times, divisions emerged within the U.S. government about how Washington should handle sensitive cases such as Israel, Panama, and Russia. In the end, thanks primarily to Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, the United States played no diplomatic favorites. This fairness made it much easier for France and the United Kingdom to be equally tough. And fourth, the initiative showed that U.S. leadership was essential even in a multilateral setting. With perhaps the sole exception of France, no other country could apply anywhere near the same degree of diplomatic efforts and legal and regulatory resources to this project.
A Way Forward
The work is far from over. The IMF and the World Bank still need to better incorporate measures to combat financial abuses into their regular programs. The OECD is working with its targeted countries to bring them closer into compliance with international standards—and it must decide what to do about countries that do not respond. The FATF is working to determine which countries have made enough progress toward full reform to be taken off the list; it is also reviewing additional countries to determine whether any should be added. Finally, both the FATF and the G-7 will have to confront the issue of countermeasures.
As successful as this process has been, not every targeted country has responded constructively. For instance, the United States received a letter from the president of Nauru soon after the FATF list’s publication. He charged that, because Nauru was the “victim” of adverse publicity, business had taken a turn for the worse. Before Nauru could proceed with reforming its offshore financial regime, he concluded, it would need compensation for its losses—$10 million, to be exact.
Countries such as Nauru are primary targets for multilateral countermeasures. In February, the FATF identified three other states, along with Nauru, that had thus far done little or nothing of substance to improve their anti-money laundering regimes: Lebanon, the Philippines, and Russia. Lebanon has since rushed through new laws, and Russia has now introduced new legislation (after vetoes by former President Boris Yelstin and broken promises by President Vladimir Putin). But the Bush administration must determine before the next G-7 summit in July whether it wants to support multilateral penalties if that progress is not adequate. These penalties could range from strengthened advisories to bilateral actions such as denying visas or withholding loans. They could even involve outright economic sanctions such as the wholesale restriction of financial transactions.
A number of other initiatives remain necessary to build on the success so far. The United States should continue to improve its own anti-money laundering regime, balancing law enforcement and privacy interests, so that it can continue to lead the world’s efforts. All U.S. financial institutions, not just banks, should be brought into the U.S. anti-money laundering regime. Pockets of domestic underregulation, such as Delaware’s loose oversight of company incorporation, need additional scrutiny. Overly burdensome regulations, such as the blanket requirement to report cash transactions over $10,000 (a level that has not changed since the 1970s), should be relaxed to balance stronger requirements elsewhere. Most important, Washington should find a better way to share its information on criminal foreign banks with the domestic financial industry to help prevent U.S. banks from being abused.
The United States and its allies should also begin engaging strategically important developing countries such as China, India, and South Africa on this subject. The G-7 should do much more to coordinate action to track funds stolen by former kleptocrats such as Nigeria’s Sani Abacha and Indonesia’s Suharto. The FATF has already begun to review and improve international standards against money laundering. This review should address tough questions: Should tax fraud formally be an offense under the money-laundering statutes? How can anti-money laundering provisions be applied to the growing Islamic banking system and underground banking mechanisms such as the hawala system, which caters to Middle Eastern and South Asian populations around the world? Lastly, the United States and other interested nations should view the “naming and shaming” efforts of the FATF, the FSF, and the OECD as models for other policy areas.
A Bush Backtrack?
It is perhaps too early to know how the Bush administration will confront abuses in the global financial system. But initial signs indicate that George W. Bush may be less interested in multilateral approaches and strong regulatory actions than his predecessors. Some law enforcement experts are already worried about the views of Bush’s chief economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, who has long opposed the legislative foundations of the U.S. anti-money laundering regime. In a 1999 article in The Financial Times, for example, he challenged the regime’s very constitutionality, arguing that the “current money- laundering enforcement practices are the kind of blanket search that the writers of the Constitution sought to prohibit.”
Lindsey is correct on one point: the need to balance law enforcement interests against concerns over privacy. In recent years, several good proposals have emerged for modifying U.S. laws and regulations to better address legitimate privacy concerns—something moderates on both sides of this debate should embrace. Otherwise, Lindsey’s positions are far from mainstream. He ignores the fact that efforts to balance enforcement and privacy interests have always been integral to U.S. banking laws and regulations. That understanding has resulted in a steady tradition of bipartisan support for efforts to prevent money laundering. Richard Nixon signed the Bank Secrecy Act in 1970 and established the modern regulatory framework. Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1986 making money laundering a federal crime and expanding Nixon’s framework. And George H.W. Bush led the G-7 initiative to create the FATF and established the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. Indeed, the same principles that concern Lindsey are central tenets of the international standards that the United States has been urging the rest of the world to adopt. If Washington backtracked from those tenets now—as Lindsey has advocated—it would seriously undermine a successful bipartisan effort.
Lindsey’s views are not the only ones that cause concern, however. During his first two meetings with his G-7 counterparts in February and April, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill retreated from the previous U.S. position of strong support for the FATF and OECD initiatives, insisting they were now “under review.” Then in May, he wrote in The Washington Times that he shares “many of the serious concerns that have been expressed recently about the direction of the OECD initiative” and that “the project is too broad and it is not in line with this administration’s tax and economic priorities.” He left the other finance ministers publicly questioning whether the United States would go along with the critical next step in these efforts: multilateral countermeasures against the most egregious havens for financial abuses.
In taking these positions, O’Neill was reflecting the views of a vocal, well-financed minority of Americans who oppose any multilateral discussions of tax issues for fear of an imaginary “global tax police”—the financial equivalent of U.N. black helicopters. These ideologues have targeted the OECD initiative to combat harmful tax practices, arguing that it would somehow prevent the United States from lowering taxes at home. But nothing could be further from the truth. The OECD initiative clearly allows countries to lower taxes—indeed, to zero if they desire. Otherwise, places such as the Cayman Islands would have been listed as tax havens.
Meanwhile, O’Neill’s insistence on a lengthy “review” of the OECD initiative has already seen predictable diplomatic consequences. Many countries on the OECD list immediately adopted a new confrontational approach. Rather than working with OECD technical experts to address clear concerns about transparency and information sharing, they now, in the words of one Antiguan official, “seek a global tax forum to resolve these issues, rather than one dominated by the OECD.” Of course, if a “global forum” such as the U.N. General Assembly became the venue for establishing international standards, the votes of underregulators would easily carry the day. Money launderers and tax evaders around the world would then breathe a deep sigh of relief.
This July, at the annual G-7 summit in Italy, the Bush administration’s official approach will become clear. Notwithstanding Lindsey’s previous positions or O’Neill’s early statements, the Bush administration could still decide to continue the successful multilateral approach to combating money laundering, tax evasion, and rogue banking. Such a decision would be a victory of good policy over bad politics. But if the United States weakens or withdraws its support, the entire effort will be grievously—perhaps irreparably—harmed. If G-7 decisions about countermeasures are delayed in July, much of the diplomatic momentum will be lost. If no effective sanctions are imposed at all against the worst offenders, the credibility of the entire effort will be put in doubt. Those who would look to the Bush administration to take tough measures against international money laundering and tax evasion would then likely have to wait—at least until the next big money laundering scandal emerges.