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Financial Integrity

Assessing the Assessors: From Form to Substance

Jean Pesme's picture

How good are the experts at evaluating countries’ anti-money-laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) systems? That was the central question in a new report released last week by the Center on Law and Globalization. The report takes a critical look at the IMF’s evaluations of the AML/CFT systems of 150 countries from 2004 to 2013. Although we may differ on some of the analysis and recommendations, the report provides ample food for thought and raises issues that need to be addressed and, in certain instances, corrected.

It isn’t possible here to provide a full overview of all the points raised in the report, but a few key messages stand out:

The report finds that assessors were too focused on formal compliance (“rules on the books”) and did not, in any systematic fashion, try to ascertain the real impact of a country’s entire AML/CFT regime in practice. In the words of the report, “Reliance (by assessors) was placed on the prima facie plausibility of the claim that adherence to the [international AML] standards would help reduce money laundering and the financing of terrorism.” This criticism goes to a wider point: that evaluations were conducted without a clear articulation of the objectives to be achieved by AML/CFT measures. If you don’t know what a system is meant to accomplish, how can you evaluate it?

These are valid points and they hold true, not just for IMF evaluations, but also for others (including the World Bank) who carried out assessments using the same internationally agreed methodology. However, the report fails to take due account of the considerable work that has been undertaken in recent years to address and correct those shortcomings.

Since 2010, an intensive process of revision has been underway to improve the AML/CFT standards and the assessment methodology. There has been a long and vigorous debate within the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global standard-setter on these issues, and between the FATF and other bodies, about the best way to remedy the system’s deficiencies to make assessment reports more useful. Both the Bank and the Fund have played a very active role in this discussion.

As a result of this process, the new standards approved in 2012, along with a new methodology approved in 2013, provide a framework to address those concerns: Countries’ AML/CFT systems are to be judged based upon an assessment of their effectiveness in addressing a country’s ML/FT risks. Are government interventions commensurate to the risks faced? For example, a country with a negligible financial sector and a high use of cash should probably not spend too much money and manpower on policing its securities sector. Conversely, a sophisticated financial center providing easily usable incorporation services should probably keep a close eye on company registration. As a participant in this process, the World Bank has been a strong proponent of this pivot toward risk and effectiveness. In our view, only such an approach can help countries make meaningful decisions regarding their priorities and their strategies.