1.1 Background of the study

In recent years, the international community has begun to focus on financial inclusion as part of a broader strategy to reduce poverty, encourage economic development, and promote stability and security. For the purposes of this paper, the term “financial inclusion” refers to the provision of accessible, usable, and affordable financial services, either through the formal or informal financial sector, to underserved populations. This includes the estimated 2.5 billion “unbanked” individuals worldwide who lack access to a formal bank account, the vast majority of whom reside in developing countries.1 Financial inclusion also applies to “underbanked” communities, where people lack reliable access to or are unable to afford the associated costs of financial services. In the US alone, 50.9 million adults are considered underbanked and have relied on alternative financial services in the past 12 months, including payday lenders, pawn shops, or check-cashing services.2 The international focus on financial inclusion has coincided with increased attention to anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) frameworks as crucial tools for advancing stability and security objectives and for curbing criminal and violent extremist activity.

The focus on AML/CFT has resulted in regulators’ increased scrutiny of the formal and informal financial sectors, as well as international pressure on low-capacity countries to develop and implement effective AML/CFT frameworks. Although overly strict approaches to AML/CFT may inadvertently limit financial access, their respective aims do not inherently conflict. Proportionate and calculated implementation of AML/CFT measures can help to advance financial inclusion goals, drawing more economic activity into the formal banking sector and consequently enhancing transaction monitoring and customer due diligence, which in turn help advance AML/CFT goals. However, with risk appetites declining in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, many financial institutions have opted to exit relationships assessed as being high risk, unprofitable, or simply “complex,” such as those with money service businesses (MSBs), foreign embassies, international charities, and correspondent banks. Closures of these entities’ bank accounts affect financial access for the individuals and populations those businesses serve. MSBs and other financial service providers, often referred to as “alternative money transfer services,” hold accounts with formal financial institutions (banks), which allow them to perform transactions and serve as an access point and gateway for their traditionally underserved client bases. They fill an important gap, particularly in jurisdictions with nascent financial systems where the informal sector is in fact the main provider of formal and traditional banking services. Such relationships also exist internationally.

Financial institutions in developing economies often rely on correspondent banking relationships to provide access to the global financial system and underpin trade finance. Charities operating in conflict and other sensitive environments rely on all of these channels to move much needed resources internationally. Although some non-bank financial service providers are noted for their traditionally low fees— including the remittance sector—others have been described as predatory, due to their staggering fees and disproportionate targeting of vulnerable communities.3 For example, annualized payday loan fees can amount to three- or even four-digit interest rates,4 which represent significant costs to the 80 percent of US borrowers who renew or roll over their initial loans.5 Unbanked or underbanked communities, particularly in the developing world, are also vulnerable to private lenders. These “loan sharks” offer no legal customer protection measures and have anecdotally been linked to extortion and even threats of violence.6 As banks close the accounts of non-bank financial service providers, underserved communities may be forced to increase their reliance on these types of costlier and less-regulated options. As financial institutions re-calculate risk appetites and decide to exit relationships, they directly and negatively affect these sectors and the populations they serve. For example, in August 2014, Westpac Banking Corp. followed other major Australian and UK banks and announcedthe closure of numerous money transfer operators’ accounts over concerns about AML/CFT and rising compliance costs.7 This followed the precedent set in the wake of Barclays’ May 2013 decision to close money transmitter accounts and the subsequent temporary injunction filed by Dahabshiil, one of the largest Somali remittance companies in the UK. 8 The closure of these bank accounts not only threatens these businesses but also jeopardizes the vital flow of remittances to Somalia from diaspora populations, which constitute an estimated 25 to 45 percent of the country’s GDP and serve as a key source of income for more than 40 percent of its vulnerable population.9 Financial exclusion is a huge barrier for disadvantaged populations. On an individual level, financial exclusion limits the ability of vulnerable populations to manage cash flows, build capital and savings, and mitigate economic shocks. 10 On a macroeconomic level, financial inclusion is linked to economic and social development, and improvements in financial access have been shown to contribute to reductions in extreme poverty and wealth inequality.11 Additionally, expanded access to the financial sector helps finance small business and microenterprise: a positive correlation has been found between financial inclusion and employment opportunities, and it is generally believed to positively affect economic growth.12 Women and other vulnerable groups are disproportionately affected by limited financial access. For example, in developing countries, 46 percent of men have a bank account, compared to 36 percent of women.13 Immigrants are another heavily affected population: factoring out socioeconomic and demographic considerations, immigrants are six percent less likely to have a checking account and eight percent less likely to have a savings account in the US than their American-born counterparts. 14 Without formal bank accounts, these underserved populations commonly rely on the remittance sector to send money to their families back home, and women have increasingly emerged as a key sending demographic. Although they remit about the same amount as men, women are shown to remit higher percentages of their income, more frequently, and for longer durations than their male counterparts.15 Reductions in the remittance sectors due to MSB account closures stand to further isolate these communities from the global financial system, exacerbating existing financial inclusion challenges. In an effort to ensure AML/CFT measures do not unduly limit financial access, international standards urge financial institutions to adopt a risk-based approach (RBA). Financial institutions are advised to assess their money laundering (ML) and terrorist financing (TF) vulnerabilities and to formulate policies and allocate resources according to their unique risk profiles and risk exposure. Although this approach is designed to allow for flexibility, it also introduces ambiguity and immense subjectivity around which actions are in fact required to meet international AML/CFT standards. High- and low-capacity jurisdictions alike struggle in implementing the RBA, and those perceived as being deficient in their implementation have been publicly listed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and subjected to its ongoing global AML/CFT monitoring process—potentially dissuading international investors and hindering economic growth and trade relations. For financial institutions, concern over ambiguity in the RBA has been compounded in recent years by the imposition of large fines and enforcement actions related to inadequate AML/CFT compliance procedures.

1.2   Statement of the problem 

De-risking practices have not been localized in any particular population, community, or industry. However, in recent years there has been an “aggregation of results” best described as a trend toward de-risking of sectors, including money service businesses (MSBs), foreign embassies, nonprofit organizations (NPOs), and correspondent banks. Those closures have had a ripple effect on financial access for the individuals and populations served by those businesses. Regulatory authorities continue to emphasize that de-risking is not in line with international guidelines, and in fact is a misapplication of the risk-based approach. Yet in the absence of clear instructions or an incentive to bank these clients, account closures continue across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. These closures have significant humanitarian, economic, political, and security implications, effectively cutting off access to finances, further isolating communities from the global financial system, exacerbating political tensions, and potentially facilitating the development of parallel underground “shadow markets.” Unfortunately, little empirical data is available about the extent and nature of the client relationships being exited and the decision-making processes of financial institutions. This presents challenges to assessing the scale and scope of the problem, identifying vulnerable communities affected by the reduction in services, and developing effective responses. Nevertheless, this study endeavors to illuminate a number of existing trends and themes relating to the issue and provides some insight into likely factors behind de-risking practices.