Mandatory Credit: Photo by Alex MacNaughton Photography/REX/Shutterstock (5634286f) Protesters gathered outside Downing Street Panama Papers demonstration 'David Cameron: close tax loopholes or resign!', Whitehall, London, Britain - 09 Apr 2016

Don't call them tax havens

There's another much bigger problem with off-shore financial centres
April 20, 2016

Protestors gather outside Downing Street following the Panama Papers revelations ©Alex MacNaughton Photography/REX/Shutterstock

Read more: Is reform of international tax law possible?

Thanks to the leak of 11.5 million documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm, Britain is fixated on how we tax the wealthy and the powerful. Revelations that David Cameron’s family finances were tangled up in the tax haven of Panama, have caused an endless political kerfuffle and put a new cudgel in the hands of people who want to attack him.

A few have called this the “Panama tax avoidance scandal,” but this reveals a profound misunderstanding of tax havens. Tax is important, but it’s a subsidiary issue—and that goes for tax havens more generally. The dangers these places pose are of a greater order.

Tax havens allow individuals to take money elsewhere to escape the laws and rules of society that they don’t like. Those rules may include paying taxes. But the Panama papers reveal a much bigger, richer world of generalised law avoidance.

Associates of Vladimir Putin used Mossack Fonseca’s services to build up secret strategic stakes in sectors of Russia’s economy, transferring up to $200m a time. The papers reveal the antics of the super-wealthy hiding assets from divorced spouses. They uncover shell companies linked to senior Chinese politicians—the leader, Xi Jinping, has vowed to fight “armies of corruption.” There are links to Mafia bosses; to Mexican drug lords; to the Brinks Mat heist; to Ponzi schemers; to owners of Nazi-looted art; to the Fifa bribery scandal; to Saudi royalty and to 29 billionaires; and a sex offender who signed papers for an offshore company while in jail in Nevada.

Most of these stories are not about tax, but about hiding, usually because there are questions about the origins of these funds.

Offshore is, in the words of Brooke Harrington, a researcher at the Copenhagen Business School, “a domain of libertarian fantasy made real, in which professional intervention made it possible for the world’s wealthiest people to be free not only of tax obligations but of any laws they found inconvenient.”

Harrington, a sociologist, took the extraordinary and fascinating step of training to become a wealth manager, to penetrate this world for her research. “Tax avoidance was only the tip of the iceberg,” she recalled later. “I didn’t realise how much bigger the problem is. What wealth managers do [extends] much more generally to law avoidance. And that creates problems of legitimacy for whole governments. It’s bad enough that people think they are getting shafted because the rich aren’t paying their fair share of taxes: it’s quite another matter when you say there is one law for the rich and one for everyone else. That is the sort of thing that can potentially topple governments.”

A wealth manager told her about a trip with the CEO of her wealth management company to meet a client outside Europe. At Zurich airport she realised she’d left her passport at home, but the CEO insisted she wouldn’t need it. Sure enough, nobody checked her documents in or out of Zurich, and at the other end there was a limousine to take them to and from the meeting, unmonitored. “The CEO was right,” the woman said. “These people, our wealthiest clients, are above the law.” This happens in Britain too, and elsewhere: a few years ago a wealthy Russian all but admitted to me that he has entered Britain like this—while being the subject of an international arrest warrant.

Estimates of wealth sitting offshore range between $7 trillion and $36 trillion, most of which belongs to the world’s wealthiest people. In light of all this, my colleagues at the Tax Justice Network have for years cast around for alternatives to the problematic term “tax haven.” We still say it, because everyone knows what it means, but we alternate with the uglier term “secrecy jurisdiction,” depending on the context.

Yet there are other havens too: “crime havens” (like Panama) and perhaps at least as important, “regulatory havens.” The biggest of these is the UK/City of London, which rebuilt its financial grandeur after the collapse of the British Empire in large part by offering Wall Street banks an “offshore” escape route from New Deal regulations in the US. It is no coincidence that AIG Financial Products, the unit that blew up its US parent in the global financial crisis by taking positions in the derivatives market with a notional value of $2.7 trillion, was based in Curzon Street. As the Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney put it, there has been a “disturbing pattern in the last few years of London literally becoming the centre of financial trading disasters.” Many other havens have moved into this game too: last year, for instance, a Reuters investigation found at least $3.3 trillion in loans sitting in Cayman-based off-balance sheet entities. These kinds of games are all about escaping the banking rules and laws that crimp your profits. This is offshore business.

Now read: In pursuit of the $21 trillion