Commentary: Putting a name on transactions

Pay without mentioning our name - that instruction on some of BCCI's accounts is engraved on the hearts of bank supervisors and fraud specialists. It touches on one of the most serious problems in stopping the laundering of stolen money or drug proceeds.

Electronic payment systems can whisk funds around the world in the twinkling of an eye. But the computers record only the identities of the banks involved in the transactions, not the customers who are paying and receiving money. That makes it extremely difficult to trace the route of payments when the circumstances smell strongly of crime.

The payment systems, of which the dominant one is Swift (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) are expensive to build and run. Swift would have to be comprehensively changed to leave a clear audit trail for investigators. But an annex to the Bank of England's reply to the Treasury select committee report on BCCI makes clear that is what the Bank wants.

The annex looks at a number of ways to label payments as they travel through the system that are being explored by the inter-governmental Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering, set up by the Group of Seven in 1989.

Price Waterhouse, BCCI's accountant, also pressed for controls on money transmission in evidence to a Commons committee.

Central Bank governors of the group of Ten are to take up the issue soon on one of their committees in Basle. With new routes for money laundering opening in poorly supervised eastern European banking systems, this should go to the top of the agenda and be given high-level political backing.

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