WASHINGTON — Money-services businesses registration is commonly seen as a bureaucratic nightmare — and it appears that some companies are throwing in the towel.
According to a white paper issued this week by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors and the Money Transmitter Regulators Association, 2015 saw a sharp decline in the number of MSBs.
There were 456 consolidated companies with at least one money transmitter license in the first quarter of 2016, down 12% since last year, the report found. Meanwhile, the percentage of these companies operating over several states increased 5%, to 243. About 44 states have now issued MSB licenses to virtual currency companies, the report also found.
The 24-page white paper acknowledged the challenges MSBs face, from the complicated task of registering on a state-by-state basis to the de-risking trend that is prompting banks to cut them off. But it also highlights a number of recent initiatives to address those obstacles.
"State regulators are looking to create greater consistency of how they are evaluating license applications across the country," John Ryan, the president and chief executive of the CSBS, said in an interview ahead of the report's release. "We want banks to have a strong understanding of the supervision that some of these nonbanks are receiving."
The loss of banking relationships with MSBs, the report states, has provided an opening for "opaque" transactions. "Illicit actors are attracted to these opaque structures, seeking the opportunity to obscure avenues for the movement of illegal funds," the report says.
But state regulators are conducting rigorous exams designed to ensure MSBs are safe for banks to partner with, the report notes. Those exams include inquiries into a company's operations, financial state, management and compliance with the Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money-laundering regulations. The latter comprises a "substantial portion," and includes monitoring Financial Crimes Enforcement Network registration, currency transaction reporting, agent monitoring, anti-money-laundering and terrorist financing mitigation procedures, and how the company files suspicious activity reports.
States also have regulatory muscles that they can flex, the report argues, citing a 2013 case in which a Massachusetts-based company called Braz Transfers was accused of misappropriating at least $122 million in customer funds. Thirty-seven states came together to block the company's money flow, and also worked with the U.S. and Brazilian authorities.
Since 2002, the MTRA has worked to coordinate regulatory oversight of MSBs between states. This was formalized with a protocol in 2010.
State agencies have conducted more than 400 multistate examinations since 2002, including 149 just in 2015, the report found. There is also a Multi-State MSB Examination Taskforce, staffed by the CSBS and led by a rotating body of 10 states, that oversees joint examinations. The task force now comprises 49 member states.
State regulators have made efforts to work more closely with their federal counterparts, according to the report. Since 2005, states have provided quarterly and annual information to both the Treasury Department's Fincen and the Internal Revenue Service on instances of BSA violations affecting money-services businesses. This year, the multistate task force began sharing its examination schedules with the IRS and Fincen, and after a first reunion in February, the three organizations plan to hold "recurring" meetings to coordinate MSB supervisory efforts.
The states also started performing "coordinated supervision" with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau last year, the report said.
The bank supervisor group's report stressed that banks should not view an MSB license as a scarlet letter. Credentialing helps both "ensure MSBs are responsible and qualified to do business," and provide "accountability," the report states. "Licensed companies increase law enforcement confidence, which encourages economic stability."
And multistate registration has become easier, the CSBS report says. Companies can apply for and manage their licenses through the Nationwide Multistate Licensing System and Registry, which serves as a sort of Common Core application process for a variety of interstate paperwork for mortgage loan originators and certain consumer finance companies.
At the moment, 34 states have opened up MSB registration on the NMLS system, which can also serve to list the money-services business' authorized agents. Certain states are developing a uniform quarterly call report for all MSBs, which is slated for 2017.
The CSBS has agreed to help Fincen obtain access to data aggregated on the NMLS system.