In 2018, barely a month passed without an official at a financial institution or government department calling on crypto to clean up its act. In the last quarter of the year alone, the United States Department of the Treasury, the Canadian Parliament and the Russian Federal Financial Monitoring Service all urged or announced the introduction of Anti-Money Laundering (AML) laws for cryptocurrencies, and all of them based their moves on the (noticeably mistaken) presumption that cryptocurrencies are a primary haven for criminals, who use them either as a medium of exchange for illicit goods or as a means of hiding (i.e., laundering) the source of dirty money.
However, when the U.S. Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) dished out a $10 million fine on Dec. 26 for failures to comply with AML legislation, this penalty didn't actually go to a crypto exchange or crypto-related business. Instead, it went to Morgan Stanley, the 38th-biggest bank in the world (and the sixth-biggest in the U.S.). For anyone who's ever noticed the sheer abundance of news stories about crypto's apparent problem with money laundering, this may come as a shock, yet a deeper inspection of recent history reveals that the traditional financial world, in fact, has just as serious a problem with laundering as crypto, if not a more serious problem.
And what's particularly interesting about the issue of money laundering is that, while the cryptocurrency industry is rapidly tightening up its own codes and conduct, the established financial industry still seems stuck on a plateau of underlying illegality, despite its vastly superior position and resources. Indeed, crypto exchanges are increasingly observing Know Your Customer (KYC) and AML regulations, while new trade bodies are being established with the aim of erecting self-regulatory guidelines for the crypto industry to follow. And in the industry's zeal to become a fully legitimate and secure feature of the global economic landscape, it might just have a thing or two to teach the pre-existing banking sector.
Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Société Générale, UBS and so on…
As reported by Reuters, FINRA slapped a $10 million fine on Morgan Stanley's brokerage arm for long-standing failures in its AML reporting system. Between January 2011 and April 2016, Morgan Stanley's automated monitoring system failed (for an undisclosed reason) to receive vital customer information and data from the bank's other systems, thereby preventing it from being able to exhaustively track the movement of "tens of billions of dollars" (according to Reuters) in currency transfers and bank wires.
Making this lapse even worse for Morgan Stanley, FINRA learned that the bank became aware of deficiencies in its monitoring system as early as 2015, but didn't actually begin taking action to address these issues until February 2017. FINRA also found that, between 2011 and 2013, Morgan Stanley had failed to “reasonably monitor” the transfer of 2.7 billion shares of penny stocks, something that needs to be done in order to ensure that the trading volumes of such stocks hadn't been inflated. And tellingly, Morgan Stanley declined to contest both charges, with the bank simply stating, "We are pleased to have resolved this matter from several years ago."
Such violations already present the non-crypto financial industry in a poor light, yet if there were any doubts that the non-crypto world isn't at least as poor at AML compliance as the crypto world, numerous other episodes throughout 2018 would dispel it. For example, in November, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) levelled a 30.10 million rupee fine (about $420,000) on Deutsche Bank, which had failed to observe Indian KYC and AML regulations. Also in November, French bank Société Générale agreed to foot a hefty $95 million bill in order to settle charges that it had contravened U.S. AML regulations, a bill which comprised an even bigger charge of $1.34 billion for breaking U.S. trade sanctions against the likes of Cuba, Iran and Libya.
Moreover, in December, Latvia's financial regulator levied a 1.2 million euro charge on BlueOrange Bank for AML noncompliance, while FINRA fined Swiss bank UBS $5 million for similar violations. And back in August, China's central bank, the People's Bank of China, fined five financial institutions anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000 each for falling foul of AML laws, including Ping An Bank, Shanghai Pudong Development Bank and the Bank of Communications.
Given that these fines were all imposed in the second half of 2018 alone, it's hard to shake the suspicion that the traditional financial industry has a serious problem with money laundering. And this is actually more than a suspicion, because a September report published by Ireland-based financial services company Fenergo revealed that, over the past 10 years, a massive $26 billion in fines had been taken from the world's banks as a result of noncompliance with AML and KYC regulations. Commenting in the report, Fenergo’s director of global regulatory compliance, Laura Glynn, said that the problem isn't restricted to specific countries or banks, but is global in scope:
"Up until now, the focus of regulators had been on the US and European markets. However, we are now witnessing regulators in Asia Pacific and the Middle East markets becoming more proactive in their supervisory efforts."
Crypto and AML
In contrast to what would appear to be an endemic problem in the traditional financial industry, crypto's relationship with AML legislation is tangibly less fraught. First of all, there have been far fewer cases of fines for AML and KYC violations, with crypto exchanges doing much less to attract the attention of authorities than major international banks. Apart from the $110 million civil fine demanded by FinCEN from Russian exchange BTC-e in July 2017, and the $700,000 charge also demanded by FinCEN from Ripple in May 2015, there have been no high-profile fines imposed on crypto exchanges and platforms as a result of AML noncompliance.
Of course, the rejoinder to this point is that crypto exchanges have spent most of their lives outside the jurisdiction of the regulators responsible for AML enforcement. However, what's worth underlining here is that, since governments and financial regulators first began beating their chests about crypto and money laundering, exchanges and platforms have been racing to make themselves fully compliant with all applicable regulations.
For example, Coinbase has been a registered Money Services Business with FinCEN since 2013, meaning that it has been subject to AML guidelines for over five years now. And since it registered, most major exchanges operating in the U.S. have followed suit, including Bitstamp, CEX, Huobi US (HBUS), Bittrex, Poloniex, bitFlyer, itBit, Gemini, Gatecoin, Kraken and OKEx. Such registration goes to show that, contrary to any bad reputations crypto may have gained in the public arena, the industry is serious about being accepted as a legitimate sector of the economy.
This willingness to be accepted as law-abiding members of the global financial community is also evident in the number of self-regulatory bodies that have cropped up in recent months and years with the aim of creating AML standards (among other guidelines) for crypto. In February, Coinbase, eToro and other exchanges formed CryptoUK, a United Kingdom-based regulatory body that aims to lay down "the blueprint for what a future regulatory framework will look like," according to its chairman, Iqbal Gandham. Part of this blueprint will involve Anti-Money Laundering norms, something which Japan’s Virtual Currency Exchange Association established in June for exchanges operating in Japan.
Such self-regulatory moves toward effective AML guidelines have also been witnessed elsewhere. The Korean Blockchain Association revealed its rules — including provisions for Anti-Money Laundering — in April, while the South African Reserve Bank announced in the same month that it would be launching a self-regulatory body to oversee the country's crypto industry and to ensure that cryptocurrencies didn't undermine financial stability and observance of financial laws (such as AML).
Given that crypto didn't really explode onto the world stage until 2017, such developments highlight just how quickly and effectively the industry is moving toward regulation and legitimacy. And not only is it moving willingly toward greater compliance, but it's also being helped along its way by governments and regulators, which are busy developing clear, often international frameworks which will help exchanges understand just where they stand in terms of the law. Most notably, November saw the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) — a body which formulates AML regulations to be adopted globally — update its guidelines on cryptocurrencies. These were changed so as to require the FATF's 35 member states to subject all transmitters of crypto to AML regulations, something which in turn would demand that such transmitters be licensed and/or monitored.
Clearly, if the FATF's members — which include the U.S., Canada, U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, India, Australia and Brazil — adopt such guidance within their own jurisdictions, then crypto exchanges would be required to strengthen their observance of AML standards even further. Seeing as how crypto has hardly been called out by regulators to the extent that big international banks have, it's arguable that additional legislation and monitoring isn't really necessary, although it will be an important step in reassuring the general public that cryptocurrencies aren't the shady underworld that the mainstream media likes to paint them as being.
Indeed, it's an interesting story in its own right as to why, when “reputable” banks like Morgan Stanley, UBS and Société Générale are being fined left, right and center, it's the comparatively small cryptocurrency industry that's attracting most of the world's glare as an alleged sanctuary for rogues and criminals. In the face of such peccadillos as the forex scandal, the LIBOR scandal, the Russian Laundromat scandal, the PPI mis-selling scandal (among many others), the idea that crypto is a serious weak point in an otherwise impenetrable financial fortress is almost laughable and should be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism.
One possible explanation for this, aside from an obvious fear-of-the-new, is that cryptocurrency serves as a convenient distraction away from the problems currently being experienced by the traditional financial sector. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, the financial services sector stands as the least-trusted industry internationally, with only 54 percent of the global public trusting it (compared to 75 percent and 70 percent for technology and education, for instance). This is perhaps unsurprising in light of the financial crisis of 2007-08 (and, in fact, trust was as low as 48 percent in 2014), so it's fortunate that banks and financial institutions now have crypto to regularly denounce, so as to create the implied impression that the businesses they represent are somehow much better. However, given the speed with which crypto exchanges have taken to licensing and to self-regulation, and with which they've sought to demonstrate their compliance with AML legislation, it's only a matter of time before the financial industry will have to look elsewhere for scapegoats.