On February 26, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report, which describes Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering (BSA/AML) compliance challenges facing Southwest border banks, examines the impact “derisking” has had on banking services in this region, and evaluates responses by regulators to “derisking” concerns. “Derisking” is defined by GAO as “the practice of banks limiting certain services or ending their relationships with customers to, among other things, avoid perceived regulatory concerns about facilitating money laundering.” According to GAO, because the region has a high volume of cash and cross-border transactions, as well as a large number of foreign accountholders, banks are required to engage in more intensive and frequent monitoring and investigating to comply with BSA/AML requirements. Due to some Southwest border residents and businesses reporting challenges when trying to access banking services in the region, GAO was asked to undertake a review to determine if the access problems were due to “derisking” and branch closures.

Among other things, the report found that (i) the average number of suspicious activity reports filed in the region was two and a half times the number for high-risk counties outside the region; (ii) 80 percent of banks in the region terminated accounts due to risks related to BSA/AML; (iii) 80 percent limited or did not offer accounts to certain businesses considered high risk for money laundering and terrorist financing because those customers drew heightened BSA/AML regulatory oversight; and (iv) money-laundering risks were a more important driver of branch closures in the region than elsewhere. GAO discovered that BSA/AML regulatory concerns may be a factor in banks’ decisions to engage in “derisking” in the region, and that “the actions taken to address derisking by the federal bank regulators and FinCEN and the retrospective reviews conducted on BSA/AML regulations have not fully considered or addressed these effects.” The account terminations and limitations, along with branch closures in the region, have raised concerns that the closures have “affected key businesses and local economies and . . . economic growth.”

GAO recommended that FinCEN, FDIC, Federal Reserve Board, and the OCC (the agencies) conduct a comprehensive review of their BSA/AML regulatory framework to assess how banks’ regulatory concerns may be affecting their decisions to provide banking services. It also recommended that the agencies jointly conduct a retrospective review of BSA/AML regulations and their implementation and revise BSA regulations as necessary to “ensure that BSA/AML regulatory objectives are being met in the most efficient and least burdensome way.”