Two years ago, the leak of the Panama Papers showed the world how the wealthiest people conceal their assets in offshore tax havens. The leak prompted outrage, political scandals, and calls for an overhaul of the laws that permit such tax-avoidance or tax-evasion strategies. On Sunday, there was another leak: This one, dubbed the Paradise Papers, provided details on the offshore assets of more than 120,000 individuals and entities, ranging from Queen Elizabeth II and U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to Apple and Facebook.
If the new revelations spark outrage, this will be despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of activities chronicled by the papers have been called perfectly legal. Most developed countries have laws in place that allow residents to legally avoid paying more in taxes—tax avoidance is legal, while tax evasion is not. But even legal activities in this context have been called “murky” and morally questionable. They are also extremely unpopular among the general public. Details about tax havens, secret bank accounts, and trillions of dollars of revenue being kept offshore have resulted in calls for a more equitable global system of taxation, a crackdown on tax havens, and for the super-rich to pay their fair share. But while attention focuses on places like Panama or the Bahamas or Bermuda, the so-called sunny places for shady people, the truth is nearly every rich country is a tax haven of some sort.
“Basically all developed countries are vis-a-vis somebody else a tax haven,” said David Lesperance, who runs Lesperance & Associates, an Ontario-based tax and residence consultancy.
Canada, he said, is a tax haven compared to the United States because it doesn’t have a gift or estate tax—which the U.S. does. “So, if somebody leaves the U.S. tax system, which happens to require them to renounce their U.S. citizenship, and becomes a tax resident of Canada, they end up having a lower tax obligation,” he said.
Ditto for the U.S. and France. The U.S. doesn’t have a wealth tax, which France does, making the U.S. a tax haven for the French citizens who want to avoid it. The Cayman Islands not only has no estate tax, gift tax, or wealth tax, but also no capital-gains tax or income tax—which explains why it’s such a popular destination for offshore accounts. In other words, places like Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. have rules in place that make them attractive tax destinations for wealthy foreigners.
“What it comes down to,” Lesperance said, “is countries compete for economic benefit.”
They also compete for the world’s richest people who, because of globalization, are no longer bound to a specific place to make and maintain their money. And because these few super-wealthy people account for a disproportionate amount of tax revenue that is collected, their flight to a tax haven causes, in Lesperance’s words, “an asymmetric negative impact on your total tax revenue.” Also, “If you can attract a few of them, it has an asymmetric positive impact.”
Over the past two decades, as the scale of tax avoidance and evasion became clear, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the global club of rich nations, began to put pressure on tax havens to change their laws because of what it called unfair tax competition. At first, companies had used bilateral treaties that forbade income being taxed twice in the two signatory nations to move some of their assets to the country with the lower tax rate. Then, as these treaties lapsed, tax havens passed legislation to exempt these international companies from most local taxes. New OECD rules mandate the automatic sharing of tax information. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service has also stepped in with its Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. The act mandates that U.S. persons must declare their overseas income annually.
“Our view is that this new system will damage the dodgy tax havens but will not much impact the more sophisticated ones like Switzerland, Singapore and the Channel Islands that rely on more than bank secrecy,” Steven Leslie, lead analyst, financial services, at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in an email.
That is perhaps the most important part about the controversy over offshore corporations and bank accounts. Anyone can register an offshore corporation, but international monitoring mechanisms have made opening a bank account extremely difficult.
“A corporation without a bank account is a corpse,” Lesperance said. “It’s useless.”
Appleby, the law firm at the heart of the Paradise Papers, facilitated the setting up of offshore corporations—a perfectly legal action. It may have also introduced its customers to bankers and completed the documentation requirements for the bank, but under the rules it is the bank’s job to screen and monitor its customers. As Lesperance pointed out, “bad behavior by banks is in no way limited to tax haven banks.” (Rolling Stone even chronicled HSBC’s connections to criminals—for which the bank was fined nearly $2 billion.)
Following the release of the papers, the Tax Justice Network, which opposes tax havens, called on countries “to start to tax the global profits of multinational corporations.” Other critics like Oxfam say when governments cut taxes in order to attract businesses, they are diverting tax revenue that can be spent to address poverty. They call the lowering of tax rates a “destructive race to the bottom.”
Lesperance disagreed. “They will go to the point of equilibrium,” he said, “not race to the bottom.”