From the Special Report in last week’s issue (excerpt):
The missing $20 trillion
How to stop companies and people dodging tax, in Delaware as well as Grand Cayman
CIVILISATION works only if those who enjoy its benefits are also prepared to pay their share of the costs. People and companies that avoid tax are therefore unpopular at the best of times, so it is not surprising that when governments and individuals everywhere are scrimping to pay their bills, attacks are mounting on tax havens and those that use them.
In Europe the anger has focused on big firms. Amazon and Starbucks have faced consumer boycotts for using clever accounting tricks to book profits in tax havens while reducing their bills in the countries where they do business…Congress has passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which forces foreign financial firms to disclose their American clients…
…Getting rich people to pay their dues is an admirable ambition, but this attack is both hypocritical and misguided. It may be good populist politics, but leaders who want to make their countries work better should focus instead on cleaning up their own back yards and reforming their tax systems.
The archetypal tax haven may be a palm-fringed island, but as our special report this week makes clear, there is nothing small about offshore finance. If you define a tax haven as a place that tries to attract non-resident funds by offering light regulation, low (or zero) taxation and secrecy, then the world has 50-60 such havens. These serve as domiciles for more than 2m companies and thousands of banks, funds and insurers. Nobody really knows how much money is stashed away: estimates vary from way below to way above $20 trillion.
Not all these havens are in sunny climes; indeed not all are technically offshore. Mr Obama likes to cite Ugland House, a building in the Cayman Islands that is officially home to 18,000 companies, as the epitome of a rigged system. But Ugland House is not a patch on Delaware (population 917,092), which is home to 945,000 companies, many of which are dodgy shells. Miami is a massive offshore banking centre, offering depositors from emerging markets the sort of protection from prying eyes that their home countries can no longer get away with. The City of London, which pioneered offshore currency trading in the 1950s, still specialises in helping non-residents get around the rules…London is no better than the Cayman Islands when it comes to controls against money laundering. Other European Union countries are global hubs for a different sort of tax avoidance: companies divert profits to brass-plate subsidiaries in low-tax Luxembourg, Ireland and the Netherlands.
Reform should thus focus on rich-world financial centres as well as Caribbean islands, and should distinguish between illegal activities (laundering and outright tax evasion) and legal ones (fancy accounting to avoid tax). The best weapon against illegal activities is transparency, which boils down to collecting more information and sharing it better. Thanks in large part to America’s FATCA, small offshore centres are handing over more data to their clients’ home countries—while America remains shamefully reluctant to share information with the Latin American countries whose citizens hold deposits in Miami. That must change. Everyone could do more to crack down on the use of nominee shareholders and directors to hide the provenance of money. And they should make sure that information about the true “beneficial” owners of companies is collected, kept up-to-date and made more readily available to investigators in cases of suspected wrongdoing. There are costs to openness, but they are outweighed by the benefits of shining light on the shady corners of finance.
What can I say? Buy a copy. Read it. Internalise it. Then start lobbying for change.
Malaysia more than most suffers from profits being shifted overseas to lower tax jurisdictions. Based on GFI’s numbers, a minimum of half the “illicit” capital outflows that Malaysia suffers is from corporate transfer pricing. What makes this more galling is that under the current law, it’s all perfectly legal.
If the full corporate tax rate on these monies were applied, we’re looking at RM100 billion in lost tax revenue for 2000-2008 – that’s enough to cut the cumulative fiscal deficit in half, or alternatively reduce Malaysia’s debt to GDP ratio by 10 percentage points.
There’s more sources of info on this (the OECD has just issued a much more detailed report), which I’ll try to cover later in the day.