Miami's Luxury Condo Boom Could Be Doomed by Data Leak Showing Mass Corruption

Foreign cash has fueled Miami's luxury boom, but revelations about how much of it is dirty could end the field day.
Foreign cash has fueled Miami's luxury boom, but revelations about how much of it is dirty could end the field day.

Last night, one of the biggest data leaks in history hit the web. The leak comes via a firm in Panama with a niche business: setting up offshore shell companies for clients who want to hide their cash from the tax man. A team led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists dove into more than 11 million files to trace a global web of graft.

And lo and behold, a good portion of that corruption leads straight back to Miami. More specific, as the Miami Herald spelled out this morning, the files point to Miami's booming luxury real-estate market as a worldwide laundromat where corrupt officials have been cleansing dirty money through secretly purchased condos.   

The fallout from that report is just picking up steam today. But experts say the leak could have very real repercussions in Miami-Dade County: The info might just be the final straw that ends the latest boom cycle in the Magic City. 

"There's no question this will have a real chilling effect on all of South Florida," says Peter Zalewski, the founder of real-estate firm Condo Vultures. "The timing couldn't be worse, in fact. The market was already slowing down, so we were going into a period where finding more foreign national investors was seen as the elixir to get through it."

It's hardly a secret that fishy foreign cash has helped drive the latest round of sparkling condo towers rising above Biscayne Bay. In January, feds announced they were so worried about dirty overseas money flooding South Florida they would begin monitoring all cash transactions.

But the new data leak, dubbed the "Panama Papers," puts a face on that shady, cash-driven world. The millions of files leaked from Panamanian company Mossack Fonseca show everyone from Vladimir Putin's close friends to soccer star Messi using shell companies. 

In Miami, a who's who of Brazilian power players showed up in the files, including a wildly popular judge and a media mogul repeatedly investigated for corruption. The files show them spending millions on condos in Brickell, Sunny Isles Beach, and elsewhere in Miami-Dade. 

For realtors, developers, and overseas buyers, those revelations are likely to pour more cool water on an already slowing market, Zalewski says. 

"Let's say that I want to go to Greece, but I'm not going to go now because there's a perception there's a refugee crisis there. What's going on in Miami now, we have a real crisis, and the perception among foreign buyers is going to be, 'I'd rather wait for it to go away and let it get settled,'" Zalewski says. "This is going to be pretty dramatic for the market in the short term."

But unless you're a high-end developer or a realtor with your fingers in the luxury market, this could end up being good news. Ordinary buyers and renters are increasingly feeling priced out in South Florida. One reason: the flood of foreign cash that has inflated an unsustainable bubble.

The silver lining, Zalewski says, is that if the market screeches to a halt, renters could be back in the driver's seat. "After the last crash, you wanted to be a renter in Miami because all these guys with empty, brand-new condos wanted to get any money in to cover costs," he says. "Within 12 to 24 months, I think you'll see the owners of a lot of these condos turning around and willing to subsidize renters just to get some cash flow." 

As for the Panamanian leak, papers from Germany to London and the Herald are still rolling out stories about the massive data dump, so expect more carnage for the wealthy and unscrupulous before all is said and done.

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