The Panama Papers Whistleblower’s Radical Manifesto: Some Preliminary Thoughts on a Fascinating Document

The leak of the so-called “Panama Papers”—the roughly 11 million documents from the Panama-based international law firm Mossack Fonseca, provided to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) by an anonymous whistleblower—has generated an enormous amount of coverage and commentary (including on this blog: see here, here, here, and here). The identity of the person who leaked the documents is still unknown, but (as many readers are already no doubt aware), this individual posted a “manifesto” last month under the name “John Doe,” explaining his motives in leaking the documents and advocating the sorts of reforms he or she believes are necessary to combat the evils that the Panama Papers reveal and represent. I’m not sure how many of our readers have already read the manifesto, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend that you do. It’s a fascinating document, obviously written by somebody who is both passionate and very well-informed. I’m not sure whether I agree with everything in it—the spirit of the manifesto is radical, even revolutionary, while by nature I tend to be more cautious and incremental—but I think that everyone ought to read the manifesto and take it seriously.

In terms of specific policy reforms, much of what the manifesto proposes has been widely discussed elsewhere: a call public corporate registers (including calls for the UK to extend its domestic initiatives in this area to its overseas territories and dependencies, and for the US to impose transparency and disclosure requirements on individual states); demand for reform of America’s “broken campaign finance system”; and the criticism of the “revolving door” between regulatory agencies and the financial institutions they regulate. (On this last point, by the way, I think John Doe’s analysis is both overly simplistic and overly nasty. He singles out Jennifer Shasky Calvery, the former director of the US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), calls her “spineless” and castigates her for going to work for HSBC, “one of the most notorious banks on the planet.” I think the general criticism of the revolving door is too simple for reasons I have laid out previously, and it’s unfair in this context in particular because Ms. Calvery in fact had a reputation for aggressive enforcement. Maybe John Doe knows something about Ms. Calvery’s tenure at FinCEN that I don’t, but I found that this petty name-calling, not backed up by any evidence beyond vague insinuations and guilt-by-association, to be both off-putting and out of character with the rest of the manifesto.)

But in addition to these fairly familiar themes, John Doe’s manifesto lays out two radical policy proposals that, so far as I can tell, have gotten very little attention in the discussions of the Panama Papers, or even in discussions of the manifesto specifically. Both are worth taking seriously, though both make me uncomfortable: 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

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