by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street:
Answers trickle in. Tough luck for New York, San Francisco, Miami…
“I am shocked – shocked – to find that money laundering is going on in here!” – Borrowed and twisted from Casablanca.
The US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) announced on Thursday that it would extend for another 180 days a “temporary” program that was due to expire on Thursday, and that it had originally kicked off in January 2016 and expanded in July, to identify and track secret homebuyers who hide behind shell companies and “other opaque structures” for the purpose of money laundering.
And it has already gleaned some insights.
The US housing market has been a perfect platform to launder large amounts of money, no questions asked. Brokers, banks, and other industry professionals played along. There were no reporting requirements. Everyone in the world knew it. And they came to launder their cash by buying expensive homes.
But FinCEN, via its evocatively named Geographic Targeting Orders (GTO), wants to know who these opaque homebuyers are. To find out, the GTOs “temporarily require US title insurance companies to identify the natural persons behind shell companies used to pay ‘all cash’ [i.e. without bank financing] for high-end residential real estate in six major metropolitan areas.”
FinCEN is soliciting the help of title insurance companies “because title insurance is a common feature in the vast majority of real estate transactions,” and these companies can provide “valuable information about real estate transactions of concern.”
In its July announcement, when the program was expanded from two metros – Manhattan and Miami Data – to six metros, FinCEN Acting Director Jamal El-Hindi wouldn’t say to what extent money laundering was involved, but he did throw in a tantalizing tidbit: “The information we have obtained from our initial GTOs suggests that we are on the right track.”
This time around, FinCEN gave a number, a percentage of “suspicious activity”:
FinCEN has found that about 30% of the transactions covered by the GTOs involve a beneficial owner or purchaser representative that is also the subject of a previous suspicious activity report. This corroborates FinCEN’s concerns about the use of shell companies to buy luxury real estate in “all-cash” transactions.
El-Hindi, still Acting Director, added:
“These GTOs are producing valuable data that is assisting law enforcement and is serving to inform our future efforts to address money laundering in the real estate sector.”
“The subject of money laundering and illicit financial flows involving the real estate sector is something that we have been taking on in steps to ensure that we continue to build an efficient and effective regulatory approach.”
So they might actually try to do something about it.
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