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Friday, 11 November 2016

Money Laundering Includes... Tax Evasion and Virtual Currencies?

Hot on the heels of the UK's consultation to introduce the 4th Money Laundering Directive comes the imminent EU approval of MLD5

A key element involves the creation of a central register of beneficial ownership of legal entities and related ownership arrangements, plus ongoing monitoring of those arrangements, with the intention that: 
"The enhanced public scrutiny will contribute to preventing the misuse of legal entities and legal arrangements for ...predicate offences such as tax evasion."
Other key provisions may be seen as closely related to this ambition: 
  • creating a central register of all citizens' bank/payment accounts;
  • enabling authorities to go hunting for evidence of suspicious activity even in the absence of a 'suspicious activity report';
  • imposing customer due diligence and transaction monitoring obligations on 'virtual currency' exchanges and wallet providers; and
  • reducing the limit of anonymity for prepaid cards/instruments.
Needless to say, the members of the European Banking Federation are very uncomfortable with the idea of equating tax evasion with money laundering. The nub of EU banks' concern seems to be that their tax evading customers will simply move their accounts to banks based outside the EEA, the implication being that they'd quite like to retain the business! To be fair, it is a little odd that the list of countries with deficient anti-money laundering regimes doesn't include tax havens typically associated with tax evasion.

But there are reasonable objections on the basis that centralising such sensitive and valuable personal data would be a 'snoopers/fraudsters charter'; and creating a central record of every citizen's bank account and financial arrangements seems mightily disproportionate to the benefit of collecting evidence on the comparatively small proportion of the population that would be involved in significant organised crime or tax evasion. It's surprising that the European Economic and Social Committee ("EESC") did not object on these grounds - either the 'social' aspect of the committee's remit is subordinate to the 'economic' interest, or they consider that the whole of society should happily sacrifice privacy and security to ensure everyone pays their fair share of tax. That's certainly the Scandinavian practice. At any rate, the European Central Bank says that member states' central banks shouldn't have to operate the central registers unless they can bill the government for doing so - highlighting the more important point, that governments are better at wasting the taxes they do manage to collect than collecting taxes in the first place.

The FinTech crowd will no doubt be concerned about stealth regulation of distributed ledger technology or blockchains, via the virtual currency requirements. A "virtual currency" is quite broadly defined as:
"...a digital representation of value that is neither issued by a central bank or a public authority, nor necessarily attached to a fiat currency, but is accepted by a natural or legal person as a means of payment and can be transferred, stored or traded electronically."
Even if exchanges and wallet providers are prepared to tolerate AML regulation as the price for entering the 'mainstream', trying to regulate 'virtual currencies' (or any aspect of digital ledger technology or blockchains) at this early stage is very problematic. The above definition is broad but still does not cover every characteristic of a currency (which the Isle of Man has tried to capture). Indeed, the ECB has bluntly responded that so-called 'virtual currencies' are not currencies or money, pointing out they can also be used for other purposes and the holders don't need to use exchanges or wallet providers. The courts are also struggling with the concept that such 'currencies' are 'ownable' or 'property', as Lavy and Khoo have also explained.

Little wonder that the EESC recommends creating some kind of "European tool for monitoring, coordinating and anticipating technological change." But quite how Europe intends to 'anticipate' let alone 'coordinate' blockchain development is anyone's guess!

In any event, retailers should breathe a sigh of relief. Gift cards and other 'closed loop' instruments generally would not fit the MLD5 definition of a virtual currency, since they typically cannot be transferred or traded electronically. And there is a specific exclusion consistent with the 'limited network' exemption from the definition of electronic money (and therefore 'funds') for instruments that can be used to acquire goods or services only in the premises of the issuer, or within a limited network of service providers under direct commercial agreement with a professional issuer, or that can be used only to acquire a very limited range of goods or services. But note that the limited network exemption will be significantly narrower from January 2018, especially for programs transacting more than EUR1m a year.

At least someone wins!