How Politicians Could Stop Offshore Tax Havens (if They Wanted To)

To do it right, the world would have to go after one notorious bastion of tax secrecy: the United States of America.

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Apr 7 2016, 3:55pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and US President Barack Obama at the G8 in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, in 2013. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

I wouldn't have thought we needed 11.5 million documents to know rich people around the world really don't like to pay their taxes. But the Panama Papers are still valuable for showing the lengths to which the global elite go to hide their money. The documents detail 40 years of work by the law firm Mossack Fonseca, profiled back in 2014 in VICE, to create hundreds of thousands of untraceable shell corporations in offshore jurisdictions like the British Virgin Islands and the Seychelles.

This is mostly done for one simple reason: to keep the taxman away.

The desire to conceal cash unites world leaders and global banks, criminals and celebrities, philanthropists and spies. And it doesn't begin and end with one Panamanian law firm. As Nicholas Shaxson, author of the best-selling book Treasure Islands, which documented the network of offshore tax havens several years ago, told the German channel Deutsche Welle, "Panama is one head of the tax haven hydra. It's a global system, they have been springing up since the era of financial globalization began."

The revelations have already pushed out Iceland's Prime Minister, and law enforcement agencies worldwide have opened investigations into the matter (though many of the documents may, perversely, be covered by attorney-client privilege and prove inadmissible in court). But if world leaders really wanted to do something about offshore tax havens and shell corporation secrecy, they could probably handle it in about 15 minutes.

On Wednesday, the Tax Justice Network, an international group of tax avoidance analysts, ran through just a few ways to consign the tax haven industry to history. The easiest is to actually police them. That means throwing some money at local tax authorities, staffing them with investigators and lawyers. The return on that investment, if we're talking about $200 billion per year in lost revenue worldwide from tax evasion, is astronomically high.

It would be just as effective if developed nations used their leverage to force transparency. The United Kingdom, for example, is implementing a public registry that requires all shell companies, trusts, and foundations to name their beneficial owners. Every country in the world could be asked to participate in that registry. And the West has plenty of ways to get them to comply: Powers could impose withholding taxes on international transactions with any country that refuses to share data. They could lock them out of the global financial system by refusing to accept payments.

Coalitions of Western countries have no problem imposing sanctions on Iran or North Korea to meet geopolitical goals. They could do the same to prevent offshore tax havens.

Of course, to make this operational, the world would have to go after one notorious bastion of tax secrecy: the United States. Indeed, America is arguably the largest tax haven in the world, with states like Delaware, Nevada, and Wyoming making it pathetically simple to create anonymous shell corporation accounts. Nearly 100 countries around the world have agreed to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) framework for an automatic exchange of information on financial accounts. But the United States is thus far the only country to explicitly refuse to join.

This brings us to the larger point of why the tax avoidance industry flourishes. The United States is quick to condemn Swiss banks, for example, for protecting wealthy clients from taxation. But they're less inclined to crack down on their own states, which profit from the incorporation fees that accompany secret shell corporations. For every policymaker professing intense outrage at someone else's tax evasion, there's almost always a close associate, campaign donor, or even family member in on the action.

Here's another example: if the United States and other large economies really wanted to stop tax avoidance, they could make ending offshore tax havens a condition of selling imported goods in their markets. Instead, the US completed a free trade agreement with Panama in 2011, without forcing them to dismantle their tax haven network.

America demands all sorts of conditions in trade deals: requiring countries to pry open markets, use draconian intellectual property regimes, or give favorable treatment for US corporations. But the feds didn't demand the one thing wealthy elites like about Panama: the ability to stash their money there to evade taxes. Instead, the two countries signed a weak side agreement that allows the US to obtain financial information from local shell corporations "upon request," but lets Panama's government decline to reveal the information if they deem it "contrary to their public policy." As Bernie Sanders said in a prescient speech in 2011, the Panama deal "effectively bar(s) the US from cracking down on illegal and abusive offshore tax havens in Panama."

It didn't have to be this way. Countries around the world could easily have made the mutually beneficial decision to end offshore tax haven abuse, simply by mandating transparency. They had plenty of ways to put that regime in place and punish those who didn't comply. This was—and still is—a choice. Global leaders haven't made it because they don't truly have an interest in preventing their friends in the elite from safeguarding cash, nor stopping their other friends at big banks and powerful law firms from profiting.

The global community has done some admirable work reining in offshore tax havens in recent years. And they could finish the job in pretty short order. Powerful forces would rather they didn't, of course. What remains to be seen is whether the outcry created by these 2.6 terabytes of data creates enough sunlight (and anger) to force governments to reject the status quo and side with regular people.

Follow David Dayen on Twitter.

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