The War on Cash is exposed by yet more banking sector money laundering

Some days events almost write an update for me and so without further ado let me hand you over to a letter from the President of the ECB Mario Draghi to the Spanish MEP Ms Paloma López Bermejo.

The Governing Council of the ECB has decided to stop issuing the €500 banknote and to exclude it from the
Europa banknote series , amid concerns that this denomination could facilitate illicit activities. As of 27
January 2019, 17 of the 19 national central banks in the euro area no longer issue €500 banknotes.

As you will see in a moment if “could facilitate illicit activities” was applied consistently then Mario would be closing down bank after bank and maybe all of them. Yet we find that when we come to “the precious” that the goalposts are on wheels as they are so mobile. Oh and you may not be surprised to see which two central banks are dragging their feet.

To ensure a smooth transition and for logistical reasons, the Deutsche Bundesbank and the Oesterreichische
Nationalbank requested the right to continue issuing the notes until 26 April 2019.

I am not quite sure where Mario is going with this bit as actual withdrawal of the notes would collapse confidence in his currency.

In order to maintain public trust in euro banknotes, existing €500 banknotes will remain legal tender and can
continue to be used as a means of payment and store of value. They will also retain their value; because it
will remain possible to exchange them at the national central banks of the Eurosystem for an unlimited period
of time.

Swedbank and money laundering

This has been a fast-moving story so let us dip into Reuters from only yesterday,

Money laundering allegations against Swedbank have sparked fears that the largest lender in the Baltic region will become embroiled in a scandal engulfing rival Danske Bank, and face the threat of lawsuits, fines and other sanctions.

Swedbank Chief Executive Birgitte Bonessen said she was doing everything she could to handle the situation, adding that nobody at the bank had been charged with committing a crime.

That has moved on already as we move to @LiveSquawk.

Trading In Shares In Swedbank Halted……….Swedbank Shares Trade Halt To Remain Until Notice From AGM…….Swedbank Says Board Has Dismissed CEO Bonnesen, Started Search For Permanent Replacement

As you can see this escalated quickly and is still doing so as I type this. As to Ms. Bonnesen we see that not only are her fingers all over this but it looks like she was promoted due to her “success” in what has turned out to be money laundering on an industrial scale. Back to Reuters.

“Swedbank believes that it has been truthful and accurate in its communications with all government authorities,” said Bonnesen who oversaw the bank’s anti-money laundering policy between 2009 and 2011 before heading its Baltic operations.

As to the details of what took place there is this.

Regulators in Sweden, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania began a joint investigation into Swedbank after SVT in February reported allegations that at least 40 billion Swedish crowns ($4.3 billion) in suspicious transactions took place between Swedbank and Danske Bank’s Baltic accounts.

If we look at the share price we can put a time on this as the 210.8 Krona on the 19th of February was replaced by 165.1 on the 21st. It was 148.8 this morning before trading was halted.

Moving to the specific problems we see this. Johannes Borgen pointed out yesterday evening that a familiar theme of “higher and higher baby” was at play.

“Today’s initiated activity [.. refers to unlawful disclosure of inside information and aggravated swindling.” On top of the reported 135bn cash flows for high risk non resident clients in the Baltics.

Also one of the flags for this sort of thing are PEPs or Politically Exposed Persons where banks have or rather should have very strict rules for obvious reasons and yet there was this. Johannes again in the next two quotes.

SVT reported that ex-Ukraine boss Yanukovych used a Swed Baltic account to transfer money out of Ukraine in 2011 ($4m…) How on earth can that not raise a GIGANTIC red flag ??? Seriously ???? When I see all the admin nightmare that comes with being a PEP…

For those unaware all such clients are only approved after due dilligence although we are supposed to believe that someone failed to spot the new client was the President of the Ukraine. Also if we switch to the share price plunge I looked at above apparently then some being ahead of the game is just find.

But really the absolute TOP story is this: reportedly (Dagens Nyheter) the bank told its 15 largest shareholders about the SVT broadcast on AML… two days ahead !! And now the bank says it was not insider information 🤣🤣

Those having something of a sense of deja vu about all this might be thinking of February 19th last year.

The Financial and Capital Markets Commission (FCMC) has imposed a moratorium on ABLV Bank, following a request by the European Central Bank (ECB). This means that temporarily, and until further notice, a prohibition of all payments by ABLV Bank on its financial liabilities has been imposed, and is now in effect.

Another money laundering problem and yet again one where the US authorities opened up the can of worms. Also the problems went as high as the central bank itself.

Latvian authorities prepared to explain the detention of ECB Governing Council member Ilmars Rimsevics by the anti-graft bureau in a weekend of activity culminating in the early-Monday imposition of a payment moratorium on the nation’s third-largest bank.

Comment

There are a lot of strands which collide here but the “war on cash” theme is rammed home by the fact that the ECB is on its case as it “could” cause illicit activity whereas banks that have done so get overlooked for quite some time. Care is needed as such activity crosses borders by definition and many of the activities highlighted above took place before the ECB was fully in charge as the Baltic countries joined the Euro more recently. But there is supposed to be an accession programme which should be including due diligence on banking activities. After all in the case of Latvia this ended up exceeding its annual economic output or GDP! Also it is the US authorities rather than the European ones who start the policing ball rolling.

Each saga involves misrepresentation and obfuscation from the directors of the bank or banks involved followed by ever larger numbers.

Moving onto happier news for the ECB this morning’s money supply release provided a bit of relief.

Annual growth rate of narrower monetary aggregate M1, comprising currency in circulation and overnight deposits, increased to 6.6% in February from 6.2% in January.

Which led straight to this as there was a minor change in M2 but essentially M1 flowed into this.

Annual growth rate of broad monetary aggregate M3 increased to 4.3% in February 2019 from 3.8% in January.

So things did not get worse and in effect in narrow money terms we went back to December. Perhaps the better numbers from France I looked at on Tuesday helped. Thus we can expect Euro area economic growth to be slow but for there to be some overall.

The Investing Channel

What next from the war on cash?

This morning the BBC has posted an article on a subject I was mulling last Wednesday.  As I walked into an appointment for some treatment for my knee the person before me was paying for his appointment by using his phone and transferring the money directly. I by contrast had put some cash in my pocket so I could pay in that fashion. If we move on from me suddenly feeling rather stone age and he being much more cutting edge there was one work related issue on my mind. What does paying by phone do to the money supply? It reminds us that the money supply also includes the ability to borrow and whilst everyone obsesses about banks also reminds us that it can now come from other sources. Or perhaps I should correct that to their being more potential routes these days.

Paying by phone

Here is an example quoted by the BBC.

Nikki Hesford, 32, is a convert to person-to-person payment (P2P) apps, using PayPal to pay for services and Venmo to pay back friends.

“The only time in the last year I’ve drawn out cash is for the school fete cake stall and to pay my manicurist,” says Ms Hesford, who runs her own marketing support company for small businesses.

“If I go for a meal with friends I can’t be bothered messing about with two, three or four cards,” she says.

“One person will pay on a card and the others will transfer through an app. It takes seconds rather than minutes fussing around with who owes what.”

PayPal has been around for some time but the likes of Venmo seems a real change and I can see the attraction. Who has not been out to eat with a group and been in a situation where the money collected in is short but everyone claims to have paid? For all our thoughts that millennials and Generation Z have it tough they may have stolen a bit of a march on the rest of us here. Venmo will by its very nature record each transfer and provide a type of audit trail.

In terms of scale then the position is building.

Zelle, one of the most popular payment apps in the US backed by 150 banks, launched in June 2017, but has already processed more than 320 million transactions valued at $94bn (£72bn).

A recent report by Zion market research suggested that the global mobile-wallet market in general is expected to top $3bn by 2022, up from nearly $600m in 2016.

The argument in favour is that it is quick and convenient,

Rachna Ahlawat, co-founder of Ondot Systems, a payment services platform, perceives a marked change in consumer behaviour.

“We want transactions to happen in an instant and at the click of a button,” she says. “Consumers not only want to operate in real-time, but they are looking for technology that allows them to play a more active role in how they control their payments, and are finding new ways of managing their financial lives.”

Financial Crime

The official and establishment view is that cash is a curse and the high priest of such thoughts Kenneth Rogoff wants this.

Why not just get rid of paper currency?

His opening argument is that cash is a source of crime.

First, making it more difficult to engage in recurrent, large, and anonymous payments would likely have a significant
impact on discouraging tax evasion and crime; even a relatively modest impact could potentially justify getting rid of most paper currency.

Yet we discover that even the new white heat world of person to person payments has you guessed it found that the criminal fraternity are very inventive.

“Malware injections and reverse engineering attacks can be used by hackers to understand the app’s code and silently trick you, going undetected by the typical security measures.”  ( Pedro Fortuna from JScrambler )

The truth is that whatever financial area we move into we take the criminals with us and sometimes there are already there waiting for us to make a mistake.

“With the increasing number of apps all requiring some form of authentication, it’s all too tempting to reuse passwords across multiple services. This increases the risk of your data being hacked.”  ( Sam Devaney from CGI UK ).

The banks

There is a very inconvenient reality for the likes of Kenneth Rogoff which is that so much financial crime is to be found at the heart of the system “the precious”.

Banks in Denmark, the Netherlands, Latvia and Malta have all been linked to criminal inflows from countries including Russia and North Korea. The EU has moved to centralize banking supervision, but money laundering has remained a national responsibility.

At the moment the European Union seems to be the weakest link in this area although of course it is far from unique. As an example the situation at Danske bank was so bad it even found itself being trolled by Deutsche Bank which claimed it was only accepting one in ten of past Danske bank clients. According to the Wall Street Journal around US $150 billion of transactions are being investigated according to Reuters the bank itself is discovering large problems.

the Financial Times cited the bank’s own investigation as saying the Danish bank handled up to $30 billion of Russian and ex-Soviet money through non-resident accounts via its Estonian branch in 2013 alone.

The European Union seems to be particularly in the firing zone in this area right now and much of it seems centred in the Baltic nations. That reminds me that back on the 19th of February I looked at the issues facing ABLV in Latvia which developed into a situation where the central bank Governor Ilmārs Rimšēvičs has been charged with taking a bribe.

Whilst the European Union is presently in the firing line we know that banking scandals of this sort occur regularly in most places. Yet the establishment ignore the way that the banks are the major source of financial crime in their rush to implicate cash.

Some new notes

A sign that there is indeed counterfeiting happen was provided yesterday by the European Central Bank or ECB although it chose to present it another way.

New €100 and €200 banknotes unveiled!

Sadly the excitement captured only a couple of journalists attention but the press release did hint at “trouble,trouble,trouble.”

The new €100 and €200 banknotes make use of new and innovative security features.

I think we know why! But there was another sign.

In addition to the security features that can be seen with the naked eye, euro banknotes also contain machine-readable security features. On the new €100 and €200 banknotes these features have been enhanced, and new ones have been added to enable the notes to be processed and authenticated swiftly.

It makes me wonder how many counterfeit ones are in existence. This seems likely to get Kenneth Rogoff to add those note to the 500 Euro ones he wants banned.

Comment

This is a situation which has a paradox within it. We see that technology is providing plenty of ways which provide alternatives to cash and in spite of presenting myself as something of a cash luddite earlier I find them convenient too. Yet we want more cash in the UK the £40 billion mark was passed in 2008 and now we have according to the Bank of England.

There are over 3.6 billion Bank of England notes in circulation worth about 70 billion pounds.

We are far from alone as for example in 2017 the growth rate was 7% for the US and Canada and 4% for the Euro area and Japan. Yet the Bank of England confirms that the medium of exchange case has indeed weakened over time.

Cash accounted for 40% of all payments in 2016, compared to 62% in 2006

The Bank will have something of an itchy collar as it notes that the increased demand for cash will be as a store of value and the rise accompanies its era of QE and low interest-rates. Kenneth Rogoff is much more transparent though.

Although in principle, phasing out cash and invoking negative interest rates are topics that can be studied separately, in reality the two issues are deeply linked. To be precise, it is virtually impossible to think about drastically phasing out currency without recognizing that it opens a door to unrestricted negative rates that central
banks may someday be tempted to walk through.

As Turkish points out in the film Snatch “Who da thunk it?”

 

 

Of Bitcoin banks and electricity consumption

This morning opens with yet more Bitcoin headlines and news. I guess it is in keeping with the times that what was so recently a raging bull market should apparently so quickly become a bear one. From Reuters.

 

Bitcoin traded at $10,968, down 3.7 percent in Asia, after a fall of 16.3 percent on Tuesday, its biggest daily decline in four months.

Just over 24 hours ago it was above US $13,000 and of course in mid-December we saw a peak of over US $19,000.  It is also important to provide some perspective as if we look back a year we see that it was below US $900. Or to put it another way over a year we have quite a bull market and over a month a bear one.

Another way of putting it is shown below.

I think the mean needs to be higher but otherwise we get an attempt to explain human investing psychology with both its flaws and glory. One facet of this which I found particularly troubling came from CNBC just over a month ago.

Bitcoin is in the “mania” phase, with some people even borrowing money to get in on the action, securities regulator Joseph Borg told CNBC on Monday.

“We’ve seen mortgages being taken out to buy bitcoin. … People do credit cards, equity lines,” said Borg, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association, a voluntary organization devoted to investor protection. Borg is also director of the Alabama Securities Commission.

If only Borg had said “resistance is futile”! But he was on the ball in two big respects in that he was warning of a problem should people borrow into a surge and also later he pointed out that “innovation always out runs regulation”. It is hard not to note that the peak we have seen so far came quite quickly.

The banks and Bitcoin

However the apparently Bitcoin friendly behaviour of the banks did not last. From the Financial Times on Saturday.

Bitcoin investors trying to channel their new fortunes into UK property are being turned away by mortgage lenders and brokers who fear breaching anti money-laundering regulations.

There was a more specific example.

One public sector worker built up a deposit of £40,000 after investing in bitcoin, said Mark Stallard, a broker and principal at House and Holiday Home Mortgages. But he said he had been unable to arrange a loan because it was hard to prove where the funds had arrived from and to link them to his client.

 

“The first mortgage lender I rang asked me what a cryptocurrency was,” Mr Stallard said.

 

“I rang two other lenders and they said they would not touch it. “When I mentioned where the money had come from there was massive reluctance to help or understand the problem. I do not believe the mortgage providers in general are ready for this issue and research tells me that a lot more people will be knocking on our doors with funds made or raised in this fashion.”

There are various issues here as for example the client could say he has made the money by gambling/investing. Of course the latter issue of investing raises the issue of whether capital gains tax is due? So perhaps that is why there is a claimed issue with where the funds arrived from. Mind you the Building Societies Association have a cheek to say the least to say this.

“There is currently no regulation of these electronic currencies, which puts them into the highest risk category in relation to money laundering. In addition, it is well known that such currencies are popular with criminals, who use them to launder the proceeds of crime.”

Apparently you can however pay off your mortgage with Bitcoin profits.

Existing borrowers who want to use their bitcoin profits to pay down mortgage debts are free to do so. Daniel Hegarty, founder of online mortgage broker Habito, said a customer recently cancelled his remortgage application before it was completed, deciding instead to pay off his whole mortgage with his money from bitcoin investments.

So there is quite an inconsistency there as I again have a wry smile at the banking sector accusing others of facilitating money laundering and being popular with criminals!

Anonymity

This is an odd one with the cryptocurrencies.I am sure many of you know more about this than me but there is a clear contradiction in what we are told. Firstly we are regularly told that the trading is anonymous and that is one of the points of the system. Fair enough. But we are also beginning to be told that financial crimes can be spotted so we simultaneously do not know what is happening but we also do?!

Electricity and power

We are getting ever more stories about the energy consumption of Bitcoin as this tweet from John Quiggin suggests.

If mining ended tomorrow, China could reduce its coal consumption by an amount comparable to its entire import of Australian thermal coal (supporting calcs to follow)

Sadly he has not yet provided the mathematics behind this but there have been plenty of other suggestions in the same vein. For example from Bloomberg last week.

Miners of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies could require up to 140 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2018, about 0.6 percent of the global total, Morgan Stanley analysts led by Nicholas Ashworth wrote in a note Wednesday. That’s more than expected power demand from electric vehicles in 2025.

There are plenty of arguments about the numbers but suddenly hydro-electric power seems to be en vogue as this from Bloomberg yesterday suggests.

A Canadian utility has already voiced enthusiasm. Hydro-Quebec has said it’s in “very advanced” talks with miners about relocating to the province and that it envisions the miners soaking up about five terawatt-hours of power annually — equivalent to about 300,000 Quebec homes — from the surplus created by the region’s hydroelectric dams.

If we move onto future power demands of which Bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies may turn out to be significant I have a question. Are we not going to run out of electricity? My own country has been something of a shambles in providing new power generation as the ultra expensive plans for  a new nuclear point at Hinkley Point demonstrate and yet we are told this. From the BBC today.

Three-fifths of new cars must be electric by 2030 to meet greenhouse gas targets, ministers have been warned.

There have been some movements on infrastructure as for example there are now nine charging points around Battersea Power albeit they seem to be rarely actually used. But in a future where they are used a lot and that is not so inconceivable where is the electricity going to come from? It is not that there has been complete failure as for example I have just checked and wind power is currently providing over 10 GW but of course it relies on the wind blowing. It is helping in this cold snap but what if people wanted to charge their vehicles on a cold windless night? Perhaps that is when Smart Meters will really come into their own and not in a good way.

Comment

There is a lot to consider here as we mull two concepts that would have been regarded as separate only a short time ago which are Bitcoin and electricity. Here is another way of looking at it from Chris Skinner.

Part of the problem is, that all those Bitcoin miners are racing to solve the same problem, but only the miner who solves the problem first gets to actually claim the block. All the other miners lose out, and their energy goes to waste. Even with that probability, with 1 Bitcoin at roughly US$20,000, there’s plenty of incentive to try.

There is still a fair bit at US $11000. But unfortunately trying it at home will not work.

Even so, a fairly typical computer with an average type of SHA isn’t going to cut it — a recent estimate was that to mine a single Bitcoin using an average computer would take you around 1,367 years

So you would need something like Carl Sagan’s SETI project. However one way of looking at the message from Alex Hern below would be to think is Hinkley Point a way of nobbling Bitcoin?

The power consumption of bitcoin mining is purely artificial, and its equilibrium is essentially at the level where the cost of all the electricity used is equal in the long run to the value of the bitcoin granted in mining rewards.

The energy problem is simply that renewable sources of electricity are sometimes outside our control whereas things we are shutting down such as coal generation we can control. Yet the potential demands for electricity are rising with no clear plan to provide for them unless of course cold fusion finally works or we find a way of being able to store power efficiently.