The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How secretive shell companies shape the U.S. real estate market

The Miami skyline. The Miami Herald, using the recently-released Panama Papers, reported it has uncovered 19 foreign nationals who have bought real estate in the city with offshore companies. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The 11.5 million leaked documents of the Panama Papers have shone a spotlight on numerous anonymous companies that the world’s wealthy use to secretly manage their funds. These companies acted as fronts for high-profile politicians, celebrities and businessmen, allowing them to buy property, open bank accounts and trade assets without the public knowing their true identities – in some cases those of tax evaders, corrupt politicians and money launderers.

What many Americans might not realize is that foreign-owned shell companies play a big role in the U.S. economy through the real estate market. When purchased through a shell company, an offshore company or a trust, U.S. real estate offers wealthy foreigners a stable and secretive investment.

In the last quarter of 2015, 58 percent of all property purchases of more than $3 million in the United States were made by limited liability corporations, rather than named people. Altogether, those transactions totaled $61.2 billion, according to data from real estate database company Zillow. Since many of these companies are registered anonymously in the U.S. -- often in states like Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming that offer secrecy and tax protections that rival traditional offshore destinations -- it’s impossible to know just how many are owned by foreigners.

Real estate agents say that most wealthy buyers who use this kind of company are just protecting their privacy. But in guarding privacy, shell companies also help obscure the ownership information that law enforcement need to fight crime. And that opens the U.S. property market to the kind of nefarious activity highlighted by the Panama Papers – money laundering, drug trafficking and corruption.

Government analysis and investigations “continue to show corrupt politicians, drug traffickers, and other criminals using shell companies to purchase luxury real estate with cash,” Jennifer Shasky Calvery, the director of the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, said in a speech at an anti-money laundering conference in Hollywood, Fla., on Tuesday morning. “We see wire transfers originating from foreign banks in offshore havens where shell companies have established accounts, but in many cases we also see criminals using U.S. incorporated limited liability companies to launder their illicit funds through the U.S. real estate market.”

American property has historically been an attractive place for wealthy foreigners to invest, gaining access to America’s stable financial system and strong rule of law. But the release of the Panama Papers has also highlighted how the U.S. real estate may have become a magnet for those who seek to launder illicit cash.

The Panama Papers, which The Washington Post has not reviewed, revealed several examples. In one, a company called Isaias Property bought an oceanfront condominium in Bal Harbour, in Miami-Dade County, for nearly $3 million at the end of 2011, according to a report by the Miami Herald, which gained access to the papers. Isaias Property was nominally managed by an anonymous British Virgin Islands company, Mateus 5 International Holding. But the Panama papers revealed the man behind the operation to be Paulo Octávio Alves Pereira, a Brazilian developer and politician under indictment for corruption in Brazil, according to the Herald.

Paulo Octávio did not respond to a request for comment, but his local lawyer said the condo purchase did not violate any laws, the Herald reported.

Altogether, the Miami Herald has uncovered a total of 19 foreign nationals buying Miami real estate with offshore companies in the Panama Papers. Eight of those 19 individuals had been linked to bribery, corruption, embezzlement, tax evasion or other misdeeds in their home countries, the paper says.

This is not a recent phenomenon, said Shasky Calvery of the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, who spent her early career prosecuting Russian organized criminals. “I remember well the real concern among many of my law enforcement colleagues in the late 1990's and early 2000's who were seeing what they believed to be members of transnational criminal organizations purchasing personal residences in large cities throughout the United States in the name of a shell company or a nominee,” she said in the speech on Tuesday.

In her speech, Shasky Calvery also recalled the purchase by Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the second vice president of Equatorial Guinea, of a $30 million estate in Malibu with proceeds of corruption. Nguema Obiang managed to buy the property without being detected by law enforcement because he used a cash transaction, which is not monitored by banks like mortgages are, and a shell company, she says.

The U.S. government doesn't ask real estate brokers to monitor their clients for money laundering risks, the way that banks and other financial institutions – and real estate brokers in some other countries -- are required to do. The 2001 Patriot Act gave the Treasury Department the ability to do this, but lobbying from the real estate industry has helped secure an exemption for the last 15 years.

Last month, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, which is part of the U.S. Treasury Department, launched a pilot program in March to ferret out some of these secretive purchases by shell companies.

The new rules are applying more scrutiny to expensive property purchases in Manhattan and Miami-Dade County, two areas that are popular destinations for foreign luxury buyers and money launderers alike. For purchases of more than $1 million in Miami and more than $3 million in Manhattan made using cash and LLCs, title insurers are now required to collect a photocopy of an ID for any person who owns more than 25 percent of the company. The program runs through August, and the information it gathers will not be made public.

Shasky-Calvery says that the U.S. already has good controls on money-laundering for property purchases that are made with mortgages taken out at the bank – a category that represents 78 percent of U.S. real estate purchases overall. But the other 22 percent, “cash purchases,” is not monitored. This category that includes not just suitcases full of cash, but also certified checks, traveler's checks, personal checks, money orders and money wires.

While cash purchases are rare nationwide, in some cities and among some buyers they are the norm. In 2015, 58 percent of property purchases in New York City were done in cash rather than with mortgages, as were 56 percent of sales in Miami-Dade County, according to data from RealtyTrac, a real estate information company. For purchases over $2 million, 62 percent in New York were cash, compared with 67 percent in Miami.

A disproportionate amount of these cash purchases are made by foreign nationals, say those in the industry. Foreign investors often choose to pay in cash because it's harder for them to qualify for mortgages, and because they can -- they have the money and are looking for a safe place to park it, so they want to invest as much as possible.

Foreign buyers have been taking notice of the Treasury department's new regulations in Miami and Manhattan.

Dolly Lenz, a real estate agent in New York, said that on the day the program was announced she received “a somewhat hysterical phone call,” with a buyer who had already signed a new contract wanting to know what the new measure meant. “They were concerned about being monitored and loved the anonymity of New York, which was different from London,” she said in an interview in February.

But as of early April, many brokers say they have not seen the monitoring affect their sales. “We haven’t seen any cause for concern ... as of right now, it’s been basically status quo,” said Carlos Villanueva of Keyes Realtors in Miami.

Some say any changes in sales that result from the new program might be difficult to detect, since the U.S. luxury property market has been cooling anyway. A strong U.S. dollar, recessions in Brazil and Russia, and corrections to global stock markets have chipped away at foreign demand for U.S. property in the last year. “It would have the potential to limit or to slow demand, but that can’t be measured when the demand is already slow,” said Jonathan Miller, the CEO of real estate consulting firm Miller Samuel Inc.

Another possibility is that business is not slowing much because buyers are finding ways of circumventing the rules. The Treasury program monitors a notably narrow slice of the market, covering only two U.S. cities for six months. It tracks only certain forms of cash – certified checks, cashier’s checks, money orders and hard currency – but not wire transfers or personal checks. And since the program works through title insurance companies, buyers can get around the monitoring by refusing to buy title insurance.

“There is always a way around,” Julia Jiang Hawkins, a property agent for Douglas Elliman in New York, said in an interview in February. Only properties priced at more than $3 million are being monitored in New York. So instead of buying a $5 million property, clients might shell out for two properties at lower prices, she said.

Some real estate agents are even using the idea of getting around the Treasury tracking as a marketing technique. On March 2, the Miami Association of Realtors hosted a seminar titled “The New Cash Crunch: How to Avoid the Treasury Trap in Your Next Transaction with a Foreign Buyer.”

“It was troubling to read that some legal and real estate experts mobilized immediately after [the Treasury tracking was] announced to provide suggestions about ways to evade the reporting requirements,” Shasky Calvery said in her speech on Tuesday. “We all know that criminals seek the path of least resistance.”

Heather Lowe, director of global affairs at Global Financial Integrity, a research and advocacy organization, says that she believes the Treasury department is trying to monitor the market’s reaction and build a bigger case to ask real estate brokers to begin monitoring their transactions for money laundering. “They’re looking for data that they can point to and say, it is a problem, we’ve shown it’s a problem.”

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network declined to comment on this idea.

Real estate brokers responded to the new rules in Manhattan and Miami by saying they would do their part to enforce any existing anti-money laundering regulations, though some in the industry fear the additional work load.

“We have no objection to what government needs to do regarding that front. We just want to make sure it doesn’t place any burden on the part of real estate practitioners,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist with the National Association of Realtors.

It has been estimated that about 8 percent of the world’s total wealth — a total of $7.6 trillion — is held in offshore tax havens. Here's how they work. (Video: Daron Taylor, Dani Johnson/The Washington Post)

See also:

How the U.S. became one of the world’s biggest tax havens

How Panama ended up in the middle of a financial scandal

For U.S. tax cheats, Panama Papers reveal a perilous new world