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Is The Money-Laundering Driven Real Estate "Boom" Ending?

Published: September 30, 2012
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Source: Zero Hedge

One by one all the money-laundering loopholes in a broke world are coming to an end.

First it was Swiss bank accounts, which for centuries guaranteed the depositors absolute secrecy, and as a result saw money inflows from all the wealthiest savers in the world, who felt truly safe their wealth (obtained by legal means or otherwise) would not be redistributed forcefully. In the ecosystem of finance, Switzerland was the depositor bank. Then 2008 happened, and starting with the US, shortly to be followed by every other insolvent country, demands were issued for a full list of people who had used Zurich and Geneva bank vaults to avoid the risk of asset taxation, capital controls and confiscation on their own native soil. The result was the end of the Swiss banking sector as the ultimate target of all global money laundering. In the ensuing power vacuum, others have sprung up to take its place, most notably Singapore, but its days as a tax-haven are numbered by how long it takes China to fall face first into a hard landing at which point no saving on the Pacific seaboard will be safe.

Now, it is the turn of real estate.

While hardly a secret, for decades the ultra-luxury housing segment in any country was the target not so much of local wealthy individuals and business, but foreigners, for whom the grass was always greener, and sought to put their money into "hard assets" abroad to save it from local confiscation. After all, it is far easier to be sued and prosecuted by your own government than a foreign one. Two very vivid examples are the most expensive house in Miami ever sold, which two months ago fetched a price of $47 million, which was purchased by "a Russian who bought the home in the name of a U.S.-based limited-liability company" and in the until recently a record $88 million paid for a 15 CPW penthouse for the daughter of Russian billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev (bought from Citi's Sandy "End TBTF" Weill). The record was topped at $90 million paid for a One57 duplex apartment paid by an unknown individual, almost certainly a foreigner.

The common theme here of course is that foreigners come to the US (or London, or Geneva, or Hong Kong) or any other wealthy megapolis with their almost always ill-gotten, and untaxed gains, spend the money indiscriminately on local real estate even as the local authorities look the other way because by lifting any offer, these foreigners, while laundering illegal money, are also keeping the all important housing market afloat thus perpetuing the illusion that the domestic economic is rising. Instead all that is happening is it is attracting illegal foreign capital flows.

The biggest beneficiary so fas has been the US, which in the past 2 years has seen not one but four housing markets develop, as we have showed before.

And while the lower-end segment has continued to implode (see Foreclosure Stuffing), it is the ultra-luxury part of US housing that has bootstrapped the housing market.

For now. Because if London is any indication, global ultra-luxury real estate market is the next "Swiss bank account."

What happened in London? The NYT explains:

At the request of the Athens government, the British financial authorities recently handed over a detailed list of about 400 Greek individuals who have bought and sold London properties since 2009.

The list, closely guarded, has not been publicly disclosed. But Greek officials are examining it to determine whether the people named — who they say include prominent businessmen, bankers, shipping tycoons and professional athletes — have deceived the tax authorities by understating their wealth.

“These people have money and they are known — but it is not clear yet if they have violated any laws,” said Haris Theoharis, an official in the Greek Finance Ministry. Tax investigators have been examining the list to see whether there is any overlap between those who bought London properties and those already identified as being tax cheats.

What a broke Greece will find without a doubt, is that of the 400 Greeks who spent millions on London real estate, virtually none paid any taxes in previous years. Also, they most certainly declared zero offshore real estate. After all why should they: until this moment foreign real estate was the default mode of funneling capital into safe destinations.

Alas, as the Swiss banking SNAFU showed, in the New Normal, nothing can be taken for granted any more. First it is Greek demands for London real estate transparency. Next it will be Putin asking Geneva and Vienna to point out which Russian oligarchs bought real estate there, then Mariano Rajoy, as broke as Greece, will ask for a list of all Spaniards buying real estate in London and Geneva. Until finally, someone returns the favor to Uncle Sam, who was the first to blow up the myth of Swiss bank secrecy, and requests a list of all broke European buying real estate anywhere between New York to Los Angeles.

What happens then? Well, as we have been writing for months, for now the NAR, best known for misrepresenting the real state of the existing US housing market for years, has an open waiver for anti-money laundering regulation from none other than Uncle Sam. Because while it is one thing to blow up the biggest breadwinning industry in Switzerland to pad the tax bill and to spread class warfare, it is something totally different to represent to the world that ultra-luxury segment aside, which is merely an artifact of global money laundering, the US real estate housing emperor is as naked as he was 4 years ago.

As a reminder, here is where the NAR stands on the issue of its most generous clients possibly being some of the worst criminals known to man, courtesy of Elanus Capital:

Many of you reading this will undoubtedly have spent time in an international bank and been forced to sit through countless hours of “know your client” and AML training. Fascinating to note that the National Association of Realtors lobbied for and received a waiver from such regulation. That’s right, realtors actually went to the U.S. government and said: we want to be able to help foreign business oligarchs and other nefarious business people launder money through the real estate markets of the United States – and prevailed.

Here's their official position:

"NAR supports continued efforts to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism through the regulation of entities using a risk-based analysis. Any risk-based assessment would likely find very little risk of money laundering involving real estate agents or brokers. Regulations that would require real estate agents and brokers to adopt anti-money laundering programs may prove to be burdensome and unnecessary given the existing ML/TF regulations that already apply to United States financial institutions."

Hat’s off to the NAR – that is some serious doublespeak. My translation: We’ll support you as long as we don’t have to support you.

Indeed it is. What the NAR is saying is that for now go ahead and lift every offer on every duplex and triplex off Central Park. Your money is absolutely safe with us... this instant. But the second a broke Europe comes demanding reparations for endorsing 4 more years of Obama (something that was already documented), for destroying the Swiss banking industry, and for keeping the EUR much higher than it would have been had it not been the Chairman's 5 easing episodes, all bets are off.

This means all European, Asian, and even local oligarchs may be sweating just a little bit, now that the winds have shifted, and suddenly what was considered safe and untouchable, has become fair game in the great "fairness" redistribution scheme that is the only game left in a broke and insolvent global town.



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