The revelations from the Panama files of the law firm Mossack Fonseca have been on the one hand shocking, yet on the other oh so predictable. It is a well known fact that a large chunk of the world’s capital exists in a sort of “dark matter” like state. We know its there, we can see its effects when the rich flaunt their wealth, but nobody can pin down where it is, so its widely assumed to be tied up in tax havens.
Details are sketchy, but the estimate is that between $11.5 trillion and $20 trillion dollars is squirrelled away in tax havens, about 15% to 25% of the entire net worth of the global economy. That equals (or exceeds) the annual economic output of China. Its estimated that global governments lose out to the tune of between $100 billion to $255 billion in unpaid tax. And quite a lot of this money represents the proceeds of crime, or funds looted by corrupt regimes from the state coffers. At least $6.2 trillion of that money comes from developing nations (i.e. nearly half of the total, even though developing nations represent only about a quarter of the global economy).
What Mossack Fonseca were in the business of doing was acting as the intermediaries for transactions that allowed money to be spirited away, cached offshore in shell companies and then laundered back, often through the purchase of assets such as property in London for example. And as the BBC’s panorama reveals 95% of this company’s business was devoted to this kind of activity.
When most of us think of money laundering or offshore banking, we envisage some guy in a small office in the Cayman Islands wearing a Panama hat and Bermuda shorts with a safe in the back of the office. But no, Mossack Fonseca employs thousands of people and have many times this number in offices worldwide whom they will hire out to act as stool pigeons for dodgy deals. This is tax evasion and money laundering on literally an industrial scale. And the banks are clearly aware of this and compliant in such transactions.
One of the methods that David Cameron’s dad employed, which was also used by the Brinks Matt robbers was “bearer bonds”. You’ve probably heard of these in a Hollywood film, where thieves break into a bank or an armoured car to steal a small suitcase which is somehow worth tens of millions because it contains “bearer bonds”. Well in truth bearer bonds have been largely banned in most of the world, given the obvious means by which they can be abused by criminals (or terrorists) to circumvent tax or money laundering legislation. However, it would seem that they are still in use, which is both shocking and on the other hand, not a surprise.
And as noted many of the rich and powerful have been left with awkward questions to answer. A lot of the time its not what they have been saying, but what they’ve not been saying that counts. Osborne refused to answer any questions (then terminated the interview) on the issue of his offshore dealings. Parallels could be drawn with the same reaction from the Icelandic PM who has now resigned.
Cameron released a series of increasingly carefully worded statements which all but admitted that he had benefited from these offshore tax haven funds set up by his father. Indeed at the time of writing he’s actually now admitted that he had a stake. Now you’d expect Boris Johnson to use this as an opportunity to knife Cameron nice and quietly. Instead he’s been defending the PM, all but confirming that he too has had his hand in offshore deals like this. Oh, and search the Fox News site for “Panama files” brings up no hits (guess where Murdoch keeps his millions….).
Cameron’s attempt to draw a line under all of this tonight, still leaves a lot of questions. Why would you set up a firm in the Bahamas, whose main beneficiaries (those that weren’t clearly front men….one was a local bishop) were all based in the UK, other than to avoid tax? He claims it was so they could trade in shares in dollars….then why not set up in New York or Delaware? And, given how many of these offshore shell companies often use property deals to re-shore funds, that raises questions as to how Cameron afforded a multi-million pound house in London. And it has also been revealed that while publicly talking tough about cracking down on offshore finance, Cameron has in private opposed efforts by the EU to crack down on tax havens.
And this brings us back to the EU referendum. The EU has been pushing quite heavily to end the “phantom zone” of offshore tax havens….which probably explains why so many of Farage’s hedge fund buddies favour Brexit (Farage has been previously forced to admit he used tax havens). You can draw a direct correlation between EU efforts to crack down on tax havens and funds flowing the way of UKIP. The UK is a key hub around which many of these tax havens orbit. If the UK ceased to support them (Corbyn proposed direct rule be imposed on them) the system would start to break down.
And again, to be clear this is not a victimless crime. When Ian Cameron (or Farage) avoided paying tax, you paid the tax for them. Yes, Farage and Cameron as good as went around to every taxpayer in the UK and picked their pockets. And one of the facts that the Panama papers revealed is the degree to which the London property market is dominated by offshore dealings (Private Eye have a handy map tool available here). After all, the next best thing to a bearer bond, is the title deeds to a London flat. Of course the end result is British being priced out of the housing market by wealthy foreign billionaires using UK property (which they often leave empty) as gambling chips in a casino. Meanwhile Farage gets to blame foreigners for London being overcrowded.
The company at the heart of this whole debacle have responded by pointing out that the only crime committed was by the person who leaked all this information. They also made some flippant statement about their e-mail being hacked. But its doubtful that anyone could access Terabits worth of data via e-mail (if they can what kind of an outfit are these jokers running!). No, I suspect an internal mole is involved. But unfortunately, they are almost certainly right, the only crime here was whoever leaked all this data, which perhaps highlights everything that is wrong with offshore banking.
Suffice to say action needs to be taken. Withdrawal from the EU will play right into the hands of those who want to turn the UK into essentially a giant tax haven (keep in mind that tax havens still need to be financed, typically through higher VAT rather than income tax, so those living in the country still end up paying quite a lot of tax). While I suspect Corbyn is going a bit far when he talks of imposing direct rule, some economic sanctions launched by Britain and the EU (block all trade, forbid anyone UK/EU citizen from owning shares in offshore funds, freeze all assets of said companies, travel bans, etc.) would have the desired effect.
However, perhaps the most obvious measure is to apply the blinding light of transparency. Make all companies that do any form of business in the EU, regardless of where they are based, declare all of their shareholders as well as the pay and earnings of senior company officials. Like vampires, these blood suckers prefer dark places, force them into the light and they’ll explode.
Unfortunately, neither the current PM, nor anyone else in the cabinet, are credible candidates to lead such an effort.