Tax Havens: Micro-States in Europe

Armed with a cache of more than 2m documents, leaked from two offshore service providers, a group of investigative journalists has spent the past week publishing articles that lift the lid on thousands of companies and trusts set up in the British Virgin Islands and Cook Islands. The vast client list ranges from Asian politicians to Canadian lawyers—and no fewer than 4,000 Americans. For an industry that peddles secrecy and likes to operate in the shadows it is all rather embarrassing.

Opinions vary on the impact of the leaks. Tax campaigners have cheered it as a “game changer”. Offshore operators counter that most of the activity uncovered is legal. So what if President François Hollande’s former campaign treasurer has a Cayman Islands company? So do thousands of banks and hedge funds. Nevertheless, the affair will add to international scrutiny of tax havens. The pressure on them has grown as governments scramble to plug fiscal holes and push for the systematic exchange of tax information across borders. Germany’s finance minister welcomed the leak, hopeful that it would provide leverage to force more co-operation from “those who have been more reticent” to rein in the havens.

Faced with an end to the days of easy money, offshore jurisdictions are being forced to rethink their strategies. One of the more proactive has been Liechtenstein, nestled between Switzerland and Austria. The principality has long been popular with European tax dodgers, but growth accelerated when Swiss banks hawked Liechtenstein foundations to clients worldwide. This lucrative niche was damaged in 2008 when the former head of Germany’s postal service and many others were caught hiding money in the principality.

Under pressure from Germany and America, Liechtenstein buckled, agreeing to dilute bank secrecy and to exchange tax information. It has since signed many bilateral tax agreements and clamped down on money-laundering. The local financial industry has paid a high price for this. Liechtenstein banks’ client assets declined by almost 30% in the five years to 2011, to SFr110 billion ($118 billion)…

Other offshore centres must also attempt to square this circle. Next may be Luxembourg, a leader in offshore banking and tax avoidance. Bowing to greatly intensified pressure from its neighbours since the Cyprus debacle, the Grand Duchy has dropped its long-held opposition to swapping information about non-resident depositors with other EU countries. Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister, said the policy shift was about “following a global movement”, not caving in to German demands. Whether automatic information exchange can be introduced “without great damage”, as he confidently declared, remains to be seen.

Offshore finance: Leaky devils, Economist, April 13, 2013, at 71

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