William Byrnes' Tax, Wealth, and Risk Intelligence

William Byrnes (Texas A&M) tax & compliance articles

Are Financial Service Firms Serving High Net Wealth Suffering As a Result of Compliance Costs?

Posted by William Byrnes on August 19, 2009

Over the past blogticles, we have been examining a number of financial crimes issues including several for anti money laundering.  Now we turn to compliance costs and the dis-connect?  Feel free to comment or email me with any burning questions, Professor William Byrnes (www.llmprogram.org), as well as join one of our weekly webcasts.

Are Financial Service Firms Serving High Net Wealth Suffering As a Result of Compliance Costs?

In my 900-page economic report on the international financial services industry, I examined and calculated the economic size and impact of the sector on local jurisdictions.[1]  But for periods of global financial crisis, the sector had experienced double-digit annual growth and contributed robustly to the local economy and society.  Since 1998, the international financial services sector client base has expanded nearly 10% on average. 

In the past decade, the number of global high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) served by practitioners, such as my able graduates, has doubled to more than 10 million by 2008 (though the global financial crisis has caused a decline to less than 9 million) —and their assets have more than doubled from $17 trillion to $40 trillion though currently just under $33 trillion due to the last twelve month’s financial crisis.[2] 

Is The Future For Clients Dim?

Dim? On the contrary!  In just four years, the pool of HNWI clients’ assets is projected to grow to nearly $50 trillion.  Though the global re-calibrating of asset values may impact the nominal wealth value for HNWIs in the short term, historically, based upon both the recessions coined after the Asian Financial Crisis and the Tech-Bust, the wealth value will likely return to projected levels with a two-year lag. 

The average HNWI, excluding the value of primary residences and collectables, is worth approximately $4 million!  HNWI’s continue to leverage offshore skill sets, growing their assets from $5.8 trillion from 1998 to $11 trillion today.[3]  That $11 trillion under management represents, at combined fees of just 1%, at least $100 billion to private bank firms offshore, and six times that taking all HNWI assets into account.

Some Financial Centers Spend More on Compliance than Others

39% of Florida banks surveyed reported that private banking accounted for more than 50% of their operating revenues.  Florida’s international private banking and wealth management customers predominantly reside, as one would expect, in Latin America and the Caribbean, with 1/3 residing in Europe.  South American residents account for 44% of private banking and wealth management customers of Florida’s international banks.  Approximately 19% of international private wealth management clients reside in Mexico or Central America, while 4% reside in the Caribbean.

Even though the market has been growing in terms of the available pool of HNW clients, the international banking industry in Florida has been characterized by consolidation and contraction since 2000.  The number of foreign bank agencies operating in Florida fell from 38 in 2000 to 31 in 2005.[4]  There were 10 Edge Act banks operating in Florida in 2000, but only 7 in 2005.  The number of international banking employees (in foreign agencies, Edge Acts and the international divisions of domestic banks chartered in Florida) declined from 4,660 in 2000 to 3,027 in 2005.

Based on a survey of banks significantly engaged in international banking in South Florida, the economics firm based on direct surveys estimated Miami’s international bankers staffing cost for 271 full-time employees of anti-terrorism/anti-money laundering compliance at nearly $25 million in 2005. [5]  The average survey respondents indicated that it devoted 2.9 FTE employment positions to BSA/AML compliance in 2002 versus 6.8 FTE positions in 2005. The number of full-time employees devoted to compliance represented 9% of the workforce in 2005.  Staff resources devoted to compliance increased by 160% between 2002 and 2005.

So Where is the Dis-Connect?

So if enough money is being spent by some banks, by example in Miami, and this expenditure is even potentially impacting earnings in some regions such as Miami, (as an industry – small institutions are being clobbered compared to their larger brethren), then why are some banks and other financial service providers employees failing in their implementation of AML programs in light of the expenditure?   Where is the dis-connect between expenditure and results?  Might the expenditure be more about white-washing than about achieving an educated work force?  Might throwing money at the problem not be the answer?  Or is not enough money flowing to training?

As the Miami marketplace apparently illustrates, in general the compliance and training budgets have reached the deal-breaker point at some banks and in some regions.  Thus, rather than it being a quantitative issue of bigger budgets, it is more likely a qualitatively issue, that is, spending either on poorly designed products or on good products but with poor instruction, follow-up, and support.  It may be that purchasing decisions are based not on price, but rather are based on how to spend as little labor time as possible to meet a minimum level of information and training sufficient for an employee to appear to be able to implement AML policy.  That is, institutions may be spending more to obtain less quality products because the product requires less labor activity time.

By example, some institutions send the high level AML staff for a one or two day workshop at between one and three thousand dollars and now call that staff member an expert.  A time-saving approach certainly.  But is this a reasonable approach in light of the likely outcomes of such minimal education consisting of little to no follow up, guidance, and academic support?  Can a board member, much less a regulator, feel confident that such a staff member is able to exercise the necessary skills gained from the one or two day session to protect the financial institution and public from an money laundering/financial crime incident?

By another example, some financial service provider compliance officers and their advisors will establish a library budget, purchasing a variety of publications.  Yet the staff is not trained in knowledge management for the library, that is how to interact with and study such information. Thus, the library collects dust.


Is a two day course sufficient to qualify someone as a certified expert?  A one week course even?  How long will the regulators allow such white washing to continue, or is it merely an issue of fines when holes are found in the dikes?

[1] Report on the Economic, Socio-Economic, and Regulatory Impact of the Tax Savings Directive and EU Code of Conduct for Business Taxation upon Selected Offshore Financial Centers as well as a Competitiveness Report for Selected Offshore Financial Centers (Foreign Commonwealth Office 2004).

[2] Cap Gemini Merrill Lynch World Wealth Report 2003 through 2008.

[3] Tax Haven Abuses: The Enablers, The Tools and Secrecy” (Sen. Rep., Perm. Sub-Comm. On Investigations, August 1, 2006) and World Wealth Report 2008.

[4] In 2005, however, 7 of the 31 international banks had no deposits booked in Florida, while in 2000 only 2 of the 38 had zero deposits.

[5] It is important to note that these cost estimates only include manpower or staffing costs, and do not include costs such as transaction monitoring software, possible IT investments and services, legal counsel and similar support.  The Washington Economics Group, The Economic Impacts of International Banking in Florida and Industry Survey: 2005.

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