Why Britain is a world leader in financial secrecy

Between $21-32trn of private wealth is kept in tax havens, and Britain is at the very centre of a global financial system that allows the wealthy to avoid tax.

According to the Tax Justice Network, around $21-32 trn of private financial wealth is located in secret tax jurisdictions around the world, where it is either untaxed or lightly taxed. It’s estimated that since the 1970s, this has cost African countries over $1trn, dwarfing the continent’s external debts of $190bn.

Today the Tax Justice Network has published its biannual secrecy index, which ranks countries on indicators like banking secrecy, anti-money laundering regulation, the kinds of company and trust structures permitted and whether their beneficial owners are made public. The three highest ranking countries in terms of financial secrecy are Switzerland, Luxembourg and Hong Kong.

What is noteworthy is how many British island dependencies and overseas territories – where laws must be approved in London and the Queen is the head of state – rank in the top 50 most secret tax jurisdictions. The UK itself comes in as number 21, while the Cayman Islands is in at number 4, Jersey at number 9, Bermuda (14), Guernsey (15), British Virgin Islands (20), Isle of Man (34), Gibraltar (49).

This is all the more interesting when you consider that David Cameron decided to make cracking down on tax avoidance and promoting tax transparency a key issue at G20 this year. In 2011 Nicholas Shaxson, who is a consultant for the Tax Justice Network, wrote the influential book, Treasure Islands, which argued that London is not only the creator of the modern offshore banking system, but is also one of the worst offenders. Lawyers and tax advisers based in the City manage money coming in from the world’s richest and then redirect it to low-cost satellites, from Jersey to Gibraltar.

John Christensen, the director of the Tax Justice Network has written to the Queen, drawing her attention to these findings and arguing that, “the secrecy facilities provided by these jurisdictions stains the good name of Britain in the international arena.”

Clamping down on banking secrecy will make it harder for corrupt world leaders to embezzle public funds, for criminals to launder money and for the world’s wealthiest to avoid taxes – it would however leave a lot of the smart lawyers and tax advisers in the City short of work. Most lawyers would strongly disagree with my conclusion – they are not allowed to help people break the law, and have to carry out special checks on those who are euphemistically referred to as “politically exposed persons”.

But I remember one City lawyer telling me that every year she was flown out to Switzerland by a mystery client, whose identity they didn’t know, to check over her client’s tax affairs. When they arrived in Switzerland, they’d be left in a room with their client’s financial documents. They weren’t allowed to take notes, photocopy documents or remove anything from the room. Operating in these conditions, how can a lawyer possibly be certain that they are not ironing out tax efficiencies for a Middle Eastern despot or a mafia don?

There have been tentative moves towards greater tax transparency – the Liechtenstein Disclosure Facility offers an amnesty of sorts for those who want to come clean on their tax liabilities on their money kept in Liechtenstein, for instance, and Switzerland has made a few concessions on banking secrecy. But these are only tentative moves. As one of the world’s leading financial centres, Britain does have the power to push forward moves towards greater transparency. But this requires real political commitment, and that's still lacking.

Protestors dressed as a businessman do a 'high five' on a protest site named by participants as the 'Isle of Shady Tax Haven' in London on June 14, 2013. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump