In the past few days, hundreds (if not thousands) of media reports have linked the Panamanian wealth management firm Mossack Fonseca to a series of financial crimes. The massive “Panama Papers” leak documents the firm’s involvement in facilitating activities that may constitute fraud, money laundering, and theft, including by officials at the highest levels of governments worldwide. But the real scandal is that most of what Mossack Fonseca and the rest of the wealth-management industry do is perfectly legal.
Anyone reading this article can evade taxes, or even dabble in offshore finance, without expert intervention. With just an Internet connection and a few thousand dollars, anybody can create shell corporations and other offshore vehicles in a matter of minutes. It’s child’s play to dodge taxes, debts, child support, and so on by putting assets in one of those structures—though there is a risk of getting caught, audited, and possibly prosecuted.
But that’s not what many of the world’s richest people are doing: They can afford the privilege of defeating the spirit of the laws without violating them formally. What Mossack Fonseca and its counterparts all over the world really provide is the expertise that allows their clients to stay just on the right side of the law—or far enough into the legal grey zones that the clients have a real chance to prevail if they end up in court. That’s why many of the people who have seemingly been exposed by this leak will likely never face charges of any kind. To the extent that Mossack Fonseca’s work facilitated crime, that was a bug rather than a feature.