Colm Keena: Global response needed to tackle ‘offshore’ culture

‘Secrecy jurisdictions’ are a magnet for people and firms that want to hide what they are up to for whatever reason

Neelie Kroes: it is ironic that the former competition commissioner with the European Commission is one of the names that emerged from the ICIJ’s perusal of the Bahamas registry

Neelie Kroes: it is ironic that the former competition commissioner with the European Commission is one of the names that emerged from the ICIJ’s perusal of the Bahamas registry

 

There is no let-up these days in the media assault on offshore tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions, and their use for controversial and sometimes questionable tax planning, not to mention in some cases for hiding tax evasion and corruption.

The latest project from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), of which The Irish Times is a media partner, is a minnow in comparison with the massive Panama Papers leak of earlier this year, but serves to illustrate an aspect of offshore jurisdictions such as the Bahamas.

The leak of the contents of a publicly-available register – it was leaked to Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared the data with the ICIJ and its partners – sounds like a non-event, but the corporate registry in the Bahamas, although theoretically available online, is very difficult to access.

Also, it is not searchable in the way most “on-shore” registries are in the sense that the registry cannot be searched for particular individuals. The registry as published by the ICIJ can.

But even when presented in a searchable way, the registry is of limited use when it comes to the disclosure of information. The directors listed for the companies are more often than not nominee directors, and the shareholders, or owners of the companies on the registry, are not disclosed.

Nor is the public offered any information about the finances or activities of the companies. It is for reasons such as these that the Irish-born head of the Washington DC-based ICIJ, Gerard Ryle, calls locations such the Bahamas “secrecy jurisdictions”.

It is worth remembering that limited liability status – the right in law to shield yourself from the debts that might be accumulated by a company you own – is a privilege granted by society. Its invention has served to enormously boost wealth generally because of the entrepreneurship and commercial risk-taking that it has encouraged, but the laws of parasitic locations such as the Bahamas have served to undermine some of the obligations that were hitched to the privilege, such as the publication of financial accounts, and the disclosure of who owns and controls each company.

This lack of transparency acts as a magnet for those individuals and companies that want to hide what they are up to from the general public, whether what they want to hide is their legitimate personal and business affairs, aggressive tax planning, tax evasion, kleptocracy or the proceeds of crime.

Tax planning

At the moment the view from Ireland on these matters is very much focused on the issue of aggressive tax planning with the European Commission’s dramatic ruling that Ireland’s arrangements with Apple constituted state aid.

It is ironic that Neelie Kroes, a former competition commissioner with the European Commission, is one of the names that emerged from the ICIJ’s perusal of the Bahamas registry.

The commission’s ruling, which Ireland is appealing, sparked a debate about what Ireland should do about its role in facilitating ultra-aggressive tax avoidance by the most profitable corporations in history. But the truth is that the situation is complicated.

As this and previous ICIJ leaks have shown, the use of “offshore” is deeply embedded in the world economy. It is not just that it includes jurisdictions such as Switzerland, Luxembourg and Ireland as well as the more classic tax havens such as the Bahamas. The fact is that just about every country has its own “offshore” niche that it tries to protect and exploit.

The leaks have also illustrated how “offshore” is used by small and medium-sized investors and business figures as much as it is by non-resident business titans, giant corporations and cash-rich crooks.

Investment

Political pressures to do something about “offshore” is complicated by the intense competition between the world’s governments for foreign direct investment.

If the developed world is to address a global problems like the use of secrecy jurisdictions and global tax planning strategies, powerful governments that have often sought home advantage will have to address the bigger picture and co-operate in the introduction of a new and agreed global template.

This is exactly what the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) was charged with doing some years ago by the G20 governments, leading to its Beps (base erosion and profit shifting) project.

If Beps doesn’t work then the pressure on governments to act unilaterally will continue to mount, even though such unilateral action can disrupt business, hurt economies and create international tensions. Ireland’s degraded relationship with the EU post the Apple ruling can be seen as a warning as to the danger the scandal of “offshore” represents.

Modern technology is facilitating a wave of data leaks that is feeding widespread outrage at how some people and corporations are gaming the system.

An organised, agreed and effective response that serves to ease international outrage is the only game in town.

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