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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

2 million suspicious activity reports, or SARs, are filed by banks every year. Those reports are sent to the U.S. Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which has the job of determining whether the reports are evidence of criminal activity, and whether that activity should be investigated and punished.

The catch: FinCEN only has 270 employees, which means that FinCEN is dealing with a ratio of roughly 150 reports per employee per week. So it comes as little surprise to learn that most of the reports go unread, and the activity in them unpunished.

  • That's a massive job: It can take a team of investigators weeks or months to investigate a single report.

For the record: A tiny subset of FinCEN reports — 2,100 in all — was leaked to BuzzFeed News two years ago. That kicked off a major international investigation, involving more than 400 journalists in 88 countries. After 16 months of work, their findings are now public.

  • The journalists didn't have all the tools of law enforcement at their disposal, but they did have the luxury of being able to spend as much time as they wanted on one small group of reports.
  • What they found was more or less what you'd expect: Some of those reports detailed what looks to be criminal activity by criminals. That's why they were marked suspicious by the banks.
  • Journalists can't prove that any behavior was criminal. But it does seem with hindsight that banks allowed a lot of illegal money laundering to continue.

Between the lines: We don't know how much of that activity was caught or investigated by law enforcement. But it's a safe bet that it wasn't enough.

  • We do know that the banks seem to have been generally happy to continue working with their customers after filing the SARs.
  • All too often the banks file their SARs long after the criminals have moved on. The main reason for doing so is just that it's almost impossible to prosecute a bank for abetting money laundering if it has filed a SAR on the activity in question.

The bottom line: Banks need to be an integral part of the fight against money laundering, rather than simply filing SARs to protect themselves. The entire system needs a massive technological and financial upgrade — and law enforcement needs to grow more teeth, especially when it comes to prosecuting banks.

  • My thought bubble: Money laundering persists because banks make more money when it exists than when it doesn't. The only effective way to fight it is to ensure that's no longer the case.

Go deeper

Dion Rabouin, author of Markets
Dec 14, 2020 - Economy & Business

Pandemic-era debt could spawn new global wave of "zombie firms"

Reproduced from BofA Global Research; Note: Banks included are Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England, Bank of Canada and Reserve Bank of Australia; Chart: Axios Visuals

Fears are mounting that a massive growth in debt and the current policy environment — described as "monetary policymaking on steroids," by Michael Arone, chief investment strategist for State Street Global Advisors, earlier this year — could be producing a new global wave of "zombie firms," a new G30 report by top economists and central bankers warns.

What it means: "The term 'zombie firms' was coined to refer to firms propped up by Japanese banks during Japan’s so-called 'Lost Decade,' following the collapse in 2001 of the Japanese asset price bubble," according to the report.

Republicans pledge to set aside differences and work with Biden

President Biden speaks to Sen. Mitch McConnell after being sworn in at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Photo: Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

Several Republicans praised President Biden's calls for unity during his inaugural address on Wednesday and pledged to work together for the benefit of the American people.

Why it matters: The Democrats only have a slim majority in the Senate and Biden will likely need to work with the GOP to pass his legislative agenda.

The Biden protection plan

Joe Biden announces his first run for the presidency in June 1987. Photo: Howard L. Sachs/CNP/Getty Images

The Joe Biden who became the 46th president on Wednesday isn't the same blabbermouth who failed in 1988 and 2008.

Why it matters: Biden now heeds guidance about staying on task with speeches and no longer worries a gaffe or two will cost him an election. His staff also limits the places where he speaks freely and off the cuff. This Biden protective bubble will only tighten in the months ahead, aides tell Axios.

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