After the initial flurry of media attention to the Panama Papers, Matthew Stephenson rightly asks how much, if anything, we have really learned from this affair beyond the celebrity gossip.
A notable degree of modesty is in order here, as what we have seen so far is a tiny, almost certainly unrepresentative sample of the vast quantity of information leaked to International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The initial wave of media coverage related to 140 individuals, including 12 heads of state or government. Since the ICIJ database became searchable on May 9th, we have a few more names, mostly small-time crooks, and it is possible to run individual name searches to your heart’s content. Nevertheless, given that Mossack Fonseca had created 214,000 shell companies, what we have seems to be less than 1% of their clientele, and presumably the most sensational and outrageous cases. If you looked at your average big international bank, took the records of 214,000 accounts, and subjected them to a detailed financial audit, you probably would find at least a few hundred people engaged in crime or some other seriously shady business (putting banks’ own criminal conspiracies like rigging the LIBOR and Forex markets and sanctions-busting to one side).
Matthew’s earlier post asked about the structure of the offshore shell company industry–in particular, whether it was dominated by a few major providers, or whether it was a highly fragmented market with many firms, each with small market share. The answer is both: There are a few big wholesalers of shell companies, four or five, plus a couple in the US. The wholesalers sell to thousands of intermediary retailers, who then sell to the end-users, i.e. the beneficial owners. I was surprised by how many retailers Mossack Fonseca dealt with (14,000), given that the other wholesalers of equivalent size engage with 2,000-3,000 intermediaries. The difficulty keeping track of this number of retailers, let alone their customers, might explain Mossack Fonseca’s otherwise-puzzling suicidal indiscretion in transacting with customers who brought a huge amount of risk for a fairly trivial sum of money, e.g. those on US government sanctions lists.
What does the structure of the industry mean for regulatory solutions? The retailers could take up the slack if the wholesalers were put out of business, although the process of forming shell companies would be less efficient and more expensive. More importantly, the more concentrated the industry, the easier it is to regulate, compared to the whack-a-mole situation of thousands of independent retailers. As Rick Messick rightly points out, for this regulation to work, however, it is necessary for the Eligible Introducer system between wholesalers and retailers to work in identifying beneficial owners. Despite a litany of earlier high-profile failures, a Guardian piece actually suggests that the British Virgin Islands authorities had recently got on top of this problem: in 2015, 90 requests from the local Financial Intelligence Unit to Mossack Fonseca turned up the names of 89 beneficial owners. However, because customer identity documents are now almost always scans rather than paper, there seems to be no good reason why they can’t be held in the jurisdiction of incorporation.
More broadly, with the Panama Papers and the earlier April 2013 offshore leak, we (or at least the ICIJ) now have information on just over 320,000 offshore shell companies, which probably represents something like 15-20% of all the offshore shell companies ever created. You can work out the total number in that BVI has about 40-45% of the worldwide market. It currently has 450,000 active companies, and 950,000 formed in total since the creation of its registry. If we could draw a random sample of these companies and the associated documentation, rather than cherry-picking the worst of the worst, then we could form a much more accurate and robust conclusion on what the typical uses of offshore shell companies actually are.
In just looking at the information we do have from the Panama Papers, two things are fairly apparent, yet don’t seem to have attracted much comment so far: Continue reading