The G20 and tax
Mar 26th 2009 | BERLIN
From The Economist print edition
Big economies are leaning on offshore tax havens. But greater abuse may be taking place at home
MONEY launderers are moved by greed, unlike Jason Sharman, a political scientist at Australia’s Griffith University. Yet with a budget of $10,000 and little more than Google (and the ads at the back of this paper), he showed how easy it was to circumvent prohibitions on banking secrecy, forming anonymous shell companies and secret bank accounts across the world. In doing so he has uncovered an uncomfortable truth for many of the leaders of Group of 20 nations meeting on April 2nd to discuss, among other things, sanctions against offshore tax havens. The most egregious examples of banking secrecy, money laundering and tax fraud are found not in remote alpine valleys or on sunny tropical isles but in the backyards of the world’s biggest economies.
At issue is not banking secrecy as the Swiss once knew it, where discreet men in plush offices promised to take the names of their clients to the grave. This is a more insidious form of secrecy, in which authorities and bankers do not bother to ask for names, something long outlawed in offshore tax centres such as Jersey and Switzerland but which has persisted in America. For shady clients, this is a far better proposition: what their bankers do not know, they can never be forced to reveal. And their method is disarmingly simple. Instead of opening bank accounts in their own names, fraudsters and money launderers form anonymous companies, with which they can then open bank accounts and move assets.
Nowhere is this more prevalent than in America. Take Nevada, for example. Its official website touts its “limited reporting and disclosure requirements” and a speedy one-hour incorporation service. Nevada does not ask for the names of company shareholders, nor does it routinely share the little information it has with the federal government.
There is demand for this ask-no-questions approach. The state, with a population of only 2.6m, incorporates about 80,000 new firms a year and now has more than 400,000, roughly one for every six people. A study by the Internal Revenue Service found that 50-90% of those registering companies were already in breach of federal tax laws elsewhere.
A money-laundering threat assessment in 2005 by the federal government found that corporate anonymity offered by Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming rivalled that of familiar offshore financial centres. For foreigners, America is a particularly attractive place to stash cash, because it does not tax the interest income they earn. Thus with both anonymity and no taxation, America offers them all the elements of a tax haven.
Change may be coming in America, but slowly. In March Senator Carl Levin proposed a law forcing states to identify the beneficial owners of corporations. “For too long, criminals have misused US corporations to hide illicit activity, including money laundering and tax fraud,” said Mr Levin. “It doesn’t make sense that less information is required to form a US corporation than to obtain a driver’s licence.”
Yet a similar bill introduced last year died a quiet death in committee.
America is not the only rich nation Mr Sharman tested. He tried to open anonymous shell companies and bank accounts 45 times across the world. These were successful in 17 cases, of which 13 were in OECD countries. One example was Britain, where in 45 minutes on the internet he formed a company without providing identification, was issued with bearer shares (which have been almost universally outlawed because they confer completely anonymous ownership) as well as nominee directors and a secretary. All was achieved at a cost of £515.95 ($753).
In other cases Mr Sharman formed companies by providing no more than a scanned copy of his driving licence. In contrast, when trying to open accounts in Bermuda and Switzerland, he was asked for documentation such as notarised copies of his birth certificate. “In practice OECD countries have much laxer regulation on shell corporations than classic tax havens,” Mr Sharman concludes. “And the US is the worst on this score, worse than Liechtenstein and worse than Somalia.”
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