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Middle-High to Luxury Real Estate in the Cross-Hairs
In Feb, 2016, the Treasury’s FinCEN enacted “GEOGRAPHIC, ANTI-MONEY-LAUNDERING, TARGETING ODERS of 2016”.
Apparently, the program worked out so well, in August ‘16, it was expanded to cover the rest NYC and SoFL, in addition to the LA, San Diego, San Fran Bay Area, and San Antonio regions. Regarding the expansion, on July 28, 2016, I put out a note entitled “7-28 Hanson…Higher End Real Estate’s Coup De Grace…Heads-Up” , copied at the bottom of this note, highlighting what I perceived to be the fall-out.
Everybody assumed this program would end organically last month, but it was renewed for another year, which wasn’t widely reported.
THESE STATEMENTS BY INVESTIGATORS ARE OMINOUS, especially considering that “foreign and domestic fraud and money laundering” was one of my “four pillars of unorthodox housing demand”, over which I have pounded the table for the past several years.
- “We don’t come across [money laundering in real estate] once every 10 or 12 cases,” John Tobon, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations Deputy Special Agent in Charge for South Florida, told the Miami Herald in January. “We come across real estate being purchased with illicit funds once every other case.”
- “FinCEN said that 30 percent of reported transactions across the nation were linked to buyers who had been flagged by banks and other financial institutions for suspicious activity.”
Well, this is one way to narrow the ever-increasing divergence between higher and lower end real estate prices…blow-up the higher end.
I don’t find it any coincidence that the era of ASPIRATIONAL PRICES in the middle-high to luxury segment ended abruptly in early 2016, in lock-step with this program ramping up, as evidenced by headlines of 20% to 40% list price haircuts reported constantly – most recent is Mickey Drexler’s $35M to $19.95M haircut — in exactly the markets, which the program targets.
There is such a thin pool of demand for middle-high to luxury real estate, that if one demand cohort goes away (fraud, or suspicious purchases by LLC’s, for example), and some “innocent others”, who simply don’t want the Treasury tracking them, “move to the sidelines”, it will create a massive hole in demand and pricing power.
It only takes a few real estate transactions to “reset” entire markets, higher and lower, and establish new trends before most everybody else (headline readers) without access to real-time, transactional data even realizes it.
Region’s being tracked now are listed, as follows. The price triggers aren’t too high. Heck, $2mm may not even get you a quarter-acre dirt in Palo Alto.
- New York: Manhattan with a threshold at $3 million; Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, and Staten Island at $1.5 million.
- Florida: Miami-Dade County, Broward County, and Palm Beach County, all at $1 million.
- California South: San Diego County and Los Angeles County;
- California North: San Francisco, San Mateo County, and Santa Clara County, all at $2 million.
- Texas: Bexar County (San Antonio area) with a threshold of $500,000.
Small leaks in large bubbles can turn into rips very easily. Which makes it critical for high end owners, investors, and speculators, that the remaining “three pillars of unorthodox demand”, which I am tracking closely, don’t fail (some already are).
The article below by Miami Herald covers the renewed GTO for 2017. Red highlights are my emphasis.
Feds renew crackdown on dirty money in Miami real estate
By Nicholas Nehamas
Feb 23, 2017
After months of “will-they-or-won’t-they” speculation, the U.S. Treasury Department announced Thursday that it will extend its search for dirty money in six high-end real estate markets, including South Florida, for another six months.
The rules, initially imposed early last year as a temporary measure on Miami-Dade County and Manhattan, require shell companies buying expensive homes with cash to report their true owners to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a Treasury agency. Law enforcement officials have said a lack of oversight allows criminals from around the world to launder money through luxury real estate in the United States.
In the weeks following the election of President Donald Trump — a former real estate developer — it was unclear whether the new administration would continue the effort, which was set to expire on Thursday.
“This is an administration that says it is both pro-business and pro-law enforcement,” said Lee Stapleton, a South Florida attorney and former federal prosecutor. “This order shows that they’re not incompatible. … It’s not good for real estate or for business if illicit dollars are artificially inflating the market. And law enforcement doesn’t want real estate to be a safe haven for money laundering.”
The so-called geographic targeting order had already been renewed once before when it was also expanded to Broward and Palm Beach counties; the other four boroughs of New York City; Los Angeles County; San Diego County; the greater San Francisco area; and the county that includes San Antonio, Texas. The rules kick into effect at different price points depending on the market. In South Florida, home sales of $1 million or more are covered.
By extending the order rather than announcing a plan to craft permanent regulations that would apply nationwide, the Trump administration showed it has perhaps not made up its mind on whether to continue the crackdown long-term, said Andrew Ittleman, a Miami-based attorney who is an expert on anti-money laundering compliance laws.
“I wouldn’t read too much into the extension,” Ittleman said. “Trump was only inaugurated a month ago. To me, this is a sign the administration could be kicking the can down the road a little bit. … They have plenty of issues on their plate right now.”
The cities chosen for enhanced scrutiny all feature pricey real estate markets and an abundance of foreign buyers, a combination that federal law enforcement officials believe make them prime targets for money laundering.
“We don’t come across [money laundering in real estate] once every 10 or 12 cases,” John Tobon, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations Deputy Special Agent in Charge for South Florida, told the Miami Herald in January. “We come across real estate being purchased with illicit funds once every other case.”
The revelations of the Panama Papers showed how easily secret money from offshore flows into South Florida real estate.
Money laundering fight
In a news release, FinCEN said that 30 percent of reported transactions across the nation were linked to buyers who had been flagged by banks and other financial institutions for suspicious activity.
The agency has not said how many transactions have been reported or whether any have led to criminal investigations. Officials have described the rules as a temporary data-gathering activity meant to determine whether money laundering in real estate deserves permanent national regulations.
“These GTOs are producing valuable data that is assisting law enforcement and is serving to inform our future efforts to address money laundering in the real estate sector,” FinCEN acting director Jamal El-Hindi said in a statement. “The subject of money laundering and illicit financial flows involving the real estate sector is something that we have been taking on in steps to ensure that we continue to build an efficient and effective regulatory approach.”
Some brokers and developers have worried that the rules would affect sales — although a Herald analysis found that doesn’t appear to be the case — and criticized the government’s efforts as unnecessary and poorly designed. But a national trade group for the title industry said it supports the anti-money laundering push.
“Our members have collected this information for more than a year and the good news is those efforts appear to be beneficial to the government’s work identifying money laundering schemes and the illegal purchase of real estate,” Michelle Korsmo, chief executive officer of the American Land Title Association, said in a statement. “We continue to work closely with our members and FinCEN to collect the needed information as efficiently as possible.”
Nicholas Nehamas: @NickNehamas