When it comes to money launderers, former HSBC Group Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver hit the nail on the head when he said, “We must always be one step ahead of them. As a steward of the global financial system, we must play a full part in protecting it. … It is up to us to protect the firm we work for [HSBC] from the reputational financial damage of allowing illicit actors into the banking system through HSBC; it’s you, it’s me.”
Good advice, but how can this be achieved when we—you, me, and the folks at HSBC—are unable to see who or what we are dealing with? Moreover, why, when we are unable to understand the ownership and control of a complicated offshore corporate structure, do we take a risk and give said structure and those behind it the benefit of the doubt?
Andrew Fahie, who serves as both prime minister and minister of finance of the British Virgin Islands (BVI), recently announced the BVI government would work toward a beneficial ownership public register of companies incorporated in the BVI. If it succeeds, that means no more “beneficiaries virtually invisible,” a more ominous BVI.
The statement from Fahie references change: a change of attitude; a change of public policy; and a change of tolerance for conduct which appears to profit, unwittingly or otherwise, from “illicit actors” seeking to hide. It could spell good things for those working to keep illicit actors out of the banking system but being confronted by a government selling corporate entities to hide those very actors.
One prime example hails from the Panama Leaks, when near 12 million documents detailing financial and attorney-client-privileged information for more than 200,000 offshore entities were leaked to a journalist and subsequently revealed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The British Virgin Islands featured more prominently than any other offshore jurisdiction, and HSBC featured more prominently than any other bank. Coincidence?
Knowing this, let me present a hypothetical scenario: What if there was an HSBC Airlines flying under BVI airport authority? Would you fly with them? Would you feel protected and assured that by acting together, the two would effectively keep illicit actors, aka terrorists, off the plane? Or would you find an alternative way to travel—a safer way?
The Panama Leaks showed the world that the unremitting flow of dirty money continues to elicit change to the financial system, such as that proposed by Fahie, which extends beyond banks like HSBC to company formation agents, governments, and law enforcement agencies—many of whom have campaigned tirelessly for beneficial owner pubic registers for corporate entities.
Just two weeks ago, the U.K. government announced further changes to the laws governing the incorporation of companies and partnerships, which will mandate the verification of the identity of persons with significant influence/control within such entities. Next stop: the United States, where legislation requiring the creation of public registers of the beneficial ownership of corporate entities continues its path through the legal process. In the event the law is not passed, perhaps the United States will become the purveyor of choice for “illicit actors” seeking “unlimited secrecy”—yes, that U.S.
Big business, including big banks, are enthusiastic supporters of the draft legislation. Just like the Panama Papers leaks, perhaps the recent FinCEN scandal may once again be a driving force in seeing necessary change enacted. Certainly, U.S. airports and airlines are among the safest in the world; passengers are protected, and there is a tremendous determination and drive to thwart terrorists from boarding U.S. planes. Perhaps we need to recruit some airline and airport CEOs into the financial services industry? After all, they don’t cut anyone slack if there’s a possibility their actions would be a safety concern.
If your CEO has made a strong policy statement against financial crime, money launderers, and illicit actors, it is up to employees to live by the same. We all have a role to play, and together we can make a difference: We can drive the change and deliver the protection we all deserve.