Guest Post: Beneficial Ownership Secrecy–Not All Offshore Financial Centers Are Part of the Problem, and Public Registries Are Not the Solution

Geoff Cook, Chief Executive Officer of Jersey Finance, contributes the following guest post:

The so-called “Panama Papers”—the documents leaked from the Mossack Fonseca law firm by an anonymous whistleblower—have highlighted how certain corporate service providers (CSPs) are able to set up, in offshore international financial centers (IFCs), shell companies for their clients, with bank accounts and other assets then owned by the shell company, so that the identity of the ultimate beneficial owner is hidden. That secrecy enables corruption, tax evasion, money laundering, and other nefarious activity.

While the Panama Papers revelations may have done some good in calling more attention to abuses of the legal and financial system – abuses that can and should be fought – much of the prevailing discussion in the wake of the Panama Papers revelations – much of it driven by moral outrage and salacious headlines about dubious deals – has produced two significant analytical errors, one concerning the diagnosis of the problem, and the other concerning the appropriate prescription. Continue reading

The Panama Papers and the Structure of the Market for Asset-Concealment Services: Whack-a-Mole or Squeegee Men?

The news item that’s caused the most buzz in the anticorruption community in the past month is likely the bombshell release of the so-called “Panama Papers” (though the initiation of impeachment proceedings against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff runs a close second). Most readers of this blog probably don’t need much explanation of the Panama Papers or their significance. These documents, leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, reveal how a very large number of very wealthy individuals, including many senior government officials and their close associates, have made use of middlemen, shell companies, obscure corporate secrecy rules, and other legal techniques to conceal their wealth from tax authorities, law enforcement, and the general public. (Rick’s post from a few weeks ago usefully highlights some of the most important legal loopholes that Mossack Fonseca helped its clients exploit.) Though in some cases the assets in question may have been acquired legitimately, in many cases they probably weren’t. And while it’s not entirely clear whether Mossack Fonseca broke any laws in assisting its clients, the whole affair is a window into the shadowy and often sordid practices that the very wealthy—including corrupt public officials and their cronies—use to hide their assets.

I haven’t yet weighed in on the Panama Papers brouhaha on this blog, mainly because I’m not sure what there is to say. On the one hand, the Panama Papers leaks are hugely consequential for at least two reasons: First, the identification of specific individuals—in addition to feeding our collective appetite for celebrity gossip—is likely to be important for holding those individuals legally or politically accountable. (And indeed, the release of the Panama Papers has already forced the resignation of Iceland’s former Prime Minister Davio Gunnlaugsson.) Second, the Panama Papers revelations have gotten a great deal of mainstream media attention, including front-page coverage on major newspapers and prominent discussions elsewhere. This may well help build momentum for efforts that anticorruption activists and others have been pushing for some time (such as crackdowns on corporate secrecy, closing gaps in the international money laundering regime, and other matters). Yet at the same time, individual names aside, it’s not clear that the Panama Papers revelations have told the anticorruption community anything that wasn’t already widely known (or at least strongly suspected): That corrupt leaders, and plenty of others with an interest in hiding their assets, take advantage of lax or uneven regulatory oversight, combined with networks of shell companies. So, while the added publicity is a boon, and the identification of individuals is necessary (though of course not sufficient) to holding them accountable, I’m not entirely sure whether the Panama Papers revelations have told us all that much that’s new. Of course, we still have a lot to learn from these documents—many of which haven’t yet been published—and I would be lying if I said I’d studied what has been released carefully enough to have any strong opinions. But I’ve been struggling to come up with something interesting to say about the Panama Papers, and mostly coming up empty.

There is, however, one thing about these revelations did strike me as potentially interesting, which I haven’t seen discussed in the coverage of the Panama Papers that I’ve read so far, so I thought I’d throw it out here to see what other people think: Continue reading

When Transparency Isn’t the Answer: Beneficial Ownership in High-End Real Estate

Earlier this month Transparency International UK published a report entitled “Corruption on Your Doorstep: How Corrupt Capital Is Used to Buy Property in the UK.” The Britain-specific recommendations are part of TI’s broader “Unmask the Corrupt” campaign, a call by TI, and echoed by others, to establish public registries of beneficial ownership. A similar call to unveil the individuals behind the shell corporations used to buy luxury condos in Manhattan garnered a lot of attention stateside during last month’s New York Times “Towers of Secrecy” series on the city’s high-end property market (see here, here, here, here, here, and here). The anticorruption rationale for mandating disclosure of real property beneficial ownership seems straightforward: As both the TI-UK report and the NYT series argue, buying real property in New York and London is an appealing way to launder stolen funds, because high-end real estate purchases allow a corrupt actor to inject millions of dollars into the legitimate market without having to deal with pesky anti-money laundering regulations, completing the purchases through shell companies that disguise the true beneficial owner. Requiring public disclosure of the beneficial owners of real property would in theory have two related benefits: First, requiring purchasers to reveal beneficial ownership information up front would dissuade some from using real property as a means of laundering money, and second, if law enforcement authorities have ready access to this information, it will make it easier to instigate and conduct investigations, as well as to seize assets later on.

Indeed, transparency in real property beneficial ownership seems like the kind of thing all anticorruption advocates should support, which is why it may seem a little counterintuitive when I say TI and others are taking the wrong tack. Pushing for central public registries of beneficial ownership of real property will not likely achieve the two objectives, and may have serious drawbacks. Here’s why: Continue reading

Guest Post: Global Shell Games — Experimenting with Untraceable Shell Companies

GAB is delighted to welcome back guest contributor Professor Jason Sharman of Griffith University, Australia, who contributes the following post:

Among the various mechanisms for hiding and laundering large sums of money associated with corruption, shell companies that cannot be linked with their real owners have proved one of the most troublesome. A 2011 Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative report on laundering the proceeds of grand corruption noted that from a total of 213 cases, 150 involved the use of shell companies (or, more rarely, trusts) to launder $56.4 billion. Since 2003, all those governments bound by the standards of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) have promised to ensure timely access to information on identity of those owning shell companies, and FATF rates member countries according to their compliance and the overall level of risk they present. Despite (or perhaps because of) a renewed stress on tracing shell companies’ beneficial (i.e. real) owners, most recently at the G20 leaders’ summit in my home state of Brisbane, there are good reasons to be skeptical about whether the standards are really enforced.

Frustrated with the poor measurement of policy effectiveness in this area, Michael Findley, Daniel Nielson, and I decided to try a new approach. We ran a real-world experiment to see whether corporate service providers would comply with the rules on client screening, particularly in cases where the client profile raised “red flags.” Our findings, reported in our book Global Shell Games, were both worrying and counter-intuitive. Continue reading