Public Beneficial Ownership Registries: A Response To Recent Criticisms

Anticorruption activists and other advocates for greater corporate and financial transparency scored a big win earlier this month when the UK announced that it would require the 14 British Overseas Territories (such as the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the Cayman Islands) to create public beneficial ownership registers for all corporations and other legal entities registered in those jurisdictions. Many in the pro-transparency community believe that such registers are critical for fighting corruption and money laundering, as they make it harder to use anonymous companies to engage in unlawful transactions and hide the proceeds of crime by requiring information on the actual human beings (the ultimate “beneficial owners”) who own or control these artificial legal entities. At the very least, beneficial ownership information should be verified and kept on file so that it will be available to law enforcement in the event of an investigation, but many in the pro-transparency community believe that public beneficial ownership registers would be even more effective, as they would provide open data that civil society groups, the media, and others could scrutinize and analyze in order to unearth shady transactions and make it harder for kleptocrats and others to hide their loot. The British Overseas Territories are not the only or even the worse offenders when it comes to corporate secrecy—the United States is still struggling to enact laws that would provide for a non-public register, which the BVI and some other Overseas Territories already have—but there’s no doubt that these jurisdictions are often a preferred destination for dirty money.

So when the UK announced that it would require the Overseas Territories to adopt public beneficial ownership registers, many cheered. But not everybody. A couple weeks back, over at the FCPA Blog, Martin Kenney, a lawyer based in the BVI, published an intemperate denunciation of the new policy, lambasting the so-called “transparency brigade” for having a “mob mentality,” for being “naïve,” “hypocritical,” and neo-imperialist (and possibly racist), and of taking advantage of the devastation that many of the Caribbean Islands suffered in Hurricanes Irma and Maria to push their agenda at a time when “they perceive their prey to be weakened.” Indeed, the ad hominem invective in the post is so thick that it’s sometimes hard to discern the serious, substantive objections underneath all the vitriol. Which is a pity, because Kenney actually does advance at least one or two arguments that, while in my view likely incorrect, are worth taking seriously.

Last week, Rick offered a thoughtful, measured response to Mr. Kenney’s piece that got at some, but perhaps not all, of the core issues. I want to pick up where Rick left off, to lay out what I think are the most sensible concerns about the new UK policy (and about public beneficial ownership registers more generally). And, following Rick’s lead, I’ll try to turn the rhetorical temperature down a few notches, as there’s little to be gained in a (virtual) shouting match on a complicated issue like this. Continue reading

Offshore Tax Havens: Whose Fight Is It Anyway?

By the end of 2017, offshore tax havens were (again) in the spotlight. This was largely thanks to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which helped release the “Paradise Papers”, a trove of documents primarily concerning the clientele of Appleby, a prestigious law firm with offices in the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas. These documents illustrated how firms like Appleby help wealthy individuals use offshore tax havens to avoid or evade paying taxes in their home jurisdictions; this is possible because tax havens offer significantly lower tax rates compared to the home jurisdiction, and also offer a measure of secrecy surrounding financial transactions. (Tax havens often have little to offer but these discounts; they rarely have good governance, and opportunities outside the finance industry are difficult to find for the locals.)

The movement to crack down on offshore tax havens has gathered much support from anticorruption activists. Pointing to leaks like the Paradise Papers (and the Panama Papers before them), anticorruption activists argue that the secrecy associated with offshore tax havens exacerbates the problems of kleptocracy and corruption. While I agree that offshore tax havens pose serious problems, I’m skeptical whether this issue should be a focal point for anticorruption activists (rather than, say, advocacy groups concerned primarily with tax justice or global wealth inequality). There are two reasons for this: Continue reading

A New BOSS in Town: Changes to BVI Beneficial Owner Information Regime

As the British Virgin Islands (BVI) continue to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Irma, attention is properly focused on humanitarian relief and the repair of the BVI’s physical infrastructure. But there have also been important recent developments associated with the BVI’s legal infrastructure—changes designed to address the BVI’s reputation as one of the world’s premier tax havens, and as a popular destination for money laundered by corrupt public officials, organized crime networks, and others.

Thanks in part by a campaign by former UK Prime Minister David Cameron to remove the “cloak of secrecy” from Britain’s offshore territories, and in part to the embarrassing publication of the Panama Papers, the BVI recently enacted a new Beneficial Ownership Secure Search System (BOSS) Act, which went into effect last June.

The BOSS Act is the latest in a series of steps designed to clean up the BVI’s image. Previous moves have included signing an intergovernmental agreement with the United States on Foreign Account Tax Compliance and becoming a signatory to the OECD’s Common Reporting Standard for the automatic exchange of tax and financial information. In 2016, the BVI changed the law to make it mandatory – for the first time – for companies to report their lists of directors to the government. Overall, it’s not yet clear whether these moves have had any effect on the island’s offshore economy. Indeed, the BVI’s interest in preserving its status as a center of the world’s offshore economy has prevented more drastic steps and weakened those that have been taken. (The 2016 law changes, for instance, did not require the reporting of ownership stakes.) Half-measures are unsurprising given the centrality of secrecy to the BVI’s economic success – after all, you can’t expect turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving. While the BVI points out in its defense that its level of transparency is no worse than that of other UK offshore territories, and is in fact better than that of some US states, the fact remains that most of the BVI’s legal reforms have weighed business interests in secrecy more heavily than public interests in transparency.

The BOSS Act unfortunately seems to suffer from the same problem, though it is a step in the right direction. Continue reading

Guest Post: After the Media Circus, What (If Anything) Have We Learned from the Panama Papers?

GAB is pleased to welcome back Professor Jason Sharman, Deputy Director of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University, Australia, who contributes the following guest post:

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