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Piggybanks for plunder: Corrupt cash flows to Global Cities, requiring transparency and complete disclosure of assets

Christopher Colford's picture



Corrupt cash from secretive international sources – deliberately funneled through ‘shell companies’ to conceal the money’s illicit origins – is often used to buy ‘Towers of Secrecy’ in leading global cities like New York, as documented by a recent New York Times investigation.

Cities exert a magnetism that’s irresistible – attracting not just the most ambitious who seek economic opportunity and the most creative who revel in cultural richness, but also lawbreakers and looters: notably nowadays, the corrupt kleptocrats and tax-avoiding oligarchs whose hot money increasingly flows into the safe haven of prime real estate in the world’s leading cities.

At least part of the trend toward soaring center-city property prices, according to many anticorruption monitors, is due to the impact of illicit financial flows. It’s not just the plutocratic One Percenters who are steadily bidding up real-estate valuesPlunderers and profiteers – often concealing their identities, with the aim of shielding their wealth from tax authorities and international asset-trackers – use prestigious parcels of center-city property as a piggybank to shelter their tainted lucre.

The most vibrant and most competitive of Global Cities – notably London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore – have long been magnets for money, luring the world’s most enterprising entrepreneurs as well as its most desperate refugees. As their global vocation and vitality have lured the ambitious and the avaricious, however, the “priced out of Paris” syndrome has often taken over: Gentrification has morphed into “plutocratization,” notes Simon Kuper of The Financial Times, with “global cities turning into vast gated communities where the One Percent reproduces itself.”

Meanwhile, “the middle classes and small companies [are] falling victim to class-cleansing," Kuper asserts. "Global cities are becoming patrician ghettos” – with the middle class and the poor being driven ever-further out from the center-city in search of affordable housing, doomed to interminable commutes to sterile suburbs or brooding banlieues.

Most of the property price spiral in world-leading cities is surely attributable to the allure of cosmopolitan life in an age when urbanization is accelerating worldwide. But as two members of the World Bank Group’s unit on Financial Market Integrity (FMI) and the Stolen Asset Recovery (StAR) Initiative recently wrote in a StAR blog post, the melt-up of prime property prices often involves corrupt money and evasive property-registration practices.

Citing a recent New York Times investigative series that meticulously documented suspicious practices within Manhattan real-estate trends, FMI specialists Ivana Rossi and Laura Pop noted that the property-buyers “took several steps to hide their identity as the real owners of the properties. Some of these steps involved buying condos through trusts, limited liability companies or other entities that shielded their names. Such tactics made it very hard to identify the 'beneficial owner': to figure out who owned what, or who was the ultimate controller of a company (or other legal entities) since the names were not shown in the company records.”

Vast sums are flowing unchecked around the world as never before – whether motivated by corruption, tax avoidance or investment strategy, and enabled by an ever-more-borderless economy and a proliferation of ways to move and hide assets,” said the painstaking New York Times investigation, "Towers of Secrecy," by Louise Story and Stephanie Saul.

Probing “the workings of an opaque economy for global wealth,” the reporters excavated the substrata of this enduring scandal. “Lacking incentive or legal obligation to identify the sources of money, an entire chain of people involved in high-end real-estate sales – lawyers, accountants, title brokers, escrow agents, real-estate agents, condo boards and building workers – often operate with blinders on.”

In a moment of inadvertent self-revelation, a Manhattan real-estate broker confessed her look-the-other-way negligence “when vetting buyers: ‘They have to have the money. Other than that, that’s it. That’s all we need.’ ” A former executive of a property-development firm was equally blunt: “You pretty much go by financial capacity. Can they afford it? They sign the contract, they put their money down with no contingency, and they close. They have to show the money, and that is it. I don’t think you will find a single new developer where it’s different.”

No wonder that the upper reaches of the U.S. real-estate market are “more alluring for those abroad with assets they wish to keep anonymous,” the Times analysis found. “For all the concerns of law-enforcement officials that ‘shell companies’ can hide illicit gains, regulatory efforts to require more openness from these companies have failed.”      

The Times’ discoveries, asserted Rossi and Pop, thus underscore the important issues involved in asset disclosure and "beneficial ownership” rules. Many nations require that public officials fully disclose their financial holdings. Such transparency is one important safeguard against the plundering of public wealth by kleptocrats, corrupt clans or well-connected cronies in countries that are vulnerable to chronic larceny.

Yet some dishonest public officials exploit legal loopholes – or flout the law entirely: “As the StAR publication ‘Puppet Masters’ demonstrated, those that do engage in corrupt activities are likely to use entities such as companies, foundations and trusts to hide their ill-gotten wealth,” wrote Rossi and Pop. “These conclusions are also confirmed by a recent Transparency International UK report. It showed that 75 percent of UK properties in the UK, under criminal investigation since 2004 – as the suspected proceeds of corruption – made use of offshore corporate secrecy to hide the owner’s identities.”

Drawing on a new World Bank Group report (which they co-authored with Francesco Clementucci and Lina Sawaqed), “Using Asset Disclosure for Identifying Politically Exposed Persons,” Rossi and Pop argued that accurate and complete financial disclosure by officials in positions of public trust (known in the financial-integrity world as “Politically Exposed Persons”) are an essential safeguard against the diversion of assets. Such disclosures, by themselves, don’t provide a “magic bullet” solution to prevent corruption, yet they are a vital mechanism in building transparency and trust.

“Once there is an ongoing investigation, the information declared can be very helpful as evidence, both in what has been included as well as omitted,” wrote Rossi and Pop. “In many countries, intentionally leaving out information on a house or a bank account carries serious penalties. Furthermore, financial disclosures can help catch a dishonest public official whose lavish lifestyle – including real estate in a prized location – could not be supported by the resources, such as a public-sector salary, indicated in the declaration.” The key factor in ensuring integrity and combating corruption is thus the full disclosure of “beneficial ownership.”

Property prices in Global Cities are already being propelled upward by the gusher of money that is flooding, through fully legal channels, into the world’s most desirable and stable locations – thus threatening to put affordable housing, in many major cities, beyond the reach of all but the fortunate few. The last thing that already-unaffordable cities need is an unchecked flood of illicit billions and furtive real-estate transactions, which will only intensify the pressure that now threatens to create a renewed boom-and-bust cycle of unstable housing prices.

Urban advocates who are working to promote inclusive, sustainable, resilient and competitive cities will applaud the continued vigilance of asset-trackers and corruption-hunters – like the FMI and StAR units, through their work sans frontières
on the disclosure of beneficial ownership – whose efforts to halt illicit financial flows will provide an additional instrument to help ensure that cities will be as inclusive as possible in a relentlessly urbanizing age.

 

#TakeOn Corruption


Governing the city in a metropolitan century

Mario Marcel's picture
Exterior of a resedential building, Mumbai, India. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank


For the first time in history, the majority of people now live in cities, and by the end of the century, 80% of the world’s population will be urban. This rapid urbanization is a phenomenon almost entirely concentrated in developing and emerging countries- in fact, 98% of this urbanization is happening in developing countries, and at a much faster pace than developed countries urbanized in the past.

What does this ‘metropolitan century’ mean for cities, governance, and development?

Despite expectations, cities in East Asia are becoming denser

Chandan Deuskar's picture
 
When we think of urban expansion in the 21st century, we often think of ‘sprawl’, a term that calls to mind low-density, car-oriented suburban growth, perhaps made up of single-family homes. Past studies have suggested that historically, cities around the world are becoming less dense as they grow, which has prompted worries about the environmental impacts of excess land consumption and automobile dependency. A widely cited rule of thumb is that as the population of a city doubles, its built area triples. But our new study on urban expansion in East Asia has yielded some surprising findings that are making us rethink this assumption of declining urban densities everywhere.

Tracking Urbanization: How big data can drive policies to make cities work for the poor

Axel van Trotsenburg's picture

Every minute, dozens of people in East Asia move from the countryside to the city.
The massive population shift is creating some of the world’s biggest mega-cities including Tokyo, Shanghai, Jakarta, Seoul and Manila, as well as hundreds of medium and smaller urban areas.

This transformation touches on every aspect of life and livelihoods, from access to clean water to high-speed trains that transport millions of people in and out of cities during rush hour each weekday.

Tracking Urbanization: How big data can drive policies to make cities work for the poor

Axel van Trotsenburg's picture
 Measuring a Decade of Spatial Growth

Every minute, dozens of people in East Asia move from the countryside to the city.

The massive population shift is creating some of the world’s biggest mega-cities including Tokyo, Shanghai, Jakarta, Seoul and Manila, as well as hundreds of medium and smaller urban areas.

Davos Sees Challenges, ‘Smart Cities’ Seize Opportunities: Finding Sustainable Solutions Via Public-Private Dialogue

Christopher Colford's picture



As the world’s policymakers and business leaders converge in Davos, Switzerland for tomorrow’s opening of the World Economic Forum, there’s certainly no shortage of global threats for them to worry about during the WEF’s annual marathon of policy seminars and economic debates. A world of anxiety enshrouds this week’s conference theme of the “New Global Context,” judging by the WEF’s latest Global Risks Report: Its analysis of 28 urgent threats and 13 ominous long-term trends offers a comprehensive catalogue of extreme dangers to social stability and even human survival.

As if the Davos data isn’t worrisome enough, several just-issued scientific studies – which document worsening trends in climate change, humanity’s imminent collision with the limits of the planet’s resilience and the intensifying damage being wrought by voracious consumption-driven growth – trace a relentlessly gloomy trajectory.

Relieving some of the substantive tension, there’s also often a puckish undercurrent within each year’s Davos news coverage. Poking holes in the self-importance of Davos’ CEOs and celebrities – with varying degrees of lighthearted humor or reproachful reproof – has become a cottage industry, springing up every January to chide the mountaintop follies of “the great and the good.” Skeptics often scoff that the lofty pronouncements of Davos Deepthink have become almost a caricature of elite self-importance, and there’ll surely be plenty of the customary sniping at the insularity of Davos Man and at the insouciance of the globalized jet set as its over-refined One Percent folkways become ever more detached from the struggles of the stagnating middle class and desperate working poor.

Despite such Davos-season misgivings, it’s worth recalling the value of such frequent, fact-based knowledge-exchange events and inclusive dialogues among business leaders and thought leaders. Some of the Davos Set may revel in after-hours excess – its Lucullan cocktail-party scene is legendary – yet the substantive centerpiece of such meetings remains a valuable venue for expert-level policy debates, allowing scholars to inject their ideas straight into the bloodstream of corporate strategy-setting. The global policy debate arguably needs more, not fewer, thought-provoking symposia where decision-makers can be swayed by the latest thinking of the world’s academic and social-sector experts. Judging by the fragmented response to the chronic economic downturn by the global policymaking class, every multilateral institution ought to host continuing consultations to help shape a coherent policy agenda.

Focusing on just one area where in-depth know-how can serve the needs of decision-makers: The World Bank Group has long been tailoring world-class knowledge to deliver local solutions to client countries about one of the trends singled out in this year's WEF list of long-term concerns – the worldwide shift from “predominantly rural to urban living.” The biggest mass migration in human history has now concentrated more than 50 percent of the world’s population in cities, leading this year’s Global Risks Report to assert that the risk of failed urban planning is among the top global concerns.

“Without doubt, urbanization has increased social well-being,” commented one WEF trend-watcher. “But when cities develop too rapidly, their vulnerability increases: pandemics; breakdowns of or attacks on power, water or transport systems; and the effects of climate change are all major threats.”

Yet consider, also, the potential opportunities within the process of managing that trend toward ever-more-intense urban concentration. What if the prospect of chaotic urbanization were able to inspire greater city-management creativity – so that urban ingenuity makes successful urbanization a means to surmount other looming dangers?

For an example of the can-do determination and trademark optimism of the development community – with the world’s urbanization trend as its focus – consider the upbeat tone that pervaded a conference last week at the World Bank’s Preston Auditorium, analyzing “Smart Cities for Shared Prosperity.” With more than 850 participants in-person, and with viewers in 92 countries watching via livestream, the conference – co-sponsored by the World Resources Institute (WRI), Embarq, and the Transport and Information & Communications Technology (TICT) Global Practice of the World Bank Group – energized the world’s leading practitioners and scholars across the wide range of transportation-related, urban-focused, environment-conscious priorities.

(Thinking of the Preston gathering’s Davos-season timing and full-spectrum scope: It sometimes strikes me that – given the continuous procession of presidents, professors, poets and pundits at the Preston podium – there could be a tagline beneath Preston's entryway, suggesting that the Bank Group swirl of ideas feels like “Davos Every Day.”)

Amid its focus on building “smart cities” and strengthening urban sustainability, the annual Transforming Transportation conference took the “smart cities” concept beyond its customary focus on analyzing Big Data and deploying the latest technology-enabled metrics. By investing in “smart” urban design – and, above all, by putting people rather than automobiles at the center of city life – the scholars insisted that society can reclaim its urban destiny from the car-centric, carbon-intensive pattern that now chokes the livability of all too many cities.

The fast-forward series of “smart cities” speeches and seminars reinforced the agenda summarized by TICT Senior Director Pierre Guislain and WRI official Ani Dasgupta – formerly of the Bank Group and now the global director of WRI’s Ross Center on Sustainable Cities – in an Op-Ed commentary for Thomson Reuters: “We can either continue to build car-oriented cities that lock in unsustainable patterns, or we can scale up existing models for creating more inclusive, accessible and connected cities. Pursuing smarter urban mobility options can help growing cities leapfrog car-centric development and adopt strategies that boost inclusive economic growth and improve [the] quality of life.”

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
 

Thanks to Urbanization, Tomorrow's Megalopolises Will Be in Africa and Asia
Foreign Policy
Tokyo will still be the world’s largest city in 2030, but it will have many more contenders on its heels. According to a fascinating new report from the United Nations, the globe will have 41 “mega-cities” -- defined as those with 10 million or more inhabitants -- up from 28 now. Although the world’s largest urban centers have historically been concentrated in the developed world, fast-paced urbanization in Africa and Asia means that the megalopolises of tomorrow will be found in the developing world. By 2030, Asia and Africa will host nine of the world’s 10 largest cities, according to the report.

Mobilizing Private Investment for Post-2015 Sustainable Development
Brookings
The sustainable development goals are likely to have a more ambitious scope than the Millennium Development Goals. Accordingly, they will need a more ambitious financing for development strategy that can mobilize much more public, private, and “blended” finance.  Very rough estimates indicate that at least $1 trillion of additional annual investment is required in developing and emerging economies.  At first glance this might appear to be a large number, but it represents only approximately 10 percent of extra investment above current levels. It is clear that official development assistance, on its own, would be incapable of meeting financing needs, even if the target to provide 0.7 percent of gross national income were to be achieved by all developed countries. But official development assistance (ODA) could, through leverage and catalytic support, help mobilize substantially more private capital. 
 

The Urban Moment

Chandan Deuskar's picture
City street scene
Urbanization can reconfigure social and cultural relationships.

Cities have been experiencing a moment in the cultural spotlight in the last few years. There is more discussion and even celebration of cities than ever before. Newspapers and magazines are starting websites dedicated to global urban issues, university researchers and technology companies are turning their attention to ‘smart cities’, and there are even popular documentary movies, reality shows and musicals all about city planning. India, still mostly rural, has just elected a new Prime Minister who promises urban redevelopment and ‘new-age cities’, and it is no longer shocking to hear that China's proposed urbanization budget runs in the trillions of dollars.

Why has this urban moment come about now? Several trends, some in the developing world and others in wealthier countries, seem to have converged lately. It is interesting to step back and examine these trends, before thinking about where we go from here.

Urbanization as opportunity

LTD Editors's picture

Urbanization deserves urgent attention from policy makers, academics, entrepreneurs, and social reformers of all stripes. Nothing else will create as many opportunities for social and economic progress. The urbanization project began roughly 1,000 years after the transition from the Pleistocene to the milder and more stable Holocene interglacial. In 2010, the urban population in developing countries stood at 2.5 billion. The most important citywide projects -- successes like New York and Shenzhen -- show even more clearly how influential human intention can be. The developing world can accommodate the urban population growth and declining urban density in many ways. One is to have a threefold increase in the average population of its existing cities and a six fold increase in their average built-out area. Another, which will leave the built-out area of existing cities unchanged, will be to develop 625 new cities of 10 million people -- 500 new cities to accommodate the net increase in the urban population and another 125 to accommodate the 1.25 billion people who will have to leave existing cities as average density falls by half.

Bold Steps for China’s Cities

Sri Mulyani Indrawati's picture
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Photo courtesy of Li Wenyong

 

In 2030, more than 300 million Chinese are expected to have moved into cities. By then, 70 percent will live in urban settings. Given China’s size, it will mean that one in six urban dwellers worldwide will be Chinese. The challenges coming with that demographic shift are already visible and well known, in China and beyond.

Urbanization is a global trend. So when we think about new approaches to urbanization here in China, we believe that they are of value for other countries facing similar issues. In other words, China’s success in urbanization could pave the way for global rethinking on how cities can be built to be healthy, efficient, and successful.


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