The New York Times has published the beginning of what is to be a five-part investigative series into the effect of foreign money on New York City's real estate market. About $8 billion is spent annually on individual residences that cost $5 million or more each, the Times found. Last year, over half those sales were to shell companies.

The series—which is summarized here and the first installment of which is here—focuses on one building: the Time Warner Center, a condominium complex overlooking Central Park. Only about a third of the people who own condos in the Time Warner Center live there at any given time, the Times found: "Twenty-six percent of the original sales were to people from other countries, a proportion that has grown to more than half among recent buyers."

At least 16 of the foreign condo owners in the Time Warner Center have been the subject of government investigations around the world in cases ranging from housing and environmental violations to financial fraud. In almost every case, these buyers are hidden behind layers and layers of paperwork.

Reporting over the course of a year, the Times spoke to real estate professionals at every level of the industry about the necessity of protecting these buyers identities:

As Rudy Tauscher, a former manager of the condos at Time Warner, said: "The building doesn't know where the money is coming from. We're not interested."

David J. Wine, the former vice chairman of the Related Companies, spoke bluntly of the lack of concern with buyers' identities. "You pretty much go by financial capacity," Mr. Wine said. "Can they afford it? They sign the contract, they put their money down with no contingency and they close. They have to show the money, and that is it. I don't think you will find a single new developer where it's different."

(Related Companies developed the Time Warner Center.)

Real estate agents say commitment to anonymity is essential. "One thing of being a high-end broker is we have to protect the privacy of our clients," said Hall F. Willkie, president of Brown Harris Stevens. "If we didn't, we wouldn't have them as clients. We're very much like private bankers in that sense."

I mean, sure! When property is just another investment, brokers do sort of become like private bankers.

[Photo credit: Getty Images]