Tag: Money Laundering

Sanctions Enforcement and Money Laundering

US dollar hang out to dry representing Sanctions Enforcement and Money Laundering

With sanctions becoming an increasingly important tool in ostracising autocratic regimes from western markets, the need for effective enforcement of Anti-Money Laundering (AML) policies is increasing. The global AML regime will be the backbone in detecting evasion of sanctions. This regime has, however, been widely criticised as ineffective. In this brief, we discuss issues with the current AML regime and propose a reward scheme for whistleblowers to enable asset seizures. A powerful feature of our proposal is that it does not rely on the effectiveness of the AML regime.


Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we wrote a FREE Policy brief expressing concerns over the ability of the current Anti Money Laundering (AML) regime to keep money launderers out of the international financial system. In the brief, we concluded that “The ease with which criminals have evaded present detection methods should cause concern about the effectiveness of sanctions”. The issue has now received renewed attention as the current sanctions against Russia will only be effective if it is difficult or costly to circumvent them. Sanctions evasions have a lot of similarities with money laundering, and the methods for detecting both is very similar, such that the proposal we discuss in this brief is applicable to both.

While an initial shock due to unexpected sanctions may generate disruptions, prohibited goods can later be imported/exported through third-party intermediaries in non-sanctioned countries to circumvent the sanctions. False labelling of origin, misinvocing, etc., are likely to occur and may be very difficult to detect. Analogously, sanctioned individuals’ assets may shift hands, and be laundered through shell companies without known beneficial owners.

In this brief, we consider a way to enhance enforcement, as outlined in a recent paper (Nyreröd, Andreadakis, and Spagnolo, 2022). The approach builds upon the US Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Rewards Program which offers up to $5 million “for information leading to seizure, restraint, or forfeiture of assets linked to foreign government corruption” (US Treasury, 2022).

The AML Regime

To justify the enforcement mechanism we later propose, some background on the AML regime is necessary. The global standard-setter for AML is the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF), which has since 1989 issued recommendations to countries on how to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. While initially focusing on drug money, the regime expanded in the last decades and has now received increased attention as it will be an important tool in ensuring sanctions against Russian oligarchs are effective.

The regime imposes numerous obligations on financial and other entities as they must assess risks and conduct due diligence along various dimensions, collect documents, and send reports to the national Financial Intelligence Unit. This regime has been widely criticized. Widespread AML non-compliance within banks, lack of rigorous supervision and enforcement by national supervisors and high costs relative to verifiable benefits are some of the issues that have been identified (Spagnolo and Nyreröd 2021; Nyreröd, Andreadakis and Spagnolo, 2022). The World Bank estimates that between 2 and 5 percent of global GDP is laundered annually, and that only around 0.2 percent of the proceeds from crime, laundered via the financial system, are seized and frozen (UNODC, 2011). Researchers have also been critical – for example Pol (2020), cites 22 papers that have “identified gaps between the intentions and results of the modern anti-money laundering effort, including its core capacity to detect and prevent serious profit-motivated crime and terrorism” (p.103).

Recent responses by the European Commission and others have focused on ensuring compliance within covered entities. Yet, increasing compliance with current AML rules may be costly and non-sufficient to stem the flows of illicit money in the international system. Even if widespread compliance within covered entities is obtained, and the AML procedures are effective, this may not be enough – even minimal non-compliance rates may result in major damages. We have seen how Danske Bank Estonia, a relatively small branch, managed to transfer around $230 billions of suspicious funds within the span of a couple of years (Bruun and Hjejle, 2018).

Some have suggested providing whistleblower rewards to those who report significant violations of AML rules by covered institutions (Spagnolo and Nyreröd, 2021; Scarcella, 2021). Yet, such rewards are only desirable if the AML regime is effective in achieving its policy objectives, which is not a given (we elaborate on this in Nyreröd, Andreadakis and Spagnolo, 2022). Enhanced compliance with the AML regime does not necessarily entail increased detection and deterrence of e.g., money laundering.  Numerous laundering methods exist that circumvent the reporting rules required under AML. A better option may be to incentivize facilitators of money laundering to provide information leading directly to asset seizures, as they have the best information that can lead to such forfeitures.

Incentivizing Facilitators

Money laundering is a derivative crime and requires what is called a “predicate offense” (such as human trafficking, drug sales, or corruption) that generates illegal money whose source needs to be obscured. The EU Directive (2018/1673) stipulates 22 categories of criminal activities that constitute predicate offenses.

There is a large infrastructure facilitating money laundering including financial advisers, real estate agents, tax advisors, and lawyers – crucial to criminals seeking to launder money. Bill Browder, famous for his work on advocating the Magnitsky Act, describes how he was aided by Alexander Perepilichnyy, a financial adviser for individuals involved in a large tax theft in Russia. Perepilichnyy helped launder the money for those involved in the tax theft, but eventually turned whistleblower when he provided bank statements to Browder that led to the freezing of $11 million related to this fraud (Browder 2022, p. 39). His information provided a “road-map” to even be able to start investigating where the illegally stolen assets had ended up. Perepilichnyy later died while jogging near London in 2012, which some believe was a murder in retaliation for blowing the whistle. A reward scheme would aim at people like Perepilichnyy, persons who are unrelated to the predicate offense, yet have information on the source and location of illicit funds.

Reward Programs in AML

The US has used whistleblower reward schemes in several regulatory areas including tax, procurement fraud, and securities fraud. These programs offer 10-30 percent of the recoveries or fines to whistleblowers that bring information crucial to issue the fines or recover public funds. Rewards to whistleblowers are therefore paid by the wrongdoing party, not the taxpayer.

These programs have received increased attention as several studies have found that they are effective at uncovering and deterring wrongdoing (Dyck, 2010; Wiedman and Zhu, 2018; Raleigh, 2020; Leder-Luis, 2020; Dey et al., 2021; Berger and Lee, 2022, see Nyreröd and Spagnolo, 2021 for a review). Agencies managing these programs have widely praised them, and studies show they are highly cost effective. More countries are also starting to experiment with offering rewards for information.

A salient feature of the US programs is that some degree of culpability in the wrongdoing does not disqualify an individual from an award. In 2012, Bradley Birkenfeld received $104 million under the Internal Revenue Service’s reward program despite serving a jail sentence for his involvement in facilitating tax evasion. In fact, when one of the most effective and famous whistleblower laws was enacted, the US Senator who tabled the bill argued that the bill aimed at “setting a rogue to catch a rogue” which “is the safest and most expeditious way I have ever discovered of bringing rogues to justice” (Howard, 1863).

Motivated by these experiences, we propose that AML should incorporate a whistleblower reward scheme, targeting those facilitating money laundry, with three central pillars:

Witness protection: aim at shielding whistleblowers and their families from negative consequences, if there are concerns that they might become victims of retaliation, harassment, or mistreatment of any kind. If the whistleblower is based in a hostile country, guaranteed asylum should be granted.

Leniency: offer immunity for any reported offense related to money laundering, but not for any other crime. Without immunity, a whistleblower will have no incentive to turn to authorities as they would immediately incriminate themselves and risk jailtime for money laundering.

Large, scaling, and mandatory rewards:  offer large, mandatory rewards that scale with the level of recoveries. As noted above, successful US programs pay 10-30 percent of the recoveries to whistleblowers. In the money laundering case, this percentage range may be lowered. Also, similarly to whistleblowers’ rewards in other cases, AML rewards would come from confiscated funds.

Numerous other design dimensions are important, but due to space limitations we refer the reader to other lengthier pieces that go into further detail (Nyreröd, Andreadakis and Spagnolo, 2022; Spagnolo and Nyreröd, 2021; Nyreröd and Spagnolo, 2021; Engstrom 2018).


The Russian aggression against Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions have put increased emphasis on the ability and effectiveness of the current AML regime to detect money laundering. Justified concerns about this regime have been raised, and its performance record is still under question. Programs offering whistleblowers witness protection, leniency, and large rewards could be an effective complement to this regime.


  • Berger, P. and Lee, H. (2022), “Did the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Provision Deter Accounting Fraud?”, Journal of Accounting Research, early view, available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-679X.12421
  • Browder, B. (2022b). Freezing Order, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.
  • Bruun and Hjejle. (2018). “Report on the Non-Resident Portfolio at Danske Bank’s Estonian Branch”. Danske Bank.
  • Dey, A., Heese, J. and G. Pérez-Cavazos. (2021). “Cash-for-Information Whistleblower Programs: Effects on Whistleblowing and Consequences for Whistleblowers”, Journal of Accounting Research, Vol. 59, No.5, pp.1689-1740.
  • Dyck, A., Morse, A. and Zingales, L. (2010). “Who Blows the Whistle on Corporate Fraud?”, The Journal of Finance, Vol. 65, No.6, pp.2213-2253.
  • Engstrom, D. (2018). “Bounty Regimes.” In Arlen, J. (ed.) Research Handbook on Corporate Crime and Financial Misdealing, Edward Elgar.
  • Howard, J.M. (1863). Congressional Globe, Senate, 37th Congress, 3rd Session, pp. 955-956.
  • Leder-Luis, J. (2020). “Whistleblowers, Private Enforcement, and Medicare Fraud”, Working Paper, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, available at: https://sites.bu.edu/jetson/files/2020/07/False-Claims-Act-Paper.pdf.
  • Nyreröd, T. and Spagnolo, G. (2021). “Myths and numbers on whistleblower rewards”, Regulation and Governance, Vol. 15, No.1, pp.82-97.
  • Nyreröd, T., Andreadakis, S. and Spagnolo, G. (2022). “Money laundering and sanctions enforcement: large rewards, leniency, and witness protection for whistleblowers”, The Journal of Money Laundering Control, early view available at: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/JMLC-05-2022-0068/full/html
  • Pol, R. (2020). “Responses to money laundering scandal: evidence-informed or perception-driven?”, Journal of Money Laundering Control, Vol.23, No.1, pp.103-121.
  • Raleigh, J. (2020). “The Deterrent Effect of Whistleblowing on Insider Trading”, University of Minnesota Working Paper, available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3672026.
  • Scarcella, G. (2021). “Qui Tam and the Bank Secrecy Act: A Public-Private Enforcement Model to Improve Anti-Money Laundering Efforts”, Fordham Law Review, Vol. 90, No.3, pp.1359- 1395.
  • Spagnolo, G. and Nyreröd, T. (2021). “Financial Incentives to whistleblowers: a short survey”, Sokol, D. and van Rooij, B. (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of Compliance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, pp.341-351.
  • Spagnolo, G. and Nyreröd, T. (2021a). “Money Laundering and Whistleblowers”, report written for Centre for Business and Policy Studies (SNS), available at: https://snsse.cdn.triggerfish.cloud/uploads/2021/11/money-laundering-and-whistleblowers.pdf.
  • UNODC. (2011). “Estimating Illicit Financial Flows Resulting from Drug Trafficking and Other Transnational Organized Crimes”, Research Report, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/Studies/Illicit-financial-flows_31Aug11.pdf.
  • US Treasury. (2022). “U.S. Departments of Treasury and Justice Launch Multilateral Russian Oligarch Task Force”, March 16, available at: https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0659.
  • Wiedman, C. and Zhu, C. (2018). “Do the SEC Whistleblower Provisions of Dodd-Frank Deter Aggressive Financial Reporting?”, 2018 Canadian Academic Accounting Association Annual Conference, available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3105521.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

From Russia with Love?

Russia Moscow City representing money laundering

Some recently discovered money laundering schemes have funnelled large amounts of illegal money from former soviet states through European banks. This note briefly describes the evolution of the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) regime for financial institutions, the introduction of which was concurrent with the post-soviet transition and the connected illegal flows of funds. It discusses the effectiveness of the current AML regime – and its ability to detect and seize illegal funds. The brief also highlights some of its deficiencies as well as lack of compliance with its prescriptions. It proceeds to stress that after judging the current framework insufficient, the US recently introduced whistleblower rewards for AML-infringements. Europe might want to follow their lead if it really aims at limiting money laundering.


In recent years significant deficiencies in Anti-Money Laundering (AML) compliance have been discovered in some European banks (Spagnolo and Nyreröd, 2021). A notable example is the Danske Bank case that emerged in 2018.   Some have called it the largest money-laundering scandal in history: it is estimated that about $230 billion in suspicious funds went through its Estonian branch between 2007 and 2015.

In several of these cases, the sources of a large fraction of the illicit assets were Russia or other former Soviet states (Shaffer and Cassella, 2020).

Prior to the Danske revelations, several schemes have been uncovered that were aimed at laundering illicit money from former soviet states into the western financial system.

In a classic example going back to 2006, about $230 million were stolen in fraudulent tax refunds perpetrated by officials in Russia and then laundered through Moldova, Latvia and then UK shell companies and banks (Browder, 2009). Famously, the tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky investigated the theft and testified against the fraudsters and was later put in detention for the same tax theft he was investigating. About a year after he was arrested, Magnitsky passed away after allegedly being tortured and denied medical care. This tragic episode gave rise to the Magnitsky Act, which prohibits persons believed to be involved in the theft to enter the US and access its financial system.

Another famous (and partly related) case is the so-called Russian Laundromat (then Global Laundromat), a scheme estimated to have funneled over $70 billion of illegal money out of Russia, through Latvia, Moldova, and then the UK (Tofilat and Negruta, 2019).

Indeed, Russia is widely considered the country with the largest estimated amount of ‘dark’ money hidden abroad, both as a percentage of GDP and in absolute terms (estimated around $1 trillion by Novokmet et al., 2017).

However, the origin of money laundered in the transition region is not limited to Russia. For example, it is estimated that between 2012 and 2014, about $2.9 billion from Azerbaijan were illegally laundered through UK shell companies and then European banks.

Funds from all these schemes appear to have been transacted through Danske bank (Bruun and Hjejle 2018: 33), Swedbank (Clifford Chance 2020: 123), and other European banks.

This evidence warrants some reflection on the effectiveness of the AML framework, particularly in Europe.

The Current AML Regime

The development of the global AML framework has been largely concurrent with the transition from communism and the connected illegal flows of funds.

The Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) was formed in 1989, after an initiative by the G7. FATF’s mission is to develop policies to combat money laundering and blacklist countries that do not comply. The FATF issued its first recommendations in 1999 and continually updates them, most recently in FATF (2021).

These recommendations set out essential measures that countries should have in place to identify money laundering risks, including regulation on preventive measures for the financial and other sectors, powers and responsibilities for competent authorities, coordination of their actions, and the facilitation of international cooperation (FATF 2021: 7).

AML regulation requires financial institutions to know their customers and engage in due diligence to reduce the risk that they onboard criminals seeking to launder money. Information about suspicious transactions and activities should be forwarded to a national financial intelligence unit, usually the financial police. National Financial Services Authorities (FSAs) are usually responsible for enforcing compliance with AML rules – the “preventive” side of money laundering regulation. The “repressive” criminal law or “enforcement” side of the fight against money laundering is usually enforced by the national financial police (Reuter and Truman 2004, Svedberg Helgesson and Mörth 2018).

There are certainly valid questions to be raised regarding the effectiveness of the current AML framework. While the World Bank estimates that between 2 and 5% of global GDP is laundered annually, it is also estimated that less than 1% of the proceeds of crime laundered via the financial system are currently seized by regulators and law enforcement agencies (UNODC 2011: 7).

At the same time, the framework is quite costly to comply with. There have been six EU Directives related to AML. All require legal implementation and impose new demands on banks and other covered institutions. FATF also requires that its members frequently carry out National Risk Assessments, and countries are also subject to Membership Evaluation Reports which imposes additional costs. Compliance costs for banks are estimated in the billions of dollars (Spagnolo and Nyreröd, 2021), and a whole industry surrounding “AML Compliance” has emerged. Part of these costs, not only monetary ones, end up transferred to bank customers.

From a more rigorous policy evaluation point of view, the AML regime is also problematic. There is a remarkable lack of data for assessing the effectiveness of the framework relative to its objectives (see e.g., Halliday et al. 2014, Levi 2018, Levi et al. 2018, Pol 2018, 2020).

Bank’s Failures

A lack of compliance with this preventative framework has been widespread.  In Sweden, for example, most large banks have been fined for various degrees of AML deficiencies. Similarly, many banks in other European countries received fines from local and US regulators (in the order of billions of dollars) for failing to comply with this framework, including HSBC, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank (multiple times), BNP Paribas, MagNet Bank, and Barclays Bank. Since 2016, the US has issued AML-related fines on eight occasions to banks with headquarters in European countries for an aggregate amount of $1.7 billion (mean $217 million fine; data from violationtracker.org).

In the case studies we discuss in Spagnolo and Nyreröd (2021), most forms of internal controls failed to some extent. Whereas external whistleblowing was rare or non-existent, internal whistleblowers did not manage to rectify the problems either.

Simultaneously, there were often clear red flags that should have alerted board members and executives. At Danske Bank group, for example, returns on allocated capital in the non-resident portfolio at their Estonian branch, where a substantial part of the money laundering occurred, hit 402% in 2013, compared with the 6.9% average for the whole group, a clear red flag (Schwartzkopff, 2018).

Supervisor’s Failures

The extensiveness of AML non-compliance cannot only be traced to negligent banks – it also has to do with the ineffectiveness of the enforcement of AML rules by supervising authorities.

In the cases reviewed in Spagnolo and Nyreröd (2021), supervisors appeared by and large aware of at least part of the AML deficiencies. Oftentimes, banks were given warnings by regulators, yet continued to violate the same rules.

For example, both the Danish FSA and the Estonian FSA seem to have had some knowledge of the AML deficiencies at Danske Bank’s subsidiary already in 2007, with little consequences.

Coordination between regulators has also been poor. The Danish FSA argues that the primary AML oversight responsibility for the Estonian branch should be the local FSA (Finanstilsynet, 2019), while the Estonian FSA retorts that European rules are not as clear and that the Danish FSA at least has some responsibility to oversee the branches of Danske Group (Finantsinspektsioon, 2019).

On September 24, 2018, the European Banking Authority (EBA) opened an investigation to assess whether the Danish and Estonian FSAs have violated any European laws. On April 16, 2019, it voted to reject an internal draft into supervisory failings that allegedly identified several shortcomings in how Danish and Estonian authorities supervised Danske bank. (Brunsden 2019). The EBA supervisory board’s decision to close the investigation without adopting any findings drew criticism from a range of senior policymakers and spurred calls for its reform. The EBA has also been criticized for its reluctance to pass judgment on its members (Bjerregaard and Kirchmaier 2019: 38).


The limited regulatory enforcement and compliance with the current AML system are likely to only marginally increase the cost of money laundering for criminals. Policymakers should thus wonder whether the current system is delivering value for money. There could be different ways to improve it. Increased fines for non-compliance may for example induce covered entities to comply with the AML framework to a greater extent.

Moving forward, the inconsistent enforcement of AML rules has led experts and policymakers to suggest centralizing some supervision and enforcement of AML regulation at the EU level (Kirschenbaum and Véron 2018, 2020; Unger 2020; JPP 2019; EC 2020, p.8), and improving information sharing between supervisors.

We believe these measures may not be sufficient for facilitating compliance with AML, while imposing substantial enforcing costs.

One way to increase AML compliance at a relatively low cost could be introducing whistleblower reward programs, as done in the US early this year (Nyreröd and Spagnolo, 2021). These programs offer substantial monetary rewards, often in the order millions of dollars, for information on non-compliance, and have proven extremely effective in combating fraud against the government, tax evasion, and securities fraud. While national EU supervisors may not have sufficient resources or competence to manage such programs, centralized actors such as the European Commission appear able to do so. If we see more centralized supervision, together with increased resources and competence, a well-designed and properly implemented whistleblower reward program may become a highly effective way to fight money laundering in the EU.


  • Bjerregaard, E., and T. Kirchmaier (2019). “The Danske Bank Money Laundering Scandal: A Case Study.” Copenhagen Business School.
  • Browder, W (2009). “Hermitage Capital, the Russian State and the Case of Sergei Magnitsky.” REP Edited Transcript, Chatham House.
  • Bruun and Hjejle (2018). “Report on the Non-Resident Portfolio at Danske Bank’s Estonian Branch.” Danske Bank.
  • Brunsden, J. (2019). “EBA faces calls to reform after dropping Danske Bank probe.” Financial Times, April.
  • Clifford Chance (2020). “Report of Investigation on Swedbank AB (publ).” Swedbank.
  • EC (2020). “Communication from the Commission on an Action Plan for a Comprehensive Union Policy on Preventing Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing.” 7.5.2020 C(2020) 2800 final.
  • FATF (2021). “International Standards on Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism & Proliferation: The FATF Recommendations.”
  • Finanstilsynet (2019). “Report on the Danish FSA’s Supervision of Danske Bank as Regards the Estonia Case.” Danish Financial Services Authority.
  • Finantsinspektsioon (2019). “Response to the Report on the Danish FSA’s Supervision of Danske Bank.” Estonian Financial Services Authority.
  • Halliday, T. C., M. Levi, and P. Reuter (2014). “Global Surveillance of Dirty Money: Assessing Assessments of Regimes to Control Money-Laundering and Combat the Financing of Terrorism.” Center on Law & Globalization. University of Illinois College of Law and American Bar Foundation.
  • JPP (2019). “Joint Position Paper by the Ministers of Finance of France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, and Spain.”
  • Kirschenbaum, J., and N. Véron (2018). “A Better European Architecture to Fight Money Laundering.” Peterson Institute for International Economics. Policy Brief 18-25.
  • Kirschenbaum, J., and N. Véron (2020). “A European Anti-Money Laundering Supervisor: From Vision to Legislation.” Peterson Institute for International Economics, January.
  • Levi, M. (2018). “Punishing Banks, Their Clients, and Their Clients’ Clients.” In King, C., C. Walker, and J. Gurulé (eds.) The Palgrave Handbook of Criminal and Terrorism Financing Law. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Levi, M., P. Reuter, and T. Halliday (2018). “Can the AML System Be Evaluated Without Better Data?” Crime, Law and Social Change, 69(2): 307–328.
  • Novokmet, F., Piketty, T., and Zucman, G. (2017). “From Soviets to Oligarchs: Inequality and Property in Russia, 1905-2016”, NBER Working Paper Series, nr23712.
  • Nyreröd, T., and G. Spagnolo (2021). “Myths and Numbers on Whistleblower Rewards.” Regulation and Governance, 15(1): 82–97.
  • Pol, R. (2018). “Uncomfortable Truths? ML=BS and AML=BS².” Journal of Financial Crime, 25(2): 294–308.
  • Pol, R. (2020). “Response to Money Laundering Scandal: Evidence-Informed or Perception Driven?” Journal of Money Laundering Control, 23(1): 103–121.
  • Reuter, P., and E. M. Truman (2004). Chasing Dirty Money: The Fight Against Money Laundering. Peterson Institute for International Economics.
  • Schwartzkopff, F (2018). “Danske’s 402% Return Should Have Raised Red Flag, FSA Says.” Bloomberg, May.
  • Shaffer, Y. and Cassella, S (2020). ” The Causes, Effects, and Manifestations of the Money Laundering Problem in the Former Soviet Union.”, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, February 21.
  • Spagnolo, G., and T. Nyreröd (2021). “Money Laundering and Whistleblowers.” SNS Report.
  • Svedberg Helgesson, K., and U. Mörth (2018). “Client Privilege, Compliance and the Rule of Law: Swedish Lawyers and Money Laundering Prevention.” Crime, Law and Social Change, 69(2): 227–248.
  • Tofilat, S., and V. Negruta (2019). “The Russian Laundromat – a $70 billion money-laundering scheme facilitated by Moldovan political elites.” Transparency International Moldova.
  • Unger, B. (2020). “Improving Anti-Money Laundering Policy.” Study requested by the ECON Committee, European Parliament.
  • UNODC (2011). “Estimating Illicit Financial Flows Resulting from Drug Trafficking and Other Transnational Organized Crimes.” Research Report, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

On Corporate Wrongdoing in Europe and Its Enablers

20210413 On Corporate Wrongdoing in Europe FREE Network Image 01

In the last two decades, several instances of prolonged and severe corporate wrongdoing by European companies have come to light: from Dieselgate to corruption, money laundering through large European banks, recidivist bid and price rigging, and most recently Wirecard. What allowed European firms to engage in so much wrongdoing? In this brief, we consider some important institutional drivers behind corporate wrongdoing, focusing on the European countries with the largest share of corporate infringers.

The Harm from and Extent of Corporate Wrongdoing in the EU

In June 2020, the German firm Wirecard AG’s stock price fell from €104 to below €2 in the span of nine days after the firm admitted it could not locate $2 billion missing from its accounts. The firm has since then been accused of a wide range of infringements including money laundering, corruption, and fraudulent inflation of profits and sales, with some allegations going back over a decade. The Germany financial supervisor BaFin has been criticized as allegations about fraud had been made several times in prior years. Yet, BaFin failed to identify the problem and even banned short-selling of the stock, as well as accused journalists who were critical of the firm of market manipulation.

This scandal occurred against a backdrop of several other prolonged corporate scandals and has led many to wonder how extensive corporate wrongdoing is and how to combat it more effectively.

Corporate wrongdoing has a range of negative effects in competitive markets that are frequently overlooked in the public debate. Beyond the immediate damages of corporate wrongdoing, such as the draining of public resources in the case of tax evasion, money laundering, corruption, air pollution and associated health harm in the case of environmental law violations, there are also more general negative effects of corporate wrongdoing.

It attracts investors to the worst part of the industry, as firms that engage in profitable wrongdoing often do better than their competitors. Also, it forces out honest competitors and increases market entry thresholds for new competitors. These effects become more pronounced when the wrongdoing is prolonged, so, in an ideal world, regulators need to act fast.

Instead, several recent cases of European corporate wrongdoing lasted for many years before being detected and sanctioned, and there is a worrying degree of recidivism in several regulatory areas, including financial regulation with several banks being recidivists, but also in antitrust (Marvão, 2016).

What are the drivers and enablers behind these many prolonged cases of wrongdoing, and why do firms feel emboldened to engage in recidivism?

One way to gain some insight is to identify European countries whose firms are most frequently fined for wrongdoing and review the legal, cultural, and political contexts of those countries.

We tackle this issue by using data from Violationtracker, a database with over 400 000 actions by US enforcement agencies and prosecutors (such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice). Many of these sanctions are against firms with headquarters in EU countries. In Nyreröd and Spagnolo (2021a), we added the fines for firms with headquarters in all respective EU countries for the period 2000-2020. After excluding countries like Switzerland, well known as homes of extensive financial crime linked to their status of international tax havens and off-shore centers, we find that the United Kingdom is the gold medalist in corporate wrongdoing, with Germany coming in second place.

Table 1. Fines across the top six EU countries (2000-2020).

Note: Author’s calculation based on data retrieved from Violationtracker.org. Number of fines in parentheses.

Interestingly, the top of the ranking is preserved no matter which metrics we use. In Nyreröd and Spagnolo (2021a) we weigh the fines by population, GDP, and exports to the US, and the UK and Germany remain stable at the top, with the UK’s first position becoming more pronounced. Therefore, we focus on these two countries, although many of the problems we identify apply to a varying degree to most other EU countries.

Because of the recent headlines made by the Wirecard case we start with the runner-up, Germany.


The Wirecard case follows a long tradition of large “household” names such as Siemens, Deutsche bank, Thyssenkrupp, and Volkswagen that have engaged in systemic wrongdoing over extended periods of time and are responsible for most of the fines shown in Table 1.

In one of the largest corruption scandals in history, Siemens was fined $1.6 billion by the Department of Justice in 2008 for systematically paying bribes to government officials around the world, amounting to more than $1.4 billion since the mid-1990s. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s investigation, bribery at Siemens was “standard operating procedure” for decades, and the SEC concluded that “the company’s tone at the top […] created a corporate culture in which bribery was tolerated and even rewarded at the highest levels of the company”(SEC, 2008).

In 2015 the Dieselgate scandal unraveled, where it was discovered that several car manufacturers had installed “defeat devices” to cheat emissions tests. Volkswagen had installed the device in 11 million vehicles, some of which emitted up to 40 times more than emissions standards allowed (Gates et al, 2017).

Germany’s largest lender Deutsche Bank has since 2000 paid a whopping $18 billion in fines in the US for alleged infringements ranging from facilitating money laundering and tax evasion, to concealing bribe payments and misleading investors (DoJ, 2021). This is by far the greatest amount paid by any EU bank in the period 2000 – 2020 (Violationtracker.org, 2021)..

Finally, there is the steel conglomerate ThyssenKrupp, which was handed a €479 million fine for bid-rigging by the European Commission in 2007, the highest EU bid-rigging fine ever at the time. The size of the fine was motivated by the fact that, in 2007, Thyssenkrupp was already a repeat offender. In 2019, Thyssenkrupp and three other steel manufacturers were fined $719 million for price-rigging between 2002 to 2016. The firm has also been accused of bribe payments on several occasions (see Nyreröd and Spagnolo 2021a for details).

In reviewing local factors that have enabled these incidents, we find that Germany appears to have a particularly lenient stance toward corporate wrongdoing and a notably hard one against whistleblowers disclosing it. With respect to corruption, for example, bribe payments could be deducted from tax in Germany up until 1999 if paid to foreign officials, and up until 2002 if paid to recipients in the business world (Berghoff, 2017). In October of 2003, the United Nations adopted the Convention Against Corruption. On average, European countries had ratified this treaty halfway through 2007, but Germany was one of the last to ratify the treaty, it did it only in 2014 (UNODC, 2020).

Perhaps more importantly, Germany’s institutional environment seems focused on punishing and deterring whistleblowers, rather than listening to their reports in order to fight corporate wrongdoing. This is likely a crucial enabler of the prolonged wrongdoing we discuss in more depth in Nyreröd and Spagnolo (2021a). It is well known that whistleblowers are essential to detecting corporate wrongdoing (ACFE, 2020). Yet, Germany has some of the worst whistleblower protection laws in the EU (Transparency International 2013, Wolfe et al 2014), and one of the worst records in Europe in terms of mistreating the (obviously few) whistleblowers that dared to denounce corporate wrongdoing (Worth 2020a).

The German opposition to the protection of(truth-telling) whistleblowers from employers’ retaliation was on full display when a public consultation was held on the new EU Directive on whistleblower protection (2019/1937). German industry representatives were particularly active in arguing against it, suggesting that whistleblower protection is not necessary and that the new regulations are a clear signal of mistrust towards companies (BDI, 2019). The German parliament discussed improving the poor whistleblower protections in 2013 but did not enact any improvement of whistleblower protection laws. There are several instances of retaliation against truth-telling whistleblowers where they had very little legal recourse (Worth 2020a; Nyreröd and Spagnolo, 2021a).

The hostile regulatory and political environment to whistleblowers is likely a main factor that has enabled so many German corporations to engage in such prolonged wrongdoing with no records of employees reporting it.

The United Kingdom

We now turn to the winner of our contest, the UK. Over $26 billion of the total fines paid by UK firms in Table 1 is accounted for by the British Petroleum’s (BP) Deep Horizon oil spill in 2010 in the Mexican Gulf. It is estimated that 5 million barrels of oil were released into the ocean, a spill regarded as one of the largest environmental disasters in history.

Internal investigations at BP during the decade preceding this spill had warned senior BP managers that the company repeatedly disregarded safety and environmental rules and risked a serious accident if it did not change its ways. A 2004 inquiry found a pattern of intimidating workers who raised safety or environmental concerns (Lustgarten and Knutson, 2010). The company allegedly flouted safety standards by neglecting aging equipment, delayed inspections to cut production costs, and falsified inspection records. Even before the 2010 spill, officials at the US Environmental Protection Agency had considered debarring BP from receiving government contracts (Lustgarten, 2012). Since 2000, BP has been fined 158 times for environment-related offenses in the US, and again over 60 times since the oil spill in 2010.

Then there is the UK banking sector, with many large banks continuously engaging in wrongdoing, and seemingly more so than elsewhere. CASS (2020: 6) shows how, since 2011, the conduct costs of UK banks have far exceeded that of banks based in the US and Euro area when compared to GDP. In 2017, conduct costs for UK banks represented 0.88% of the UK’s annual GDP, while conduct costs for US and Euro area banks represented around 0.10% or less. In 2018, the conduct costs for UK banks shrank and constituted around 0.55% of the UK’s annual GDP.

In 2010, it was discovered that HSBC had systematically laundered money for some of the bloodiest drug cartels in history through its Mexican subsidiary. Despite numerous internal warnings, complaints from regulators, and internal flags, HSBC Mexico continued laundering money for organizations like the Sinaloa cartel, who not only flood the US with illegal drugs but is considered responsible for the gruesome killings of tens of thousands of people, often innocent civilian casualties at home. The UK’s then-chief financial minister, George Osborne, pleaded with the US Treasury Secretary and others that they do not impose criminal sanctions on HSBC (US Congress 2016).

Another major scandal involving UK banks that have cost regular people billions of pounds was the misselling of “payment protection insurance”. This aggressively marketed insurance had profitability of approximately 90% (Laris, 2020). Several barriers were created to inhibit people from claiming the insurance, such as contract exclusions or administrative barriers, and many people who bought these insurances either did not need them or were unsuitable. As of January 2011, UK banks and financial institutions had paid out £37.5 billion in compensation to customers who were wrongly sold the insurance (Coppola, 2019).

One of the main drivers of corporate wrongdoing in the UK appears to have been the lack of effective corporate sanctions. The “identification principle” requires the identification of a directing mind and will of the company (typically a director), and then proving criminal liability through this person’s conduct and state of mind. This principle has been singled out by several experts as making it “impossibly difficulty” for prosecutors to find companies guilty of serious crimes, especially crimes in large companies with devolved business structures (The Law Commission, 2015: 15). Several UK institutions, such as the UK’s Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, have also pointed to the identification principle as a central hurdle to their ability to bring corporate prosecutions (Corruption Watch, 2019).

Moreover, effective business lobbying and close connection between politicians, regulators and the financial sector have been prevalent in the UK for a long time and may have exacerbated the already accommodating regulatory environment. Several well-known high-level politicians that affected financial regulation and its implementation for years ended up being hired with handsome pay by financial institutions afterwards (see Nyreröd and Spagnolo 2021a for details).

Regarding regulators, Miller & Dinan (2009: 29) notes that of the 36 people that served on the board of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) between 2000 and 2009, 26 of the members had connections at board or senior level with the banking and finance industry either before or after their term of office, whilst nine continued to hold appointments in financial corporations while they were at the FSA”.

The UK also has an outdated and ineffective whistleblower protection law, the “public interest disclosure act” of 1988 (see e.g., Lewis 2008, Thomas Reuter Foundation and Blueprint for Free Speech 2016, All Parliamentary Committee 2020). At the same time, important UK regulatory agencies have been proactive in neglecting the mounting independent academic research highlighting the effectiveness of the US whistleblowers rewards programs (see Nyreröd and Spagnolo 2021b).


Corporate wrongdoing appears widespread in Europe, and recent cases have been prolonged, severe, and sometimes industry-wide.

The UK and Germany stand out, but other EU countries are no angels. In the case of Germany, an acute aversion to whistleblowers by government institutions appears as a central driver that has enabled corporate wrongdoing. With respect to the UK, ineffective corporate sanctions laws, regulatory/political capture, and a lack of whistleblowers, appear to have driven or enabled firms to engage in prolonged corporate wrongdoing. Similar enablers and drivers are likely present in other EU countries to varying degrees.

There is now an EU Directive on whistleblowing, requiring all member states to put in place retaliation protections for those reporting on corporate wrongdoing. But protections have proven insufficient in a variety of ways and are unlikely to be a game-changer in terms of combating corporate wrongdoing (see e.g., GAP and IBA, 2021).

In the light of the strong independent evidence on the effectiveness of whistleblower reward programs at increasing detection and deterring wrongdoing (see, e.g., Nyreröd and Spagnolo 2021b for a survey), EU Member States seriously concerned about corporate wrongdoing should consider introducing them in a wide variety of regulatory areas.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Capital Flows from Russia — The Bigger Picture

A bunch of dollar bills covering table that represents capital flows in Russia

There is an increasing focus on how Russian capital flows are being channelled through Western banks to various destinations, including offshore havens. There are of course legitimate reasons and legal ways of moving capital across borders, but much of the international focus on capital flows in recent decades is linked to the financing of terrorism, tax evasion, and money laundering in connection with criminal activities. This brief provides the macro view of capital flows between Russia and the rest of the world to paint the bigger picture behind the more specific stories we read about in the news that involve individual businessmen, corrupt officials, criminals, and banks.

International capital movements have a clear role in allocating resources efficiently across countries. However, today’s media coverage instead typically focuses on the role of capital flows in financing terrorists and avoiding taxes. Recently, money laundering has been creating headlines around the world in the Panama papers and other similar stories, illuminating complicated schemes in the global financial system in connection with illegal activities such as tax evasion, corruption, drug dealing and human trafficking.

In the international policy making arena, since 1989, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has the objective “to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system”. After the terrorist attacks in 2001, the issues of anti-money laundering (AML) and combatting the financing of terrorism (CFT) also became a central area of the IMF’s work and has since become an increasingly important policy question.

In several of the news stories, money flowing from Russia features prominently. This brief provides the bigger picture of Russian capital flows based on publicly available data as a complement and background to the news stories that are based on inside information, or “leaks”, and that focus on particular individuals and banks.

Composition of capital flows

In the official balance of payments statistics, capital flows are divided into a number of different categories, for example, private vs public or banks vs non-banks. There is also a distinction made between foreign direct investments (FDI) on the one hand and portfolio flows, loans and other types of transactions (PLO) on the other. Since the balance of payments also has to balance (despite the fact that not all international transactions have been recorded) there is also a term called errors and omissions (E&O) that take care of various discrepancies. In environments with poor data collection and a large share of activities that take place “off the books”, this term tends to be large. For Russia, this term has become smaller over time as the economy and data collection has matured.

In terms of volatility and magnitude of flows, the distinction between FDI and PLO is often important and so also in Russia. Figure 1 shows the private sector flows to and from Russia over the last two plus decades.

Figure 1. Capital flows to and from Russia

Source: Central Bank of Russia and author’s calculations

After a rather slow start in the early years of transition, capital flows took off as Russia started to generate growth in 2001, and the flows kept growing until the global financial crisis. As expected, FDI flows have been less volatile than PLO flows but perhaps more surprising, in- and outflows in both categories seem to move closely together (see Becker (2019) on why this is the case). We can also note that there has been a marked downturn in flows at the time of the annexation of Crimea and subsequent sanctions and counter sanctions between the West and Russia.

Cumulative capital flows

By computing net flows from the data in Figure 1 and accumulating this over time, we get a clearer idea in Figure 2 of the massive amounts of capital that have left Russia over the last decades. In the early years, the outflows were in the form of errors and omissions (E&O) and PLO, but the PLO trend was reversed in the early 2000’s and turned total accumulated flows back to zero before the global financial crisis hit. The global financial crisis was a clear turning point for capital flows in general and PLO flows in particular.

Figure 2. Net private capital flows

Source: Central Bank of Russia and author’s calculations

In the year following the global financial crisis, almost USD 300 billion left Russia. Outflows then continued, albeit at a slower pace, only to accelerate again at the time of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. By mid-2018, USD 700 billion had left Russia since 2008, mainly in the form of PLO flows. This is equivalent to twice the amount of fixed capital investments in Russia in 2017.

For a country like Russia that is in need of increased investments both from domestic and foreign sources to generate long-term sustainable growth, these outflows are very costly at the macro level even if they are beneficial to individual entities that are behind the flows.

Destinations of capital flows

Where the money from Russia ultimately ends up should matter less to people in Russia than the fact that they are not invested and generating growth at home. However, it can matter a great deal to people, policy makers and businesses in the destination countries. Not only because it involves business opportunities and employment to some, but also because it generates concerns among regulators, law enforcement and tax authorities regarding the origins and purposes of the investments.

We do not have full coverage of where all the money Russian entities invest or park abroad end up, but official statistics are available for at least part of the investments. First of all, there is data on cross-border assets and liabilities of the banks that report to the Bank of International Settlement (BIS), which shows what foreign residents have deposited in the banks. Russian claims on BIS reporting banks are shown in Figure 3, where we can note that total claims by Russians amount to USD 131 billion. Half of this amount was deposited with French, Swiss, UK, and Belgian banks at the end of September 2018.

Figure 3. Russian claims on BIS reporting banks in different countries (USD bn, Sept. 2018)

Source: BIS and author’s calculations

Given the recent scandal in Danske Bank, we can also note that USD 8 billion was deposited by Russian entities in Danish banks, which may not sound much in this context but amounts to around 2 per cent of Danish GDP.

Again, macro level data does not tell us if the flows behind the numbers are illicit or legitimate, but it provides some sense of the order of magnitude and possible significance for the entities involved in the transactions and their regulators and supervisors.

The next piece of information is due to the IMF’s and others’ efforts to collect and harmonize data on the destination of portfolio and FDI assets, and the data for Russia is presented in Figures 4 and 5.

The prime locations for Russian owned portfolio assets are Ireland and Luxembourg, followed far behind by the Netherlands, UK and US. In total, official portfolio assets are rather modest at USD 69 billion, which is far off the cumulative net PLO flows in Figure 2 of over USD 500 billion even if we add the BIS reporting bank deposits in Figure 3.

Figure 4. Russian portfolio assets by the destination country (USD bn, Sept. 2018)

Source: Central Bank of Russia and author’s calculations

This could have many explanations, including that a significant share of Russian PLO assets is not in BIS reporting banks or in countries that provide transparent reporting of other types of PLO assets. The fact that cumulative flows and stocks reported in international statistics are so different, though, clearly asks the question where the remaining assets are invested.

The last component for which we have data is the location of Russian FDI assets. This turns out to be the most significant asset class available in the official statistics with a total of USD 364 billion invested abroad. Given that the magnitudes of FDI flows in Figures 1 and 2 are much smaller than PLO flows, this is somewhat surprising. Less surprising is the fact that more than half of this is invested in Cyprus, which is a well-known destination for Russian money.

However, it also begs the question on how assets are classified and where; Cyprus annual GDP was USD 24 billion in 2018, or 13 per cent of what is classified as Russian FDI assets in Cyprus. The only reasonable interpretation is that Cyprus is an offshore destination to park Russian money and not the ultimate location of direct investments from Russia. It is not unlikely that similar explanations are also valid for a significant share of the assets recorded as investments in the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland, not to mention the British Virgin Islands (BVI) or the Bahamas. This problem is not unique for Russian data, but the magnitude of the problem regarding this data is still striking.

Figure 5. Russian FDI assets by the destination country (USD bn, Sept. 2018)

Source: Central Bank of Russia and author’s calculations

Policy conclusions

Capital leaving Russia is mainly a problem for investments and growth in Russia, but, as has become far too clear recently, some of the flows also create problems in other countries. In particular, flows that are associated with money laundering and channelled through financial institutions in the West can create massive problems for banks that do not have sufficient control mechanisms in place or are guided by short-term profit maximization that encourages staff to look the other way when illicit flows are coming in.

Given the massive scale of flows coming from Russia, it can obviously be tempting to be part of this business while at the same time very costly to implement procedures and routines that control all of the flows adequately. However, not understanding the bigger picture of Russian flows can be even costlier.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Money Laundering: Regulatory or Political Capture?

20181210 Money Laundering Image 01

Danske Bank has recently been accused of having laundered more than 200 billion Euros through its Estonian branch. The size of the scandal has reinvigorated the discussion over lax enforcement by regulators and poor bank compliance with anti-money laundering laws. In this brief, we concisely review some recent cases of poor regulatory and political behaviour with respect to these matters, focusing in particular on the UK, whose financial system seems to have become a main hub for this type of financial misconduct.

A widespread phenomenon

The size of the recent money laundering scandal at Danske Bank, involving more than 200 billion Euros, has surprised many. Money laundering is a widespread issue in an increasingly complex world where financial transactions are many and instantaneous, while oversight slow and limited (Radu 2016). According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, an estimated $800 – $2 trillion is laundered every year (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). The source of laundered money is often from corruption, crime and drug cartels (as with the HSBC scandal, see below). Attempts to blow the whistle on these illegal transactions have gotten several people killed, especially in Russia (The Daily Beast, October 2018).

Malta’s Pilatus bank recently had its license revoked by the European Central Bank after its chairman was charged with money laundering (Reuters, October 2018). The investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb in October of 2017 in Malta (The Guardian, October 2017). She was leading the Panama Papers investigation into corruption in the country and had accused Pilatus bank of processing corrupt payments (The Guardian, November 2018). In Sweden, some banks have recently been criticized for insufficient actions against money laundering. Experts at the regulator recommended extensive sanctions, but upper management stopped them (Svenska Dagbladet, December 2018). In November, Deutsche Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt were raided by prosecutors in a money laundering investigation (BBC, November 2018).

Back to Danske Bank. Its Estonian branch was recently accused of having laundered money, amounting to over 200 billion Euros of suspicious transfers (Financial Times, November 2018). In 2011 the Estonian branch accounted for 0.5% of Danske Bank’s assets, while generating 12% of its total profits before taxes. In 2013, 99% of the profits in the branch came from non-residents. Many of the non-resident customers are believed to be from Russia and other ex-soviet states (Forbes, September 2018). The alleged money laundering came to light due to the whistleblower Howard Wilkinson, who headed Danske Bank’s market trading unit in the Baltics from 2007 to 2014. Surprisingly, his anger over these transactions was not primarily aimed at top management in Copenhagen, or failure of rank and file employees to follow protocol in customer acquisition, but against the UK, who he claimed is “the worst of all” when it comes to combating money laundering (Financial Times, November 2018). In fact, the UK institutions seem to have been at the very heart of the scandal (ibid):

“Mr Wilkinson’s emails to Danske executives in 2013 and 2014 highlighted how UK entities were “the preferred vehicle for non-resident clients” at the heart of the scandal.”

In an address to European Union Lawmakers, he said (Reuters, November 2018):

“The role of the United Kingdom is an absolute disgrace. Limited liability partnerships and Scottish liability partnerships have been abused for absolutely years”.

Regulatory or political capture?

The increasingly central role that the UK appears to be playing as a hub for financial crime is perhaps not new or surprising. The UK has indeed come to be widely recognized as one – though certainly not the only – main hub for these illegal transactions (see e.g. Radu 2016, p.15). The UK’s National Crime Agency estimates 93 billion GBP of tainted money is flowing into Britain annually (Financial Times, September 2018).

And according to the classic theory of regulatory capture (Stigler, 1970), it is to be expected that a large, wealthy and highly concentrated sector such as the UK financial industry, will be able to capture regulatory institutions and lead them to act more in its favour than in that of the (national or international) community. However, besides being a concentrated source of special interests, the financial sector also represents a large share of the UK economy. It could be the case, therefore, that the capture goes all the way up to the political system and the government (as in Becker 1983, and Laffont, 1996). So, is it the alleged crime-friendly environment in the UK financial system linked more to problems of regulatory capture, or to deeper political capture?

Already in 2004 there were worrying signs of possibly deep political capture.  At the time, Paul Moore, a senior risk manager at Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS), raised concerns about the bank’s risk taking and was subsequently fired by the executive James Crosby. Crosby then proceeded to become Deputy Chairman at the Financial Services Authority (FSA). HBOS then collapsed during the financial crisis of 2008 and merged with Lloyds bank, leading to one of the most concentrated banking systems in the world (the top 5 banks have 85% of the UK banking market). Many took this to substantiate Moore’s claim that the bank had been taking excessive risks. During Prime Minister’s question time in the House of Commons, David Cameron commented on then Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s decision to appoint Crosby to the FSA:

“Sir James Crosby, the man who ran HBOS and whom the Prime Minister singled out to regulate our banks and to advise our Government, has resigned over allegations that he sacked the whistleblower who knew that his bank was taking unacceptable risks.” (cited in Dewing and Russell 2016, p.165)

A suggestive episode directly involving politicians and money laundering is the case of HSBC, with headquarters in London. HSBC avoided criminal prosecution in the US and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ in 2012 (Department of Justice, December 2012). HSBC was found to have violated U.S. Anti-Money Laundering and Sanctions Laws by laundering billions of dollars linked to Mexican drug cartels, groups in Iran and Syria, and groups linked to terrorism. While HSBC apparently had systems to flag suspicious transactions, employees were told to disregard red flags (Garrett 2014, p.201). The case led to a 2016 House Committee report entitled “too big to jail” that was extensively used against the Democrats by the Trump presidential campaign (Committee on Financial Services, 2016).

The report states that on the 10th of September 2012 UK Chancellor George Osborne (the UK’s chief financial minister) wrote a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (with a copy transmitted to then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner). In the letter, Chancellor Osborne insinuated that the U.S. was unfairly targeting UK banks by seeking settlements that were higher than comparable settlements with U.S. banks. He also worried about what criminal sanctions against HSBC would imply for financial stability. Criminal charges could also lead to a revoked license, making the bank unable to do business in the US (Financial Times, July 2016). HSBC was eventually ordered to pay a 1.9 billion dollar fine, while another whistleblower claims that the money laundering still went on (Huffington Post, August 2013).

The FSA also appeared much more concerned about criminal sanctions against HSBC than with money laundering for the bloodiest drug cartel in history (estimated to be responsible for several tenths of thousands of murders). In fact, the house committee report states that “The FSA’s Involvement in the U.S. Government’s HSBC Investigations and Enforcement Actions Appears to Have Hampered the U.S. Government’s Investigations and Influenced DOJ’s Decision Not to Prosecute HSBC” (p.24).

Things have not improved more recently. In 2013 the FSA was split up into the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority (FCA & PRA). In 2014 the FCA & PRA came out with a note requested by the British parliament on whether financial incentives for whistleblowers should be introduced in the UK. These financial incentives, or reward programs, are used extensively in the US in tax, procurement, and securities. The FCA & PRA came out strongly against rewards in their seven-page note, yet do not cite a single piece of evidence (PRA and FCA, 2014). Most importantly, the note contains important factual misstatements about available evidence on their effectiveness that were easy to check at the time of the report (Nyreröd & Spagnolo 2017, National Whistleblower Center 2018). Nor was the note amended when one of us repeatedly communicated the mistakes to the agencies. This suggests persistent and deep regulatory capture. Consistent with this interpretation is the sanctioning behavior of UK regulators.

A blatant recent example is the ridiculous fine against CEO of Barclays Bank Jes Staley. He ordered his security team to unveil the identity of an uncomfortable whistleblower, going so far as to request video footage of the person who bought the postage for the letter. Yet, the FCA & PRA decided to just fine him £642 000 – a small fraction of his pay package that year (Reuters, May 2018). When Moore was asked about the fine he replied that “it is a very clear sign to whistleblowers not to bother” (Reuters, April 2018).


Is this regulatory capture, or political capture? The impressive list of consistent cases of regulatory slack and of political complacency suggests both, at least in the case of the UK. But the problem of regulatory capture in the case of financial crimes goes way beyond the somewhat extreme case of the UK. In all jurisdictions financial misbehavior has recently only led to settlements between regulators and the infringing financial institution, with settlement payments way too low to generate (financial stability concerns, and) deterrence effects. Banking regulators appear mainly concerned about banks’ health and profitability, so that large financial institutions have not only become too big to fail, but also too big to jail, and now even too big to fine, at least to the appropriate extent (Spagnolo 2015). All this even though the financial crime has been that actively supporting through money laundering criminal organizations that killed tenths of thousands of innocent people.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.