U.S. Issues Rule Requiring Banks to Identify Shell Company Owners

U.S. Issues Rule Requiring Banks to Identify Shell Company Owners
Image credit: Reuters | Carlos Jasso | Files

The Obama administration is issuing a long-delayed rule requiring the financial industry to identify the real owners of companies and proposing a bill that would require companies to report the identities of their owners to the federal government, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The Customer Due Diligence (CDD) rule, in the works since 2012, and the proposed legislation are meant to hinder criminals from using shell companies to hide ownership and launder money, finance terror, and commit other threats to the global financial system.

The use of shell companies to hide assets and avoid taxes is in the spotlight following a massive leak of data from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which embarrassed several world leaders and sparked government investigations around the globe into possible financial wrongdoing by the wealthy elite. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists said it will release a searchable database of more than 200,000 offshore entities next week.

"Fundamentally our financial system should not provide the rich, the powerful, and the corrupt with the opportunity to shield their assets," said Wally Adeyemo, the U.S. deputy national security advisor for international economics, in a call with reporters on Thursday. "Nobody should be able to hide in the shadows from their legal obligations."

The final CDD rule will require banks, brokers, mutual funds and other financial institutions to collect and verify the identities of the real people, or "beneficial owners," who own and control companies when those companies open accounts.

Financial institutions will have to verify the identity of any person or company who owns more than 25 percent of the company, and one live person who controls the company even if that person owns less than 25 percent.

Banks will have two years to get their systems into compliance, said Jennifer Fowler, the U.S. Treasury deputy assistant secretary for terrorist financing.

The U.S. Treasury said in 2012 it planned to propose a rule that would clarify and standardize financial institutions' obligations to know the identities of their customers.

But the proposal generated opposition from the financial industry, which argued it would be costly, ineffective, and difficult to implement because the United States lacks a national database of corporate information.

To address one of those industry concerns, Treasury will propose legislation requiring companies to report to the Treasury the identity of beneficial owners when a company is incorporated. The legislation would create a central registry of beneficial ownership, something the U.S. currently does not have, Fowler said.

U.S. secretaries of state have lobbied against similar legislative action in the past, arguing that the Internal Revenue Service already has corporate ownership records that it could make available to law enforcement.

Adeyemo said the Obama administration had been "consulting actively" with secretaries of state. "This is a place where we need Congress to act," he said.

Taken together, the measures would make the financial system more transparent and close loopholes that allow for abuse or illegal activity, officials said.

More than 1,000 prosecutions are brought each year in the United States for money laundering, Fowler said. "This is a record that no one in the world can match."

But, she added, "there are vulnerabilities that we need to address in order to maintain an effective regime."

The Treasury is also proposing a regulation that would increase requirements for some foreign-owned companies operating in the United States to report information to the government, which officials said would prevent the use of those companies for tax avoidance purposes.

In addition, the Justice Department is proposing amendments that would strengthen its ability to pursue foreign corruption cases, including issuing subpoenas for records in money laundering investigations, obtaining overseas records, and using classified information in civil cases.

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Elizabeth Dilts; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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