Tax havens are the centre pieces of a shadow financial system that enables users to escape regulations and tax laws in their own countries. These jurisdictions typically offer minimal regulation; little or no taxation on income or capital of non-residents; legally-enforced secrecy; non-disclosure of beneficial ownership of offshore corporations, trusts and foundations; and no effective exchange of information with other countries. As John Christensen notes in his essay, The Hidden Trillions: Secrecy, corruption and the offshore interface, these characteristics make such jurisdictions susceptible to a wide range of criminal and corrupt practices.
What possible logic allows such a state of affairs to prevail?
In March 2011, Canada’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance held hearings on offshore bank accounts and tax evasion. Among the expert witnesses called to testify was a professor from the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. In his remarks, the professor told parliamentarians that there are many positive benefits when Canadian companies make use of offshore financial centers. Canadian corporations become more competitive, he said, because of the lower taxes when repatriating profits to Canada. Offshore centres are conduits for Canadian businesses to gain access to the global economy, allowing them entry to more risky and emerging markets. While making clear that he didn’t advocate tax evasion, the professor said that because of the reduced cost of capital for Canadian companies, offshore centres are good for the Canadian economy.
The professor’sapologia and endorsement of offshore tax havens – more properly called secrecy jurisdictions – is astonishing given the economic damage they have inflicted on Northern and Southern countries alike, including Canada. Multinational corporations and banking institutions routinely use secrecy jurisdictions to lower or eliminate their tax obligations, avoid regulation, and obscure their financial transactions. Wealthy individuals hold trillions of dollars in offshore accounts, avoiding the payment of taxes in their places of residence. Resources from some of the world’s poorest countries have disappeared into offshore black holes, depriving them of the means to invest in schools, health services and essential public infrastructure. Every year, more than US$1.5 trillion of criminal money – from drug smuggling, arms and human trafficking, and corruption – is laundered through secrecy jurisdictions. All of these problems are linked to an opaque and unaccountable offshore system that festers at the heart of the global finance.
The origin of offshore money laundering is linked to a rather disreputable period in Canadian history. The Prohibition era in the United States between 1919 and 1933 was a bonanza for American gangsters as well as for Canadian bootleggers such as Samuel Bronfman. Throughout the 1920s, millions of gallons of Canadian rye whiskey were smuggled across the border to a thirsty American populace. The U.S. gangs involved were a who’s who of the underworld – Frank Costello, Moe Dalitz, Detroit’s Purple Gang, the Reinfeld Syndicate, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Al Capone. The conviction of Chicago’s Al Capone in 1931 for tax evasion was a wake-up call for mobsters. So much money was being illegally earned that it was not possible to launder it through car washes and Laundromats. New methods had to be found to conceal the source of illicit money and wash it clean.
The New York gangster Meyer Lansky is widely acknowledged as the architect of offshore money laundering. In his lifetime, Lansky was one of the most powerful crime figures in the United States and the inspiration for the Hyman Roth character in the film The Godfather. Associates said that Lansky possessed a formidable intellect and an exceptional mastery of numbers. Despite determined efforts by U.S. authorities to build a criminal case against him, Lansky spent little time in jail and after a long and rewarding career retired to a comfortable home in suburban Florida.
Lansky and his partners were underworld entrepreneurs. During the Prohibition era, they sold bootleg liquor, organized a truck rental company, established bottling plants, and hijacked goods smuggled by other gangs. They even ran an efficient maritime shipping business to transport high quality Scotch across the Atlantic. 
Anxious to avoid the fate of Al Capone, Lansky had made his first foray into Swiss banking in the early 1930s, initially with the Exchange and Investment Bank of Geneva and later with the equally shady International Credit Bank of Switzerland. Lansky pioneered the ‘loan-back” technique. Money would be moved in the form of cash, traveller’s cheques, or bearer bonds for deposit in numbered Swiss accounts. The money then returned home in the form of “loans” to the person who had initiated the cycle who would repay the loan with interest, deducting the interest from his taxable income as a business expense. A variant of this scheme is still used today by multinational corporations to reduce their tax obligations.
Lansky saw Canada’s potential as a money laundering conduit as early as the 1930s and promoted the repatriation of Mob money through Canada. Years later, Lansky convened a meeting in Mexico with mobsters from Ontario and Quebec to discuss laundering through Canada. The RCMP reported that Mob money was invested in every kind of business in Toronto, from hotels, restaurants, shopping plazas, to real estate. Canada had its own Lansky-like figure in William Obront, the financial brains of Montreal’s Cotroni crime family, who laundered millions in profits from securities fraud, gambling, prostitution, extortion and drug trafficking.
When Prohibition ended in 1933, Lansky moved into illegal gambling, initially in New York and Florida. In 1937, Lansky began gambling operations in Batista’s Cuba. Cuba soon became an offshore money-laundering centre for the Mob as illicit money arrived in suitcases from the American mainland for transfer elsewhere. In return for kick-backs from casino earnings, Batista made Lansky his official advisor on gambling. In the 1950s, Lansky built the Havana Riviera, a luxurious 440-room hotel and casino. Lansky made a fortune in Cuba but lost everything in 1959 when a small band of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime.
Lansky moved offshore again to the Bahamas, a British colony, and began to re-build a gambling empire. One of his close associates was John Pullman, a skillful fraudster from Canada. As Lansky and his Mob associates developed their enterprises, a new bank opened in Nassau, the Bank of World Commerce, with John Pullman as a director and later president. Soon the International Credit Bank of Switzerland also opened a branch in the Bahamas. Illicit profits were refinanced into legitimate businesses, securing the Mob’s foothold in banks, brokerage houses, real estate, insurance firms and lending institutions.  Lansky scrupulously filed his U.S. income tax returns every year, declaring his income from legal sources.
As early as 1937, U.S. officials expressed alarm that wealthy Americans were evading taxes by establishing personal holding companies in the British colonies of the Bahamas and Newfoundland. As the Mob developed their activities in the Bahamas, some British officials expressed concern that the offshore industry would bring renewed protests from the U.S. government. The British authorities, however, did nothing. When Lynden Pindling was elected as Premier in 1967 on a platform hostile to gambling and corruption, large parts of the offshore industry moved to the nearby Cayman Islands, a British Overseas Territory. Within a few months, money began to pour into Grand Cayman. The first foreign bank to set up shop was Barclays of the United Kingdom, followed by the Royal Bank of Canada, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and the Bank of Nova Scotia Trust Company. Despite warnings from officials, the British government again did nothing and allowed the Cayman Islands to develop into one of the world’s most notorious sinks for corrupt money.
There are several explanations for the British government’s reluctance to prohibit the development of secrecy jurisdictions in its own territories. By the 1950s and 1960s, the British Empire was collapsing and along with it the wealth that had sustained Britain for centuries. Many colonists and business people in the newly independent countries wanted to take their money out and needed clandestine means to do so. Nicholas Shaxson also suggests that British interests were determined to preserve London’s dominant role in international finance and set out to build a “London-centered web of half-British territories...that would catch financial business from nearby jurisdictions by offering lightly taxed, lightly regulated and secretive bolt holes for money.”
The offshore system proliferated in the late 1950s with the development of the London-based Euromarket which resulted in the liberalization of capital movements and unregulated loan markets. Shaxson notes that the City of London transformed itself into an “offshore island,” servicing businesses that were elsewhere. The market rippled outwards, initially to the Channel Island havens, and then the Caribbean secrecy jurisdictions which became Euromarket booking centres, “secretive and semi-fictional way stations...where the world’s wealthiest individuals and corporations, especially banks, could park their money, tax free and in secrecy...”
The history of offshore finance, of course, is more than bootleggers, mobsters and British imperial ambitions. Secrecy jurisdictions developed independently in Europe to assist wealthy Europeans evade taxes. Switzerland is one of the world’s oldest and largest havens for criminal money laundering and tax evasion. Over the years, the gangsters have been replaced by the major international accounting firms and a “pinstripe infrastructure of professional bankers, lawyers and accountants” who continue to play a key role in shaping and promoting offshore facilities for their clients.
Today there are more than seventy secrecy jurisdictions spread throughout the world. They include the Caribbean havens, the Channel Islands, Cyprus, Andorra, Austria, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Singapore and Hong Kong. The tiny island of Nauru in the South Pacific, with one road and a population of less than 10,000 people, hosted 400 “banks” providing laundering services for billions of dollars of flight capital from Russia. But secrecy jurisdictions are not limited to Alpine principalities or the tropical islands of popular imagination; rather, they exist at the centre of global finance.
Offshore banks have gone to great lengths to attract the assets of “high net worth individuals.” While statistical data on the offshore system is limited, the Tax Justice Network estimates that $21 to $32 trillion of the financial wealth of the world’s richest people is lodged in secrecy jurisdictions, resulting in global tax losses of at least $200 billion every year. In 2009, U.S. prosecutors charged the Zurich-based UBS Bank with helping Americans hide assets from the Internal Revenue Service. UBS paid a $780 million penalty and disclosed 4,450 accounts of U.S. customers. The U.S. investigation also revealed that the Canada Desk of UBS Bank was managing some $5.6 billion on behalf of wealthy Canadians. In 2010, a joint CBC News and Globe and Mail (Toronto) investigation uncovered more than 1,700 accounts belonging to Canadians at the Geneva-based HSBC Private Bank.In early 2012, the Wegelin Bank of Switzerland was sold after three of its bankers were charged in New York with conspiring to assist U.S. clients conceal more than $1.2 billion from American tax authorities. U.S. officials announced they were investigating eleven other Swiss banks as well.
Canadian banks have a massive presence throughout the Caribbean, including in some of the most notorious secrecy jurisdictions. Among North American banks, only New York’s Citibank has more offshore subsidiaries than Scotiabank. In 2002, the Association for the Protection of Québec Savers and Investors, along with the B.C.-based Shareholders Association of Canada (SHARE), pressed the six Canadian banks to examine whether their subsidiaries should remain in tax havens given the unsavoury role of these jurisdictions. All the banks pleaded innocent of any wrongdoing and carried on business as usual. A study by the Université du Québec à Montréal estimated that the five major Canadian banks avoided $16 billion in provincial and federal taxes through the use of offshore subsidiaries between 1991 and 2003.
Half of all international bank lending and at least half of all global trade on paper is conducted through secrecy jurisdictions, enabling multinational corporations to allocate profits in low-tax jurisdictions and costs to high tax jurisdictions. Secrecy jurisdictions host more than two million “international business corporations,” usually little more than shell companies with a postal address. The British Virgin Islands, with a population of 25,000, hosts an estimated 460,000 business corporations. One modest building in the Cayman Islands is home to more that 18,000 of these entities. Before being exposed as a spectacular fraud, Enron had more than 6,500 shell companies, 600 of which were registered in the Cayman Islands. A December 2008 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that 83 of the 100 largest publicly-traded companies in the U.S., including big banks receiving bail-out money, have scores of offshore subsidiaries.
Many of the world’s largest and most profitable corporations pay little or no tax at all. The U.S.-based Citizens for Tax Justice calculated that from 2006 to 2011, General Electric’s net federal income taxes have been negative $2.7 billion, despite $39.2 billion in pre-tax U.S. profits over the period. In a technique called the “Dutch sandwich,” Google cut its tax rate by more than US $3 billion by channeling profits through Ireland, the Netherlands and Bermuda. Profitable U.S. companies with offshore subsidiaries that paid no federal taxes in 2010 included Bank of America, Exxon/Mobil, Boeing, and Citicorp. A March 2012 investigation reported that 30 large U.S. companies which paid no federal income tax between 2008 and 2010 were major contributors to U.S. political leaders in both parties and particularly to the committee members that control tax policy in both chambers of Congress.
A U.S. Senate investigation estimated that tax evasion costs the U.S. $100 billion annually. British tax expert Richard Murphy calculated that the annual loss to the U.K treasury is at least £70 billion. Canada’s auditor general warned in 2002 that corporate “tax arrangements with foreign affiliates have eroded Canadian tax revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars over the past 10 years.” Between 1990 and 2003, Canadian assets in offshore financial centres increased eight-fold, accounting for more than one-fifth of all Canadian direct investment abroad in 2003, double from 13 years earlier.
Tax evasion and capital flight have even more grave consequences for developing countries. The Washington-based Global Financial Integrity (GFI) found that between 2000 and 2008, developing countries lost an average of $725 billion to $810 billion per year, almost ten times what they received in international aid, largely due to commercial tax evasion. In a 2011 report on Africa, GFI calculated that between 1970 and 2008, Africa lost at least $854 billion in illicit financial flows. GFI noted that this is likely an under-estimate and that the magnitude of African illicit outflows during this period could be as high as $1.8 trillion.
These findings on Africa are corroborated by other studies. Ndikumana and Boyce found that $735 billion fled 33 sub-Saharan countries between 1970 and 2008. This means that sub-Saharan Africa is a net creditor to the rest of the world, its foreign assets far exceeding its foreign debts of $175 billion.Most of these assets are in the hands of private individuals; in 2007, African “high net worth individuals” held $1 trillion in offshore accounts. Ndikumana and Boyce calculated that debt service payments on loans that fuelled capital flight have resulted in more than 75,000 additional infant deaths annually in the sub-Saharan region.
A 2009 study commissioned by Christian Aid (UK) calculated that trade mispricing by transnational enterprises costs the world’s 49 poorest countries $160 billion a year in lost tax revenues. GFI looked at illicit capital flight from 48 Least Developed Countries; over the period 1990-2008, $197 billion flowed out of these LDCs, mainly into developed countries. Pak, de Boyrie and Nelson found that commodities trading between 30 African countries and the United States between 2000 and 2005 resulted in Africa losing over $13 billion to the U.S. due to trade mispricing.
The World Bank and UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) estimate that $20 to $40 billion is lost to developing countries each year through corruption, the majority channelled through secrecy jurisdictions. During his tenure, Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha looted $3 to $5 billion, laundered through the U.K., Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Jersey and the Bahamas. Indonesia’s Suharto looted $15 to $35 billion, Mobutu of Zaire $5 billion. Marcos of the Philippines stole an estimated $5 to $10 billion of which only $624 million was recovered through the Stolen Assets Recovery initiative (StAR). The StAR initiative estimates that only $5 billion in stolen assets have been repatriated to developing countries over the past 15 years.
These data clearly show that developing country economies are being deprived of vast amounts of potential investment capital and their governments denied tax revenues needed to support health services, education, shelter, social security and public infrastructure. Countries that lose the ability to raise their own resources become more dependent on foreign aid, in a period when aid levels are shrinking. As the Tax Justice Network has pointed out, the loss of tax revenues is heightening inequality and poverty, corroding democracy, and obstructing economic growth. Raymond Baker calls the haemorrhage of resources from poor countries the “ugliest chapter in global economic affairs since slavery.”
“The era of banking secrecy is over,” proclaimed the 2009 official communiqué of the G20 meeting in London. G20 leaders, presiding over the worst economic recession in a generation, recognized that the shadow banking system had played a major role in contributing to the economic crisis that began in 2008. G20 leaders vowed to crack-down on the offshore system and threatened to deploy sanctions against non-cooperative jurisdictions, including tax havens. The communiqué announced that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) would immediately publish a list of jurisdictions that were not in compliance with OECD standards on transparency and exchange of information for tax purposes.
The OECD list, released on the same day as the G20 communiqué, was divided into three sections: a “blacklist” of non-compliant states, a “grey” list of jurisdictions that have committed but not yet met the standards, and a “white” list of those substantially in compliance. Astonishingly, within days of the close of G20 meeting, the black zone was empty. Intense diplomatic pressure had successfully removed the most notorious secrecy jurisdictions from the blacklist.
Since the 2009 meeting in London, G20 leaders have continued to identify the lack of regulation in the financial system as problematic, but the language on secrecy has all but disappeared. Subsequent OECD initiatives to tackle harmful tax competition have proven to be largely ineffective. Christensen and others have criticized the OECD’s model Double Taxation Agreements (DTAs) and Tax Information Exchange Agreements (TIEAs) as essentially useless since they are bilateral treaties in which information exchange is usually done upon request. This means that tax authorities must have already investigated and constructed a case against an individual before requesting additional information. Moreover, even if there is an agreement to exchange information it may not be available and in some cases this is quite deliberate.
In response to the lacuna in international action, the Tax Justice Network launched a “Financial Secrecy Index” which ranks countries according to their level of secrecy and the scale of their financial activities. The index assesses a country’s laws and regulations and international treaties as well as their size and importance to global financial markets. In the 2011 assessment, the top five out of 71 jurisdictions were Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, Hong Kong and the United States. The index showed that the world’s most secretive jurisdictions are largely rich nations and that many are members of the OECD as well as the G20.
The Financial Secrecy Index also reveals that mainstream thinking about the politics and geography of corruption is seriously flawed. Transparency International ranks some of the world’s major secrecy jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Luxembourg, the United States, and the United Kingdom as among the “least corrupt.” Yet, Switzerland’s banks have provided services to drug dealers and criminals including the Cali cartel, the Medellin cartel, the Russian Maffiya, and the Sicilian Mafia as well as a substantial gallery of corrupt dictators. In the United States, it is perfectly legal for financial institutions to handle the proceeds of a lengthy list of crimes as long as those crimes are committed elsewhere. Moreover, the tiny state of Delaware is one of the world’s largest secrecy jurisdictions, home to thousands of shell companies and holding an estimated $5 trillion in undeclared assets. Almost half of the world’s secrecy jurisdictions are connected to the United Kingdom as Crown Dependencies, British Overseas Territories or as members of the Commonwealth. As Christensen argues, there is a need to draw public attention to the people and institutions that comprise the “supply-side” of corruption.
Civil society organizations such as the Tax Justice Network, Global Financial Integrity, OXFAM-UK, Global Witness, Christian Aid (UK), the Halifax Initiative and labour movements have been joined by dozens of other citizen’s groups worldwide to promote global financial transparency, especially on tax matters, with governments and multilateral institutions.  Key among CSO demands is the establishment of a multilateral framework for the automatic exchange of tax information. Such a multilateral agreement would require governments to collect from financial institutions data on income, gains, and property paid to non-resident individuals, corporations, and trusts. This would be a much more robust approach compared to the OECD’s weak bilateral models of information exchange "on request."
CSOs have also been campaigning for the adoption of international accounting standards requiring multinational corporations to report sales, profits, and taxes paid on a country-by-country basis in their audited annual reports and tax returns. Currently most multinationals report only consolidated accounts which makes it impossible to determine where companies are working, how many employees they have in each geographic location, and the amount of taxes they remit to host governments. Country-by-country reporting would require information on sales, purchases, labour costs, financing costs, pre-tax profits, tax charges, costs, and value of assets. CSOs have made representations to the International Accounting Standards Board to promote the adoption of this standard. Not surprisingly, this proposal is actively resisted by multinational companies since it would limit their ability to shift profits and taxes across jurisdictions.
CSOs are also advocating that the U.N. Committee of Experts on International Co-operation on Tax Matters be strengthened in terms of mandate and resources. The G77 group of developing countries and China have proposed that the U.N. tax committee to be upgraded to an intergovernmental commission, a position that the OECD, including Canada, and the European Union adamantly oppose. However, the U.N. is far better able to represent the interests of developing countries than the OECD which is largely a club of rich countries and, as we have seen, has a serious credibility problem in this area.
CSOs are also promoting the integration of responsible tax policies into corporate accountability frameworks. Corporate integrity and good practice mean complying not merely with the letter of the law, but also with the spirit of the law. Taxes are a key aspect of how corporations relate to the societies that nurture them. Tax revenues pay for the goods and services upon which corporations depend – public infrastructure, access to the environmental commons, an educational system that trains workers, social and health services, significant subsidies, and a complex and costly legal system that safeguards corporate contracts and property rights. Tax expert Richard Murphy argues that tax is not a business cost. Rather, tax is much like a dividend – a return due on investments made by society-at-large, and derived from the ‘commons,’ from which corporations benefit.
Ultimately, what is required is a change of attitudes about the role of taxation in our societies. Taxes are a crucial part of the democratic social contract between citizens and the state. Yet, political leaders of all stripes typically refer to taxes as a burden, rather than the way we have collectively organized to provide the infrastructure and services enjoyed by everyone. When wealthy citizens and commercial actors opt out of taxation, the social contract is undermined and public cynicism prevails. In this context, a public discussion about a fair and progressive tax system is urgently required – a public discussion that leads to the end of tax evasion as a norm, and the end of the use of state-sponsored “havens” that expedite such evasion.
The promotion of transparency and accountability in the international financial system has been resisted by powerful players and jurisdictions that profit from the status quo. However, as it becomes widely recognized that secrecy spaces have inflicted enormous damage on local economies, citizen’s groups are organizing in most parts of the world to resist and transform this reality. Creative public education activities have developed such as the Tackle Tax Havens and the Robin Hood Tax campaigns. Citizen’s groups in Africa are mobilizing to demand their governments engage in transparent negotiations with multinational companies related to taxation, royalties and the recovery of social and environmental costs. The Occupy Wall Street movement has focused public attention on the role of the financial system in creating and maintaining profound levels of economic inequality not experienced since the 1920s.
This burgeoning movement is achieving a critical mass, locally and globally, and offers hope that we might collectively begin to rebuild societies rooted in sound economics and an ethics of responsible citizenship, equality and social solidarity. There is no better place to start than to eradicate secrecy jurisdictions that allow a few to concentrate obscene levels of wealth while communities – and nations – crumble, and the local and global commons erodes and disappears.
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Swiss bank secrecy has a long tradition but it was not until 1934 that bank confidentiality was made subject of criminal sanctions. A myth promulgated by Swiss banks was that criminal sanctions were to protect Jewish assets from the Nazis. In reality, sanctions were enacted after elite members of French society were caught evading taxes through the use of Swiss banking services.Chaikin, D., 2005.