Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Treasure Islands

Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World - A book by Nicholas Shaxson

Book review - Executive magazine

There is only a passing mention of one of the Middle East’s tax havens, Dubai, and no mention of the other two contenders, Bahrain and Lebanon, in Nicholas Shaxson's book “Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World.”

This is a shame as there are plenty of juicy tales to tell about shell companies, dodgy accounting and suitcases crammed with petrodollars, but there is a good reason for the lack of coverage. The Middle East three are small fry in this business, with more than half of world trade passing through tax havens, while in 2010 the balance sheets of small island financial centers alone were conservatively estimated by the International Monetary Fund to be worth a staggering $18 trillion — just less than a third of the world’s gross domestic product.

Compare the Cayman Islands — population 56,000 — with Lebanon and Bahrain; in 2008, the Caymans had $2.2 trillion in equity liabilities (deposits and other obligations) and $750 billion in portfolio assets, while in 2010 Lebanese bank assets were $133 billion and Bahrain’s $210 billion. Likewise, the Dubai International Finance Center is a featherweight compared to the Dublin International Financial Services Center, which hosts 8,000 funds with $1.5 trillion in assets. So, while the reader will find nothing about the 2008 law that enabled Lebanon to become an offshore center (there were 5,983 registered companies in 2010), “Treasure Islands” gives a full account of how tax havens developed worldwide, the back-room deals that prompted legislative change, and the problems that tax havens cause.

At this point, a definition of “tax haven” is worth making, for as Shaxson notes, there is little agreement. Shaxson’s definition is a broad but salient one, with a tax haven a “place that seeks to attract business by offering politically stable facilities to help people or entities get around the rules, laws and regulations of jurisdictions elsewhere.” This can refer to the obvious, evading tax, to more complex financial dealings such as repackaging capital and trade miss pricing, to usury specialties and lax corporate governance laws. What all havens, onshore and offshore, have in common is “secrecy in various forms,” while a giveaway is whether “the financial services industry is very large compared to the size of the local economy.” A further common marker is very low or zero taxation rates, which are typically offered to non-residents, whereas residents are taxed.

But these jurisdictions are not just obscure tropical islands, they are the renowned financial centers of the world: the United States, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Britain. Cumulatively, the biggest player is Britain, with its Crown Dependencies and overseas territories (Guernsey, Jersey, Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands etcetera), plus the former empire (Hong Kong, Singapore etcetera) accounting for 37 percent of all banking liabilities and 35 percent of all banking assets on the planet. If the City of London is added in, at 11 percent, the British group has almost half of the world’s banking assets. Like the rest of the globe, the Middle East is linked to these tax haven networks, as a cursory glance through company registries will highlight a listing of places such as Panama, Cyprus, the Bahamas and so on. According to research published in 2011 by Global Financial Integrity (GFI), four Arab states were in the list of the top 10 countries worldwide with the highest illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2009: Saudi Arabia with $380 billion, the United Arab Emirates with $296 billion, Kuwait with $271 billion and Qatar with $130 billion. The GFI notes that the prominent destinations of this capital flight were fiscal paradises and the interconnected global financial centers.

Curbing tax havens is a pressing concern, as they deprive countries of billions of dollars in tax revenues as well as the capital available for lending, and played a major role in triggering the financial crisis. Shaxson offers some solutions, but taking on tax havens and their clientele incurs serious opposition. Some two-thirds of global cross-border trade happens within multinational companies — the majority of which utilize tax havens — while 99 of Europe’s 100 largest companies use offshore subsidiaries, with the largest users being banks.

While the reader is left with a degree of despondency given how intrinsically important tax havens are to the global financial system, Shaxson has done an invaluable service by making the public aware how rotten to the core it truly is.

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