Author Oliver Bullough Talks About Money Laundering and Corruption

Oliver Bullough is the author of Butler to the World: How Britain Helps the World’s Worst People Launder Money, Commit Crimes, and Get Away with Anything.

He joined Motley Fool analysts Bill Mann, Maria Gallagher, and John Rotonti to discuss:

The “easy” process of money laundering.
A look inside the business of corruption.
Super yachts, volcanic islands, and opaque legal structures.

To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool’s free podcasts, check out our podcast center. To get started investing, check out our quick-start guide to investing in stocks. A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on June 26, 2022. 

Oliver Bullough: They exposed that the ownership of the superyacht of Scheherazade that actually belong to Vladimir Putin. It was previously the biggest superyachts in the world of unknown ownership. He got hold of the crew manifest. Every single person in the crew was employed by the Russian equivalent to the secret service, people who protect the Kremlin. Everyone but one, the captain was a Brit. That’s the classic setup, that you have these huge enterprises, stuff by people, absolutely loyal to whoever the top dog, kleptocrat is. Then at the top you have the butler.

Chris Hill: I’m Chris Hill and that’s Oliver Bullough, author of the book, Butler to the World. How Britain helps the world’s worst people launder money, commit crimes, and get away with anything. Bullough recently joined a trio of Motley Fool analysts, Bill Mann, Maria Gallagher, and John Rotonti, to talk about the surprisingly easy process of money laundering and how corruption affects investors.

Bill Mann: I just wanted to start by understanding how you got into this line of inquiry, how you became interested in the super world wealthy, and how they hide their money, and how they use the laws of various countries around the world to protect themselves from other various countries around the world? I like a good weird hobby.

Oliver Bullough: [laughs] The short version of that story is that I’m always been fascinated about Russia and Eastern Europe. I moved after university in the hope that I would be witnessing the development to democracy and freedom. But spoiler, that isn’t what happened. I spent quite a lot of time trying to figure out where everything had gone wrong. It’s quite clear that a lot of the answer is corruption because you ended up with a tiny number of people owning the whole country. But then, it doesn’t take long to look at corruption and how corruption works and where these very soon and when people moved and put that money to realize that this isn’t a Russian problem. That this is a global problem because the money is being taken from Russia and being spent in the UK, or Switzerland, or New York or wherever.

Essentially, is part of my quest to discover who lost Russia? Is it where it were? How did it go wrong? I found myself increasingly fascinated by this global corruption services industry that allows oligarchs to be so very good at being corrupt. Money laundry was about the global nature of it. But every time you uncover one of these scams, it doesn’t really matter what, how big it is, how small it is, that’s pretty much always the UK involvement in it. This became so obvious, and so appalling that I thought I had to write a whole book just about the UK because it’s the lead villain really in this global corruption enabling industry. This isn’t to say other places don’t have a go. Switzerland, the US, France, Germany, Estonia, they all try and be big corruption enablers. But we are sadly very far ahead of the pack. The book Butler to the World is attempt to say, well, how do that happen and why is this and what does it mean?

Bill Mann: As I read Moneyland, as a very proud American, it is difficult to say, but I came away from your research and thinking that we always think of the most corrupt countries in the world as being Nigeria, or Ukraine, or Russia, Rwanda, it may well be depending on how you measure it that the most two most corrupt countries in the world are the United States of America and the United Kingdom.

Oliver Bullough: The problem is, it depends what you mean by corruption. Because the way that we tend to define corruption is what happens in foreign countries. The bit of corruption we define is the taking of bribes. We don’t talk about it as the giving of bribes. We talk about the stealing of money not the laundering of money. We’re the countries who give bribes. We launder the money. We accept stolen money, but we don’t actually take the bribes ourselves, so if we only talk about that a bit of it, then yeah, Ukraine, Nigeria, Russia, Azerbaijan, China, Venezuela, these places are the problem. But if you look at where the money ends up, it doesn’t end up in Venezuela obviously. What fool would leave their money there, [laughs] you want to be able to spend it on expensive things, it ends up in Florida. It doesn’t end up in Russia, it ends up in London.

That’s the challenge to confront because corruption it’s always talked about as something that afflicts poor countries, which are inhabited by, let’s face it, people who don’t speak English, that tends to be how we look at corruption. But looking at how the money moves and where the money ends up, you do end up with a totally different picture. It’s actually very hypocritical the way we talk about it and not just hypocritical is profoundly misleading if we want to solve corruption, and corruption it’s not just a human rights catastrophe, it’s a real national security issue. This is a system that allows the likes of Vladimir Putin to really weaponizes frankly not very big Russian economy, it’s a real force multiplier for him. If we need to deal with it, we need to understand it. That means we need to recognize that we are at least as much part of the problem as he is. Because we are allowing him and his oligarch, his people around him, to steal as much as they like, and to move as much as they like, and to keep as much as they like. You don’t commit financial crimes if you can’t keep the money. We’re talking about financial crime on a level which is almost unimaginable. A trillion US dollars has vanished from Russia since Putin came to power. A trillion. If you settle down to count to trillion dollars, it will take you more than 30,000 years. It’s an incredible amount of money.

Bill Mann: Who has got that time?

Oliver Bullough: [laughs] He could probably employ someone to do it for him. [laughs] But it’s so much money. It buys a lot of influence. It can really rot away the fabric of our democracy in our societies. It’s really, we need to understand it.

Bill Mann: Butler to the World came out, I believe it was released in early March.

Oliver Bullough: March in the UK and actually today in the US.

Bill Mann: Today in the US, yes. In the book writing world, you’ve been writing this for a while. It’s been put to bed for a while. How incredible. I’m trying to phrase this so it doesn’t come off as, hey, here’s what’s great for you. But how incredible that Vladimir Putin has given us an object lesson for how important this topic is?

Oliver Bullough: I think is a real silver lining in the big Ukraine shake dock storm cloud to currently overhangs the global economy, because it does I think mean that everyone has had this sudden realization of how bad it is to tolerate kleptocracy as system of government in so many places. Because what it means is you’ve this entire class of oligarchs who’ve looted Russia to the end degree. They’ve colonize their own nation. They’ve been able to stash their money offshore, in such a way that if the Russian economy collapses completely, they’ll probably still be pretty much OK because most of their money is elsewhere. You’ve got an entire class of people running a country for whom everything that happens in that country’s a spectator sport. This is why Vladimir Putin is able to take these insane risks that he’s taken. The invasion of Ukraine is by far the worst that he’s done. But if you look at the other things he’s done in the last few years, using chemical weapons to poison Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in the UK. Who does that? Using an atomic poison just to poison Alexandre Litvinenko in London. Invading Georgia in 2008. Sending spies to assassinate Chechen in Berlin.

These are insanely risky things. No Western government would do these things in Russia. Yet he seems he does it again and again. I think the fact that he and his oligarchs have no skin in the game when it comes to Russia. If it collapses, it collapses, whatever they can walk away from the burning building with all of their wealth intact. That means he just becomes this insane risk-taker. That is a product of the kleptocracy that he’s created. The fact that more than half of Russia National Wealth according to the best estimates from the experts in these things, particularly Gabriel Zucman at the University Berkeley, California, more than half of Russia National Wealth is outside Russia. The equivalent figure for the US is about four percent. If the US goes down, the ruling class of the US goes down with it. They know it is in their interest to essentially maintain the US as growing concern. If Russia goes down, the ruling class of Russia walk way with half of their wealth. Whatever toss the coin. That’s a real challenge for policymakers to deal with, and it’s something that I really don’t think anyone appreciate.

Maria Gallagher: I feel when we talk about money-laundering, a lot of times people just think, I don’t know that the money is somewhere else. Could you explain a little bit more about the cast of characters within real estate lawyers, private equity, who’s involved in the UK and the US and all of these nations that we don’t associate with money-laundering?

Oliver Bullough: The processes of money-laundering is three-stage prices. Obviously the money is stolen and then the money is spent. The challenging there is that how the money is moved in the middle. That’s the bit where the origin of the money in the movement of the money is obscured. Essentially that is a very complicated, deliberately, willfully complicated process involving multiple different jurisdictions. Multiple shell companies, multiple channels, it changes over time. It’s very entrepreneurial and tremendously flexible. But in it’s basic principles, it’s always the same. That it involves obscuring the origin of the money by hiding behind the shell company. Now, those shell companies can be from different places, but again and again, you see the involvement of British shell companies because they’re very cheap, they look respectable and they’re incredibly hard to cut behind because there’s no verification of the information you provide when you create one. Basically, in real simplification of the process, you steal a fortune, you move it into a bank account which is owned by a British shell company, which makes you look like an investment fund.

Then you just use it to buy property on Central Park West, or in Miami, or in Los Angeles, or in London, or in Paris on the South of France, and then you’ll money is now in a really safe, secure, robust assets. The joy of it is that, that asset which you’ve got in the US or the UK or another big western economy, that is protected by the rule of law in the Western economy. You are able to exploit the fact that there’s no rule of law in your home country. You can exploit the weaknesses in the global financial system by using these shell companies to obscure the fact that you’ve stolen this money, and then you can explore the fact that we have the rule of law to protect your money once you’ve stolen it. Particularly, one of the big differences between the US and the UK, is the fact that the UK, the enforcement agencies, that the police agencies and the other investigative bodies are incredibly weak. They’re very poorly resourced. We have no equivalent to the FBI or the Southern District of New York, we have no one who brings those cases. There has never been a case against an oligarchy in the UK, and that is just a giant flashing green light for anyone with wealth to spend because you can bring it here, and once it’s here it’s safe. That’s the joy of this globalized system and particularly the joy of the UK for these people.

Once you bring it here, well, there’s a whole system to protect them. There’s lawyers who will help them settle their legal disputes, there are lawyers who will help them sue journalists who dare to write about them whether that’s defamation, or data protection, or whenever there are some of the best schools in the world that will educate their children, excellent universities, really very favorable tax regime for them so they don’t have to pay much tax. It’s a beautiful setup if you’re rich enough to be able to afford access to them. My favorite example. This had just occurred to me and unknowingly it’s not in the book because it was exposed off when the book came out, [laughs] but after the invasion of Ukraine, Alexei Navalny of all these people; the anti-corruption activists in Russia who’s suddenly vanished today of course you always get it out but he has these amazing researchers and they exposed that the ownership of superyachts, the Scheherazade that actually belong to Vladimir Putin.

It was previously the biggest superyachts in the world of unknown ownership and he got a hold of the crew manifest. Every single person on the crew was employed by the Russian equivalent of the secret service; people who protect the Kremlin. Everyone but one, the captain was a bread. That’s the classic setup that you have on these huge enterprises, stuff by people absolutely loyal to whoever the top dog capture is and then at the top you have the butler. The butler, the guy who’s got all the mannerisms, he speaks all the right language, and he can just come into the room beautifully dressed. It’s always a bread.

Bill Mann: The answer to this may be self-evident. What’s in it for the United Kingdom?

Oliver Bullough: Well, it’s an interesting question. In its essence it’s a sufficiently profitable business for sufficiently large number of people that for a long time it hasn’t really gotten questioned. The fact that the oligarchs were coming here buying mansions and they’re incredible mansions. They’re the second biggest house in London after Buckingham Palace.

Bill Mann: I want to come do you a walking tour of mansions by the way. I don’t know if you’re still doing this, but I loved that so much in the same way that we go and do the Hollywood tour.

Oliver Bullough: Yeah, we do that. We have a lot of targets. Most of them we don’t even know about. We sold the Tube Station to an oligarchy, as far as I know the only private owner of a Tube Station anywhere. That’s an amazing thing to sell to someone; absolutely extraordinary: football clubs, soccer clubs, whatever, you name it. We sell it. There’s a son of an oligarch who’s now in the House of Lords equivalent of the Senate here because he’s good friends with Boris Johnson. What’s in it for the UK money? In short, it’s profitable for people. In the long-run I think the effect is probably negative and involves a rotting of the fabric of society, increasing inequality also democracy, but in the short-run it’s profitable for enough people that no one really wants to get in its way. If you go all the way back to the origin of this partnering business which is back in the mid 1950s, it what we did after the end of the British Empire. The British Empire collapsed and we were left adrift. What do you do if you were just a small island off the Coast of Europe and you don’t run the world anymore? You need a new business model. The business model we found was, OK, we couldn’t be an oligarch but we can help other people be oligarchs. We still knew how to do it, we just couldn’t afford to do it anymore. We had all those skills, so we just sold the skills that we previously used to run an empire, to help other people run empires.

Bill Mann: Here we are with the HSBC Bank and Standard Chartered, and we have contacts from all over the world and we know how to operate in places that are hard to operate, and so it became a natural cottage industry I guess. Is what I would say.

Oliver Bullough: They’re all these little fragments of the British Empire, places like the Cayman Islands, The British Virgin Islands, Gibraltar, the Turks, and Caicos, all places with whom we retained very close relations because they’re foreign economies like Maltas, Cypress, Singapore, Hong Kong, all of these financial centers all around the world. They’re very similar legal systems. Our lawyers can operate in multiple different jurisdictions simultaneously. If Britain is just a little bit too honest, you can just do your work in the British Virgin Islands and then bring it back to Britain and that’s absolutely fine. One of the most fascinating things about the book was researching how the British Virgin Islands became what it is now, this legendary tax happened. They used to be just a totally forgotten bankrupt archipelago in the Caribbean, but it was this joint venture between the local government, local lawyers, and a US lawyer who realized that they had all these great treaties just sitting there unused which would allow people to dodge taxes. If only they wrote the Shell company legislation so it was incredibly obscure and opaque, then Americans could use it to dodge taxes which is how it began. But then they thought, well, why should we only help American dodge taxes, we can help everyone dodge taxes?

Bill Mann: Everyone’s got taxes. [laughs]

Oliver Bullough: Exactly. No one likes paying taxes not a farewell thing. Well, we don’t have any you want to help people dodge taxes, what about if we want to help them dodge prosecution or any legal proceedings? We can help them with that too. We can help you dodge scrutiny or a transparency, anything you might be running Angola and want to set up some really crooked government contracts, a schema for the money for yourself. We can help with that. Essentially the business model is if you’re rich when you’ve got a problem, we have an entire entrepreneurial classes of enablers what I call bottlers who will find a solution? They’ll find a way to help you avoid scrutiny, avoid taxes, avoiding any unwelcome interference in your business. The problem is as long as there’s one place like Britain that does this then there’s also an incentive to everyone else to do it too because in a way of Britain’s doing it that means the problem’s never going to be sold till we stop. My is if you come at a king you better not mess strategy is to try and limit the space available in Britain because it seems to me if I can limit the space available in Britain for money laundering and this elicit wealth keeping problem, then it will have a far disproportionate effects on the global criminal economy because of all these people like the Russian oligarchs, the Ukrainian oligarchs, Angolan government ministers, or whatever, they won’t be able to launder their money anymore because the space would be shrunk. That’s what I would like to do.

John Rotonti: How aware is the US government of this, and why does the US government stands on this? Are they trying to block this off trying to slow this down, or do they just let it happen?

Oliver Bullough: There is a growing awareness of the issue. There have been some reports in the US this year and toward the end of last year which of course quite at storm over here because of this recognition of how Central London is to the global criminal economy. As you probably know the White House on the Joe Biden has made tackling corruption and urgent over national security priority. As a result they have been attempting to engage not only with the UK, also with other big financial centers like the Netherlands and Singapore, and so on, trying to engage with them to shrink the space. I think the US is very aware of this, but the challenge is trying to manage this problem in the spectrum of other interest between the two countries. There’s always a reason not to go large from something that might hurt someone’s feelings. At the moment, there’s a war in Ukraine. The UK and US obviously are cooperating to get a lot of weapons to the Ukrainian so you don’t want to annoy them. There’s always the ongoing relationship between our intelligent services and you don’t want to annoy them because that might derail some sensitive projects or whatever it is.

There’s always a reason not to do some thing. The problem with corruption is though it underlies everything, it underlies Vladimir Putin’s cryptocurrency underlies disasters like in Nigeria with Boko Haram, or the collapse of governance in the Middle East. There’s corruption behind everything. It’s never the first rank problem, it’s never the thing that you will say we need to deal with right now. What we need to deal with right now is ISIS rather than corruption in the Iraqi government. That’s the issue. I had a politician who once described to me that it’s always at everyone’s fourth priority, and that’s the issue I think. For the US is though the White House recognizes that corruptions is an urgent national security issue, it’s not the urgent national security issue. Unless it becomes one or they can retain this consistent focus for a long time, then it’s hard to see how real change, diplomatically, can be achieved. This has to be internally generated in the UK, and that’s a difficult thing to achieve because a lot of lawyers, a lot of accountants make lot of money out of it.

Bill Mann: John, I’m going to jump on to Oliver side of the interview real quick and just tell a story that he told Moneyland at about about what happens when, say the United States government, Subpoenas a company in Nevis, for example, which is a prime money laundering site. In Nevis, they get the subpoena and they say, well, we don’t have to serve this.

Oliver Bullough: No, I mean, that’s the point with Nevis [laughs].

Bill Mann: Hamilton think that was pretty good.

Oliver Bullough: The joy of somewhere like Nevis. If you’re looking for a nice place to go on vacation, I highly recommend Nevis. It is really gorgeous. It is a volcano in the middle of the Caribbean with beautiful beaches, lovely bars, really friendly, gorgeous people, not many people, 5,000 or so. It has LoC legislation which is every bit as opaque and obscure Delaware and Nevada at their best. But the joy is that American Courts have no jurisdiction there. The LoC’s, they have Nevis, designed by American lawyers, designed by the same people who write the legislation for Nevada or Delaware. They work in exactly the same way as an American fraudster can get to Nevis, setup a company, the legislation is totally familiar. Everything is immediately familiar. The languages is English, but you’ve got the joy that American courts don’t have rule, thus you have to go and bring a separate proceedings. Just to bring a cool proceedings in Nevis, this is before you pay a lawyer single penny, you have to pony up a $100,000 just to begin. That’s the anti to get into the game. It’s incredibly well protected.

The thing is, if you go off to Nevis, if you manage cut through the Shell company in Nevis, and figure out who owns it, chances are you’ll figure out it’s owned by a company in the Seychelles, and you have to go do it all over again somewhere else. As soon as they get close to cutting through the side shows , they can just keep adding Shell companies behind all the way through. Its like a rushing door, it’s endlessly generated. It is incredibly easy to hide the origin of wealth because of these many loopholes. These loopholes, they are constantly being renewed, refreshed, strengthened because there’s an entire industry that benefits from this. But the industry, the ideas for it don’t come from Nevis. For Nevis has many strengths these are very complicated legal [laughs] concepts. The ideas for it are generated by lawyers in your fair country, and in my fair country, who then find a jurisdiction somewhere in the world and say, we’ve got this great idea, it will earn you some money. Why don’t you just pass this law through your legislature, which then passes in the morning. Then, hey Prestor, you’ve got another wealth creation objects somewhere in a new jurisdiction.

Bill Mann: As citizens, as investors, how does this impact us?

Oliver Bullough: It is an increasing problem in many countries around the world and I suspect, because of the crypto meltdown at the moment, we will see it as an even bigger problem. These explosion of fraud which is happening everywhere. These, what we call push payments frauds, these frauds on online banking systems. It’s fraud on crypto exchanges. All of this is happening all the time. Investors are losing money all the time through these sophisticated frauds often run by criminal gangs out of the former Soviet Union or the Middle East, and the Far East. These scams, I tend to write about cryptocrats, they’re really big top of the tree, but the mechanisms they use our identical to the ones used by the fraudsters. If a grandmother has been defrauded out of her retirement savings because someone got in touch with her and told her about a great stocks she could invest in and double her money, and she’s lost $50,000. The mechanisms being used to move and hide that money are identical to those being used to hide a Billion Dollars stolen by Russian oligarch. It isn’t just corruption and cryptocracy in Sub-Saharan Africa or in Eurasia that’s being enabled with these scams.

Exactly the same scams are being used to defraud investors all across Europe and the U.S. and Australia, and everywhere else. I find it very strange, that fraud hasn’t become a more politically sailing issue in big western economies. Certainly, in the UK now it is, by far, the most common form of crime. It has become so easy to defraud people, it’s just an open goal. I mean, we saw this during the COVID pandemic, with the City-state aid for businesses just being defrauded left, right and center, because it is so easy. It’s a drag on our economies, and it’s a drag on investors because someone has to pay for these frauds. Someone has to eventually pay for the police agencies to investigate them, or pay the insurance premiums that cover them, and that’s all of us. It would be relatively easy to solve many of these problems if we had proper transparency of ownerships, and the shore company is no longer existed. That would cut away a whole basis on behind which fraudsters are able to hide. If we had regulated better resource enforcement agencies, particularly in the UK and the European Union. Then they will be far fewer places where they can hide. Far fewer places where they’d be safe.

Bill Mann: Oliver, if you are allowed to be the mayor of earth, the earth has a mayor not a great overload, not a president, but you have dictatorial powers, you can snap your fingers, and you can fix this problem. What is step one? What do you do? You get to be mayor of earth, so Nevis is no longer a problem.

Oliver Bullough: Step one is off-shore’s opaque shell companies gone. All shell companies, the true owners, are publicly visible and available for anyone to see whether they are in Delaware, Nevada, Nevis, the UK, Luxembourg, you name it. They’re all publicly available. That strips away the entire facade behind which criminals hide any strike .

Bill Mann: I want to interrupt you for a second because I want to make sure, because I’m not sure I understand. I imagine that there are other people, when you say visible, what do you mean?

Oliver Bullough: Well it means that if you want to know who owns a company, any company.

Bill Mann: So it’s transparent, like the ownership.

Oliver Bullough: Straightaway. It’s crazy that they are not transparent. The debt for a company are guaranteed by society as a whole. It’s like an insurance contract. If your business goes bad, having an anonymous insurance contracts is an invitation to commit fraud. That’s what the nominal shell company is. It’s extraordinary that it exists anyway. That would be step one. Step two is to resource all countries investigative bodies as well as the US bodies are resourced. Every country has an FBI, essentially. Southern District of New York and all the other bodies have done so well to investigate financial crime and corruption in the US. That will be step two. Step three would be much better resourcing for the Welsh Rugby team. Because they have really suffered in comparison to the Irish in the last few years [laughs] I’m going to have to take that step because it seems to be a missed opportunity to get to the end of the day and not have done that.

Chris Hill: As always, people on the program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and the Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against. Don’t buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. I’m Chris Hill. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you tomorrow.

HSBC Holdings is an advertising partner of The Ascent, a Motley Fool company. Bill Mann has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Chris Hill has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. John Rotonti has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Maria Gallagher has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends HSBC Holdings and Standard Chartered. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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