Over the weekend German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung dropped the Panama Papers on the world. A leak vastly larger than the Wikileaks cache, these papers offer a glimpse into the inside world of offshore accounting and shadow money. The fallout, from protests in Iceland to a Justice Department investigation, has only just begun.
The image of banking secrecy has been most popularized by the idea of the Swiss banker, punctual men in trim suits who operate vaults beneath the earth where secrecy is more prized than gold. Offshore money has gotten a lot bigger than one mountain country though.
The goal of a shelter is to create a taxable nexus for either personal or corporate assets in the lowest-rate jurisdiction possible.
Take, for example, a T-shirt company. It makes shirts in Peru for a dollar apiece, sells them in Great Britain for $5 and is owned by an American multinational. You, the multinational, would set up three companies: SewCo in Peru, SellCo in England and HoldCo. The last is a piece of paper in a shelter like the Cayman Islands.
SewCo now makes 100,000 T-shirts which it sells to HoldCo for $100,000. HoldCo then sells those t-shirts to SellCo for $500,000. The upshot is that your production company makes no money, it sold everything at cost. Your sales company makes no money for the same reason. Only your holding company is in the black... and it's based in a jurisdiction that won't tax those profits. The really ambitious can try to operate companies at a loss for the associated tax benefits.
It works the same way with individuals, who try hard to park their wealth generation and income sources outside of the country. A portfolio managed in the Cayman Islands, for example, will pay taxes on the islands capital gains. In other words nothing.
Now, this all is much more complicated in execution. Repatriation (bringing the money back into the country) can incur taxes, and regulators keep pushing back on these loopholes. But in essence, that's how a tax haven works: find a way to keep your profits local to a tax-friendly zone, and everything else in debt to that filing cabinet.
The annual Financial Secrecy Index, published by the Tax Justice Network, gives a rundown of the biggest offshore tax havens around the world, ranked by a combination of legal factors and economic impact. Here's where the rich are hiding their assets.
10. Dubai (The United Arab Emirates)
Described by the Index as “unquestionably one of the world’s best known tax havens or secrecy jurisdictions,” Dubai has capitalized on the legendary insularity of many Middle Eastern countries. A major center of trade, making it convenient for financial movement, the UAE is well known to resist pressure from outside governments on issues of disclosure and extradition. Paired with the country’s strong commercial culture, one which prizes transactions above regulation, this attitude has been referred to as “see-no-evil” when it comes to lawbreaking.
This accommodating environment is enhanced by the country’s political stability, a key factor among lawyers and bankers seeking financial havens. Particularly for clients who move hard assets such as cash and gold, it is imperative to find jurisdictions with little risk of coup or nationalization of assets. Dubai has historically delivered, making it a popular offshore destination.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is a stone’s throw from Dubai, located on the western coast of the Persian Gulf.
It’s not surprising that Bahrain would find itself on this list. A historic trading center, making it already a convenient location for capital flow, Bahrain shares the legal insularity that makes Dubai a popular destination for offshore accounting. Companies, and often criminals, move assets here in no small part knowing that the government will not comply with requests from agencies like Interpol and the IRS.
That reputation keeps the island nation in business, with more than a quarter of the GDP coming from the financial sector. Much like other havens, Bahrain has no corporate or personal income tax and no capital gains tax. It also, according to the Index, “has quite a wide network of tax treaties with a number of developing countries, despite there being no good commercial reasons” to do so.
The sheer size of the German economy makes it a major player in tax avoidance schemes.
The key to Germany’s place on this list is the ease with which it allows foreign banking. Foreign nationals and corporations can open and operate accounts with less scrutiny in Frankfurt than many other major economies. This makes the country a major destination for tax shelters. Aided by several elements of German law that restrict both the sharing and gathering of financial information, the country has become a meaningful player on the tax haven stage.
That said, it’s Germany’s size which really makes the country stand out. Despite elements of secrecy in the banking code, this is still down to the sheer volume of money flowing through the country’s banks. By and large this is still a well regulated banking system which functions within international norms, with several loopholes.
Lebanon is an exception to the rule that banking seeks stability. Although the country handles a relatively modest volume of offshore accounting, its dedication to secrecy and proximity to Middle Eastern wealth makes it a significant player.
Also prominent is the Lebanese “diaspora,” individuals of Lebanese descent who live outside the country and substantially outnumber the local population. According to the International Monetary Fund, this diaspora is a major reason why the financial sector in Lebanon is so large, as it “supports the economy, including through remittances and deposits placements.” Thanks to the country’s 1956 banking secrecy law, banks are forbidden from sharing information about these clients to any third party, a level of absolute secrecy seen in very few countries even on this list.
Finance drives the economy of this small nation, and as a result it’s a huge player in the shadow economy. Roughly 12% of the global market for offshore services passes through banks in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, enough to make it a player even if its banking laws were transparent.
Which they aren’t. While law abiding, Luxembourg’s banks are dedicated to secrecy to the point where breaking a client’s trust can result in criminal charges. It offers companies a low tax, business-friendly environment, and as a result hundreds of major corporations have based their headquarters in the tiny capitol city to operate on the continent with few, if any, taxes.
Unlike some other entries on this list, Luxembourg’s role in offshoring is primarily as a tax loophole and shelter, rather than a jurisdiction for criminal tax avoidance.
5. The Cayman Islands
Second only to Switzerland in the legend of offshore banking, these days there’s a fair argument that the center of gravity for illicit finance has moved from the mountains to the islands.
Located in the Caribbean roughly between Cuba and Jamaica, the Caymans are a tiny set of three islands that host a positively enormous number of companies on paper. Filing cabinets host the official headquarters of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of firms all to take advantage of the local government’s hard-line stance on secrecy and taxes: plenty of the latter, virtually none of the former. There’s no income tax, business tax, inheritance tax or capital gains tax on the islands, making it a very popular place to manage wealth.
Now the world’s sixth largest banking center, between 5 and 6% of the world’s total offshore wealth moves through the Caymans, with varying degrees of legality.
While proximity is less important in an age of electronic banking, it still matters. Singapore’s physical access to Asian markets and extremely high degree of civil and legal stability could alone make it an offshore player.
That’s not its only appeal, however. Singapore has built its success on trade. Lacking any natural resources (even, at one point, enough fresh water for its citizens) the city-state has thrived by transforming into a major financial hub.
As a result, millions of transactions flow through the city’s banks and markets every day. Paired with the ease with which foreigners can open accounts and store assets, as well as very tight banking secrecy laws, the upshot is a market through which foreign governments can’t trace assets. Unlike its more legitimate colleagues such as Luxembourg and Germany, however, Singapore also has a high degree of attraction for criminal elements such as money launderers and drug traffickers for these same reasons.
3. The United States
Despite being a major voice on the world stage for increased financial accountability, the U.S. has become one of the world’s largest offshore destinations for foreign money. There are many reasons for this, including the country’s vast system of corporate tax loopholes, but two major ones stick out. First, despite urging global standards for disclosure, America has fiercely resisted signing on to those standards.
Second is America’s federated system of states. Many have engaged in a race to the bottom to make themselves the most business friendly to try and draw more domestic employers, but as a result they’ve also become a huge draw for international firms as well. Delaware, in particular, has long been known for its state laws which impose low taxes and very limited corporate liability. The result is a system similar to the Cayman Islands, with filing cabinets that serve as the technical headquarters for hundreds of firms worldwide in order to take advantage of a friendly legal and judicial system.
Given in particular that this patchwork of state laws is only likely to grow more business-friendly, the Financial Secrecy Index has judged it “a jurisdiction of extreme concern for for global transparency initiatives.”
2. Hong Kong
Hong Kong is one of two special administrative regions in China, areas of the country where different laws apply particularly in the fields of business and finance. Much like the rest of the country, it’s one of the fastest growing markets in both finance and offshore accounting, and currently accounts for roughly 4% of the global offshore total.
Hong Kong’s local government has approached market regulation by promising to keep “intervention into the way in which the market operates to a minimum.” The result has been a network of laws designed to facilitate offshore accounting, including tax exemptions, currency exchanges to promote money laundering and easy creation of shell corporations. A 2014 expose by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (the same group involved with the Panama Papers) revealed nearly 22,000 accounts secretly held by Chinese mainland elites, all created specifically to avoid paying taxes.
Unlike many other financial centers, Hong Kong has aggressively resisted disclosure initiatives.
The Swiss remain on top.
Swiss banking still dominates the offshore world for its size, dedication to secrecy and a mix of clients using the system for both legitimate and illegal purposes. Despite a push for greater transparency as part of the European Union, Swiss banking secrecy laws remain largely intact, although the country has begun to make some exceptions for high level requests.
More than half of the assets in Swiss banks are estimated to have originated abroad, and the financial sector offers services that include tax structuring, corporate formation (for shell corporations) and asset management. This, combined with its political stability, geography and quality of life, has made Switzerland a hub for wealthy companies and individuals alike.
In years past Swiss banking was the gold standard because of the country’s steep mountains and deep vaults. Today an army of lawyers and bankers have picked up the torch, and they’re doing just as effective a job.