Like many of you, I am sure, I can spot the phrase “money laundering” at a hundred paces – if it comes on the radio my little ears prick up, and even buried in the middle of a paragraph of text I can home in on it. Recently it has been something of a hot topic in the Economist, which I read every week (well, I say “read”: I do the obituary, the book reviews and the letters [how clever some people are] and then any other columns that catch my eye) which made me wonder whether it really is much more written about now, or whether I just notice it more.
So I went through the Economist for the past two decades, and looked for articles that were primarily about money laundering, i.e. where “money laundering” was mentioned in the headline or the sub-heading. And here’s what I found:
It’s not just my fevered imagination: money laundering is being written about more (and we’re only two months into 2016). (I had hoped to be able to say that the Economist had dropped the hyphen, but sadly no – it remains. Earlier articles were about “money laundering”, but in the hyphen appeared in December 2012 and we’ve been stuck with it ever since. No-one else hyphenates it – not the FATF, not the EU, not FinCEN – but there you go.)
Just for fun, I had a re-read of the first article in my sample: “That infernal washing machine” published in July 1997. In it, the journalist comments that “money laundering is still a big business” (nineteen years ago…) and that “international efforts to combat the problem are being undermined by a new generation of professional laundrymen and the rise of new onshore and off-shore laundromats”. Laundering techniques highlighted include the use of foreign exchange bureaux, and the cashing-in of single-premium insurance policies. Interestingly, we are reminded that Mexico is “the money-laundering haven of choice for initial placement of US currency in the world’s financial system” – a comment that plainly escaped the notice of a certain large UK bank. The piece concludes that the only realistic way to tackle money laundering is through the setting of minimum AML standards across the world, leaving countries that step out of line to “face punitive taxes on capital channelled through their financial centres and have international legal recognition denied to financial transactions taking place on their soil”.