Angola and the money laundering paradox
29 Jan 2020

Last week, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released a trove of documents uncovering a vast global network of shell companies tied to Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s former president, who currently stands accused of amassing a multibillion-dollar fortune as a result of her close connections to the government.

The fact that a network of corruption and hidden wealth originated in Angola isn’t likely to raise many eyebrows. The country ranked 165 out of 180 in Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index and the Basel Institute on Governance ranks it in the top 25 riskiest countries with respect to money laundering. For five of the past 10 years, Angola was listed as having “strategic deficiencies” by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international standard setter of anti-money-laundering policy. By all the usual metrics that experts use to judge a country’s risk of harboring or generating illicit cash, Angola seems to fit the bill.

But what should raise eyebrows is the fact that dos Santos’ network—which covered 41 countries—managed to go undetected as long as it did, despite mainly operating in countries that are meant to have strong anti-money-laundering (AML) institutions designed to prevent, identify, and root out dirty money. One of the basic tenets of AML policy is to know your customer (KYC) and it seems that banks in the dos Santos network either didn’t know who they were dealing with, or didn’t ask the right questions as to where the money was coming from.

Using the data released by the ICIJ on the location of the shell companies controlled by dos Santos and her husband, Sindika Dokolo, I investigated whether certain types of jurisdictions were more likely to be part of the network than others.

First, let’s consider one of the latest metrics of how effective a country’s AML policies are: recent evaluations by the FATF’s regional bodies, known as “mutual evaluation reviews.” These assessments are conducted every few years to better understand whether a jurisdiction is implementing best practice in fighting money laundering, and, more recently, whether the jurisdiction’s AML institutions are likely to be effective. So far, these newer reviews have been conducted in around 90 countries.

Combining the effectiveness data with the location of companies in the dos Santos network reveals an awkward relationship: Jurisdictions that score high on FATF effectiveness were more, not less, likely to host companies linked to dos Santos. Even after controlling for GDP per capita and a country’s technical compliance with FATF recommendations, a one-standard-deviation improvement in a country’s effectiveness score is associated with a 16 percentage point increase in the chance it hosted a dos Santos-linked company. Similarly, few of the jurisdictions that were part of the network were ever placed on FATF’s watch list. In fact, only seven out of the 41 jurisdictions implicated in dos Santos’ entire network have ever been on the list in the past decade.

We see a similar relationship if we look at other measures commonly associated with illicit financial flows. Countries in the dos Santos network also had lower levels of financial secrecy (as measured by the Tax Justice Network), as well as lower levels of corruption as measured by the latest Transparency International Corruption Perceptions index. These relationships are also not unique to the Angolan scandal: Using data scraped from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP’s) on countries connected to a massive Kremlin-linked money laundering scheme—dubbed the Troika Laundromat—we can see that this scheme also largely stayed within countries with more robust institutions.

By Matthew Collins, The Brookings Institute, 28 January 2020

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