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The NYT Exposes The Criminal Money-Laundering Underworld Supporting Manhattan's Luxury Housing Bubble

Almost three years ago, back in the summer of 2012, we explained "Why The NAR Will Never Be Prosecuted For Facilitating Money Laundering" and wrote the following:

"A Florida home that originally listed for $60 million has sold for $47 million, a record for a single-family house in Miami-Dade County. The home, in Indian Creek Village, had been on the market since early 2011, when construction was still being completed. The asking price was reduced to $52 million this year." And the punchline: "The identity of the buyer, a foreigner who purchased the home in the name of a U.S.-based limited-liability company, couldn't be learned." In other words a foreigner who may or may not have engaged in massive criminal activity and/or dealt with Iran, Afghanistan, or any other bogeyman du jour at some point in their past, and is using US real estate merely as a money-laundering front perhaps? Sadly, we will never know. Why? As explained before, it is all thanks to the National Association of Realtors - those wonderful people who bring you the existing home sales update every month (with a documented upward bias every single time) - which just so happens is the only organization that actively lobbied for and received an exemption from AML regulation compliance. In other words, unlike HSBC, the NAR is untouchable, even if it were to sell a triplex to Ahmedinejad on West 57th street.

As a reminder, here is where the NAR stands on the issue of its most generous clients possibly being some of the worst criminal known to man, courtesy of Elanus Capital:

Many of you reading this will undoubtedly have spent time in an international bank and been forced to sit through countless hours of “know your client” and AML training. Fascinating to note that the National Association of Realtors lobbied for and received a waiver from such regulation. That’s right, realtors actually went to the U.S. government and said: we want to be able to help foreign business oligarchs and other nefarious business people launder money through the real estate markets of the United States – and prevailed.

 

Here's their official position:

 

"NAR supports continued efforts to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism through the regulation of entities using a risk-based analysis. Any risk-based assessment would likely find very little risk of money laundering involving real estate agents or brokers. Regulations that would require real estate agents and brokers to adopt anti-money laundering programs may prove to be burdensome and unnecessary given the existing ML/TF regulations that already apply to United States financial institutions."

 

Hat’s off to the NAR – that is some serious doublespeak. My translation: We’ll support you as long as we don’t have to support you.

If after skimming the above, readers are still confused what the reason is for the luxury segment of the US housing market continuing to rise in price even as all other segments of the quadruplicate US housing market as explained here languish, we suggest rereading it as many times as necessary. "

Since the summer of 2012, the US housing market's latest (fourth) artificial dead cat bounce has ended with year over year prices once again declining, however one segment has continued to prosper: the ultra-luxury, ultra-expensive top end of US real estate, located typically in San Francsico, Miami and, of course, New York. The reason as we first noted, and explained, is that laundering of money into US real estate with the blessings of the NAR, the local authorities, regulators and of course Congress, has been one of the most critical pillars of the US "housing recovery" (the other three being Wall Street's creeping takeover of US rental assets, foreclosure stuffing and, of course, the Fed's trillions in MBS and TSY purchases).

As such, the US was willing to turn a blind eye to billions if not trillions in laundered, criminal, and in many cases "blood" dollars ending up on US shores, even if the source was the most loathsome of oligarchs or dictators, as long as it meant Obama could continue to take credit for the pretend housing "recovery."

We kept repeating this over and over, and nobody really cared. After all exposing this little ploy would mean that there was no actual recovery, but merely the New Normal transformation of Swiss banking as the prefered venue where anonymous stolen, tax-evaded, oligarch money was parked, to duplex and triplex apartments on Park Avenue and Central Park West.

Until now, when in a massive expose, the NYT has revealed - what all long-time Zero Hedge readers knew - namely that the "Stream of Foreign Wealth Flows to Elite New York Real Estate", a long-overdue report on what really happens in the secret world of US ultra-luxury housing, and how the rush to bid up apartments in NYC to unprecedented levels, with some seeling for over $100 million, is not indicative of any recovery, but quite the opposite: the wealth transfer from the middle class to a select few oligarchs who do everything in their power to park and hide their money away from the public eye, and in many cases avoid taxation and explanation to their host nations just how they managed to procure such vast wealth without engaging in criminal activity.

We will let readers go through the article on their own, but we will highlight something that we have been writing virtually every year since late 2011, and which, as usual, got us branded as conspiracy theorists if only in the beginning. Because, you see, once it hits the NYT it all magically becomes fact.

* * * *

Stream of Foreign Wealth Flows to Elite New York Real Estate

 

Behind the dark glass towers of the Time Warner Center looming over Central Park, a majority of owners have taken steps to keep their identities hidden, registering condos in trusts, limited liability corporations or other entities that shield their names. By piercing the secrecy of more than 200 shell companies, The New York Times documented a decade of ownership in this iconic Manhattan way station for global money transforming the city’s real estate market.

 

* * *

 

The Times also found a growing proportion of wealthy foreigners, at least 16 of whom have been the subject of government inquiries around the world, either personally or as heads of companies. The cases range from housing and environmental violations to financial fraud. Four owners have been arrested, and another four have been the subject of fines or penalties for illegal activities.

 

The foreign owners have included government officials and close associates of officials from Russia, Colombia, Malaysia, China, Kazakhstan and Mexico.

 

They have been able to make these multimillion-dollar purchases with few questions asked because of United States laws that foster the movement of largely untraceable money through shell companies.

 

Vast sums are flowing unchecked around the world as never before — whether motivated by corruption, tax avoidance or investment strategy, and enabled by an ever-more-borderless economy and a proliferation of ways to move and hide assets.

 

* * *

 

About $8 billion is spent each year for New York City residences that cost more than $5 million each, more than triple the amount of a decade ago, according to the website PropertyShark. Just over half of those sales last year were to shell companies.

 

The Times examination reveals the workings of an opaque economy for this global wealth. Lacking incentive or legal obligation to identify the sources of money, an entire chain of people involved in high-end real estate sales — lawyers, accountants, title brokers, escrow agents, real estate agents, condo boards and building workers — often operate with blinders on. As Rudy Tauscher, a former manager of the condos at Time Warner, said: “The building doesn’t know where the money is coming from. We’re not interested.”

 

* * *

 

In some ways, officials are clamoring for the foreign wealthy. In New York, tax breaks for condominium developments benefit owners looking for a second, or third, residence in one of Manhattan’s premier buildings. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on his weekly radio program in 2013, shortly before leaving office: “If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here, it would be a godsend.”

 

* * *

 

“We like the money,” said Raymond Baker, the president of Global Financial Integrity, a Washington nonprofit that tracks the illicit flow of money. “It’s that simple. We like the money that comes into our accounts, and we are not nearly as judgmental about it as we should be.”

 

* * *

 

“It’s a really closely guarded secret who is in that building,” said Al D’Elia, an architect who has worked there. “It’s just the way they treat you, what you have to do to get in the building.”

 

* * *

 

Nothing in the genesis of limited liability corporations suggested they would be used to purchase personal real estate, said Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama professor who worked on L.L.C. policy while at the Internal Revenue Service in the 1990s. However, L.L.C.s are now commonly used in real estate for privacy, wealth transfer or shared ownership.

Why demand anonymity if you have nothing to hide, as the NSA defenders say:

What becomes clear combing real estate records is that many Time Warner buyers have taken even greater steps, beyond using L.L.C.s, to keep their names out of sight. On many deeds, the line for the buyer’s signature is left blank, is illegible or is signed by a lawyer or other representative. Phone numbers are registered under lawyers’ names; the owner’s line on renovation permits is signed by Time Warner staff members; tax statements are addressed to the L.L.C.s. And because most of the sales are in cash, there are few mortgage statements, another public document that might identify an owner or trigger scrutiny.

Nobody knows where the money comes from. Why? Because most of the time it has been obtained illegaly:

A spokeswoman for the Related Companies, Joanna Rose, said the developer had followed all federal and local laws in its sales at the Time Warner Center, adding, “With all of our sales, we know the identity of the purchasers.”

 

However, documents and interviews with a half-dozen people involved in the sales show that in many cases, the company did not know the actual source of the money behind the sales.

 

David J. Wine, the former vice chairman of the Related Companies, spoke bluntly of the lack of concern with buyers’ identities. “You pretty much go by financial capacity,” Mr. Wine said. “Can they afford it? They sign the contract, they put their money down with no contingency and they close. They have to show the money, and that is it. I don’t think you will find a single new developer where it’s different.” Real estate agents say commitment to anonymity is essential. “One thing of being a high-end broker is we have to protect the privacy of our clients,” said Hall F. Willkie, president of Brown Harris Stevens. “If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have them as clients. We’re very much like private bankers in that sense.”

 

The shift to secrecy also reflects a fundamental change in the ownership structure of luxury real estate in New York. Many of Manhattan’s finest addresses were traditionally organized as co-ops in which residents were joint owners of the building. Co-op boards generally prefer full-time residents and often subject would-be buyers to excruciating scrutiny.

 

“Those co-ops wouldn’t accept billionaires, especially foreigners,” said Raphael De Niro, a broker at Douglas Elliman.

 

By contrast, Time Warner and most new luxury buildings are condos; residents own individual units and boards have less power to screen prospective buyers. In addition, at the Time Warner Center and many other buildings, if a condo board rejects a buyer, building rules say all the residents have to chip in to buy the unit, creating a disincentive for the board to be too picky.

Just like Swiss banks, before Obama destroyed the concept of Swiss bank secrecy. How soon until he does it again to the "NIRP Normal" Swiss bank account: the Manhattan triplex?

There is much, much more in the NYT article, most of it dealing with the revealed identities of the buyers, most of whom one can say with absolute certainty are either domestic or offshore tax-evaders, oligarchs or outright "organized" crime lords, or even worse, but here is the key section.

A BLIND EYE

 

Federal banking guidelines are clear: “Banks should take all reasonable steps to ensure that they do not knowingly or unwittingly assist in hiding or moving the proceeds of corruption.” This means screening customers to determine whether they are “politically exposed people” — foreign officials and their relatives and associates — and filing a “suspicious activity report” if the customers transfer unusually large amounts of money.

 

But such checks are not required on money flowing into the country through shell companies to purchase high-end real estate.

 

L.L.C.s and other corporate entities can be established in various states without revealing their true owners. Even when such companies move money through a bank account, banks are not required to know who is behind the transaction because of a loophole in the law.

 

In many ways, the government has allowed the real estate industry to turn a blind eye to the source of money used to buy luxury properties.

 

It might not have turned out this way. In the late 1990s, after congressional hearings highlighted corrupt foreign officials with money in the United States, the Justice Department sought to expand the list of industries required to screen the financial activities of politically exposed people. That included jewelry sales, hedge funds and real estate.

 

The proposal gained momentum after Sept. 11, when the Justice Department pushed to make it part of the Patriot Act. The rules were included in the law and handed to the Treasury Department to put into effect.

 

The real estate and legal professions sprang into action, arguing that background checks were impractical and would hurt the economy. “The money-laundering risks presented by real estate closings are relatively small, compared to other types of financial assets,” the American Land Title Association said in comments on the proposed rules.

 

Businesses insisted that tainted money was not likely to flow into real estate. “Anonymity and liquidity, two characteristics important to money launderers, typically do not exist in real estate transactions,” the Dechert law firm wrote.

 

The industry’s assertions ignored the increasing use of shell companies and how often wealthy foreigners sought out high-end real estate as a safe deposit box.

 

But the Treasury Department never imposed the requirement on real estate or some other industries. Similarly, a proposal to extend the concept of the “know your customer” banking rule to the identities of people behind L.L.C.s and other shell companies that open bank accounts has been stalled for nearly three years in the Treasury Department.

 

Banking associations say it would impose undue costs on them because there are no reliable federal or state databases with shell company owners.

 

In fact, registering shell companies has become profitable for states like Delaware and Nevada, which also have lobbied against transparency.

 

“I don’t see some kind of global effort to stop all this because the money’s too good,” said David M. Crane, a Syracuse University law professor who oversaw the United Nations’ effort to recover money from Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who was convicted of war crimes and thought to have plundered his country.

 

A number of states do not require people forming companies to reveal the names of the owners or show any identification.

 

This opacity presents challenges for law enforcement officials, who say billions of dollars in suspicious money move through shell companies each year. “It can be very, very difficult to penetrate who is the beneficial owner of these shell companies,” said Leslie R. Caldwell, chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division.

 

She said that the department’s Kleptocracy Initiative has found that foreign officials often use shell companies or immediate family members to move large amounts of money to United States real estate.

 

In 2010, a Senate committee investigating corrupt money moving into the country drew attention to a shell company used by the sister of the president of Gabon to buy a $2 million residence in Manhattan, and to an L.L.C. used by the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea to purchase a $30 million home in Malibu, Calif.

 

The proliferation of shell companies incorporated in the United States has hurt Washington’s attempt to get other countries to crack down on Americans who move money offshore to avoid taxes.

 

“We are in a totally inconsistent position,” said Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who pushed for transparency in shell companies when he served in the Senate. “We’re way behind in terms of keeping up with what the international standard is, and it weakens our argument when we go to try to crack down the use of these offshore tax havens.”

 

About a year ago, after the Group of 8 industrialized nations issued goals requiring identification of shell company owners, a British representative met with Justice Department officials to complain about the United States’ failure to comply.

 

According to two people at the meeting, the British representative, Dominic Martin, delivered a stern message: The lax American laws were being used by other countries as an excuse for inaction.

 

Such a message resonates with Justice Department officials who have advocated tightening the rules.

 

“For a long time we’ve taken the view that you have to focus on the people that manage the gateway to the financial system, and those guys are not only the banks,” said Stefan Cassella, a Justice Department lawyer. “Bad guys who are trying to invest money in the financial system — they use lawyers, they use accountants, they use real estate, they use jewelers and private jets.”

Much more here.