Little Trust on the Prairie

Offshore finance has always been glamorous. The world’s tax dodgers and kleptocrats seem to favor the same jurisdictions as James Bond, places with soring vistas, crystalline waters, and plenty of five-star resorts. Yet as the recent release of the Pandora Papers makes clear, the geography of offshore finance has shifted in recent years. For those seeking to obscure the origins of their wealth, South Dakota now eclipses Grand Cayman. Customer assets in South Dakota trusts have more than quadrupled over the past decade to $360 billion. And while there are of course legitimate reasons to set up a trust, trusts offer an ideal mechanism—even better than shell companies—for concealing ownership and preserving anonymity.

South Dakota is an especially attractive jurisdiction for setting up such trusts because it offers not only low costs and flexibility, but also a combination of privacy and control that those seeking to hide their wealth find attractive. Notably, South Dakota automatically seals trust records, preventing outsiders from identifying settlors and beneficiaries, and does not require publicly filing trust documents. (Although South Dakota’s privacy laws do not shield settlors and beneficiaries from federal law enforcement, they do conceal the trust from journalists and the private parties, making it less likely that those involved in the trust come to the attention of government authorities.) South Dakota also allows the creation of “dynasty trusts,” which exist in perpetuity, as well as “directed trusts,” which give families and their advisors maximum control in managing the trust’s affairs. Unusually, South Dakota also allows trusts whose settlor and beneficiary are the same person.

These rules make South Dakota trusts particularly appealing to business and political elites whose assets may be the target of civil as well as criminal litigation. Indeed, the Pandora Papers identified, among those who used South Dakota trusts to conceal their assets, a Colombian textile baron who had sought to launder international drug proceeds, a Brazilian orange juice mogul who allegedly underpaid local farmers, and the former president of a Dominican sugar producer who was accused of exploiting workers. With banks and even real estate agents wary of taking large sums from officials in corrupt regions, a U.S. domiciled trust offers a veneer of legitimacy.

Allowing states like South Dakota to join the archipelago of secrecy jurisdictions where bankers and trustees ask few questions undermines the United States’ fight against global corruption. Indeed, attacking those who abet foreign corruption while welcoming dirty money as an investment strategy is not just hypocritical but self-defeating. The rise of anonymous domestic trusts in the United States demands and an aggressive response from federal regulators. That response can and should include the following measures:

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