Report Offers Weak Insight on Causation but Lists Steps that Treasury Can and Should Take
The Department of Treasury (“DOT”) recently released its first ever strategy report (the “Strategy”) on the topic of de-risking, taking the form of a 54-page document that combines a summary of the problem of de-risking with an overview of recommended steps to solve it. While the Strategy is the first document of its kind issued by the U.S. government, it is not unexpected – Section 6215 of the Anti-Money Laundering Act of 2020 (“AMLA”) requires the DOT to develop a strategy to mitigate the adverse effects of de-risking after conducting interviews with regulators, non-profit organizations and other public and private stakeholders.
As we’ve discussed over the years, “de-risking” is a practice taken by financial institutions (FIs) to restrict certain categories of customers from accessing their services – typically due to the perception that the compliance risk associated with such customers would outweigh the benefits, financial or otherwise, of servicing them. It is important to note that the concept of de-risking is not about a customer’s individual risk profile; rather, de-risking involves a FI making a wholesale or indiscriminate determination about a category of customers, and failing to use an individualized risk-based approach favored by the anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regulatory framework. As we have discussed, and as global watchdog groups have noted, de-risking often has a disproportionate impact on developing countries. The Strategy itself notes that de-risking “prevent[s] low- and middle-income segments of the population, as well as other underserved communities, from efficiently accessing the financial system[.]” Thus, the issue of de-risking is intertwined with concerns regarding economic and ethnic disparities.
As the Strategy notes, de-risking also can undermine development, humanitarian and disaster relief funds flowing to other countries. Finally, de-risking can threaten the U.S. financial system because driving funds outside of the regulated financial system makes it harder to detect and deter illicit finance, and increases the risk of sanctions evasion.
According to the Strategy, the profit motive of FIs is the main driver behind the ongoing problem of de-risking: because the cost of compliance for risky categories of customers would be too high, FIs cannot justify providing services to them from a profitability perspective.
Arguably, this claim in the Strategy suffers from, at best, a certain lack of self-awareness and, at worst, a degree of hypocrisy, used to deflect a Congressional demand that the DOT address and ameliorate the problem of de-risking. Increasingly onerous BSA/AML regulations, the occasionally haphazard enforcement of those regulations, and the practical disconnect between the expectations of AML examiners and law enforcement agents arguably represent the true source of the compliance-related fears and costs that drive FIs to de-risk. If banks and other FIs are rejecting certain customers wholesale, it’s often because they fear that they will get “dinged” during a regulatory examination for servicing such customers if perceived problems develop after the application of 20/20 hindsight, and because the compliance hoops can range from the onerous to the practically impossible. Similar considerations are partially why FIs now file over four million Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) annually, regardless of whether any given SAR is actually helpful to law enforcement: no one has been subjected to an enforcement action for filing too many SARs.
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