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

Five Things Washington Should Do to Help Latin America Curb Corruption

The following is based on a March 24 talk I gave at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations.  It is posted in a slightly different form on “Latin America’s Moment,” the Council’s blog on Latin America.

One of the most promising developments in U.S. foreign relations is the all out war on corruption being waged across Latin America.  From “Operation Car Wash” in Brazil to investigations of presidential wrongdoing in Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama, across the region independent, tenacious prosecutors and investigators are out to end the massive theft of state resources that for so long has hobbled political development and throttled economic growth.  Americans should be cheering for these corruption warriors, for we have much to gain if they succeed.  Less corruption translates into more stable, reliable political allies; it means faster, more equitable growth and that means shared prosperity and less northward migration.  Finally, less corruption in government will offer American firms new opportunities. Think what the end of corruption in Brazilian public works would mean for U.S. engineering and construction companies.

But given the stakes in Latin America’s corruption war, America should be doing more than cheering from the sidelines.  It should be doing everything it can – without infringing the sovereignty or sensibilities of Latin neighbors – to see its corruption warriors succeed.  Here are five things to start with: 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

Transparency International’s Laudable Campaign for Beneficial Ownership Transparency

As many readers of this blog are likely aware, Transparency International–the leading worldwide anticorruption NGO–has made the corporate secrecy problem a centerpiece of its “Unmask the Corrupt” campaign. TI is focusing in particular on the problem of shell companies whose true (or “beneficial”) owners are unknown, and which can be used by corrupt officials and businesspeople to shelter and launder stolen public funds. The TI Secretariat, along with several of TI’s national chapters, have been pushing for action at both the national and international level, especially for reforms that would make transparent the beneficial owners of these companies. I wanted to use this post as an opportunity to call attention to two of TI’s recent efforts in this area, which might be of interest to GAB readers:

  • First, the TI Secretariat wants to use the G20 leaders’ summit this weekend in Brisbane, Australia as an opportunity to raise awareness of the issue and to put pressure on the G20 leaders to commit to take action on this issue. To this end, TI organized an open letter, signed by a number of prominent civil society activists and other public figures (including John Githongo, Desmond Tutu, and Richard Goldstone), calling on the G20 leaders to outlaw secret company ownership and mandate public registries of the true beneficial owners of all legal entities.
  • Second, as I noted last month, the US government is currently in the midst of a rulemaking process to strengthen due diligence and disclosure requirements on beneficial ownership. TI-USA submitted a set of supportive but critical comments on the rule, urging the US Treasury Department to expand the definition of “beneficial owner” to include individuals who control the entities through means other than a formal management position, to apply the new rules apply to existing accounts as well as new accounts, and to require financial institutions not only to verify the identity of the (alleged) beneficial owner, but to independently verify that the person listed as the beneficial owner is in fact the true beneficial owner.

TI’s efforts in this direction are most welcome, and I hope they have some impact on the G20 summit and the development of new rules in the US (and elsewhere). I’m happy to take this this opportunity to publicize TI’s efforts, and I hope some of our readers out there might be able to contribute to the push that TI and other organizations are making on this issue.