The combination of increasing inequality and anemic economic growth has thrown a political spotlight on tax havens. Research has shown that governments are losing at least $200 billion in potential tax dollars every year because of them. Politicians throughout the world are feeling pressure to address this perceived injustice.
Consider, for example, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s recent comments about companies “routing income through the Bahamas or the Cayman Islands or wherever” in an effort to minimize or avoid taxes. Clinton would like America to capture lost tax revenues from corporations booking profits in their offshore subsidiaries.
My guess is that your image of tax havens, like Clinton’s, is a small island with free-flowing rum and sun-kissed, care-free locals. You may remember The Firm, the 1993 film based on the John Grisham thriller, in which Tom Cruise plays a lawyer who gets mixed up with a firm that helps clients launder money through the Cayman Islands.
But Cayman entities are not as secretive and opaque as they once were, especially compared to other jurisdictions. The territory now complies with regulations (like America’s FATCA) mandating automatic information transfer about foreign account holders to their home countries. Further, anonymous corporations in which ultimate ownership is unknown no longer exist in Cayman: it has collected beneficial ownership information about corporations set up under its jurisdiction for fifteen years. Preventing the existence of anonymous shell corporations makes it more difficult for individuals and firms to hide taxable income from authorities.
Ironically, there is strong evidence that some of the most egregious tax havens are more like the country Secretary Clinton hopes to lead than the islands she highlighted. In fact, major OECD countries are guilty of doing exactly what these more notorious havens once did. In a 2009 audit study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a researcher attempted to set up anonymous shell corporations using 45 different firms across 22 different countries. More than 75% of firms in OECD countries agreed to set up anonymous shell corporations, compared with less than 15% of firms in the traditional tax havens. That’s right, it’s probably easier to set up an anonymous corporation in the US than in the Cayman Islands.
A recent Bloomberg report described how the United States in particular has become “effectively the biggest tax haven in the world,” with the global rich moving their offshore funds from “the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands to Nevada, Wyoming, and South Dakota.” The reason? These American states allow anonymous bank accounts. Further, the US has refused to sign on to the OECD’s new standards that would require American financial firms to disclose accounts held by foreigners to their home countries. This comes off as hypocritical to much of the world, because the US —through FATCA—requires other countries to do provide information about foreign accounts owned by Americans.
Anonymous banking facilitates crime and corruption. The UN estimates that between two and five percent of global GDP is laundered every year. A recent 60 Minutes report demonstrated how the US facilitates these illegal financial flows. The show recounted how Global Witness, a corruption watchdog, sent an employee undercover as a representative of a corrupt African politician to seek legal assistance to move dirty money offshore.
It is easier to set up an anonymous corporation in the US than it is in traditional tax havens.
The nonprofit arranged 16 face-to-face meetings with New York lawyers— including the then-head of the American Bar Association — and only one outright refused to help. As Charmian Gooch, the head of Global Witness, pointed out, US law requires bankers to report such requests, but it does not require lawyers to do the same.
The real problem, former Senator Carl Levin pointed out, is that US law does not demand disclosure of beneficial ownership of new corporations, a practice that has become standard in places like the Cayman Islands. The American Bar Association, he pointed out, has been a particularly vigorous opponent of this. The result: it is easier to set up an anonymous corporation in the US than it is in traditional tax havens.
As the US presidential elections move forward, if candidates want to criticize traditional tax havens and avoid hypocrisy, they better start taking a cold, hard look at their home turf.