Guest Post: Are Public UBO Registers a Good or a Bad Proposition? A Further Reply to Professor Stephenson

Today’s guest post, from Martin Kenney, the Managing Partner of Martin Kenney & Co., a law firm based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), continues an ongoing debate/discussion we’ve been hosting here at GAB on the costs and benefits of public registries of the ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs) of companies and other legal entities. That debate was prompted by the UK’s decision to mandate that the 14 British Overseas Territories create such public registries, and Mr. Kenney’s sharp criticism of that decision in a post he published on the FCPA Blog. That post prompted reactions from Rick Messick and from me. Our pushback against Mr. Kenney’s criticisms stimulated another round of elaboration on the critique of the UK’s decision, with a new post from Mr. Kenney and another from Geoff Cook (the CEO of Jersey Finance). I subsequently replied, explaining why I did not find Mr. Kenney’s or Mr. Cook’s criticisms fully persuasive. Today’s post from Mr. Kenney continues that exchange:

Public [UBO] registers are rather cheap political playing to the gallery, saying “Aren’t we wonderful to have done this?” – ignoring the fact that what we have established in the UK does not work properly….  It seems to me outrageous that the UK Government, who lack a lot in the area of anti-money laundering, should thus seek to impose on their overseas territories measures – often, where they cannot be afforded economically, that go far beyond what the UK has.

Lord Flight (Conservative), Member of the House of Lords, Speech to the House of 21 May, 2018, Debate on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill [HL] 

The fact that Professor Stephenson welcomes a good discussion and has opened the doors to his blog once again, means it would be impolite of me to not provide a response to his latest observations.

From the outset, I will stress that I will not seek to address every point Professor Stephenson makes. However, having addressed those below, if there are others he wishes me to respond to, I will endeavor to do so. 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

Entrepreneurs Care About Corruption – Here’s How to Help Them Fight It.

A friend of mine has been trying to start an artisanal liquor business in a small Latin American country. He learned to ferment fruit, crafted a logo, scrounged for and sanitized several hundred glass bottles, registered his corporation with all the various agencies, and paid all of his initial taxes. After producing his first batch and selling it to a number of small shops, he decided it was time to expand. Unfortunately, when he began to negotiate sales to larger restaurants and grocery stores he ran into a major complication: liquor taxes. The high level of liquor taxation made his business model completely unprofitable. Trying to understand how any other liquor business stayed afloat, he discovered that one liquor manufacturer and importer dominated the market, and didn’t pay any taxes. How? Corruption. In order to stay in business, my friend had a choice: (A) he could stay small, fly under the radar, and avoid paying taxes, or (B) he could navigate the perilous and uncertain process of bribing his way out of paying taxes. He ended up choosing a third option: he closed up shop and went back to his day job.

Ultimately, the fate of one small liquor business is not that important. But my friend’s experience illustrates a much more general phenomenon, one that is likely familiar to readers with experience in countries where corruption is widespread: corruption protects incumbent firms, undermines entrepreneurship, and constrains growth and job creation—particularly by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are often the primary drivers of economic growth, employment, and innovation. Corruption can be a critical roadblock to entrepreneurs and small business owners who can’t bribe their way out of regulation. In fact, pervasive corruption can shift business incentives to such a significant extent that it can impact the shape of an economy dramatically. Continue reading

Exposing Secret Offshore Bank Accounts: American Law

Kleptocrats, drug traffickers, and other big-time crooks face a common problem: How to hide their money from the authorities while retaining easy access to it.  Yesterday former Senate staffer Elise Bean described one common, low-cost, easy solution and how a recent U.S. law has made it far more difficult for American criminals to turn to it. The solution, create a corporation in another country and then open a bank account in that country in the corporation’s name, is now widely known thanks to the Panama Papers.  What Bean offered in her April 26 testimony before a Congressional committee was a step-by-step explanation of how the scheme works and the U.S. law’s success in making it far harder for Americans to take advantage of it.

Committee members peppered her with questions about the law, its effect, and ways to improve its operation.  About the only question they didn’t ask is why more countries don’t have a similar law.  That would be one for anticorruption advocates to put to legislators in countries lacking one.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Living in a Kleptocracy–What to Expect Under President Trump

Bonnie J. Palifka, Assistant Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM) contributes today’s guest post:

The news regarding President Donald Trump appointments and nominations, and the increase in foreign governments’ business at Trump properties, has caused considerable concern regarding possible conflicts of interest, nepotism, insider trading, and other types of grand corruption. Many are worried about what this means—if President Trump’s tendencies toward crony capitalism, or quasi-kleptocracy, are as serious as his critics fear, what can we expect will happen over the next four or eight years?

While grand corruption among the political elite may be new for US citizens, this challenge is all too familiar in many other parts of the world. As a long-time resident of Mexico and corruption scholar, I have some insight regarding life in a relatively corrupt environment, which might be relevant to what the US is about to face: Continue reading

Cash Crunch: How Will India’s Supreme Court Respond to Modi’s Radical Move?

Last November 8th, the same day the United States elected a kleptocrat to its highest office, an executive on the other side of the world—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—launched what Larry Summers called “the most sweeping change in currency policy that has occurred anywhere in the world for decades.” Prime Minister Modi’s surprise “demonetization” drive gave citizens fifty days to exchange all 500 and 1000 rupee notes (valued at about 8 and 15 USD respectively). Modi’s radical move, which will remove approximately 86% of all currency in circulation, is an attempt to combat endemic petty corruption, money laundering, terrorist financing, and tax   evasion (only 2% of Indians pay income tax). Prime Minister Modi was elected on an anticorruption platform in 2014, and pledged during his campaign to target hidden cash (so-called “black money”). Yet the demonetization campaign came as a surprise. Indeed, it probably had to be a surprise, lest those hiding fortunes in cash would have been able to prepare for the policy change.

While the Indian public generally supports aggressive anticorruption efforts, it would be hard to exaggerate the disruption resulting from demonetization. The real estate and wedding industries run largely on cash, as do most small businesses. And the demonetization program has hit regular citizens hard: People have been waiting in lines for hours to exchange their cash, which can be especially difficult for the four-fifths of women who don’t have a bank account. In the short term, consumption, the stock market, and growth forecasts have all plummeted and the agricultural sector is expected to suffer as well. Prime Minister Modi acknowledged the campaign would cause pain for many honest people, but believed it was worth it, stating that black money and “corruption are the biggest obstacles in eradicating poverty.” (Since then, the official justification for the campaign appears to have shifted to an attack on the cash economy as a whole, rather than a campaign against black money specifically.)

The fate of the demonetization program now lies with India’s judiciary: Continue reading

Not the “Panama Papers” But the “BVI Papers” or Better Still the “EI” Papers

The immense public service performed by the consortia of journalists who exposed the inner-workings of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca is plain to all.  The thousands of stories in multiple languages revealing how M/F works with law firms and banks around the globe to help individuals hide their wealth has provided law enforcement a cornucopia of leads — as the investigations launched in France, Switzerland, South Africa, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, El Salvador, Argentina, and India attest to.  Far more important than nailing a few tax cheats or crooked politicians, though, are the revelations showing how easily firms like M/F can dodge laws that supposedly bar them from helping individuals keep their wealth a secret and what changes are needed to end this legal dodge ball.

But there is a risk that, because the revelations have been dubbed the “Panama Papers,” reformers will be thrown off the scent.  Panama is a small part of the story at best.  The real problem lies in jurisdictions like the British Virgin Islands where, as an April 4 Guardian story shows, an obscure provision in its antimoney laundering law allows M/F and other firms like it to establish a BVI corporation without having to verify who the true, or beneficial, owner of the corporation will be.  This creates an opportunity to introduce a layer of secrecy between the owner and his or her money and law enforcement authorities.  A name better calculated to lead reformers in the right direction would have been the “BVI Papers” since most of the corporations M/F establishes for clients are created under the law of BVI.

An even better name still might be the “EI Papers” as it is the “EI” provision of BVI law that allows M/F to duck verifying the identity of the beneficial owners of the corporations it creates.  “EI” stands for “eligible introducer,” and the best way to see how the EI provision in BVI law makes hiding money so easy is through an example.  Suppose, just for the sake of illustration, Russian President Vladimir Putin was about to come into a large amount of rubles that he would rather Russian citizens and his critics abroad not know about.  How would the EI provision in BVI law help him keep his wealth secret? Continue reading