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Why Anti-Money Laundering Should Be a Top Priority for Financial Institutions

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anti-money laundering

Why AML Should be a Top Priority for Financial Institutions

The to-do list for any financial executive is surely daunting. From navigating technology changes to managing talent effectively, there’s many initiatives competing for attention.

One issue that’s been in the headlines for many years is anti-money laundering (AML). When criminals are able to successfully hide the illicit origins of their cash, both the financial institution and society suffer. So, what makes AML more important now than it has been in the past?

Rising up the Priority Ladder

Today’s infographic from McKinsey & Company explains the factors which have brought anti-money laundering urgently to the forefront in recent years.

1. Regulatory Action

Enforcement actions related to AML have been on the rise. Since 2009, regulators have levied approximately $32 billion in AML-related fines globally.

2. Threat Evolution
Criminals are using more sophisticated means to remain undetected, including globally-coordinated technology, insider information, and e-commerce schemes.

3. Reputational Risk

AML incidents put a financial institution’s reputation on the line. There’s a lot at stake: today, the average value of each of the top 10 bank brands is $45B.

4. Rising Costs

Most AML activities require significant manual effort, making them inefficient and difficult to scale. In 2018, it cost U.S. financial services firms about $25.3B to manage money laundering risk.

5. Poor Customer Experience

Compliance staff must have multiple touch points with a customer to gather and verify information. Perhaps not surprisingly, one in three financial institutions have lost potential customers due to inefficient or slow onboarding processes.

It’s no wonder anti-money laundering has now become a top priority for many CEOs in the financial industry.

A Wave of Innovation

In the last five years, there has been an explosion of “RegTech” startups—companies that address regulatory requirements using technology.

Global RegTech Investments, 2014-2018

YearAmount Invested (USD)
2014$923M
2015$1,110M
2016$1,150M
2017$1,868M
2018$4,485M

Over 60% of these are focused on solving Know Your Customer (KYC) and AML issues. What does this technology look like in practice?

Customer onboarding

A hypothetical U.S. retail firm, ABC Electronics, applies online to open an account at AML Innovators Bank. Their information is verified and screened using a fully automated process.

If they are determined to be a lower-risk client, they will be fast-tracked through the approval process with decisioning in six hours or less. For high-risk clients, decisioning occurs within about 72 hours.

Transaction Monitoring

ABC Electronics requests to send multiple international wire payments to various beneficiaries. Each transaction is automatically screened based on various factors:

  • A same name or subsidiary transfer carries the lowest risk
  • Transfers to a known, similar industry in a high-risk jurisdiction carry medium risk
  • Transfers to an unknown industry in a high-risk jurisdiction carry high risk

These transaction scores, combined with algorithms that track a client’s expected vs. actual transaction behavior, will update ABC Electronics’ risk rating in real time.

Management oversight

As risk updates occur, ABC Electronics’ rating is integrated into AML Innovator Bank’s overall portfolio risk.

Senior risk management teams will be able to view a heat map that highlights the highest risk areas of the business.

Structural Change, Big Gains

Just as financial crimes continue to evolve, so do AML schemes.

How can organizations stay ahead of the game? They can focus on actively managing risk, deliberately investing in technology and analytics, and prioritizing areas where RegTechs will have the highest near-term impact.

By investing in AML, financial institutions create competitive advantages:

  • Improved efficiency
  • Superior customer experience
  • Scalability
  • Readiness to adapt to new regulations
  • Reduced reputational risk
  • Ability to attract top talent

With such benefits on the table, one thing is clear: Anti-money laundering efforts are more important now than they have ever been.

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Green

Visualized: The Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar

Do sustainable investments make a difference? From carbon emissions to board diversity, we break down their impact across three industries.

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Sustainable Investment

Visualizing the Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar

Sustainable investments are booming.

Between January and November 2020 alone, investments in sustainable ETF and mutual funds grew 96%. The UN Principles of Responsible Investment now has over 3,000 signatories representing over $100 trillion in assets. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission established a Climate Risk Unit to analyze climate risk across derivative markets, and as of March 2021, new sustainability disclosures have come into effect in Europe.

But how do we know if sustainable investments have made a difference?

To answer this question, the above infographic from MSCI examines the effect of a sustainable investment dollar by looking at real-world examples.

A Sustainable vs. Unsustainable Dollar

To start, investing legend Benjamin Graham has compared the stock market to a “voting machine.” Just as consumers vote with their purchasing decisions, investors vote with their investment dollars. Especially in the short term, as more dollars flow to sustainable companies, this builds their exposure and access to capital.

In the long term, meanwhile, the market can be compared to a weighing machine. The market recognizes companies with profitable business models that improve their intrinsic value over time. Ultimately, this allows sustainable companies to expand and continue operating.

Given the rising momentum in both green assets and climate targets, here is how investment dollars have influenced and driven change across three industries.

1. Clean Energy vs. Fossil Fuel

Over the last several years, the energy sector has been associated with many of the problems causing climate change. For this reason, many investors are seeking out greener energy alternatives. But how does moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to an ESG leader support the environment and society?

First, here is a brief explainer of ESG laggards and leaders:

  • ESG laggards: companies with the weakest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
  • ESG leaders: companies with the strongest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
Industry laggard: U.S. oil & gas companyIndustry leader: U.S. utilities company
Scale of carbon-intensive business lines equal to 73% of its operation47% lower CO2 emissions than the industry average
This is the equivalent of adding 26 million cars on the road annuallyThis is the equivalent of removing 9.9 million cars off the road annually
1 of 20 oil and gas companies are responsible for contributing to one third of GHG emissions since 1965Uses 3X as many renewable sources than industry average
3X fewer jobs are created vs. energy efficient sector, resulting in lower productivityThis is roughly the same as saving over 9 million pounds of coal burned
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: AAA

Source: MSCI ESG Research

Based on the above example, investors have the ability to finance powerful green initiatives that reduce emissions by almost half, relative to their peers.

2. Safe vs. Unsafe Working Conditions

Weak safety protocols are a key sustainability issue for the industrial sector. Here’s how two companies compare:

Industry laggard: South African mining companyIndustry leader: U.S. mining company
11 fatalities in 2019Zero fatalities in 2019
Faced lawsuits from miners surrounding lung diseases contracted from dust exposure in gold mines
Settlement cost: $350 million
Board-level oversight monitors health and safety performance
Lags behind peers in high incident ratesLeads peers in low incident rates
Lags behind peers in setting incident reduction targetsLeads industry in lost time incident rate & total recordable injury rate
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: A

Source: MSCI ESG Research

Despite the risks involved in the sector, investors can choose to support companies that take greater precautions to protect their workers.

3. Building Trust vs. Losing Trust

Over the last several years, the financial sector has faced increased scrutiny over fraudulent activities. Moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to ESG leader may make a difference:

Industry laggard: U.S. bankIndustry leader: Dutch bank
$3 billion settlement in creating fictitious accounts to meet aggressive sales targetsSustainable finance portfolio valued at over $20 billion
Drop in top-tier bank ratings13% annual increase in climate finance
Board effectiveness questionedIncludes over 60 green loans, mobilizing environmentally friendly projects
Resignation of board membersOver 55% of board is female
MSCI ESG Rating: CCCMSCI ESG Rating: A

Source: MSCI ESG Research

From board diversity to green loans, a sustainable investment dollar supports companies that are actively advancing society and the environment.

Sustainable Investment: The Time to Act

Recently, investor dollars and shareholder activism have been closely linked.

Between 2018 and 2020, large institutional investors filed 217 shareholder proposals on climate change alone, putting increased pressure on companies. Meanwhile, 270 proposals were filed on corporate political activity and 228 on fair labor and equal employment opportunity over the same timeframe. Across all ESG proposals, $2 trillion in assets were pushing for more equitable corporate action.

Through the power of a dollar, investors can send a clear signal to companies: the time for sustainable investing is now.

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Debt

Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt

After an unprecedented borrowing spree in response to COVID-19, what does government debt look like around the world?

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Visualizing the Snowball of Government Debt in 2021

As we approach the second half of 2021, many countries around the world are beginning to relax their COVID-19 restrictions.

And while this signals a return to normalcy for much of the global economy, there’s one subject that’s likely to remain controversial: government debt.

To see how each country is faring in the aftermath of an unprecedented global borrowing spree, this graphic from HowMuch.net visualizes debt-to-GDP ratios using April 2021 data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Ranking the Top 10 in Government Debt

Government debt is often analyzed through the debt-to-GDP metric because it contextualizes an otherwise massive number.

Take for example the U.S. national debt, which currently sits at over $27 trillion. In isolation this figure sounds daunting, but when expressed as a % of U.S. GDP, it works out to a more relatable 133%. This format also allows us to make a better comparison between countries, especially when their economies differ in size.

With that being said, here are the top 10 countries in terms of debt-to-GDP. For further context, we’ve included their 2019 and 2020 values as well.

Rank (2021)CountryDebt-to-GDP (2019)Debt-to-GDP (2020)Debt-to-GDP (April 2021)
#1🇯🇵 Japan235%256%257%
#2🇸🇩 Sudan200%262%212%
#3🇬🇷 Greece185%213%210%
#4🇪🇷 Eritrea189%185%176%
#5🇸🇷 Suriname93%166%157%
#6🇮🇹 Italy135%156%157%
#7🇧🇧 Barbados127%149%143%
#8🇲🇻 Maldives78%143%140%
#9🇨🇻 Cape Verde125%139%138%
#10🇧🇿 Belize98%127%135%

Source: IMF

Japan tops the list with a ratio of 257%, though this isn’t really a surprise—the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio first surpassed 100% in the 1990s, and in 2010, it became the first advanced economy to reach 200%.

Such significant debt burdens are the result of non-traditional monetary policies, many of which were first implemented by Japan, then adopted by others. In the late 1990s, for instance, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) set interest rates at 0% to counter deflation and promote economic growth.

This low cost of borrowing enables businesses and governments to accumulate debt much more freely, and has seen widespread use among other developed nations post-2008.

What are the Risks?

Given that a majority of countries in this visual are red (meaning their debt-to-GDP ratios are over 50%), it’s safe to say that government borrowing is common practice.

But are large government debts a cause for concern?

Some believe that excessive borrowing will lead to higher interest costs in the long run, which could detract from economic growth and public sector investment. This theory is unlikely to become a reality anytime soon, however.

A recent report by RBC Wealth Management reported that the cost of servicing U.S. federal debt actually decreased in 2020, thanks to the low borrowing costs mentioned previously.

Perhaps a more prescient question would be: how long can the world’s central banks keep interest rates at near-zero levels?

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