Tag Archives: money laundering

Why New York Real Estate Is the New Swiss Bank Account — New York Magazine

Why New York Real Estate Is the New Swiss Bank Account — New York Magazine.

“The global elite,” says developer Michael Stern, “is basically looking for a safe-deposit box.”

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The influx of global wealth is most visible on the ultrahigh end, as Stern and other builders are erecting spiraling condo towers and sales records are regularly shattered by foreign billionaires, like the Russian fertilizer oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, purchaser of the most expensive condo in Manhattan’s history ($88 million), and Egyptian construction magnate Nassef Sawiris, who recently set the record for a co-op ($70 million). But much of the foreign money is coming in at lower price points, closer to the median for a Manhattan condo ($1.3 million and rising). In fact, if you’ve recently been outdone by an outrageous all-cash bid for an apartment, there’s a decent chance that, behind a generic corporate name, there’s a foreign buyer and an offshore bank account.

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The Census Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the quadrant from 49th to 70th Streets between Fifth and Park are vacant at least ten months a year.

To cater to the tastes of their transient residents, developers are designing their projects with features like hotel-style services. And the new economy has spawned new service businesses, like XL Real Property Management, which takes care of all the niggling details—repairs, insurance, condo fees—for absentee buyers.

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Even those with less reflexively hostile reactions to foreign buying competition might still wonder: Who are these people? An entire industry of brokers, lawyers, and tight-lipped advisers exists largely to keep anyone from discovering the answer. This is because, while New York real estate has significant drawbacks as an asset—it’s illiquid and costly to manage—it has a major selling point in its relative opacity. With a little creative corporate structuring, the ownership of a New York property can be made as untraceable as a numbered bank account. And that makes the city an island haven for those who want to stash cash in an increasingly monitored global financial system. “With everything that is going on in Switzerland in terms of transparency, people are being forced to pay taxes on their capital that they used to hold there,” says Rodrigo Nino, the president of the Prodigy Network. “Real estate is a great alternative.”

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“Real estate is a wonderful way to cleanse money. Once you buy real estate, the derivation of that cash is forgotten.”

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Every year, the British real-estate brokerage Knight Frank publishes a document called “The Wealth Report.” The latest edition produces the curiously precise estimate that there are 167,669 individuals in the world who are “ultrahigh net worth,” with assets exceeding $30 million. “Of course, the big question is: are the rich getting richer?” the report asks. It answers gleefully in the affirmative, forecasting that over the next decade, the ranks of the ultrarich will increase by 30 percent, with much of the growth coming in Asia and Africa.

This new global wealth is being lavished on the usual status items—planes, yachts, contemporary art—but Knight Frank is pleased to report that the rich favor real estate most of all. Real estate can serve as a convenient pied-à-terre, an investment hedge against a wobbly home currency, or an insurance policy—a literal refuge if things go bad. Other financial centers boast a similar mix of glamour and apparent security—Knight Frank’s list of the top-ten “global cities” includes London, Paris, Geneva, and Dubai—but New York is forecast to add more ultrahigh-net-worth individuals than any city outside Asia over the next decade.

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As expensive as New York’s luxury real estate might seem, it’s a bargain compared to other global capitals; a million dollars will buy twice as much space here as it does in Monaco or Hong Kong. New York is perceived to be more stable than Miami, Shanghai, and Beijing. It is much cheaper than London, where tabloid-fanned outrage over property prices has created an uncomfortable political climate and various new or proposed taxes are aimed at foreign investors and offshore entities. In New York, by contrast, buyers of new construction often qualify for a tax abatement.

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The first rule of selling property to the ultrarich is that you can’t try to sell them property—you offer them status, or a lifestyle, or a unique place in the sky. A marketing video for 432 Park Avenue, scored to “Dream a Little Dream,” features a private jet, Modigliani statuary, and Harry Macklowe himself costumed as King Kong. One recent morning, at the development’s sales office in the GM Building, Wallgren led me down a hallway lined with vintage New York photographs, through a ten-by-ten-foot frame meant to illustrate the building’s enormous window size, to a scale model of Manhattan.

“If you bend down like this,” Wallgren said, stooping to street level, “you can really appreciate the height of it.”

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“Rich people come to the U.S., and these people are busy,” he said. “What is, for these people, very important? I am asking you! To save the time.” Perepada doesn’t drag his clients to a bunch of open houses. He takes them to Jean Georges, gets them hockey or Broadway tickets, rents helicopters or horse carriages, sets them up with plastic surgeons. He says that by building a rapport, he is able to sell 80 percent of his properties with a simple phone call.

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“Did you see The Wolf of Wall Street?” Perepada asked as we drove. “I love this movie. You see how he works? Amazing. ‘If you trust me, you have to buy. If you don’t trust me, you need to work with someone else.’ This is my regulation: Trust me, take it.”

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Jajan believes the most important service he offers is reassurance. “The client wants an adviser here; he wants to feel comfortable knowing he has someone he can trust here in the United States.” Jajan’s firm offers a range of management functions. “We recently purchased a vacuum cleaner,” he told me. “It was for one of our high-net-worth clients that bought $15 million worth of property this year. We’re not about to say, ‘We don’t do that, we’re lawyers.’ ”

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An anonymous high-net-worth client of Credit Suisse, who spoke to U.S. Senate investigators after taking advantage of an amnesty for tax cheats, described the process by which he would manage his funds when visiting Zurich. A remote-controlled elevator would take him to a bare meeting room where he and his private banker would discuss his money; all printed account statements would be destroyed after the visit.

The theatrical secrecy is designed to build personal trust between such bankers and their clients, which is especially vital when the goal of the transactions is to conceal assets from the prying eyes of rivals, vengeful spouses, or tax collectors. Moving the money itself is a relatively simple matter: A wire or a suitcase can convey cash from China to Singapore, or from Russia to an EU member state like Latvia, and once the funds have made it to a “white list” country, they can usually move onward without triggering alarms. Concealing the true ownership of a property or a bank account is trickier. That’s where the private bankers, wealth advisers, and lawyers earn their exorbitant fees.

Behind a New York City deed, there may be a Delaware LLC, which may be managed by a shell company in the British Virgin Islands, which may be owned by a trust in the Isle of Man, which may have a bank account in Liechtenstein managed by the private banker in Geneva. The true owner behind the structure might be known only to the banker. “It will be in some file, but not necessarily a computer file,” says Markus Meinzer, a senior analyst at the nonprofit Tax Justice Network. “It could be a black book.” If an investor wants to sell the property, he doesn’t have to transfer the deed—an act that would create a public paper trail. He can just shift ownership of the holding company.

Recently, scrutiny from the United States has punctured some of the traditional secrecy of Swiss banks. But that has just pushed clients to boutique advisory firms, often run by the same personnel. “Banks like working with those firms,” Meinzer says, “because they are then legally in the clear, without the risk of going to prison.” As international blacklisting has pushed some offshore locales toward greater legal compliance, new havens have arisen. New Zealand trusts offer similar secrecy to those of the Caymans, without the stigma.

It’s a sophisticated, well-oiled system that rarely requires crude subterfuge. Though U.S. authorities track all transfers over $10,000, a wire into a real-estate lawyer’s escrow account should look perfectly routine. “A lot of times, I don’t even know where my clients are from,” says the lawyer Bruce Cohen. “But I know that certain countries are very careful about the money that leaves their country.”

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The best—though still fuzzy—global estimates say as much as $1.5 trillion in criminal proceeds is laundered each year. The United Nations figures that as little as one-fifth of one percent of that is ever recovered.

 

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