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US Government Mucks up Money-Laundering in Real Estate, Puts Luxury Housing Bubbles at Risk

by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street:

Manhattan and Miami already get mauled. Now expanding to San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Southern California, even Texas!

Cash sales of homes – mostly the domain of foreign and affluent buyers – fell to 32% of total home sales in April, down 2.8 percentage points from a year ago, according to a new report from CoreLogic. For the first four months, cash sales dropped to 34%, the lowest since 2008.

In Florida, the number one destination for foreign homebuyers, cash sales accounted for 46% of sales, and in New York, for 44%, both decreasing as well. The “strong dollar” and “global uncertainty” were blamed.

In Manhattan and Miami, the luxury condo markets are already getting mauled. For example, we reported that in Manhattan, condo prices plunged 14% in just three months.

We also reported that foreign investors were pulling back, particularly Chinese investors, the most prolific of all foreign buyers. The number of homes they purchased over the 12-month period had plunged 15%.

So is it just the “strong dollar” and “global uncertainty?” Or could there be more to the story?

Today, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced that it would expand a program it had kicked off in January to identify and track secret homebuyers who hide behind shell companies.

The expanded program will “temporarily require US title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind shell companies used to pay ‘all cash’ for high-end residential real estate in six major metropolitan areas,” up from the two areas designated in January, Manhattan and Miami, among the biggest destinations of global wealth:

FinCEN remains concerned that all-cash purchases (i.e., those without bank financing) may be conducted by individuals attempting to hide their assets and identity by purchasing residential properties through limited liability companies or other opaque structures.

Real estate purchases in the US have been a perfectly good way to launder large amounts of money, no questions asked. Brokers and banks and other industry professionals have played along. Everyone in the world knew it. And they came to launder their cash.

These folks don’t mind paying a little extra. So as an industry-pleasing side effect of this influx of opaque money, luxury home prices soared, from where they trickled down to the rest of the market.

The New York Times, whose investigative reporting on money laundering in the real estate business, particularly in Manhattan, appears to have stirred the Treasury Department into action, explained in January:

It is the first time the federal government has required real estate companies to disclose names behind cash transactions, and it is likely to send shudders through the real estate industry, which has benefited enormously in recent years from a building boom increasingly dependent on wealthy, secretive buyers.

Apparently, this first experiment in Manhattan and Miami was successful for the government, according to the release today:

The initial GTOs [Geographic Targeting Orders] are helping law enforcement identify possible illicit activity and informing future regulatory approaches. In particular, a significant portion of covered transactions have indicated possible criminal activity associated with the individuals reported to be the beneficial owners behind shell company purchasers.

This corroborates FinCEN’s concerns that the transactions covered by the GTOs (i.e., all-cash luxury purchases of residential property by a legal entity) are highly vulnerable to abuse for money laundering.

Read More @ WolfStreet.com

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