Tax return done? Nah, I've offshored myself

Never mind trying to minimise your tax liability - it's surprisingly easy just to take yourself completely offshore and pay no tax at all, says Willard Foxton.

As I'm self-employed, I realised with some horror the other day that my tax return was due soon. In journalism, every year at this time of year, there's a frantic scrabble between friends seeking advice from one another - should you go on schedule D? Should you VAT register? Where did I put that carrier bag of moth-eaten and crumpled receipts? Can I claim back that strip bar we were "undercover" in?

In previous years, I've often come in for mockery from my mates, because I don't even claim VAT back. I don't have a service company, like 90 per cent of freelancers and many politicians. I just declare my full income, and then pay tax on it. Why? Well... I think that's the moral thing to do. Unpopular view, I realise. Maybe it makes me an idiot. However, I don't feel like a company, or an entrepreneur taking a risk, in need of tax breaks. I'm not going to get on my high horse about it - it's my decision. That said, at global champagne and lobster fest Davos, David Cameron said sensible tax planning is OK - which of course poses the question, where do you draw the line?

I've always though, if I was going to do the tax-dodging thing, I wouldn't do it in a mealy-mouthed, Ken-Livingstone-style, by setting up a company and filtering all my expenses through it. I'd go the full-bore Amazon/Starbucks/Google route of just trying to avoid tax completely. Given the choice between writing a column, and filing my tax return, I decided to see if I could easily offshore myself, using just the internet, with no specialist advice.

I expected it to be quite hard. That I'd need sixteen highly paid unscrupulous lawyers and a copy of Tolley's tax guide in front of me. Actually, it wasn't hard, at all.

First off, I had to choose my tax haven. Now, all the classics - Cayman Islands, Channel Islands, Luxembourg, Monaco, all seemed a bit passé, full of the kind of permatanned Eurotrash in white chinos who might try to bum cigarettes from me while I was relaxing on my yacht. I decided on the Marshall Islands, a Pacific archipelago which my grandfather visited with the British Pacific Fleet in 1945, which he described in his diaries as a "festering hole, stinking of excrement... heat unbearable".

I then googled the phrase "Marshall Islands Tax Haven", and on the first page of results, came across the Hong Kong-based company that the Marshall Islands have outsourced their company registration to. They have a 24-hour company registration hotline, which I of course called. I explained to the nice lady I spoke to that I wanted to set up a company in the Islands, with the aim of minimizing my tax exposure and making it hard for anyone to find out about my finances.

She explained to me I could have that within 24 hours. In addition to a zero tax jurisdiction, I was also getting a complete waiver on my corporate liability, no corporate filing obligations, total secrecy for my shareholders, and a complete waiver on any need to file accounting returns or prepare accounts for audit. For a small extra fee, they also offered to set me up a bank account in my choice of Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai (with debit cards, so I could spend in the UK, of course).

The total cost of the full package was about £900 - about one-thirteenth of what I'm due to fork over to HMRC by 31 January. Of course, as an added benefit, I'd never have to pay tax ever again. As their website states "in this modern age with the high quality of services available, offshore is now a relatively simple and affordable procedure for almost anyone. Once having moved all or part of your business offshore, the savings made by the low-tax or tax-free status opens up a whole new world of investment and business opportunities".

Unfortunately, when I mentioned to the lady that I'd like to write up the experience for a newspaper, she hung up the phone on me, so I guess I'll have to submit that tax return after all.

But in case you think "well, this is all very well, but I doubt it would really work", the company I spoke to really does hold the rights to administer corporate registrations for the Marshall Islands, and if HMRC wanted to find out about my tax affairs, it would have to investigate my affairs, find my Hong Kong bank account (numbered of course, not named), then issue proceedings in both China and the Marshall Islands. It's probable the game isn't worth the candle for HMRC if you're a lowly TV producer, rather than say, someone as rich as Mitt Romney. If the Marshall Islands don't take your fancy, there are plenty of firms offering to offshore you to Panama, Belize, the Caymans or Cyprus, who are using Google Adwords to show up to those googling "Marshall Islands Tax Haven".

I spoke with a tax expert about whether the structure I'd been offered would be legal. He said, in no uncertain terms "what you're suggesting would be a crime. Admittedly, a crime that's relatively easy to commit and relatively hard to investigate." He did also concede that with a little tweaking, it could be made kosher, but that it would be unlikely to be worthwhile legally for people with incomes under £150,000 a year. Still, that salary wouldn't exactly put me in the ranks of the super-rich; I probably wouldn't be troubling Abramovich to buy Chelsea. Maybe something like Folkestone Invicta FC . . .

Still, what the experiment showed me was that in the online age, international tax dodging doesn't have to be (and probably isn't) the preserve of multi-national mega corporations. In the connected, globalised world of the internet, it's very easy to find a tax haven, and the companies and consultancies who offer to move you (or your business) to one are easily available. It's probably something governments should be looking into stopping before it becomes more common.

Willard Foxton is a freelance journalist, who tweets @WillardFoxton

The Marshall Islands - solution to all your not-wanting-to-pay-any-tax problems. Photograph: Getty Images

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?