What is correspondent banking AML risk?

5 mins

In order to understand what correspondent banking AML risk is, let’s break it down.

What are correspondent banks?

The definition of correspondent banking is: Banks in a country that are set up to provide services for another bank or financial institution in a foreign country. The services provided by a correspondent bank include money transfers, currency exchange, trade documentation and business transactions. Typically, in a correspondent banking relation, two banks in two different countries enter into an agreement to open a correspondent account (Nostro or Vostro account), which enables a domestic bank to make payments or do money transfers in local currency on behalf of a foreign bank. An example of a correspondent banking transaction is given below.

  1. A corporate customer of a bank in one country wants to pay for products purchased from a foreign supplier.
  2. The customer approaches its domestic bank and instructs to make the payment (in foreign currency).
  3. The domestic bank determines the local currency value of the foreign products purchased and deducts the same from its customer’s account.
  4. The domestic bank then instructs its correspondent bank in the supplier’s country to pay the supplier in the local currency from the domestic bank’s correspondent account.

Correspondent banks are most likely to be used by domestic banks to service transactions that either originate or are completed in foreign countries. Domestic banks generally use correspondent banks to gain access to foreign financial markets and to serve international clients without having to open branches abroad.

What is an example of this?

For example, let’s say you live in the U.S. and go to your local bank to wire funds to a friend in Spain. An employee at the bank simply searches the SWIFT network to find a correspondent bank that has an agreement in place with the financial institution in Spain. Then, the correspondent bank facilitates the transaction.

Money laundering through correspondent banking

Money laundering, the act of concealing the illegal nature of ill-gotten money, is an international problem. According to the UNODC, the amount of money being laundered across the globe every year is equivalent to 2-5% of global GDP, or USD800 billion – USD2 trillion. Financial crime impacts the economies and communities of all countries, irrespective of their financial health and stage of development.

Money laundering has a global nature as many criminals make use of international transaction options in the layering or integration stages. Correspondent banks play an important role in facilitating cross-border money laundering transactions. Criminals make use of the services of correspondent banks without proper anti-money laundering (AML) controls to pass on their criminal proceeds to jurisdictions where they can use them in a hassle-free manner. Here, we are trying to understand correspondent banking AML risk in detail and national and international regulations to mitigate correspondent banking AML risk.

Correspondent banking AML risk

Correspondent banking is an essential part of the global payment system and international trade depends largely on it. However, these facilities are often abused to facilitate money laundering and terrorist financing. Mitigation of correspondent banking AML is often a difficult task as the domestic bank carrying out the transaction on behalf of a foreign bank has to rely on the foreign bank’s abilities in identifying the customer, determining the real owners, and monitoring correspondent banking transactions for risks. Often, a foreign bank’s AML compliance programs may not be sufficient to meet the AML requirements of a domestic bank.

There have been reports that foreign correspondent accounts have been used by drug traffickers and other bad actors to launder money. Further, shell companies have often been used in the layering process to hide the actual ownership of accounts at foreign correspondent financial institutions. Due to a large amount of funds, many transactions, many AML fraud schemes, and a domestic bank’s unfamiliarity with the foreign correspondent bank’s customers, it is easy for criminals to conceal the source and use of ill-gotten funds. Therefore, governments in a correspondent banking relationship must ensure complementary and robust anti-money laundering / counter-terrorist financing (AML/CTF) measures to safeguard their financial systems.


The KYC challenges for correspondent banks

Know-your-customer (KYC) due diligence is an essential element of banking, including correspondent banking. Banks that enter into correspondent banking relationships need to be sure that banks in the chain have correct controls and governance in place, and that their KYC, AML and other due diligence procedures are strong.

Customer due diligence requires that correspondent banks identify and understand their respondents’ banking activities and know if the respondents maintain additional correspondent banking relationships.

FATF guidelines on correspondent banking AML risk

FATF, the international AML/CFT watchdog, recommended various measures to counter money laundering via correspondent banking. FATF noted that “financial institutions have increasingly decided to avoid, rather than to manage, possible money laundering or terrorist financing risks, by terminating business relationships with entire regions or classes of customers”. This so-called ‘de-risking’ practice “can result in financial exclusion, less transparency and greater exposure to money laundering and terrorist financing risks”, according to the watchdog.

FATF advocates the application of the risk-based approach to correspondent banking relationships. It recommended the following measures to counter money laundering via correspondent banking.

  • Due diligence on the respondent institution: FATF recommends additional due diligence measures to be applied to cross-border correspondent banking relationships. Such additional measures are appropriate because cross-border correspondent banking relationships are seen to be inherently higher risk than domestic correspondent customer relationships.
  • Developing an understanding of the respondent institution’s business: The correspondent institution should also gather sufficient information to understand the nature of the respondent institution’s business in line with the risks identified.
  • Verifying respondent institution’s information and assessing/documenting higher risks: When establishing new correspondent banking relationships, the correspondent institution may obtain information directly from the respondent institution. However, this information needs to be verified with independent sources of information such as corporate registries, registries maintained by competent authorities on the creation or licensing of respondent institutions, and registries of beneficial ownership.
  • Ongoing due diligence on the respondent institution: Correspondent institutions are required to conduct ongoing due diligence of the correspondent banking relationship, including periodical reviews of the CDD information on the respondent institution.
  • Ongoing transaction monitoring: Ongoing AML monitoring of the correspondent banking account activity is needed for compliance with targeted financial sanctions and to detect any changes in the respondent institution’s transaction pattern that may indicate unusual activity, or any potential deviations from the correspondent relationship.
  • Request for information about transactions: Where the monitoring system of the correspondent institution flags a transaction, which could signal unusual activity, the correspondent institution should have internal processes to further review the activity, which may involve requesting transaction information of the respondent institution in order to clarify the situation and possibly clear the alert.
  • Clear terms governing the correspondent banking relationship: Correspondent institutions can manage their risks more effectively from the outset by entering into a written agreement with the respondent institution before correspondent services are provided.
  • Ongoing communication and dialogue: It is important for correspondent institutions to maintain an ongoing and open dialogue with the respondent institution(s) including helping them understand the correspondent’s AML/CFT policy and expectations, and when needed, engaging with them to improve their AML/CFT controls and processes.
  • Adjusting the mitigation measures to the evolution of risks: The level and nature of AML/CFT risk may fluctuate over the course of any relationship and adjustments should be made in the correspondent institution’s risk management strategy to reflect these changes.

While correspondent banking is important for the smooth functioning of international trade and transactions, both respondent banks and correspondent banks should have strong AML/CFT compliance programs to mitigate risks. The use of efficient and effective anti-money laundering software is crucial for the success of any AML/CFT compliance program.

The Tookitaki Anti-Money Laundering Suite, an end-to-end, AI-powered AML/CFT solution, is helping financial institutions comply with many regional and international AML compliance regulations and build scalable and sustainable compliance programs that effectively counter AML risk, including correspondent banking AML risk.

To know more about our AML compliance solution and book a demo, please contact us.