Banks Join the Call to End Anonymous Companies

By Mark Hays

This article is cross-posted from the Global Witness blog.

This week, The Clearing House Association, a major trade association for U.S. commercial banks, endorsed legislation requiring the collection of information about the real owners of U.S. companies (S. 2489/H.R. 4450). The Clearing House Association is the oldest banking association in the U.S., and it advocates on behalf of the largest U.S. commercial banks, such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo and SunTrust, just to name a few.

Their letter states, “We believe the bill would assist public sector efforts to identify money laundering and terrorist financing through the disclosure of the beneficial owners of corporations. In addition, the legislation would bring the United States further in line with international AML/CFT expectations, such as the recommendations developed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). We can see no justification for allowing corporations to shield their ownership.”

Those following efforts to end anonymous companies in the U.S. know this is a big development.

Clearing House’s support is based on the fact that without a way to ensure there’s comprehensive collection of beneficial ownership information for U.S. companies, it will be hard for banks to comply with new regulations that require them to find out who are the beneficial owners of their corporate clients.

Doing that due diligence is important because right now, setting up anonymous companies is one of the easiest ways to move illicit funds into the global financial system without being detected by law enforcement. Corrupt politicians, tax evaders, terrorists, drug traffickers, fraudsters and other criminals are all able to cover their tracks in this way.

In that vein, Clearing House takes their support a step further, arguing that they should have access to any beneficial ownership information that is collected (the current bills only guarantee access for law enforcement). “We also believe that the potential benefits of the bill could be significantly increased by clarifying that financial institutions performing customer due diligence can obtain access to beneficial ownership information reported to a state. Under the current regime, many if not most of the resources devoted to identifying money laundering and terrorist financing are provided by financial institutions; denying them access to this important information would significantly undermine the goals of the bill.”

We agree, and while we support the current bills, we have long advocated that in the long-term the best approach to ending anonymous companies is to create public registries of company ownership information. This would ensure that journalists, civil society, businesses and others can use this information to promote transparency and determine who they are doing business with.

Clearing House isn’t the first business voice to make the case for beneficial ownership transparency. The B-Team, a group of businesses like Virgin Group, Natura, Puma and others who are committed to environmental and social sustainability, has made beneficial ownership transparency one of its core priorities since 2014, stating, “We support widespread beneficial ownership transparency—to help reduce corruption and illicit financial flows, make the financial system more stable and business more competitive.”

In May, 22 institutional investors representing $505 billion in assets under management also sent a letter to Congress urging them to support the legislation. They wrote, “The Act contains important provisions necessary for a more transparent business environment that upholds good corporate governance as a standard business practice, which investors rely on and expect.”

Lastly, a recent survey by the international accountancy firm Ernst & Young shows that 91% of senior executives around the world who responded to the survey think it is important to know the beneficial owners of the companies they do business with.

However, Clearing House is one of the biggest new voices to join the fray. When a influential group such as this one sees the idea of company ownership transparency as not only desirable but as essential to their business interests, U.S. policy makers should take note.