Hong Kong's Money Laundering Fight Is A Fig Leaf


Hong Kong's Money Laundering Fight Is A Fig Leaf

Hong Kong is under pressure to step up the fight against money laundering.

The city is considering forcing private firms to disclose their true owners.

That would shed light on a lucrative web of shell companies.

The proposed reforms may be just enough to avoid international censure - and steer clear of embarrassing Beijing.

The Panama Papers leaked last year exposed Hong Kong as a major manufacturer of offshore structures that companies can abuse to hide assets and evade taxes.

Finding ways to track the beneficial owners of opaque corporate vehicles is also a G20 priority. 

In reaction, Hong Kong is looking to demand its 1.3 million unlisted companies to keep a register of their effective owners and make it available upon request.

This might ensure Hong Kong ticks all the boxes in time for a review expected next year by the Financial Action Task Force, a global anti-money laundering body with the power to blacklist jurisdictions.

Hong Kong appears to be aiming to meet the letter not the spirit of the global crackdown.

For example, it would not grant free and easy access to the new set of data, as Britain does.

This will maintain a high barrier for investors or journalists seeking information or trying to hunt down malfeasance.

Local players, concerned about rising costs and privacy, argue only law enforcers need to access this information.

Also, at up to HK$25,000($3,220), sanctions for failing to record the beneficial owners or responding to a request for information seem mild.

Hong Kong's proposed rules for more disclosure may also be just enough to help Beijing in its own war against corruption and its attempt to stem the illicit transfer of money abroad without upsetting the country's leaders.

A record $725 billion flew out of China last year.

The Panama Papers, which covered an earlier period, showed relatives of powerful mainland officials linked to some shell companies.

That suggests there are big vested interests in maintaining the status quo - and allowing Hong Kong to take baby steps on the road to financial transparency.

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Source: Nasdaq

By Pathay Singh on 03/16/17