As strange as it may seem, a confluence of developments in the banking industry means the Panama Papers revelations looks likely make it a lot more difficult for offshore money, as tax evasions and tax secrecy are often politely called, to stay hidden. This would serve as a marked contrast to the last international-headlines-gripping leaks, the Snowden revelations. Even though Snowden gave a big window into the reach of the surveillance state, not all that much has changed, save the Chinese making more active efforts to avoid cloud computing and US technology vendors, and the Europeans bashing US concerns over violations of their privacy laws.
By contrast, the massive Mossack Fonseca records haul feeds into trends in banking that mean that a lot of these funds are going to find it hard remain secret. We’ll summarize them below.
Tax base expansion initiatives. The US and European Union have been working on a program to expand the base of income that is subject to tax. Budget-starved European member states have been moving the plan forward ahead of schedule. This is one of the few positive developments to come of of governments failing to understand the implications of having a fiat currency (you can and typically need to run deficits, since the private sector sets unduly high return targets and chronically underinvests; the constraint on deficit spending is creating too much inflation).
Increasingly tough “know your customer” rules. The US going aggressively after foreign banks that have falsified records as a part of money-laundering has led to increased compliance. Even Standard Chartered, which thought the US had no business telling it not to do business with Iran, was brought to heel and its CEO forced to resign for his continued intransigence.
Now the US can throw its weight around only as far as dollar-based transactions are concerned, since those ultimately clear through US facilities. But the UK has also adopted stringent “know your customer” rules. It now takes weeks to open a new account that is not a personal account, say for your rugby club.
As John Dizard in the Financial Times reports:
There is a new urgency in the tone of the lawyers and advisers for offshore asset holders. The essential message is that you are the Shah of Iran, this is 1979, and you and your money will find yourselves hopscotching from one unwelcoming landing place to another…
If you or your clients think this is about tax cheats or the merely middle rich, they should think again…
As this column and others have noted, by next year Switzerland, along with Luxembourg, the Channel Islands and other European offshore investment management centres, will start exchanging tax information with their counterparts.
There are a very large number of beneficiaries, ie globalised rich people, who have until the end of this year to get their money safely onshore. The one Western country that does not have a deadline for complying with the Common Reporting Standard is the US.
Almost everyone who has non-criminally sourced capital would like to have at least some of it accessible within the dollar-based clearing system. But the clerical and legal checklists to set up accounts for legitimate money have become so long that it will take months to accomplish this even for those willing to pay the transaction costs.
And before you think the US banks are therefore the answer….US banks are shunning money from the rich these days.. Dizard again:
The largest US banks do not really want to take more deposits, or even do the cursory know-your-customer due diligence work to open new special purpose accounts for old customers. Americans I know with legitimately acquired nine- or ten-figure investment portfolios now have to scrounge around to open accounts in midsize US banks.
Those rich Americans do not have the logistical or legal problems that Panama Papers-related flight capital will have in “onshoring” their money.
Moreover, US legislators are calling for the US tax havens like Delaware corporations and Wyoming limited liability companies, to report on who their ultimate beneficiaries are. Given the tone of his Guardian op-ed, Carl Levin sound like he is warming up for hearings:
Global revulsion against shell company abuses, offshore tax havens, and the lawyers that promote them has generated new public pressure to tackle these problems. Here are three steps to consider.
Outlaw corporations with hidden owners
….G20 world leaders have made a start with a joint commitment to increase corporate transparency. The United Kingdom is leading the way, mandating public disclosure of the true owners – the “beneficial owners” – of UK companies. The European Union has followed…
The United States is far behind. We now require more information to get a library card than to form a US corporation. ….The biggest impediment is opposition from the secretaries of state of our 50 states, who financially benefit from forming new corporations and don’t want to ask questions that might jeopardize their revenue. Our states need to wake up to the damage they are doing and stop forming corporations with hidden owners.
Get tough on offshore tax abuse
Tax authorities should use existing tax information exchange agreements, including the US-Panama agreement, to go after tax cheats and determine whether Mossack Fonseca facilitated illegal conduct.
Offshore tax abuse goes beyond individuals. Some multinational corporations use tax havens to arrange secret tax deals or declare earnings offshore. The international community is finally demanding that large multinationals file reports disclosing the profits they make and the taxes they pay on a country-by-country basis. The United States has proposed regulations requiring those reports; the next step is to finalize them. A bigger issue: making those reports public.
Get tough on lawyers promoting misconduct
….Lawyers should be subject to the “know your client” requirements of anti-money laundering laws. In addition, banks should scrutinize suspicious accounts of law firms and require them to certify that they will not use those accounts to help clients circumvent the bank’s own anti-money laundering controls.
Note that Levin doesn’t seem to have a good answer about what to do about states that find it attractive to act as secrecy jurisdictions, but in the past, the Feds have used cutting off various Federal funds as a stick to force cooperation, Moreover, if Congress were to pass laws with “know your client” requirements with criminal sanctions and tough fines, that in and of itself would choke off a lot of domestic activity.
Information technology risk. Mossack Fonseca exposed in a very dramatic way that secrecy isn’t just a function of the design of legal arrangements and the choice of jurisdiction and bank, but also of the integrity of the registered agent’s IT security. There’s no way to do due diligence on that. Those with offshore accounts must already be nervous that they could be exposed by a similar hack. Dizard’s fallback remedy for the rich who want to keep their money hidden, “…you and your money will find yourselves hopscotching from one unwelcoming landing place to another,” might work for the relatively small and fleet of foot to stay ahead of the taxman and the bank transparency moves, but it won’t reduce IT risk.
Dizard’s article, despite being informative, weirdly rails against crackdown on large-scale international capital transactions” as populist and ill-informed, due to limiting the mobility of international capital. Someone needs to clue him on the research by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reihart, who are hardly of the pinko persuasion, who found that high levels of international capital movements are powerfully correlated with more severe and frequent financial crises. Dizard also tries to depict reducing capital movements as being Smoot-Hawley revisited. First, the notion that Smoot-Hawley caused the Depression had been well debunked. Second and more important, international capital flows these days are at such high levels (over 60 times trade flows) that the Bank of International Settlement has said that large international transactions are not about facilitating trade, and that excessive financial “elasticity” was the cause of the crisis.
He also depicts banks as winding up being beneficiaries, which contradicts his message that they regard onshored money as more hassle (which means cost) that its worth:
This will, within the next two years or so, lead to a one-time transfer from the global rich to the staff and owners of US financial institutions. But that will be followed by a long drought for new business, as the global wealth that did not move quickly enough gets slotted into endless holding patterns in the mid-Atlantic or mid-Pacific.
It’s hard to see what good it will do someone to have money moving around the few finessable locations and banks that remain. Pray tell, how does it spent? Money you can’t readily touch, or get into a jurisdiction where you’d like to spend it, does not seem terribly useful.
And the big point that Dizard misses is that onshoring these funds will make the future investment income on them subject to tax. Hidden untaxed wealth has contributed to rising inequality; Gabriel Zucman of UC Berkeley has estimated that 6% to 8% of global wealth is offshore, and most of that not reported to tax authorities. So the more the rich are discomfited by their overly-clever machinations, the better.