‘Easy as pie’: Why criminals look to Canadian real estate to launder their money

News that some $5 billion was laundered through British Columbia’s real estate market in 2018 comes as no surprise to experts, as Canada’s weak money-laundering laws make it an attractive spot to park ill-gotten cash.

Kevin Comeau, author of a recent C.D. Howe report on money laundering, says people in corruption-prone states who seek to hide the source of their wealth can’t just buy a big house in their community, so they often look to cache it abroad.

“Autocracies, kleptocracies, developing and transitioning nations — they’ve got corruption from politicians and they’ve got crime from drugs and human trafficking. They can’t keep that money in their own country without the risk of it being confiscated by someone closer to power,” Comeau said.

They often start by mixing ill-gotten gains with legitimate proceeds — from a restaurant or other cash business — and depositing them in a bank.

“What’s a bank to do? Go down and start counting the dishes?” he asked.

The funds are then funnelled through a series of shell companies and trusts registered in tax havens such as the Seychelles or British Virgin Islands. These states have tiny corporate taxes and, like Canada, offer anonymity by allowing the real, or “beneficial,” owner to go undisclosed.

With some of the weakest money-laundering laws among liberal democracies, Canada stands out as a place to launder cash, said Comeau, a retired lawyer and member of Transparency International Canada’s working group on beneficial ownership transparency.

Houses, mansions and whole floors’ worth of condominiums can act as a kind of bank account in bricks-and-mortar form, with the purchase made by a numbered corporation, incorporated in Canada by an offshore lawyer and owned by layers of shell companies in various tax havens.

“It’s easy as pie,” said Comeau. “You can do it in about five minutes and you don’t have to disclose anything.”

International money launderers typically leave the properties vacant, driving up real estate prices and hollowing out neighbourhoods, said Garry Clement, former national director of the RCMP’s Proceeds of Crime Program.

Renting the property out would involve a cheque or email transfer, which usually necessitates an account at a Canadian bank for the receiver and leaves them exposed to anti-money-laundering screens.

“For organized crime lords, $5 million is pocket change,” Clement said, noting the lack of incentive for rental income.

The property ownership timeline is typically medium- to long-term, rather than the quick cash turnarounds available through casinos and luxury car purchases, he said. “Most of it’s for parking money.”

Last year some $7.4 billion overall was laundered in B.C., out of a total of $47 billion across Canada, according to Thursday’s report by an expert panel led by former B.C. deputy attorney general Maureen Maloney.

“But Ontario is notorious for being a money-laundering front,” Clement said, adding that other provinces are far from immune.

More than $3 trillion in dirty money entered the international finance system last year, according to Comeau.

In a September report from the C.D. Howe Institute, he recommended tightening the regulatory regime with a publicly accessible registry of beneficial ownership and mandatory declarations of beneficial ownership, alongside meaningful sanctions for false declarations.

The British Columbia government introduced legislation last month aimed at preventing tax evasion and money laundering by shining a spotlight on anonymous real estate owners, making the province an anti-money-laundering “leader in Canada,” he said.

-Calgary Herald

April brings a slight inventory decline

There have been no significant changes occurring in sales activity, but the number of new listings coming onto the market continues to ease relative to 2018 levels.

The decline in new listings was enough to start chipping away at overall inventory levels, which have eased slightly compared to last year.

The slight adjustment in supply levels has helped support further reductions in the months of supply, which was 4.6 months in April. While this level still represents oversupply in our market, it does reflect improvement from the nearly seven months of supply that we saw at the start of the year.

“Demand remains relatively weak in the resale market. However, if supply levels continue to adjust, this could help reduce the amount of oversupply and eventually support some price stability,” said CREB® chief economist Ann-Marie Lurie.

As of April, the total residential benchmark price in Calgary was $415,900. This is slightly higher than last month, but still nearly five per cent lower than last year’s levels.

Citywide sales were 1,547 units in April, two per cent higher than last year’s levels. Year-to-date sales remain nearly six per cent lower than last year and are 26 per cent below longer-term averages.

“Sales have been improving mostly in the lower price ranges, causing tighter supply conditions in that segment.  This will likely have a different impact on price trends in the lower price ranges depending on location,” said Lurie.


HOUSING MARKET FACTS

Detached

  • Detached sales improved by nearly three per cent in April compared to last year, due to gains in homes priced under $500,000. However, with 930 sales, activity still remain 24 per cent below long-term averages.  Recent gains were also not high enough to offset pullbacks earlier in the year, causing year-to-date sales to fall by over five per cent.
  • Improving sales did not occur across all districts. In April, there was growth in the North East, North West, South and South East districts of the city. Despite some signs of sales improvement, overall sales activity remains well below 10-year averages throughout every region in the city.
  • April detached inventories citywide continue to remain just above levels recorded last year. Months of supply remain relatively unchanged at four months.
  • The amount of oversupply has varied significantly depending on the area of the city. Months of supply has only risen in the City Centre, South and West districts of the city.
  • Despite some of the adjustments occurring in the detached sector, overall April prices remain lower than last year’s levels across all districts. Year to date, the largest year-over-year declines occurred in in the City Centre, North West and South districts.

Apartment

  • Despite the affordability of apartment condominiums, sales activity continues to fall across the city and in most districts. There have been 714 apartment condominium sales so far this year, the lowest level since 2001.
  • The decline in new listings has started to outweigh the sales decline, causing inventories to ease. As of April, resale apartment condominium inventories totaled 1,546 units, 16 per cent lower than inventory levels last April.
  • The easing inventories have also caused the months of supply to decline to just above six months. While this is still a buyers’ market, this trend could help ease the downward pressure on prices if it continues.
  • Apartment condominium prices in April totalled $250,400, comparable to last month, but over two per cent below last year’s levels and nearly 17 per cent below 2014 highs.

Attached

  • Attached sales activity improved compared to last year’s levels for the second straight month, almost offsetting the declines occurring in the first two months of the year.  Year-to-date sales were 1,113 units, nearly one per cent below last year’s levels, and 14 per cent below long-term averages.
  • Year-to-date sales have improved in all districts except the City Centre, North West and West.
  • Improved sales and easing listings have helped prevent further inventory gains in this sector and overall months of supply have trended down to five months.
  • Following several months of prices trending down, semi-detached benchmark prices in April rose over the previous month. However, prices remain over five per cent below last year’s levels at $395,300.
  • Row prices were $284,900 in April, over five per cent below last year’s levels.


REGIONAL MARKET FACTS

Airdrie

  • Stronger sales in March and April offset earlier declines, causing year-to-date sales to total 363 units, similar to levels recorded last year. New listings continue to decline, causing April inventories to ease compared to last year. Months of supply remain elevated at five months, but this is a notable improvement compared to last year, when months of supply was over six months.
  • Rising sales and easing inventories helped prevent further price declines in April compared to March. However, overall, April prices remained nearly four per cent below last year’s levels. Prices have eased across all property types, with the largest year-to-date decline in the apartment sector at eight per cent.

Cochrane

  • Despite improving sales in April, year-to-date sales in Cochrane eased by six per cent compared to last year. However, new listings have also eased, helping reduce some of the inventory in the market.  While inventories and months of supply remain elevated, for the first time since June 2018, the months of supply fell below six months.
  • Some improvement with oversupply has likely prevented further monthly declines in prices. As of April, total benchmark prices remain over three per cent below last year’s levels for a total of $415,100.

Okotoks

  • Despite some recent improvements in sales, year-to-date sales activity slowed compared to last year. New listings have also eased, but it was not enough to prevent further inventory gains, keeping months of supply above five months.
  • The amount of oversupply has impacted prices. April residential prices totalled $406,700. This is nearly four per cent below last year’s levels. Price declines were slightly higher in the attached sector, with a year-over-year decline of nearly five per cent.

-CREB

April brings a slight inventory decline 

 

There have been no significant changes occurring in sales activity, but the number of new listings coming onto the market continues to ease relative to 2018 levels.

The decline in new listings was enough to start chipping away at overall inventory levels, which have eased slightly compared to last year.

The slight adjustment in supply levels has helped support further reductions in the months of supply, which was 4.6 months in April. While this level still represents oversupply in our market, it does reflect improvement from the nearly seven months of supply that we saw at the start of the year.

“Demand remains relatively weak in the resale market. However, if supply levels continue to adjust, this could help reduce the amount of oversupply and eventually support some price stability,” said CREB® chief economist Ann-Marie Lurie.

As of April, the total residential benchmark price in Calgary was $415,900. This is slightly higher than last month, but still nearly five per cent lower than last year’s levels.

Citywide sales were 1,547 units in April, two per cent higher than last year’s levels. Year-to-date sales remain nearly six per cent lower than last year and are 26 per cent below longer-term averages.

“Sales have been improving mostly in the lower price ranges, causing tighter supply conditions in that segment.  This will likely have a different impact on price trends in the lower price ranges depending on location,” said Lurie.


HOUSING MARKET FACTS

Detached

  • Detached sales improved by nearly three per cent in April compared to last year, due to gains in homes priced under $500,000. However, with 930 sales, activity still remain 24 per cent below long-term averages.  Recent gains were also not high enough to offset pullbacks earlier in the year, causing year-to-date sales to fall by over five per cent.
  • Improving sales did not occur across all districts. In April, there was growth in the North East, North West, South and South East districts of the city. Despite some signs of sales improvement, overall sales activity remains well below 10-year averages throughout every region in the city.
  • April detached inventories citywide continue to remain just above levels recorded last year. Months of supply remain relatively unchanged at four months.
  • The amount of oversupply has varied significantly depending on the area of the city. Months of supply has only risen in the City Centre, South and West districts of the city.
  • Despite some of the adjustments occurring in the detached sector, overall April prices remain lower than last year’s levels across all districts. Year to date, the largest year-over-year declines occurred in in the City Centre, North West and South districts.

Apartment

  • Despite the affordability of apartment condominiums, sales activity continues to fall across the city and in most districts. There have been 714 apartment condominium sales so far this year, the lowest level since 2001.
  • The decline in new listings has started to outweigh the sales decline, causing inventories to ease. As of April, resale apartment condominium inventories totaled 1,546 units, 16 per cent lower than inventory levels last April.
  • The easing inventories have also caused the months of supply to decline to just above six months. While this is still a buyers’ market, this trend could help ease the downward pressure on prices if it continues.
  • Apartment condominium prices in April totalled $250,400, comparable to last month, but over two per cent below last year’s levels and nearly 17 per cent below 2014 highs.

Attached

  • Attached sales activity improved compared to last year’s levels for the second straight month, almost offsetting the declines occurring in the first two months of the year.  Year-to-date sales were 1,113 units, nearly one per cent below last year’s levels, and 14 per cent below long-term averages.
  • Year-to-date sales have improved in all districts except the City Centre, North West and West.
  • Improved sales and easing listings have helped prevent further inventory gains in this sector and overall months of supply have trended down to five months.
  • Following several months of prices trending down, semi-detached benchmark prices in April rose over the previous month. However, prices remain over five per cent below last year’s levels at $395,300.
  • Row prices were $284,900 in April, over five per cent below last year’s levels.


REGIONAL MARKET FACTS

Airdrie

  • Stronger sales in March and April offset earlier declines, causing year-to-date sales to total 363 units, similar to levels recorded last year. New listings continue to decline, causing April inventories to ease compared to last year. Months of supply remain elevated at five months, but this is a notable improvement compared to last year, when months of supply was over six months.
  • Rising sales and easing inventories helped prevent further price declines in April compared to March. However, overall, April prices remained nearly four per cent below last year’s levels. Prices have eased across all property types, with the largest year-to-date decline in the apartment sector at eight per cent.

Cochrane

  • Despite improving sales in April, year-to-date sales in Cochrane eased by six per cent compared to last year. However, new listings have also eased, helping reduce some of the inventory in the market.  While inventories and months of supply remain elevated, for the first time since June 2018, the months of supply fell below six months.
  • Some improvement with oversupply has likely prevented further monthly declines in prices. As of April, total benchmark prices remain over three per cent below last year’s levels for a total of $415,100.

Okotoks

  • Despite some recent improvements in sales, year-to-date sales activity slowed compared to last year. New listings have also eased, but it was not enough to prevent further inventory gains, keeping months of supply above five months.
  • The amount of oversupply has impacted prices. April residential prices totalled $406,700. This is nearly four per cent below last year’s levels. Price declines were slightly higher in the attached sector, with a year-over-year decline of nearly five per cent.

-CREB