April 17, 2014
THE WORMHOLES OF THE WORLD ECONOMYMonday, December 2, 2013
The secrets of the vaults
For the Herald
THE HAGUE — If there is one thing on which the left and right seem to agree on in modern Europe, it is that something must be done to stopper up the worm-holes of the world economy. Not the towers of the City of London, nor the gleaming glass of Dubai, but the sort of strange, empty, fly-blown places that appear to have taken miraculous control over money and manpower as if these had fallen under zombie possession.
Take the one-storey building in downtown Wilmington, Delaware: the receptionist shoos away unwanted visitors, but that doesn’t stop 278,000 companies from finding it to be a comfortable home. Overcrowded premises, you think? This does not seem a problem in the Cayman Islands, home to an estimated 120 subsidiary units of Barclays Bank, among many others, despite a population of just over 50,000. Or what of Phil Williams, owner of an abandoned kitchenware shop in the Welsh capital of Cardiff? According to the latest edition of the magazine Private Eye, Mr Williams was quite bewildered to have found that his shop is also the listed address for some of the Ukrainian elite’s most innovative financial boutiques.
These oddities had until recently become part of the furnishings of the global economy, a kind of dirty open secret that was tolerated by governments and praised by ultra-liberals as essential tunnelling for foreign capital flows. But the economic crisis has not been kind to the cause of these tax havens. With hard-up governments probing every little bit of economic muscle to see if it can be taxed a tad more, the ability of global corporations such as Starbucks, Amazon and Vodafone to divvy up their earnings so as to pay the minimum possible, or for individuals to park their deposits somewhere beyond the Sargasso Sea, has become a raw nerve to the general public.
So the question is not whether to clamp down on the havens, but how far to go and how deep to plunge. British Prime Minister David Cameron, pragmatic in all matters except his self-belief, took the matter to the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland in June, extracting promises of automatic exchange of information between tax authorities and a pledge to constrain the global wanderlust of corporate accountancy departments.
Signs of movement have since been palpable. At the end of last week, Costa Rica and the Cayman Islands joined the list of a dozen countries that have agreed to hand data on offshore bank accounts to US tax authorities; Switzerland, the largest haven on the planet and home to over US$2 trillion in foreign assets, also agreed to a disclosure plan with Washington a few months ago. British overseas territories, also huge players in the offshore business, have signed up to a new code of principles.
However, in the minds of many who follow the abstruse debate over international tax policy, these proclamations are situated at the bottom of a cliff-face. As The Economist warned after the G8’s resolutions, “it remains to be seen... whether any of this makes a meaningful difference to the amount of tax paid by companies. Cross-border corporate taxation is fiendishly complex, the lobbying around it furious.”
A sense of the immensity of the job and the futility of many tax-clawing campaigns is gleaned from the industry’s own whistleblowers. Whereas state intelligence has been outflanked by Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, global banking has endured its own inside nemeses — a little more ethically dubious, and not nearly so famous, but with revelations that have already initiated major scandals.
Hervé Falciani, a native of Monaco, is reportedly watched over by three French bodyguards after the government in Paris agreed to provide for his safety. Falciani, it is safe to say, has some wrathful enemies, above all in Switzerland. First and foremost, there is the HSBC bank and its Geneva office, which he left in 2008 armed with the names and details of some 130,000 account-holders. Although his critics claim he is out for the cash (“Always he is asking. He is not Robin Hood,” said a former colleague of his quoted by the New York Times), the evidence he provided has led to the defenestration of the bank’s top executives once the US Senate accused them of laundering over one billion dollars in Mexican drug money. Likewise, his files have enabled Spanish authorities to identify over 600 tax evaders. It is also his data that led to the composition of one of Greece’s most incendiary documents: the “Lagarde list,” with the names of 2,000 leading Greeks with undeclared Swiss assets.
This, says Falciani, is just the beginning. And it is apparent from recent exchanges with the media that his accusations penetrate far deeper than the dislike for corporate tax avoidance and individual tax evasion espoused by Cameron and his dining colleagues. For Falciani, as for his predecessor in Swiss whistle-blowing, Rudolf Elmer, there is something far more systemically malign in the way banks and brokers enable money to find a safe house. “Banks such as HSBC have created a system for making themselves rich at the expense of society, by assisting tax evasion and money-laundering,” Falciani recently told Der Spiegel.
In the eyes of these accusers, banks do not just go out of their way to park wealth. They are also none too keen on knowing about the difference between unpaid tax and criminal income; according to the United Nations, tax evasion hovers at around 60 percent of a total global illicit income per year of US$2.1 trillion.
Possibly we have always known these facts; never has a Swiss bank account been known for anything but its secrecy. But so long as states stay hungry for cash, the pursuit of haven will have to be undertaken, at least in lip service.