Category Archives: shadow finance

Out-of-Fashion: Aggressive Tax Planning

In December 2019, Royal Dutch Shell voluntarily published its revenue, profit, taxes and other business details in each of 98 countries. The disclosure aligns with a drive by the energy company, which often attracts criticism from environmental activists, to present itself as forward-thinking, transparent and socially-minded.  That didn’t stop the information feeding a predictable host of headlines in the U.K., where the company is partly based, that it didn’t pay taxes in the country (because of losses carried forward and tax refunds). In the U.S., Shell accrued $137 million of tax—a rate of 8%.  This kind of detailed reporting is required by tax authorities in about 100 countries including the U.S. since 2017, based on rules agreed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, but it is rarely made public.

Companies that don’t jump may soon be pushed. Economy ministers from European Union countries are considering a proposal that would require all large companies with total revenue of more than €750 million ($834 million) operating in the bloc to publish the information annually. The Global Reporting Initiative, an organization that establishes sustainability standards, recently agreed to include a similar requirement. Greater transparency could also spur reform efforts and reduce incentives for complex tax arrangements. Companies, investors and states all agree that it is best to find a global solution to the problem of aggressive tax planning.

Excerpts from Rochelle Toplensky, Beginning of the End of Tax Secrecy, WSJ, Dec. 20, 2019

Free-For-All: Gold Mining and the Polluted Rivers of Central African Republic

Four Chinese-run gold mines should be closed in the Central African Republic because of pollution threatening public health, a parliamentary panel said in a report published on July 14, 2019.  “Ecological disaster,” “polluted river,” “public health threatened,” were some of the phrases used in the report.  “Gold mining by the Chinese firms at Bozoum is not profitable for the state and harmful to the population and the environment,” the commission found after its investigation into mining in the northern town.  “The nature of the ecological disaster discovered onsite justifies the immediate, unconditional halt to these activities,” the report found.

Members of the commission spent four days in Bozoum a month ago in response to “multiple complaints from the population.”  There, they found a badly polluted River Ouham, shorn of several aquatic species following the excavation of its riverbed.  They discovered that a rising death rate in fishing villages as well as shrinking access to clean drinking water.

The investigators also voiced fears that the country’s “resources are being squandered with the complicity of certain ministry of mines officials.”  The CAR is rich in natural resources but riven by conflict which has forced around one in four of its 4.5 million population to flee their homes. Under those circumstances, exploitation of the country’s natural resources is difficult to monitor effectively given that the state only has partial control of its own territory.

Central African Republic Report Cites Ecological Disaster in Calling for Closing of 4 Chinese Gold MInes, Agence France Presse,  July 14, 2019

Returning Stolen Money: the Nigerian Saga (2002-2018)

Nigeria and Switzerland signed a memorandum of understanding on March 26, 2018 to pave the way for the return of illegally acquired assets…Switzerland said in December 2017 that it would return to Nigeria around $321 million in assets seized from the family of former military ruler Sani Abacha via a deal signed with the World Bank…[T]he memorandum of understanding was ratified between Nigeria, Switzerland and the International Development Association, (IDA), the World Bank’s fund for the world’s poorest countries.

Excerpt from Nigeria and Switzerland sign agreement to return stolen assets, Reuters, Mar. 26, 2018

Qatar-Russia Financial Alliance

Russia’s sale of one-fifth of its state-owned oil company to Qatar and commodities giant Glencore PLC last year had an unusual provision: Moscow and Doha agreed Russia would buy a stake back, people familiar with the matter said.  Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the $11.5 billion sale of the Rosneft stake in December 2016 as a sign of investor confidence in his country. But the people with knowledge of the deal say it functioned as an emergency loan to help Moscow through a budget squeeze.

Moscow agreed with Qatar that Russia would buy back at least a portion of the stake from the rich Persian Gulf emirate, the people said. The Qatar Investment Authority and Glencore, the Swiss-based commodities giant, formed a partnership to buy the 19.5% stake in Russia’s energy jewel at a time when Mr. Putin’s government needed cash. The people with knowledge of the deal say the buyback arrangement was negotiated with involvement from Mr. Putin and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Russia and Qatar saw it as an opportunity to build a bridge between countries that had taken up opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, the people said. One of the people said the buyback would happen in the next 10 years…

Rosneft, the world’s largest listed oil producer, is traded publicly in Moscow, but it isn’t easy to buy and sell large pieces of the company because it remains majority-owned by the Russian state and is an instrument of economic power for Mr. Putin.  The people familiar with the deal said a time-limited structure and a buyback agreement for the deal worked for both Qatar and Russia.

Qatar wanted its Rosneft stake to be temporary, the people said. The emirate believes it will profit from selling the shares back to Russia at a later date, the people said, betting that oil prices will rise and push up Rosneft’s share price. Qatar saw the political benefits of giving Russia access to quick cash as a sort of loan to address a budget deficit that had widened due to lower oil prices, the people said.  After the deal, a range of talks opened between Russian and Qatari businesses on a scale not seen before, Russian news agencies have reported….The deal was called the largest-ever foreign investment in a Russian company.

In an unusual arrangement, the rest of the financing was provided by Russian banks, which contributed EUR2.2 billion, and Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo SpA, which lent EUR5.2 billion to the Glencore-Qatar consortium, according to a Dec. 10, 2016 new release issued by Glencore. The financing is “non-recourse,” Glencore said in the release, meaning the lenders couldn’t pursue Glencore and the Qatar Investment Authority if they weren’t repaid….Under the deal, the Rosneft shares aren’t held directly by Glencore and Qatar but by a U.K. limited liability partnership, according to British corporate records….

After the deal was announced, Mr. Putin awarded one of Russia’s top honors for foreigners — the Order of Friendship — to Qatar Investment Authority’s chief executive, Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Saud Al-Thani, Intesa’s chief executive, Carlo Messina, and Glencore’s chief executive, Ivan Glasenberg.

Excepts from Russia’s Rosneft Stake Sale Had a Twist , Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2017

 

 

 

Eviction and Property Rights in Africa

Evictions are almost routine for the Ogiek,  a group of around 80,000 indigenous hunter-gatherers who have suffered repeated expulsions since being moved by the British colonial government in the 1930s. Yet this one still came as a surprise: the community is in the middle of negotiating a settlement with the local government that should see formal recognition of its right to live, graze livestock and forage on land it has inhabited for centuries.

In all rich countries, property rights are secure. Formal, legal title makes it easier to buy, sell and develop land. Buyers can be confident that the seller really has the right to sell what he is selling. Owners can use their property as collateral, perhaps borrowing money to buy fertiliser and better seeds. Legally recognising land ownership has boosted farmers’ income and productivity in Latin America and Asia.

But not yet in Africa. More than two-thirds of Africa’s land is still under customary tenure, with rights to land rooted in communities and typically neither written down nor legally recognised. In 31 of Africa’s 54 countries, less than 5% of rural land is privately owned. So giving peasants title to their land seems like an obvious first step towards easing African rural poverty.

However, it has proven extremely hard. Rwanda, for example, rolled out a programme over three years, whereby local surveyors worked with land owners and their neighbours to demarcate and register 10.3m parcels of land…But even a relatively well-organised place like Rwanda has had problems keeping records up to date when land is sold or inherited.

In Kenya a large-scale titling programme was carried out in colonial times and carried over to independence. The first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and his cronies bought the huge estates of white settlers who left. But the system is costly and ill-run. Most Kenyans cannot afford to update titles, and the government has not maintained the registry. Recognising land rights, whether customary or titled, needs to be done as cheaply and simply as possible, says Ruth Meinzen-Dick of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). “The more you increase the cost, the more likely it is that urban elites and men with more ed

Being able to prove you own your land may be a necessary condition for using it as collateral, but a title deed does not guarantee that anyone will lend you money. As Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, two economists, observe in their book “Poor Economics” (2011), banks need a lot more information to judge borrowers’ creditworthiness and be sure of repayment. And the administrative costs of offering very small loans to very small farmers, even those with collateral, are often prohibitive.

And legal property rights offer less protection in countries where big men can flout the law with impunity—a particular problem in Africa.  In recent years land grabs have sometimes made a mockery of customary ownership.

Excerpt from Land ownership: Title to come, Economist, July 16, 2016

 

Banking in Afghanistan

One bank with 114 branches in war-torn country; defrauded out of almost all its money; occasional target of terrorists. Ready to bid? That’s what Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan, is hoping. He’s seeking a buyer for Kabul Bank, once the country’s largest. The government took it over in 2010 after its owners were accused of embezzling $825 million using fake loans and spending it on, among other things, 11 villas in Dubai and an airline they used to smuggle cash there. The privatization is a test for Ghani, who wants to show the foreign donors who provide most of his budget that he’s committed to fighting corruption.

New Kabul Bank, as it’s now called, isn’t exactly thriving. The bank has been barred from making loans since the scandal. .. On a recent morning, a branch in Kabul’s Baharistan neighborhood was guarded by five men in military uniforms armed with AK-47 assault rifles. Some of the dust-covered computers weren’t working. A customer trying to make a withdrawal waited for an hour and then was turned away.  “I keep hearing about their system failures,” said the customer, Atiqullah Wali. “It’s better to keep our cash inside our pillows like before.”

When the Taliban was driven out of Kabul in 2001, they left the financial system in disarray, fleeing with all but $30,000 of the central bank’s cash. Into the void stepped Sherkhan Farnood, who was wanted by Russian authorities for allegedly running an illegal money-transfer business. He founded Kabul Bank in 2004 and hired Khalil Ferozi as chief executive officer.

The banking industry boomed as foreign aid poured into Afghanistan, with assets expanding by more than 50 percent a year….Farnood amassed property in Dubai and competed in high-stakes poker tournaments in Europe.

The scheme unraveled in 2010, when the central bank learned of the fraud, ordered Farnood and Ferozi to resign and guaranteed the bank’s deposits to stop a run. An investigation by an independent anti-corruption committee commissioned by the Afghan government found that the executives had stolen an amount equivalent to about one-twelfth of the country’s GDP, mainly by giving loans to themselves and their friends that didn’t have to be repaid. One of the alleged beneficiaries was Mahmood Karzai, brother of then-President Hamid Karzai, who wasn’t charged and said he did nothing wrong.

Excerpt from Looted Lender for Sale as Afghanistan Seeks Buyer for Kabul Bank, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Mar. 4, 2016

The Illusion of Transparent Markets

Investors worry that, in many cases, competition has brought down the visible price of trading by adding hidden costs. Two anxieties stand out. One is the worry that the current set-up of the markets allows high-speed traders to anticipate big orders and “front-run” them, moving prices in an unfavourable direction before an order can be executed. The other is the question of how robust the system is, with regulators still unable fully to explain events like the “flash crash” of 2010, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged by 9% in minutes before rebounding.

Start with fears of front-running. Many institutional investors complain that ultra-fast traders spot big orders entering the market, and race ahead of them to adjust their prices accordingly. Attempts to hide from the speedsters can go awry. In January Credit Suisse and Barclays, two big banks, agreed to pay $154m in fines for misleading clients about the workings of their “dark pools”, where offers to sell and bids to buy are not published. In theory, that protects investors from front-running; in practice, several of the firms running such venues had concealed the central role that high-frequency traders played on them. (Credit Suisse didn’t admit or deny wrongdoing in the settlement.)

There is another, less-often-told side to the story. Speed is necessary to knit together a dispersed set of exchanges, so that investors are immediately routed towards the best price available and so that their orders are the first to get filled. And plenty of high-frequency traders are market-makers; it is their job to adjust prices in response to new information. Nonetheless, the idea that markets are rigged is widespread, not least thanks to the publication of “Flash Boys”, a book by Michael Lewis on the evils of high-speed trading.

One proferred solution is to level the field by slowing things down deliberately. IEX, whose founder is the hero of Mr Lewis’s book, is a trading platform that has applied to the SEC to become an exchange. It uses miles of coiled cable to create a “speed bump” that delays trades to the advantage of institutional investors. The SEC has received more than 400 letters in support of its application, but there is a vigorous debate about whether IEX’s system complies with the requirements of Regulation National Market System (Reg NMS). Some think that the better solution would be to get rid of Rule 611, which in effect requires orders to be sent to the exchange showing the best price, even though such quotes can sometimes be unobtainable in practice. The SEC will vote on IEX’s application by March 21st.

Share Trading, Complicate, then Prevaricate, Economist, Feb. 27, 2016

Airstrikes on Money Vaults: Monsul

More than a year of U.S.-led airstrikes and financial sanctions haven’t stopped Islamic State from ordering supplies for its fighters, importing food for its subjects or making quick profits in currency arbitrage.  This is because of men such as Abu Omar, one of the militant group’s de facto bankers. The Iraqi businessman is part of a network of financiers stretching across northern and central Iraq who for decades have provided money transfers and trade finance for the many local merchants who shun conventional banks….

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Daniel Glaser said these businesses—there are more than 1,600 in Iraq alone—serve as a worrisome portal for Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to connect with the world outside its declared caliphate…..People pay cash in one office and a recipient draws the equivalent funds at a distant locale, a Middle Eastern practice known as hawala that predates the modern banking system.  Three Iraqi money-exchange operators say they pay Shiite militias, who are at war with Islamic State, to guard cash shipments that travel the road from Baghdad across their front lines to militant-controlled territory in Anbar province. Iraqi Kurdish fighters, also at war with Islamic State, are bribed to grant passage of cash shipments across their front lines into militant-held areas around Mosul. Both Shiite and Kurdish commanders negotiate flat fees from $1,000 to $10,000, the money changers said.

Islamic State imposes a 2% tax on cash shipments entering its territory, which buys the smuggler protection on the final leg to the exchange houses….

The Cash Routes:  One begins in the narrow streets behind Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and, via Iraqi Kurdish towns, reaches Mosul, the largest city under Islamic State control. Another connects Jordan’s capital of Amman with Baghdad and Islamic State-controlled parts of Iraq’s Anbar province. A third links the city of Gaziantep in southern Turkey with Syrian regions around Raqqa, the administrative capital of Islamic State…

The US financial containment effort is one element of a campaign that includes U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State oil wells. There have also been strikes on vaults in downtown Mosul, which U.S. officials suspect store cash to pay fighters….The Central Bank of Iraq named 142 currency-exchange houses in December that the U.S. suspected of moving funds for Islamic State. The central bank banned them from its twice-monthly dollar auctions, hoping to keep U.S. bank notes from the terror group, which, like much of Iraq, operates as a cash economy….

Before Islamic State seized Mosul, the city of nearly two million people had 40 banks and around 120 licensed money changers and remittance facilities, according to Iraq’s central bank and money changers.Only banks and remittance facilities are licensed to transfer money domestically or abroad. But money changers have long flouted these rules and provided such services in Mosul, the economic powerhouse of northern Iraq.  Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul in June 2014, followed by other cities in Iraq and eastern Syria, swiftly shut down local banks. The terror group looted bank vaults of hundreds of millions of dollars, according to U.S. estimates.  The U.S. and regional governments took immediate steps to sever bank branches in Islamic State territory from the international banking network, declaring off-limits transactions with the identification code of seized branches.That left money changers as the sole providers for a region covering several million people. A currency office owner from Anbar province said in late summer of 2014 his offices were handling $500,000 a week in money transfers in and out of Islamic State. Fees for such services were 10%, he said. Before the Islamic State takeover, fees were between 3% and 5%….

ISIS  in 2015 banned exchange houses from approving the transfer of funds outside of Islamic State without a receipt showing the client had paid a 10% religious tax, known as “zakat.”..

For years, participants in the twice-monthly dollar auction by the central bank included money-exchange houses that would buy dollars at the official rate and sell them for a profit on the street. The rate difference in the past year was as much as 7 percentage points….

The Central Bank of Iraq has an account at the Fed, funded largely by oil reserves, and regularly withdraws large shipments of new $100 bills from a Fed facility in Rutherford, N.J. They travel by chartered plane to Baghdad.The Fed last summer (2015) temporarily shut off deliveries over concerns the notes were going to Islamic State through the exchange houses. A cash crisis loomed until shipments resumed in August, 2015 when Iraq agreed to turn over more records.

Many exchange companies based in Islamic State territory—or their correspondent offices elsewhere in Iraq—participated in the auctions until mid-December 2015, when the U.S. pressured Iraq to ban dozens of companies believed to be working with the terror group.Money changers who still participate in the currency auction doubt the effectiveness of the black list. Iraq has no mechanism to ensure that the owners of banned companies don’t get around the restrictions by simply opening new firms or by hidden ownership stakes in other exchange firms.“Iraq doesn’t have investigators or auditors,” said Abu Omar, the money-exchange owner. “Iraq has officials who expect bribes.”

Excerpts from Local Cash Network Fuels Islamic State Finances, Wall Street Journal , Feb. 25, 2016

Tax Havens in the USA

After years of lambasting other countries for helping rich Americans hide their money offshore, the U.S. is emerging as a leading tax and secrecy haven for rich foreigners. By resisting new global disclosure standards, the U.S. is creating a hot new market, becoming the go-to place to stash foreign wealth. Everyone from London lawyers to Swiss trust companies is getting in on the act, helping the world’s rich move accounts from places like the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands to Nevada, Wyoming, and South Dakota.

Rothschild, the centuries-old European financial institution, has opened a trust company in Reno, Nevada a few blocks from the Harrah’s and Eldorado casinos. It is now moving the fortunes of wealthy foreign clients out of offshore havens such as Bermuda, subject to the new international disclosure requirements, and into Rothschild-run trusts in Nevada, which are exempt.  Others are also jumping in: Geneva-based Cisa Trust Co. SA, which advises wealthy Latin Americans, is applying to open in Pierre, S.D., to “serve the needs of our foreign clients,” said John J. Ryan Jr., Cisa’s president.  Trident Trust Co., one of the world’s biggest providers of offshore trusts, moved dozens of accounts out of Switzerland, Grand Cayman, and other locales and into Sioux Falls, S.D., in December, ahead of a Jan. 1 disclosure deadline….

No one expects offshore havens to disappear anytime soon. Swiss banks still hold about $1.9 trillion in assets not reported by account holders in their home countries, … Still, the U.S. is one of the few places left where advisers are actively promoting accounts that will remain secret from overseas authorities….The offices of Rothschild Trust North America LLC aren’t easy to find. They’re on the 12th floor of Porsche’s former North American headquarters building, a few blocks from the casinos. (The U.S. attorney’s office is on the sixth floor.) Yet the lobby directory does not list Rothschild. Instead, visitors must go to the 10th floor, the offices of McDonald Carano Wilson LLP, a politically connected law firm. Several former high-ranking Nevada state officials work there, as well as the owner of some of Reno’s biggest casinos and numerous registered lobbyists. One of the firm’s tax lobbyists is Robert Armstrong, viewed as the state’s top trusts and estates attorney, and a manager of Rothschild Trust North America.

“There’s a lot of people that are going to do it,” said Cripps. “This added layer of privacy is kicking them over the hurdle” to move their assets into the U.S. For wealthy overseas clients, “privacy is huge, especially in countries where there is corruption.”….

Rothschild’s Penney wrote that the U.S. “is effectively the biggest tax haven in the world.” The U.S., he added in language later excised from his prepared remarks, lacks “the resources to enforce foreign tax laws and has little appetite to do so.”….The U.S. failure to sign onto the OECD information-sharing standard is “proving to be a strong driver of growth for our business” …

In a section originally titled “U.S. Trusts to Preserve Privacy,” he included the hypothetical example of an Internet investor named “Wang, a Hong Kong resident,” originally from the People’s Republic of China, concerned that information about his wealth could be shared with Chinese authorities.  Putting his assets into a Nevada LLC, in turn owned by a Nevada trust, would generate no U.S. tax returns, Penney wrote. Any forms the IRS would receive would result in “no meaningful information to exchange under” agreements between Hong Kong and the U.S., according to Penney’s PowerPoint presentation reviewed by Bloomberg.  Penney offered a disclaimer: At least one government, the U.K., intends to make it a criminal offense for any U.K. firm to facilitate tax evasion.

Excerpt from Jesse Drucker, The World’s Favorite New Tax Haven Is the United States, Bloombert, Jan. 27, 2016

Currency Wars: the Yuan

A handful of mainly U.S.-based macro hedge funds have led bets against China’s yuan since late last year (2015) and the coming weeks should tell how right they are in predicting a devaluation of between 20 and 50 percent. Texas-based Corriente Partners… [bets against the yuan].The firm reckons rush by domestic savers and businesses to withdraw money from China will prove too strong for authorities to resist and control, even with $3.3 trillion in FX reserves, the biggest ever accumulated.  London-based Omni Macro Fund has been betting against the yuan since the start of 2014. Several London-based traders said U.S. funds, including the $4.6 billion Moore Capital Macro Fund, have also swung behind the move.  Data from Citi, meanwhile, shows leveraged funds have taken money off the table since offshore rates hit 6.76 yuan per dollar three weeks ago…

That has prompted comparisons with the victories of George Soros-led funds over European governments in the early 1990s. Chinese state media on Tuesday warned Soros and other “vicious” speculators against betting on yuan falls.

“China has an opportunity now to allow a very sharp devaluation. The wise move would be to do it quickly,” Corriente chief Mark Hart said on Real Vision TV this month.”If they wait to see if things change, they will be doing it increasingly from a position of weakness. That’s how you invite the speculators. Every month that they hemorrhage cash, people look at it and say, ‘well now if they weren’t able to defend the currency last month, now they’re even weaker’.”

“It’s a popular trade. I can’t imagine a single western hedge fund has got short dollar-(yuan),” Omni’s Chris Morrison said.Derivatives traders say large bets have been placed in the options market on the yuan reaching 8.0 per dollar and data shows a raft of strikes between 7.20 and 7.60. The big division is over pace and scale.  Corriente and Omni both say if China continues to resist, it may be forced this year into a large one-off devaluation as reserves dwindle….

China’s response to yuan pressure has underlined a difference with earlier currency crises: Beijing has an offshore market separate from “onshore” China into which it can pump up interest rates at minimal harm to the mainland economy.  Earlier this month, it raised offshore interest rates, making it prohibitively expensive for funds to leverage overnight positions against the yuan. That sent many reaching for China proxies, including for the first time in years, the Hong Kong dollar.“We have a direct position in the (yuan) but it’s much easier to trade second-round effects of China,” said Mark Farrington, portfolio manager with Macro Currency Group in London. “The Korean won, Malaysia, Taiwan, are all easier plays.” … [Hedge funds] say Beijing may have spent another $200 billion of its reserves in January 2015; at that rate, most of its war chest would evaporate this year and the yuan weaken by a further 18-20 percent. Omni’s Morrison states “That is a fundamental misconception [to believe that Chinese authorities control the yuan]. They’re not making the tide, they’re just desperately holding it back.”

Excerpts from PATRICK GRAHAM, Hedge funds betting against China eye ‘Soros moment, Reuters, Jan. 26, 2016

Tax Havens Europe Love Stolen Cash

Authorities in Switzerland are in talks to arrange the return to Nigeria of $300 million confiscated from the family of its former military ruler, Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s foreign minister said.  The corruption watchdog Transparency International has accused Abacha of stealing up to $5 billion of public money during his five years running the oil-rich nation, from 1993 until his death in 1998.  Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said $700 million had already been repatriated from Switzerland, adding that he met Swiss representatives last week for further talks.  “They have also now recovered, in the same context, another $300 million of which there is ongoing discussion to have that repatriated as well,” he told journalists on Monday.

In 2014, Nigeria and the Abacha family reached an agreement for the West African country to get back the funds, which had been frozen, in return for dropping a complaint against Abba Abacha, the son of the former military ruler.  He was charged by a Swiss court with money-laundering, fraud and forgery in April 2005, after being extradited from Germany, and subsequently spent 561 days in custody. In 2006, Luxembourg ordered that funds held by the younger Abacha be frozen….He has asked the Britain and the United States for help recovering money stolen from Africa’s biggest economy by some of the country’s elite over several years.

Switzerland and Nigeria discuss return of $300 million stolen by Abacha, Reuters, Jan. 13, 2016

The Flow of Dirty Money through Trade

A few years ago American customs investigators uncovered a scheme in which a Colombian cartel used proceeds from drug sales to buy stuffed animals in Los Angeles. By exporting them to Colombia, it was able to bring its ill-gotten gains home, convert them to pesos and get them into the banking system.This is an example of “trade-based money laundering”, the misuse of commerce to get money across borders. Sometimes the aim is to evade taxes, duties or capital controls; often it is to get dirty money into the banking system. International efforts to stamp out money laundering have targeted banks and money-transmitters, and the smuggling of bulk cash.

But as the front door closes, the back door has been left open. Trade is “the next frontier in international money-laundering enforcement,” says John Cassara, who used to work for America’s Treasury department. Adepts include traffickers, terrorists and the tax-evading rich. Some “transfer pricing”—multinationals’ shuffling of revenues to cut their tax bills—probably counts, too. Firms insist that tax arbitrage is legal, and that the fault, if any, lies with disjointed international tax rules. Campaigners counter that many ruses would be banned if governments were less afraid of scaring off mobile capital. Trade is “a ready-made vehicle” for dirty money, says Balesh Kumar of the Enforcement Directorate, an Indian agency that fights economic crime. A 2012 report he helped write for the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, a regional crime-fighting body, is packed with examples of criminals combining the mispricing of goods with the misuse of trade-finance techniques. Using trade data, Global Financial Integrity (GFI), an NGO, estimates that $950 billion flowed illicitly out of poor countries in 2011, excluding trade in services and fraudulent transfer pricing. Four-fifths was trade-based laundering linked to arms smuggling, drug trafficking, terrorism or public corruption.

The basic technique is misinvoicing. To slip money into a country, undervalue imports or overvalue exports; do the reverse to get it out. A front company for a Mexican cartel might sell $1m-worth of oranges to an American importer while creating paperwork for $3m-worth, giving it cover to send a dirty $2m back home. One group of launderers was reportedly caught exporting plastic buckets that cost $970 each from the Czech Republic to America. To lessen the risk of discovery the deal may be sent via a shell company in a tax haven with strict secrecy rules. This may mean using a specialist “re-invoicing” firm to “buy” the oranges at an inflated price with an invoice to match and charge the importer the true price. The point is to get paperwork to justify an inflated transfer to the seller. Re-invoicers are used by multinationals to shift profits around, which gives them a veneer of respectability, says Brian LeBlanc of GFI—but they also “feed a giant black market in the offshore manipulation of paperwork”…

American authorities have ratcheted up penalties for banks that assist money-launderers, knowingly or not. In 2012 they reached a $1.9 billion settlement with HSBC after concluding that Latin American drug gangs had taken advantage of lax controls at its Mexican subsidiary. And last year they imposed a $102m forfeiture order on a Lebanese bank implicated in a complex scheme involving the export of used cars to West Africa with the proceeds funnelled to Hizbullah, an Islamist group. Alternative remittance systems and currency exchanges, such as the trust-based hawala networks in Asia and the Middle East, and Latin America’s Black Market Peso Exchange (BMPE), offer another route to launder money through trade. ..A recently leaked Turkish prosecutor’s report describes an alleged conspiracy involving Turkish front companies and banks, an Iranian bank and money-exchangers in Dubai. By marking up invoices for food and medicine allowed into Iran—to as much as $240 for a pound of sugar—the scheme gave Iranian banks access to hard currency from Iran’s oil sales that was locked in escrow accounts overseas, to be transferred only for approved transactions…

In the meantime, launderers who curb their greed and invoice goods worth $10 for $9, or $11, will probably continue to get away with it. A dodgy deal is almost impossible to spot if the pricing is only slightly out and you see just one end, says one American investigator. “You can study the slips all day long, and all you see is stuff being imported and exported.”

Excerpts from Trade and money laundering: Uncontained, Economist, May 3, 2014, at 54

Barclays Toxic Landfill

The lawsuit filed by New York’s top securities regulator against Barclays, alleges that it favoured high-speed traders using its “dark pool” trading venue, while misleading other investors.The 30-page complaint gives examples of what Eric Schneiderman, the state attorney-general, claims were the bank’s practices.

The lawsuit claims that Barclays took advantage of its institutional investor clients, known as “the buy side.”  The complaint quotes a former director as saying: “[T]he way the deal would work is [Barclays] would invite the high frequency firms in. They would trade with the buy side. The buy side would pay the commissions. The high frequency firms would pay basically nothing. They would make their money off of manipulating the price.“Barclays would make their money off the buy side. And the buy side would totally be taken advantage of because they got stuck with the bad trade . . . this happened over and over again.”

It also quotes a former Barclays director as saying: “There was a lot going on in the dark pool that was not in the best interests of clients. The practice of almost ensuring that every counterparty would be a high frequency firm, it seems to me that that wouldn’t be in the best interest of their clients . . . It’s almost like they are building a car and saying it has an airbag and there is no airbag or brakes.”…

The same day Barclays’ then-head of equities sales noted in reference to the analysis that some in the industry viewed Barclays’ dark pool as a “toxic landfill” and so “[i]f we can help ourselves we should[;] it’s in our control”.

The attorney-general alleges the bank’s “Liquidity Profiling” surveillance system failed to protect clients from predatory high-speed trading tactics…“Barclays has never prohibited a single firm from participating in its dark pool, no matter how toxic or predatory its activity was determined to be.”

Excerpts from John Aglionby, Lawsuit alleges Barclays misled dark pool clients, Financial Times, June 26, 2014

Capital – Torrents of Data

During the financial crisis regulators discovered the hard way how little they knew about the risky derivatives portfolios built up by large financial institutions. Lehman Brothers, for example, was thought to have been a counterparty to about $5 trillion of credit default swaps. When they turned sour in 2008, it brought the financial system to its knees. In response leaders of the world’s main economies demanded in 2009 that derivatives deals should all be reported to “trade repositories”—vast central databases—to make it easier to identify and then reduce systemic risks.

On February 12th, 2014 European rules came into force requiring the reporting of all derivatives to one of six approved repositories. Similar rules have already been in place in America for about a year. But the effort, although concerted, is not consistent: the American and European reforms differ, making awkward transactions spanning the two jurisdictions. Moreover, even if these data can be reconciled, it is not clear what regulators will do with it.

The American regulations allow the reporting to be taken care of by one party to the trade. Yet Europe requires both parties to report. That means every fund manager or corporate treasurer trading derivatives has had to follow cumbersome rules, not just the banks that peddle most deals.  Getting both sides to report was originally seen as a means to ensure that every entity’s exposure could be rigorously monitored. But the complexities of obliging both parties to report trades, which then have to be reconciled with one another, have led many to question whether the additional burden is really worthwhile. “Dual reporting was required to avoid omissions in the data,” says Stewart Macbeth of the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation, one of the approved repositories. But it “captures a lot of companies in the real economy that probably do not pose a systemic risk”.

The European rules differ from the American ones in other ways too. America staggered implementation of its rules over the course of several months as different sorts of contracts and counterparties were gradually brought within their scope. European regulators chose instead to have everyone start reporting everything on a single day. That created a bottleneck as participants rushed to put the necessary procedures and agreements in place.

Now that the deadline has passed, responsibility shifts to regulators, whose duty it will be to make sense of the torrents of data that are now flooding in. In America the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has openly acknowledged the problems it has already encountered coping with the deluge, with one commissioner blaming “inconsistencies and errors” in the rules. In Europe the problems are likely to be even worse as so many more counterparties are reporting data to multiple repositories. That will create an unfortunate opportunity for both omissions and duplications of data. In time the new reporting rules should reduce risks, but much work still needs to be done.

A paper published on February 4th by the Financial Stability Board (FSB) offers a solution. It proposes aggregating data from multiple repositories into one central one. That may iron out inconsistencies in the data—but it will not necessarily make it any more digestible.

Derivatives:  Data dump, Economist, Feb. 22, 2013, at 65

Watering Down Banking Regulations

“It was always the French and the Germans,” grumbles a senior financial regulator, blaming counterparts from those two countries for undermining international efforts to increase capital ratios for banks. Every time the Basel committee, a grouping of the world’s bank supervisors, neared agreement on a higher standard, he says, a phone call from the Chancellery in Berlin or the Trésor in Paris would send everyone back to the table.

Similar phone calls almost certainly inspired the committee’s decision on January 12th to water down a proposed new “leverage ratio” for banks. It had originally suggested obliging banks to hold equity (the loss-absorbing capital put up by investors) of at least 3% of assets. In theory, that standard will still apply. But the committee came up with various revisions to how the ratio is to be calculated, in effect making it less exacting.

The new rule will allow banks to offset some derivatives against one another and to exclude some assets from the calculation altogether, thus making their exposure seem smaller. Analysts at Barclays characterised it as a “substantial loosening”. Citibank called it “significant regulatory forbearance”. Shares in big European banks such as Barclays and Deutsche Bank surged to their highest level in nearly three years on the news.

Leverage ratios have their critics—even outside overleveraged banks. They contend that leverage is a crude and antiquated measure of risk compared with the practice of weighting assets by the likelihood of making losses on them, and calculating the required cushion of equity accordingly. The chances of losing money on a German government bond, the argument runs, are much smaller than they are on a car loan; but a simple leverage ratio makes no distinction between the two. As a result, leverage ratios might actually encourage banks to buy riskier assets, in the hope of increasing returns to shareholders. Officials at Germany’s central bank, for instance, have argued that a binding leverage ratio “punishes low-risk business models, and it favours high-risk businesses.

”Bankers also claim that tough leverage requirements risk stemming the flow of credit to the economy, as banks shrink their balance-sheets to comply. BNP Paribas, a French bank, says this would particularly disadvantage European banks because they do not tend to sell on as many of their home loans as American ones. The full extent of the new change is difficult to gauge, partly because there is still some uncertainty surrounding the rules. Yet a rough calculation suggests that they have been loosened just enough to allow most big European banks to pass the 3% test. Without the committee’s help as many as three-quarters of Europe’s big banks might have failed the test (see chart).

A detailed analysis by Kian Abouhossein of J.P. Morgan Cazenove, an investment bank, suggests that under the old rules big European banks may have had to raise as much as €70 billion ($95 billion) to get their leverage ratios to 3.5%, which is far enough above the minimum for comfort. Yet the new rules alone may improve big European banks’ leverage ratios by 0.2-0.5 percentage points compared with the previous ones, he reckons—enough for most to avoid raising new capital.

That does not mean banks will be able to shrug off the new leverage ratio entirely. Simon Samuels, an analyst at Barclays, expects it will prompt some European investment banks to reconsider their strategies. Some may have to cut lines of business and reduce their assets. That hints at the potency the measure could have had, if the regulators had allowed it.

Leverage ratios: Leavened, Economist,  Jan 18, 2014, t 72

How to Evade Capital Controls: China

Is capital fleeing China? The recent crackdown on official corruption might suggest that fat cats are busy whisking their money out of the country to avoid scrutiny. That impression is strengthened by the apparently endless flow of Chinese money into luxury goods, penthouses and other trophies in London, New York and Paris.  Lots of money is undoubtedly leaving China, despite the country’s strict currency controls. However, a close look at the official figures suggests that, on balance, more hot money… has been flowing in.

A new study by Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a research firm, highlights one popular way illicit flows enter the mainland.   It claims that well over $400 billion has poured into China since 2006 outside the official channels, with inflows in the first quarter of 2013 alone topping $50 billion. GFI believes exporters on the mainland exaggerate the prices of goods sent to Hong Kong in order to evade China’s strict currency controls and bring back pots of cash.  Why would they bring money into China? One reason is to take advantage of a steadily appreciating yuan. Once punters sneak money into China, eye-catching if risky investments beckon in the overheated property market and poorly regulated shadow-banking sector.

Another explanation relates to the prolonged period of low interest rates in America. GFI notes that flows of hot money into China surged when the Federal Reserve began trying to suppress rates by buying up government bonds and other securities. Now that the Fed is “tapering” its asset purchases, it is reasonable to ask if the flow of hot money will slow or even reverse.  Chinese regulators have noisily complained about the illicit inflows. In December they promised a crackdown on over-invoicing and other such scams.

Chinese capital flows: Hot and hidden, Economist, Jan 18, 2014, at  73

BlackRock Owns Almost Everything

BlackRock, an investment manager, owns a stake in almost every listed company not just in America but globally. (Indeed, it is the biggest shareholder in Pearson, in turn the biggest shareholder in The Economist magazine.) Its reach extends further: to corporate bonds, sovereign debt, commodities, hedge funds and beyond. It is easily the biggest investor in the world, with $4.1 trillion of directly controlled assets (almost as much as all private-equity and hedge funds put together) and another $11 trillion it oversees through its trading platform, Aladdin.

Established in 1988 by a group of Wall Streeters led by Larry Fink, BlackRock succeeded in part by offering “passive” investment products, such as exchange-traded funds, which aim to track indices such as the S&P 500. These are cheap alternatives to traditional mutual funds, which often do more to enrich money managers than clients (though BlackRock offers plenty of those, too). The sector continues to grow fast, and BlackRock, partly through its iShares brand, is the largest competitor in an industry where scale brings benefits. Its clients, ranging from Arab sovereign-wealth funds to mom-and-pop investors, save billions in fees as a result.

The other reason for its success is its management of risk in its actively managed portfolio. Early on, for instance, it was a leader in mortgage-backed securities. But because it analysed their riskiness zipcode by zipcode, it not only avoided a bail-out in the chaos that followed the collapse of Lehman, but also advised the American government and others on how to keep the financial system ticking in the darkest days of 2008, and picked up profitable money-management units from struggling financial institutions in the aftermath of the crisis.

Compared with the many banks which are flourishing only thanks to state largesse, BlackRock’s success—based on providing value to customers and paying attention to detail—is well-deserved. Yet when taxpayers have spent billions rescuing financial institutions deemed too big to fail, a 25-year-old company that has grown so vast so quickly sets nerves jangling. American regulators are therefore thinking about designating BlackRock and some of its rivals as “systemically important”. The tag might land them with hefty regulatory requirements.

If the regulators’ concern is to avoid a repeat of the last crisis, they are barking up the wrong tree. Unlike banks, whose loans and deposits go on their balance-sheets as assets and liabilities, BlackRock is a mere manager of other people’s money. It has control over investments it holds on behalf of others—which gives it great influence—but it neither keeps the profits nor suffers the losses on them. Whereas banks tumble if their assets lose even a fraction of their value, BlackRock can pass on any shortfalls to its clients, and withstand far greater shocks. In fact, by being on hand to pick up assets cheaply from distressed sellers, an unleveraged asset manager arguably stabilises markets rather than disrupting them.

But for regulators that want not merely to prevent a repeat of the last blow-up but also to identify the sources of future systemic perils, BlackRock raises another, subtler issue, concerning not the ownership of assets but the way buying and selling decisions are made. The $15 trillion of assets managed on its Aladdin platform amount to around 7% of all the shares, bonds and loans in the world. As a result, those who oversee many of the world’s biggest pools of money are looking at the financial world, at least in part, through a lens crafted by BlackRock. Some 17,000 traders in banks, insurance companies, sovereign-wealth funds and others rely in part on BlackRock’s analytical models to guide their investing.

That is a tribute to BlackRock’s elaborate risk-management models, but it is also discomfiting. A principle of healthy markets is that a cacophony of diverse actors come to different conclusions on the price of things, based on their own idiosyncratic analyses. The value of any asset is discovered by melding all these different opinions into a single price. An ecosystem which is dominated by a single line of thinking is not healthy,

The rise of BlackRock, Ecomomist, Dec. 7, 2013, at 13

How to Make Money in Frontier Markets

A desperate search for bonds that pay a decent rate of interest and a keen desire for exposure to economies that are still growing quickly have taken rich-world investors to some exotic places. The raciest bets are made in so-called frontier markets, poorer places with even less mature financial sectors than emerging markets. Africa is full of them. Rwanda and Tanzania, for example, have found willing buyers this year for their debut issues of dollar-denominated bonds. The farthest edge of the investing frontier has now reached Mozambique.

In September Credit Suisse and BNP Paribas raised $500m on behalf of EMATUM, a state-owned company in Mozambique. Credit Suisse advanced the $500m; slices of the debt were then sold as loan-participation notes, maturing in 2020, at a yield of 8.5%. VTB, a Russian bank, raised a further $350m for EMATUM shortly afterwards. Such a deal can be done more quickly and with less fuss than a typical bond issue. VTB had already raised $1 billion for Angola in a similar fashion. Those notes are included in J.P. Morgan’s emerging-market bond index, an industry benchmark.

The concern is less about the way the money was raised than how it will be used. Mozambique is poor. Its budget is part-funded by grants and low-interest loans from rich countries. Its public finances were solid in part because it has been granted extensive debt relief. When such countries borrow in private markets, it is usually to fund projects, such as toll roads, airports or power stations, which might have broad enough benefits to justify the expense. But EMATUM is a tuna-fishing venture that came into being just a few weeks before the $850m was raised in its name.

It is not obvious that a state-run fishing startup is a compelling business proposition. But investors know there are huge gas reserves off the shores of Mozambique that will eventually bring in lots of foreign exchange, even if tuna does not. The bonds come with a guarantee from the finance ministry. And the handsome yield (far higher than the rate on comparable Treasury bonds) is some reward for the risks.

A French shipyard has received orders worth about $300m for two dozen fishing vessels and a handful of patrol boats. It is not yet clear what the rest of the money, which is accruing hefty interest, will be used for. What is clear is that the temptation to grab at easy money offered by yield-hungry investors is proving too great to resist for some countries. As usual, the role of party-pooper has fallen to the IMF. It has called for the cost of the guarantee and for “possible non-commercial activities” related to the EMATUM bond to be clarified in the next budget.

Investing in frontier markets: Fishy tale, Economist, Nov. 23, 2013, at 73

Why the Rich Love Dubai

But Dubai…has an asset that counts as much as location, infrastructure, an eager multinational workforce, business-friendly rules and an absence of politics. With much of the region in distress, skilled workers and capital are pouring in faster than ever. Recent arrivals include rich Syrian and Egyptian exiles, and if Western sanctions on Iran are eased, Dubai is poised to cash in mightily, too. “The Arab spring has been great for us,” says Mishaal Gargawi, a young Emirati from a notable merchant family who is launching a private think-tank. “Everyone comes here, from Colonel Qaddafi’s lieutenants to Saudis getting a government payrise and blowing it on iPads in the Dubai Mall.”

Dubai:It’s bouncing back, Economist, Nov. 23, 2013, at  52

The Airport as a Tax Haven

The world’s rich are increasingly investing in expensive stuff, and “freeports” such as Luxembourg’s are becoming their repositories of choice. Their attractions are similar to those offered by offshore financial centres: security and confidentiality, not much scrutiny, the ability for owners to hide behind nominees, and an array of tax advantages. This special treatment is possible because goods in freeports are technically in transit, even if in reality the ports are used more and more as permanent homes for accumulated wealth. If anyone knows how to game the rules, it is the super-rich and their advisers.

Because of the confidentiality, the value of goods stashed in freeports is unknowable. It is thought to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and rising. Though much of what lies within is perfectly legitimate, the protection offered from prying eyes ensures that they appeal to kleptocrats and tax-dodgers as well as plutocrats. Freeports have been among the beneficiaries as undeclared money has fled offshore bank accounts as a result of tax-evasion crackdowns in America and Europe.

Several factors have fuelled this buying binge. One is growing distrust of financial assets. Collectibles have outperformed stocks over the past decade, with some, like rare coins, doing a lot better, according to The Economist’s valuables index. Another factor is the steady growth of the world’s ultra-wealthy population. According to Wealth-X, a provider of data on the very rich, and UBS, a financial-services firm, a record 199,235 individuals have assets of $30m or more, a 6% increase over 2012.

The goods they stash in the freeports range from paintings, fine wine and precious metals to tapestries and even classic cars. (Data storage is offered, too.) Clients include museums, galleries and art investment funds as well as private collectors. Storage fees vary, but are typically around $1,000 a year for a medium-sized painting and $5,000-12,000 to fill a small room.

These giant treasure chests were pioneered by the Swiss, who have half a dozen freeports, among them sites in Chiasso, Geneva and Zurich. Geneva’s, which was a grain store in the 19th century, houses luxury goods in two sites with floor space equivalent to 22 football pitches.  Luxembourg is not alone in trying to replicate this success. A freeport that opened at Changi airport in Singapore in 2010 is already close to full. Monaco has one, too. A planned “freeport of culture” in Beijing would be the world’s largest art-storage facility.

The early freeports were drab warehouses. But as the contents have grown glitzier, so have the premises themselves. A giant twisting metal sculpture, “Cage sans Frontières”, spans the lobby in Singapore, which looks more like the interior of a modernist museum or hotel than a storehouse. Luxembourg’s will be equally fancy, displaying concrete sculptures by Vhils, a Portuguese artist. Like Singapore and the Swiss it will offer state-of-the-art conservation, including temperature and humidity control, and an array of on-site services, including renovation and valuation.

The idea is to turn freeports into “places the end-customer wants to be seen in, the best alternative to owning your own museum,” says David Arendt, managing director of the Luxembourg freeport. The newest facilities are dotted with private showrooms, where art can be shown to potential buyers….Iron-clad security goes along with style. The Luxembourg compound will sport more than 300 cameras. Access to strong-rooms will be by biometric reading. Singapore has vibration-detection technology and seven-tonne doors on some vaults. “You expect Tom Cruise to abseil from the ceiling at any moment,” says Mark Smallwood of Deutsche Bank, which leases space for clients to store up to 200 tonnes of gold at the Singapore freeport.

Gold storage is part of Singapore’s strategy to become the Switzerland of the East. The city-state’s moneymen want to take its share of global gold storage and trading to 10-15% within a decade, from 2% in 2012. To spur this growth, it has removed a 7% sales tax on precious metals. (The Economist understands that the Luxembourg freeport’s gold-storage ambitions will get a fillip from the Grand Duchy’s central bank, which plans to move its reserves—now sitting in the Bank of England—to the facility once it opens. The bank declined to comment.)

Switzerland remains the world’s leading gold repository. Its imports of the yellow metal have exceeded exports by some 13,000 tonnes—worth $650 billion at today’s price—since the late 1960s, says the customs agency. The gap has widened sharply since the mid-2000s. But trade statistics do not tell the whole story, since they fail to capture the quantities of gold that go straight from runways to the freeports.

Wealth piled up in freeports is a headache for insurers. The main building in Geneva holds art worth perhaps $100 billion. The Nahmad art-dealing dynasty alone is said to have dozens of Picassos there. More art is stored in Geneva than insurers are comfortable covering, says Robert Read of Hiscox, an art insurer. Coverage for new items is hard to come by at any price….In a bid to soothe worries about concentrated storage, the private firm that operates Geneva’s freeport (which leases it from the majority owner, the local canton) is building a new warehouse a short distance from its existing structures. Most of the art is now stored in vaults under the main building. These were built in the 1970s as a way for banks to avoid a planned tax on gold held in their own vaults. The levy was repealed, the banks took back their gold, and paintings and sculptures soon began to fill the void. Luxembourg’s freeport, which is scheduled to open next summer, recently conducted a roadshow for insurers that highlighted the facility’s state-of-the-art safety features, including fire-fighting systems that suck oxygen from the air while releasing inert gas instead of water, so as not to damage art.

Insurance is cheaper for those willing to park assets in remote places. Switzerland is dotted with disused military bunkers, blasted into the Alpine rock during the second world war and cold war. The government has been selling these, and some have been bought by firms hoping to convert them into high-altitude treasure chests. One is Swiss Data Safe, which sells storage for valuables and digital archives at several undisclosed sites deep in the Gotthard granite. It claims to offer protection from “the forces of nature, civil unrest, disasters and terrorist attack”. Such places have a low risk of fire or being hit by a plane. But they cannot offer the tax advantages that freeports can.

Freeports are something of a fiscal no-man’s-land. The “free” refers to the suspension of customs duties and taxes…. this is all legal—though some countries have had to alter their statute books to accommodate the concept. Luxembourg amended its laws in 2011 to codify its freeport’s tax perks. That, plus the offer of land by the airport, helped persuade the project’s backers to put it there rather than in London or Amsterdam….Luxembourg’s government views the freeport as a useful adjunct to its burgeoning financial centre, which has been built on tax-friendliness. Deloitte, which helps firms and rich individuals minimise taxes, brokered the deal. Mr Arendt believes the freeport could help Luxembourg compete with London and New York in art finance, which includes structuring loans with paintings as collateral… As Swiss banks come under pressure to shop tax-dodgers, for instance, some are said to have been recommending clients to move money from bank accounts to vaults, in the form of either cash or bought objects, since these are not covered by information-exchange pacts with other countries. A sign that this practice may be on the increase is the voracious demand for SFr1,000 ($1,100) notes—the largest denomination—which now account for 60% of the value of Swiss-issued paper cash in circulation. Andreas Hensch of Swiss Data Safe says demand for its mountain vaults has been accelerating over the past year. The firm is not required to investigate the provenance of stuff stored there.

Western countries have started to clamp down on those who try to use such repositories to keep undeclared assets in the shadows. America has led the way. Under a bilateral accord, Swiss banks will have to deliver information on the transfer of funds from accounts, including cash withdrawals. Tax authorities are growing more interested in the contents of vaults. Americans with untaxed offshore wealth who sign on to an IRS voluntary-disclosure programme are required to list foreign holdings of art, says Bruce Zagaris of Berliner, Corcoran & Rowe, a law firm.

Tax-evaders are one thing, drug traffickers and kleptocrats another. In many ways the art market is custom-made for money laundering: it is unregulated, opaque (buyers and sellers are often listed as “private collection”) and many transactions are settled in cash or in kind. Investigators say it has become more widely used as a vehicle for ill-gotten gains since the 1980s, when it proved a hit with Latin American drug cartels. It is “one of the last wild-West businesses”, sighs an insurer.  This makes freeports a “very interesting” part of the dirty-money landscape, though also “a black hole”, says the head of one European country’s financial-intelligence agency. In a report in 2010 the Financial Action Task Force, which sets global anti-money-laundering standards, fretted that free-trade zones (of which freeports are a subset) were “a unique money-laundering and terrorist-financing threat” because they were “areas where certain administrative and oversight procedures are reduced or eliminated”.

Numerous investigations into tainted treasures have led to freeports. In the 1990s hundreds of objects plundered from tombs in Italy and elsewhere were tracked down to Geneva’s warehouse (along with papers showing that some had been laundered by being sold at auction to straw buyers, then handed straight back with the legitimate purchase documents). In 2003 a cache of stolen Egyptian treasures, including two mummies, was discovered in Geneva; in 2010 a Roman sarcophagus turned up there, perhaps pinched from Turkey.

Under pressure to respond, the Swiss have tightened up their laws on money-laundering and the transfer of cultural property. A law that took effect in 2009 brought Switzerland’s freeports into its customs territory for the first time. They must now keep a register of handling agents and end-customers using their space. Handlers must keep inventories, which customs can request to see.

In practice, however, clients can still be sure of a high degree of secrecy. Swiss customs agents still care more about drugs, arms or explosives than about the provenance of a Pollock. They do not have to share information with foreign authorities. Much of it is of limited value anyway, since items can be registered in the name of any person “entitled” to dispose of them—not necessarily the real owner.

Even greater secrecy is on offer in Singapore. Goods coming in to the freeport must be declared to customs, but only in a vague way: there is no requirement to disclose owners, their stand-ins or the value or precise nature of the goods (“wine” or “antiques” is enough). “We offer more confidentiality than Geneva,” Mr Vandeborre declared when the facility opened.  However, it is not quite true to say that Singapore and other new sites are in arm’s-length competition with the more established facilities. In fact, they share the same tight-knit group of mostly Swiss owners, managers, advisers and contractors. Yves Bouvier, the largest private shareholder in the Geneva freeport, is also the main owner and promoter of the Luxembourg freeport, a key shareholder in Singapore and a consultant to Beijing. His Geneva-based art-handling firm, Natural Le Coultre, is closely involved in running or setting up all these operations. Singapore’s architects and engineers were Swiss, as are its security consultants.

This has fuelled speculation that Swiss interests have deliberately developed a strategy to globalise the high-end freeport concept as a way to continue to benefit, even as the crackdown on undeclared money in Zurich and Geneva drives some of it to other countries. Franco Momente of Natural Le Coultre rejects this interpretation. “It’s nothing more than supply and demand,” he says. “Today many countries see the advantages of freeports for the local economy and to have a place in the global art market. They’re looking for solutions with experienced operators, and [the Swiss] have long experience.”

Barring dramatic regulatory intervention or moves to end their tax benefits, freeports are likely to grow, driven primarily by clients in emerging markets. At current growth rates the collective wealth of Asia’s rich will overtake Europe’s by 2017, reckon UBS and Wealth-X (see chart 2). As this population grows, so too could wealth taxes in the region, which are now low or non-existent. That could drive yet more Indians, Chinese and Indonesians towards the discreet duty-free depots which—if they aren’t already there—may soon be coming to an airport near you.

Freeports: Über-warehouses for the ultra-rich, Economist, Nov. 23, 2013, at 27

The Economics of Piracy: who benefits

[T]he pirate economy is poorly understood. A report released on November 4, 2013 by the World Bank, the UN and Interpol sheds new light.  The authors interviewed current and former pirates, their financial backers, government officials, middlemen and others. They estimate that between $339m and $413m was paid in ransoms off the Somali coast between 2005 and 2012. The average haul was $2.7m. Ordinary pirates usually get $30,000-75,000 each, with a bonus of up to $10,000 for the first man to board a ship and for those bringing their own weapon or ladder.

Qat, a narcotic plant that is chewed by many, is often provided to pirates on credit during an operation. Their consumption is recorded and, when the ransom is paid, each pirate gets his share, minus what he consumed.  Other deductions include food and fines for bad behaviour, such as mistreating the crew, which often carries a $5,000 fine and dismissal…Some pirates find it difficult to retire because they end up in debt at the end of a hijack. Part of the ransom money flows to local communities that provide services to pirates.  Payments go to cooks, pimps and lawyers, who are increasingly sought after, as well as banknote-checkers with machines that can detect fakes. Money is also paid to militias that control ports. Under one agreement in Haradheere, a port north of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, pirates paid a “development tax” of 20% to the Shabab, an Islamist rebel group tied to al-Qaeda.

During operations, pirates spend with abandon. Interest rates on loaned goods and services are high: $10 of mobile-phone airtime is charged generally at around $20. The men on the anchored ships also pay up to three times the market price for qat, driving up prices on the coast. “With piracy everything became more and more expensive,” complains a fisherman-turned-pirate. Some locals (including former pirates) offer services to potential and actual victims of piracy, for instance as consultants, negotiators or proof-of-life interviewers. Some of these “companies” openly advertise their services, sometimes contacting victims directly.

Financing pirate expeditions can be quite cheap by comparison. The most basic ones cost a few hundred dollars, which may be covered by those taking part. Bigger expeditions, involving several vessels, may cost $30,000 and require professional financing, This comes from former police and military officers or civil servants, qat dealers, fishermen and former pirates. They take anywhere between 30% and 75% of the ransom.  A typical operation has three to five investors. Some provide loans or investment advice to other financiers. Some financiers, especially those in the Somali diaspora who have little cash inside Somalia but large deposits abroad, employ what the report describes as “trade-based money-laundering” to send funds to Somalia. This involves finding legitimate Somali importers willing to use a financier’s foreign money to pay for their shipments and reimburse him at home in cash once the goods are sold.

The same technique is sometimes used to transfer ransom money out of Somalia. Cash is also smuggled across the region’s porous borders or transferred through intermediaries. One pirate took $12,000 in $50 and $100 bills to an office that transmits money and wired it abroad, bought a car and shipped it back to Somalia. The Somali financial sector is surprisingly dynamic and growing more quickly than state institutions. Various internet-payment services have popped up, even in the roughest parts of the country.

The report identifies Djibouti, Kenya and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as the main transit points and final destinations for much of the loot. The financial institutions in Dubai, part of the UAE, are a particular worry. Investigators concluded that the ransom from the hijacking of the MV Pompei in 2012 was moved to Djibouti, then wired to banks in Dubai.  A third of pirate financiers invest profits in setting up militias or gaining political influence. Some also finance religious extremists.

Excerpts from Somali piracy: More sophisticated than you thought, Economist, Nov. 2, 2013, at 53

Why Chinese Banks Love the UK

Britain’s banks, heirs to empire, have long coveted the riches of China. On October 15, 2013 their hopes of reaping them rose greatly when the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, announced a deal with China that is intended to make Britain the main offshore hub for trading in China’s currency and bonds and for foreign institutions investing in China’s fast-growing economy.But there was a price. Mr Osborne conceded that British regulators would “consider” (which tends to mean “approve”) applications from Chinese banks wanting to enter Britain as branches of their parent banks rather than as subsidiaries. The difference may seem arcane but in the world of banking regulation it is hugely important. Branches are overseen by their parents’ bank supervisors at home. They are not required to have thick cushions of capital to absorb losses or large chunks of cash to see them through hard times. Instead they are expected to call on their parents for help if they run into difficulties. This makes branches much cheaper and more attractive for banks than subsidiaries.

It also explains why regulators generally dislike them. The laxer rules on branches leave them more vulnerable if they or their parent banks get into difficulties. In allowing Chinese banks to use branches, British authorities are in effect betting that if anything goes wrong the Chinese government will bail them out, says Simon Gleeson of Clifford Chance, a law firm.

The chancellor’s decision has raised eyebrows in London’s financial district. Some worry that a supposedly independent regulator has been subjected to political interference and has been forced to lower its standards. Yet critics of the deal overlook two important points. The first is that there is an inevitable tension between a bank regulator’s mission of maintaining financial stability and the wider aim of promoting economic growth. Tension between a regulator and elected officials is not just inevitable but healthy.

Just as important is the tricky balance regulators must find between protecting their own banking systems and encouraging the smooth functioning of global capital markets. Letting banks use branches allows capital to flow more easily around the world. Forcing them into subsidiaries can lead to the creation of stagnant pools of cash and capital.  Although Britain has cast a more sceptical eye over branches of foreign banks since the crisis—particularly after its taxpayers were left out of pocket by the collapse of Icelandic banks and their British branches—it has generally stood on the side of financial globalisation. In this it is increasingly lonely. American regulators are likely soon to force foreign banks to establish fully-capitalised units. EU officials are threatening to do the same. Given this trend, Britain’s stance looks less like an opportunistic grab for Chinese business and more like a last, probably hopeless, stab at keeping alive the dream of a seamless global financial market.

Chinese banks: Open for business, Economist, Oct. 19, 2013, at 62

Tax Evaders and Whistleblowers

What  Edward Snowden is to mass surveillance, Hervé Falciani is becoming to private banking. In 2008 the now 41-year-old native of Monaco walked out of the Geneva branch of HSBC, where he had worked for three years, clutching five CD-ROMs containing data on thousands of account holders. The theft lobbed a bomb into Europe’s private-banking market, spawning raids and tax-evasion investigations continentwide. In the latest, this week, Belgian agents swooped on the homes of 20 HSBC clients, including some with ties to Antwerp diamond dealers.

Mr Falciani went on the run when the Swiss charged him with data theft. After moving to Spain he was imprisoned, but freed when a judge denied a Swiss extradition request. At one point, he claims, he was kidnapped by Mossad agents who wanted a peek at the clients’ names. He has now taken refuge in France, where the government has offered him protection in return for helping it hunt for tax dodgers.

Several countries have used the data to bring cases against suspected evaders. Revelations that dozens of Greek public figures hid money offshore have magnified the tumult in that country’s politics. Spain and France have fingered hundreds of high-level cheats and retrieved €350m ($610m) in back taxes. Mr Falciani maintains that his CDs provided support for an American probe into weak money-laundering controls at HSBC, which led to a $1.9 billion settlement. HSBC disputes this.

Mr Falciani has said he still fears for his safety, despite round-the-clock protection from three armed guards provided by the French. At least he is not short of work. He has been helping France’s tax authorities develop long-term anti-tax-evasion measures. And he recently became an adviser to a new Spanish political party, Partido X (which, ironically, tries to keep its members anonymous).

He insists his motives have always been pure: to repel Switzerland’s “attack” on other countries’ tax laws and exchequers. HSBC says he is no high-minded whistle-blower. He tried to sell the data at first, the bank contends, and started to work with prosecutors only when he was jailed in Spain. It claims he has data on only 15,000 clients (Mr Falciani says it is eight times that) and that the stolen files contain errors.

Either way, many more tax-shy Europeans have reason to sleep fitfully. Other countries are said to want a look at the data, some of which are yet to be decrypted. When Mr Falciani first made the rounds with his discs, there was little interest. The fiscal strains produced by the euro crisis have changed all that.

Banks and tax evasion: Hervé lifting, Economist, Oct. 19, 2013, at 79

Offshore Tax Evasion: US v. Switzerland

Fearful that other banks could suffer the same fate as Wegelin, a venerable private bank that was indicted in New York in 2012 and put out of business, the Swiss government has been seeking an agreement with America that would allow the industry to pay its way out of trouble in one go. Instead, it has had to make do with one covering banks that are not already under investigation, which excludes some of the country’s biggest institutions.

The deal is cleverly structured. Of Switzerland’s 300 banks, 285 will be able to avoid prosecution if they provide certain information about American clients and their advisers, and pay penalties of 20-50% of the clients’ undeclared account balances, depending on when the account was opened and other factors. Banks that persuade clients to make disclosures before the programme starts will get reduced fines. Banks will not have to take part but the legal risks are daunting for those that don’t, even if they hold little undeclared American money. Those with no foreign clients will have to produce independent reports proving they have nothing to hide if they want a clean bill of health.

One Swiss newspaper likened the deal to “swallowing toads”. Another called it “the start of an organised surrender”. The bankers’ association sees it as a necessary evil: the only way to end legal uncertainty, albeit at a cost that will strain some institutions. Small and medium-sized Swiss private banks are already struggling. In 2012 their average return on equity was 3%; the number of private banks fell by 13, to 148, mostly because of voluntary liquidations. KPMG, a consultancy, expects this to fall by a further 25-30% by 2016 as receding legal threats encourage the return of mergers.

Some of the prospective buyers in any future M&A wave still have to make their peace with the Americans. Excluded from the deal are 14 mostly large banks that have been under investigation for some time, including Credit Suisse and Julius Bär. They will have to settle individually, with fines expected to be steep, some perhaps comparable to the $780m paid by UBS in 2009. These banks are also under pressure from European countries that have suffered tax leakage, including Germany, whose parliament has rejected a deal that would have allowed the Swiss to make regular payments of tax withheld from clients while avoiding having to name names.

Swiss bankers gamely argue that bank secrecy remains intact, pointing out that privacy laws have not been dismantled. But banks are being bullied into providing enough information, short of actual client names, to allow the Americans to make robust “mutual legal assistance” requests that leave Swiss courts with no option but to order banks to provide clients’ personal details. The courts still have some flexibility because America has yet to ratify an amended tax treaty with Switzerland, thanks to blocking tactics by Rand Paul, a senator who argues it would violate Americans’ right to privacy. But this obstacle will eventually be cleared or circumvented.

All of which fuels speculation that Switzerland could lose its crown as the leading offshore financial centre, even though it is still well ahead of fast-growing rivals in Asia. It may find comfort in the fact that the Americans plan to use information harvested from the Swiss— including “leaver lists”, which contain data on account closures and transfers to banks abroad—to go after other jurisdictions. This is part of a “domino effect” strategy, says Jeffrey Neiman, a former federal prosecutor, aimed at forcing tax evaders “so far off the beaten path that they can’t be sure if the pirate waiting to take their money will be there when they return.”

Offshore tax evasion: Swiss finished?, Economist, Sept. 7, 2013, at 72

Economic Choking: US in Somalia

For Mohamed Abdulle, sending money to his family in Somalia means a trip to a high street in Stratford, East London, home to a large expatriate community. Once there he hands over cash, a telephone number and a name, usually that of his grandmother who lives in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, to an agent. A few minutes later Mr Abdulle, who works as a shop assistant, gets a text message letting him know the cash has arrived on the other side. This fast and reliable system, developed during decades of war in Somalia, is used by hundreds of thousands in the global diaspora, as well as by some UN offices and aid agencies to pay staff.

Perhaps not for much longer. Barclays, a big retail bank, has served notice that it will close the accounts of some 250 money-transfer businesses. The bank said the decision followed a routine legal review. Some money remitters “don’t have the proper checks in place to spot criminal activity,” the bank says, or could “unwittingly” be financing terrorists.

Barclays was among the last British banks willing to deal with agents who cheaply transfer money to poor countries. Many European banks have become nervous about such cash transfers after the American government last year forced HSBC, another big British bank, into a $1.9 billion settlement over allegedly shoddy money-laundering controls…..

Meanwhile, a group of 100 academics and other notables [petition] written to the British government asking it to avert a humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. An estimated 40% of Somalia’s population depends on money sent from abroad. A recent study showed that three-quarters of recipients need the money to buy essentials, such as food and medicine.

“This will mean children being pulled out of school, people going hungry or not getting medicines they need,” said Laura Hammond, a lecturer at the University of London. The Somali Money Services Association, another British trade body, warned that the consequences of the closure of the accounts would be “worse than the drought” that ravaged Somalia two years ago and killed tens of thousands.

So far attention has focused on Somalia, where years of conflict have destroyed the banks and left no real alternatives to cheap money transfers. But the 250 firms put on notice by Barclays also include some serving Ghana and Nigeria, as well as India and Bangladesh. More sophisticated and expensive competitors such as Western Union may now benefit. A reduction in competition in the African remittance market will drive up prices.  Africans already pay more than any other migrant group to send money home. The cost of remitting to sub-Saharan Africa, typically around 12%, is three percentage points higher than the global average…

Some observers are calling for the creation of new institutions that could replace private banks. One suggestion is a “remittance bank” hosted by the UN or a multilateral agency. Another is a code of conduct worked out by remitters, banks and regulators. “This needs to be driven by government,” says Leon Isaacs of the International Association of Money Transfer Networks. “Or the banks won’t get the comfort they want.”

African money transfers: Let them remit, Economist, July 20, 2013, at 43

See also Family Ties: Remittances and Livelihoods Support in Puntland and Somaliland Study Report (pdf)

The Rape of Europe by Internet Giants: tax avoiding, data mining

The raid by the European Commission’s antitrust gumshoes this month on Orange (formerly France Telecom), Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica of Spain seemed to come out of the blue. The companies professed a surprise verging on stupefaction. Even some Brussels insiders were caught on the hop.  Naming no names, the commission said the inquiry involved internet connectivity. The question is whether entrenched telecoms firms are abusing their strength in the market for internet traffic to deny video-streaming websites and other content providers full access to their networks to reach consumers. Besides the content providers themselves, the other potential plaintiffs are the “wholesalers” that the content providers use to ship their data across borders (and usually the Atlantic). These rely on incumbent internet-service providers (ISPs) such as Orange to take the data the last bit of the way to subscribers’ screens and mobiles.

All eyes turned to Cogent Communications, an American wholesaler which handles data for the likes of YouTube. Cogent has complained, fruitlessly, to French and German regulators that their former monopolies were asking too much to handle data, and throttling the flow to consumers when bigger fees were not forthcoming. It is appealing against the French decision.  In theory Orange and the other network providers might simply pass on to their customers the cost of all their streaming and downloading… But Europe’s market is fiercely competitive; and regulators place all sorts of constraints on how networks can charge for their services, while haranguing them to invest in new technology and new capacity to keep up with rising traffic. Though there are similar spats in America (for instance between Cogent and Verizon, a big network operator), it looks to some Europeans like another example of the rape of the old continent by America’s data-mining, tax-avoiding internet giants.

The broader issue—and the reason, perhaps, why the antitrust watchdogs chose to weigh in—is that Europe is on the brink of big regulatory change. A draft law to be published in September will subtly alter the principle of “net neutrality”, the idea that companies which own the infrastructure cannot give priority to some traffic (eg, from their own websites) over that of others.;”

Internet access: Congestion on the line, Economist, July 20, 2013

Multinationals and their Stateless Income

Cross-border corporate taxation is fiendishly complex, the lobbying around it furious. Several recent academic studies show just how pervasive tax avoidance is.  The ability to shift profits to low-tax countries by locating intellectual property in them, which is then licensed to related businesses in high-tax countries, is often assumed to be the preserve of high-tech companies. Yet in “Through a Latte, Darkly”, a new study of how Starbucks has largely avoided paying tax in Britain, Edward Kleinbard of the University of Southern California shows that current tax rules make it easy for all sorts of firms to generate what he calls “stateless income”: profit subject to tax in a jurisdiction that is neither the location of the factors of production that generate the income nor where the parent firm is domiciled. In Starbucks’s case, the firm has in effect turned the process of making an expensive cup of coffee into intellectual property.

In another new paper Harry Grubert of America’s Treasury and Rosanne Altshuler of Rutgers University delve into tax returns by American multinationals in 2006. They examine all the foreign profits held abroad by these firms (because bringing the money home would incur tax). A remarkable 36.8% of these profits were recorded in countries taxing them at a rate of 0-5%, and a further 9.1% were in countries taxing at 5-10%. Given how much more aggressive their tax-avoidance strategies are believed to have become since, it seems likely that the proportion of foreign profits held by American firms in low-tax countries is now well over half. It will take more than fine words in a communiqué to change behaviour when so much is at stake,

Excerpt, The G8 summit: T time, Economist, June 22, 2013, at 72

The Art of Selling Weapons: offsets

[When governments buy weapons] it is standard to supplement the main deal with a side contract, usually undisclosed, that outlines additional investments that the winning bidder must make in local projects or else pay a penalty. Welcome to the murky world of “offsets”.

The practice came of age in the 1950s, when Dwight Eisenhower forced West Germany to buy American-made defence gear to compensate for the costs of stationing troops in Europe. Since then it has grown steadily and is now accepted practice in 120 countries. It has its own industry newsletter and feeds a lively conference circuit. The latest jamboree, hosted by the Global Offset and Countertrade Association, was held in Florida…. Yet its very structure serves to mask a build-up in the unrecognised financial liabilities of companies. It also, critics argue, fosters corruption, especially in poorer parts of the world.

Avascent, a consultancy, reckons that defence and aerospace contractors’ accrued offset “obligations”—investments they have promised but not yet made—are about $250 billion today and could be almost $450 billion by 2016. The industry’s own estimates are lower, but all agree the trajectory is upward.

Offsets come in two types. Direct offsets require investment in or partnerships with local defence firms. The idea is to develop self-sufficiency. Turkey, for instance, now meets half its own defence needs thanks to such arrangements. Indirect (non-defence) offsets include everything from backing new technologies or business parks to building hotels, donating to universities and even supporting condom-makers. Here the stated intention is to achieve more general economic or social goals.

Both types of offset are controversial. Economists view offsets as market-distorting. The World Trade Organisation bans their use as a criterion for contract evaluation in all industries except defence. Anti-corruption groups see them as a clever way to channel bribes. Even if many offset deals are clean, they are widely seen as a “dark art”, admits an industry executive. “Offset” has become a dirty word; the industry now prefers the euphemistic “industrial participation”.

The practice is frowned upon in some advanced economies. The European Commission is trying to impose a ban on all offsets in EU-to-EU contracts, and on indirect offsets when the supplier is from outside the union…

America has long been officially against offsets, though it practises something similar at home under the Buy American Act of 1933, which requires foreign arms-makers to source much of the work locally… And as embassy cables published by WikiLeaks make clear, America’s diplomats are sometimes closely involved in its firms’ discussions with foreign governments, including even squeaky-clean Norway’s, over proposed offsets.

In less developed countries, where defence spending is generally rising, offsets are booming. One appeal is that they can be recorded as foreign direct investment, boosting the government’s economic-management credentials. The two biggest arms-buyers in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have long-standing, sophisticated offset programs…Brazil and India are catching up…

This growth is fuelling a thriving offsets industry. At one end are dozens of small brokers who hawk ideas for offset projects to arms-makers and their clients. With the right contacts in government and the armed forces, even small outfits can service the largest defence firms. Take Dolin International Trade & Capital, a one-man operation run by Dov Hyman from his home in suburban New York. Mr Hyman cut his teeth as a textile trader in Nigeria. Today he advises African governments looking to use offsets while helping multinationals craft offset packages.

Further up the chain are a few sophisticated outfits that structure complex deals and arrange financing. The best known is London-based Blenheim Capital. These are assembling ever more creative packages, including, for instance, helping procuring countries to use contractors’ offset obligations as collateral for loans, backed by the “performance bonds” that firms set aside to cover unfulfilled obligations.

These middlemen are offsets’ most vocal defenders. Mr Hyman cites reams of examples of deals that he believes brought great benefits for purchasing countries’ economies. The best of them are “beautiful solutions”: for instance when arms-sellers satisfy offset obligations by guaranteeing credit lines for local manufacturers, thus reducing their financing costs. Using a multinational’s good standing in this way is “an efficient means of making possible transactions that otherwise wouldn’t be viable,” he argues.

However, some projects take contractors disconcertingly far away from their core competence. Take the shrimp farm set up in Saudi Arabia in 2006 with backing from Raytheon, a maker of radar systems and missiles. Praised at first as a model offset, it reportedly struggled to keep its pools properly maintained in searing temperatures and eventually went bust.

Moreover, the academic literature on offsets suggests that the promised benefits are elusive. There are some technology-transfer success stories: for instance, China has boosted its defence-manufacturing capability by requiring offsets when buying kit from Russia. However, research by Paul Dunne of Bristol Business School and Jurgen Brauer of Augusta State University has found that such deals are generally pricier than “off-the-shelf” arms purchases and create little new or sustainable employment. The offsets associated with the giant South African arms purchases of the late 1990s have created 28,000 direct jobs, claims the country’s government. Even if true, it is well below the 65,000 first envisaged. India’s auditor-general recently concluded that some offsets have produced no value for the country.

Judging performance is hard because of a lack of openness. Asked for confirmation of the fate of the shrimp farm, the Saudi offset authority said it kept “minimum information” on projects after their founding and suggested contacting its commercial backers. Raytheon declined to comment and suggested contacting the Saudis. DevCorp, another backer, did not respond. A study published in February by Transparency International, an anti-graft group, found that a third of governments that use offsets neither audit them nor impose due-diligence requirements on contractors.

Worse, accounting rulemakers have failed to impose any requirement to disclose offset liabilities. Companies can thus choose how, or whether, to put them on the balance-sheet. Defence firms have lobbied successfully for offsets to remain classified as “proprietary”, so they do not have to disclose their obligations. In some ways things have got worse: the Commerce Department’s annual report on American contractors’ offsets no longer even breaks out the numbers country-by-country.

This murkiness makes it hard to determine who really pays for offsets. On the face of it, the defence companies do. But Shana Marshall, an offsets-watcher at George Washington University, believes that they build the cost into their bids. Politicians and officials in procuring countries know that they are paying the bill through padded prices, but they accept this because offsets give them some grand projects to trumpet and sometimes provide palm-greasing opportunities.

A study in Belgium found that the country ended up paying 20-30% more for military gear when offsets were factored in. If the costs are largely borne by taxpayers, the benefits accrue to individuals and institutions chosen by the procuring government. This make offsets a good way to conceal delivery of public subsidies to interest groups, according to Ms Marshall.

A number of deals have been exposed as, or are suspected of being, corrupt. A commission has been set up to look into South African contracts dating back to 1999; the government has already conceded that offset credits changed hands at inflated prices. Since 2006 prosecutors in Portugal have been investigating offsets connected with a €1 billion ($1.3 billion) submarine contract with Germany’s Ferrostaal, HDW and ThyssenKrupp. Three Ferrostaal board members and seven Portuguese businessmen are on trial, charged with fraud and falsifying documents.  EADS, a large European contractor, is facing multiple inquiries over its sale of 15 Eurofighter planes to Austria. Prosecutors in Vienna and Munich are looking into allegations that millions of euros in kickbacks flowed through a web of offshore firms and side-deals, linked to offset agreements worth €3.5 billion, twice the value of the main contract. (In other words, EADS was supposed to generate €2 of business for Austrian firms for every euro it received for the planes—an unusually high ratio even in fiercely bid contracts.) Tom Enders, EADS’s chief executive, told Der Spiegel, a German magazine, that he “knew nothing about the shadowy world of dubious firms allegedly behind this.” The company says it is co-operating fully with prosecutors and that an internal investigation has so far found no evidence of punishable activity.

Prosecutors are also looking into whether AgustaWestland, part of Finmeccanica, an Italian defence firm, paid bribes to secure the sale of 12 helicopters to India in 2010. Finmeccanica’s former chief executive and the former head of AgustaWestland are due to go on trial next month. According to Italian court filings, suspicious payments allegedly flowed through a sham offset contract for software with help from a Swiss-based consultant. The helicopter-maker and the charged individuals deny wrongdoing.

Industry figures point out that all but the Indian case are at least five years old. They argue that corruption is harder to get away with today because of stricter anti-bribery laws and enforcement in America and Europe. Companies’ general counsels pay much more attention to offsets than they did a decade ago, says Grant Rogan, the head of Blenheim Capital.

Even if graft really is on the wane, offsets’ complexities make it hard to measure the true cost of defence deals. Procuring governments may apply generous “multipliers” to give extra credit to projects they deem exceptionally beneficial, especially if they are keen to buy the kit in question. As a result, defence contractors often find their liabilities turn out to be a lot less than their nominal obligations. A $5 billion sale of military kit might come with, say, $4 billion of gross offset requirements, but after multipliers it might only cost $500m to fulfil. A book on the arms trade, “The Shadow World”, by Andrew Feinstein, describes a contract Saab won in South Africa: to receive more than $200m in credits all the planemaker was required to do, the book says, was to spend $3m upgrading pools in Port Elizabeth and marketing the town to Swedish tourists. Saab says the tourism project cost much more, and suggested that it was up to the authorities to decide what value they put on what it achieved.

This sleight-of-hand helps to explain why industry executives are better disposed towards offsets in private than in public, says Ms Marshall. They say they could happily live without them, but they do not lobby to have them banned. Indeed, some big contractors see their ability to craft a package of attractive offsets as a “source of competitive advantage”, as Boeing’s boss, Jim McNerney, puts it.

The largest such firms will employ dozens of offset specialists to give them an edge in bidding. Lockheed, another American contractor, has about 40. As long ago as 2005 the firm was touting its leadership in offsets to win Thai contracts, according to a leaked diplomatic cable.  A downside for the companies is that dealing with national offset agencies can be frustrating. And though the companies’ offset liabilities are smaller in reality than on paper, they can still be daunting: one American contractor, for instance, has $10 billion of nominal obligations in a single Gulf state that will cost $1 billion-2 billion to fulfil, according to a consultant (who will not say which firm or country)….

How long can the offsets boom last?  But in the shorter term, their growth will be fuelled by American and European contractors’ intensifying efforts to sell outside their shrinking home markets, to big developing countries whose defence budgets are growing…. Remarkably, offsets are now said to be the main criterion in contract evaluation in Turkey and some Asian countries—more important than the price or the technical capability of the defence equipment itself.

The defence industry: Guns and sugar, Economist,May 25, 2013, at 63

Deforestation: Rubber Barons and their Bankers

Along Route 7 in Cambodia’s remote north, dozens of small tractors known as “iron buffaloes” are plying a dilapidated piece of highway. Under cover of darkness, they transport freshly cut timber into nearby sawmills. The drivers wear masks, their tractors fitted with just one dim lamp at the front. Each carries between three and six logs which locals say were felled illegally on or near the Dong Nai rubber plantation, owned by Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG).

Illegal logging and land-grabbing have long been problems in Cambodia. A new report entitled “Rubber Barons” by Global Witness, a London-based environmental watchdog, has highlighted the issue once again. Dong Nai features prominently in the report, which claims that luxury timbers like rosewood, much in demand for furniture in China and guitars in the West, were culled as a 3,000-hectare (7,400-acre) section of forest was illegally cleared.

Global Witness says that local and foreign companies have amassed more than 3.7m hectares of land in Cambodia and Laos since 2000, as governments have handed out huge land concessions, many in opaque circumstances. Two-fifths of this was for rubber plantations, dominated by state companies from Vietnam, the world’s third-largest rubber producer.

The report claims that VRG and another Vietnamese company, HAGL, are among the biggest land-grabbers, and have been logging illegally in both Cambodia and Laos. It says that, through Vietnam-based funds, the two companies have received money from Deutsche Bank, while HAGL also has investment from the IFC, the private-sector arm of the World Bank. The two Vietnamese companies have denied any wrongdoing. Deutsche Bank and the IFC say they are studying the findings.

The report says that the two companies have failed to consult local communities or pay them compensation for land they formerly used. The companies routinely use armed security forces to guard plantations. Large areas of supposedly protected intact forest have been cleared, in violation of forest-protection laws and “apparently in collusion with Cambodia’s corrupt elite”.

Global Witness is urging authorities in Cambodia and Laos to revoke the two companies’ land concessions, which cover 200,000 hectares and are held through a network of subsidiaries. It thinks both companies should be prosecuted.

Logging in South-East Asia: Rubber barons, Economist, May 18, 2013

See also Bankers with Chainsaws

 

Tax Havens under Attack

[In] the Cayman Islands,  corruption would have been high on the list of election issues in a society where “everybody expects that you are going into politics to make your money”, as a former auditor-general recently put it. But there is plenty more to worry Caymanians and the inhabitants of Britain’s other remaining scraps of empire in the Caribbean: Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Tourism and international finance have brought prosperity but the “twin pillars” are showing cracks. Fiscal fumbling has compounded the problem and has strained relations with Britain, which has long provided an economic backstop. The region’s two big tax havens, Cayman and the BVI, are under attack as never before.

The world economic slowdown hit these small, open economies hard…. In some cases Britain has pushed for income taxes to supplement the fees and indirect taxes that the territories rely on. But these do not go down well with footloose offshore types. Under pressure from the Foreign Office, Cayman’s government last year proposed a 10% levy for foreigners, who make up half the 38,000 workforce. This was scrapped when businesses squealed. Wary of scaring away business, the BVI has not raised the $350 fee for incorporation since 2004.

Avoiding fee rises is seen as important at a time when tax havens are under bombardment, especially from Europe. The five territories, Bermuda and others have been arm-twisted into backing a multilateral scheme for the automatic exchange of tax information. A longer-term threat is the growing international call for public registration of the “beneficial” (ie real) owners of companies and trusts. Standards must be applied evenly, says Orlando Smith, premier of the BVI, “otherwise, businesses will simply go to other jurisdictions.”

Offshore optimists note that China and Russia, whose citizens are big users of Caribbean havens, have not signed up to the information-sharing pact. But remaining attractive to clients while complying with ever more stringent international rules is “an increasingly difficult needle to thread”, says Andrew Morriss of the University of Alabama. No wonder the territories are trying to diversify away from finance, which in the BVI’s case accounts for 60% of government revenues. Anguilla is looking at fishing, Cayman toying with medical tourism. But hip replacements will not be as lucrative as hedge funds.

Britain is gently encouraging these efforts, while recognising that, as an official puts it, “There isn’t a long list of options.” It is trying to improve governance, too. After it threatened to veto a Cayman port project which had been awarded to a Chinese company without an open tender, bidding was restarted. Britain retains the power to block laws, suspend constitutions and dismiss governments. The Turks and Caicos constitution has been suspended twice, most recently in 2009 after an inquiry found “a high probability of systemic corruption”. This led to three years of direct rule by the British-appointed governor.

Putting your man in charge is one thing, putting money on the table quite another. To avoid it, Britain will have to play its hand carefully. It has to be seen to join the likes of France and Germany in taking a firm stand against offshore financial shenanigans, especially now that the prime minister, David Cameron, has made tax and transparency themes of this year’s G8 agenda. On May 20th he told Britain’s dependencies to “get [their] houses in order”. But if the havens lose their cash cow, they might have to go cap-in-hand to London. “Taxpayers Bail Out Tax Havens” is the last headline Mr Cameron wants to see.

The Caribbean: Treasure islands in trouble, Economist, May25, 2013, at 35

Mining Companies Love Least Developed Countries

An expert panel led by Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, looked at five deals struck between 2010 and 2012, and compared the sums for which government-owned mines were sold with independent assessments of their value. It found a gap of $1.36 billion, double the state’s annual budget for health and education. And these deals are just a small subset of all the bargains struck, says the report, which Mr Annan presented in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 10th.

The report highlights some puzzling details. For instance ENRC, a London-listed Kazakh mining firm, waived its rights to buy out a stake in a mining enterprise owned by Gécamines, Congo’s state miner, only to acquire it for $75m from a company owned by Dan Gertler, an Israeli businessman, which had paid $15m for it just months earlier. Mr Gertler is close to Joseph Kabila, Congo’s president. ENRC, which is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office in Britain, was Congo’s third-largest copper producer last year. Both ENRC and Mr Gertler deny wrongdoing.

African countries often fail to collect reasonable taxes on mining, says Mr Annan’s panel. For example, Zambia’s copper exports were worth $10 billion in 2011, but its tax receipts from mining were a meagre $240m. The widespread use by mining firms of offshore investment vehicles as conduits for profits creates scope for tax avoidance. Their use is not restricted to rich-world companies. Much of the oil that Angola ships to China is via a company called the China International Fund. Its trading prices are not made public…

Congo’s prime minister, Matata Ponyo Mapon, promises change. In January 2013… Mr Ponyo said he would rein in the state-owned mining companies and increase transparency in the industry. “We must avoid situations where we’re not publishing our mining contracts, where our state assets are undervalued, and where the government doesn’t know what its state mining companies are doing,” he told miners and officials at a conference in January….

Last year miners in Congo, which include Freeport-McMoRan and Glencore Xstrata, shipped $6.7 billion-worth of copper and cobalt from the country.

Business in the Democratic Republic of Congo: Murky minerals, Economist, May 18, 2013, at 74

 

Collusion in the Oil Market

The European Commission declared that it feared oil companies had “colluded” to distort benchmark prices for crude, oil products and biofuels. Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Norway’s Statoil and Italy’s ENI  all said that they were co-operating with the commission. The competition authorities also called on the London offices of Platts, a subsidiary of McGraw Hill, an American publisher and business-information firm, which sets reference prices for these commodities.

The volumes of oil and products linked to these benchmark prices are vast. Futures and derivatives markets are also built on the price of the underlying physical commodity. At least 200 billion barrels a year, worth in the order of $20 trillion, are priced off the Brent benchmark, the world’s biggest, according to Liz Bossley, chief executive of Consilience, an energy-markets consultancy. The commission has said that even small price distortions could have a “huge impact” on energy prices. Statoil has said that the commission’s interest goes all the way back to 2002. If it is right, then the sums involved could be huge, too.

The authorities are tight-lipped about their focus, but they seem to be examining the integrity of benchmark prices. Each day Platts’s reporters establish a reference price by following the value of public bids and offers during a half-hour “window” before a set time—4:30pm in London, for example. This “Market-on-Close” (MOC) method is based on the idea that using published, verifiable deals to set the price is more reliable than having reporters ring around their pals, who might be tempted to talk their own books.  Platts keenly defends the MOC method. It points out that it ignores bids, offers and deals that are anomalous or suspicious. “We are not aware of any evidence that our price assessments are not reflective of market value,” it says, before declaring that it stands behind its method.

Yet such price-setting mechanisms have come in for criticism. The International Organisation of Securities Commissions (IOSCO), a grouping of financial regulators, said last year that the potential for false reporting “is not mere conjecture.” Total, a French oil giant…told IOSCO that benchmark prices were out of line with the underlying market “several times a year”.

Nobody knows what, if anything, the present investigation will find. The authorities should be scouring firms’ books for trades within the half-hour window that are offset in the futures markets. Perhaps they will find deals used in Platts’s assessment that are quietly unwound by the oil companies in private. They should also check shipping registers to see that cargoes have actually changed hands, or whether deals are fictitious. If any of these tricks could distort the benchmark by even a few cents, it might create a handy profit on contracts that are priced off it.

Oil consumers have been quick to rage at news of this week’s raids. The belief that oil companies rip off consumers is as unshakable as the idea that Rockefeller was good with money. “Our members…will be incandescent if what many have long suspected—that is price fixing—proves to be true,” said Robert Downes, of the Forum of Private Business, a British group that backs small firms. In fact, if there have indeed been price distortions, then these could as well have nudged prices down as forced them up—because oil traders make money on price movements, not just rises.

It is a complicated picture and the EU’s competition authorities are likely to take months or years before deciding whether they suspect any oil companies of having committed a crime. Meanwhile, a reform of the oil markets is unlikely to come anytime soon. Despite IOSCO’s fears of price distortion, it backed away from recommending changes—after fierce lobbying from the industry.

Trading in oil: Libor in a barrel, Economist,, May 18, 2013, at 77

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

Icesave Case: winners & losers of bank failures

In 2008 Britain’s former prime minister Gordon Brown chose to invoke anti-terrorism laws to freeze the assets of a failed Icelandic bank…In January 28, 2013 a ruling delivered in Luxembourg by the European Free-Trade Association Court, dealt with the collapse of Icesave, an online subsidiary of Iceland’s Landsbanki. Before the crisis Icesave had used a European “passport” to open branches abroad and collected deposits in Britain and the Netherlands with almost no oversight from regulators in those countries. One condition of its passport was that it promised that its deposits were backed by a national deposit-insurance scheme in Iceland. Yet when the bank collapsed Iceland’s deposit scheme was overwhelmed. Icelandic depositors in the bank ended up getting their money back; the British and Dutch governments both had to step in to compensate depositors in their countries.

Many observers had expected the court to rule that Iceland was obliged to stand behind its national deposit-protection plan and not to discriminate against foreign depositors. Instead the court found that Iceland was obliged only to make sure that it had a deposit-insurance scheme. The state was not required to pay out if the scheme had no money because of a banking crisis. Oddly, the court also found that Iceland had not breached an obligation not to discriminate between domestic and foreign depositors, even though it made only the domestic ones whole.

The questions addressed by the court may seem anachronistic: European law on deposit protection has been extensively rewritten since the crisis. Yet the ruling is another warning to those who hope that regulators can strike binding agreements on how they will share the costs of a future banking crisis. Supervisors in America are already trying to ensure that foreign banks there operate as separately capitalised subsidiaries, so they do not have to rely on the vigilance of foreign regulators. Hopes that Europe’s banking union will include a mutual deposit-guarantee scheme are in any case faint. This week’s ruling will only weaken confidence in the willingness of countries to bail out foreign creditor

The Icesave ruling: In the cooler, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 64

S&P: Unfair Umpire Misleading the Public

Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Feb. 5, 2013 that the Department of Justice has filed a civil lawsuit against the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services  (pdf) alleging that S&P engaged in a scheme to defraud investors in structured financial products known as Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). The lawsuit alleges that investors, many of them federally insured financial institutions, lost billions of dollars on CDOs for which S&P issued inflated ratings that misrepresented the securities’ true credit risks. The complaint also alleges that S&P falsely represented that its ratings were objective, independent, and uninfluenced by S&P’s relationships with investment banks when, in actuality, S&P’s desire for increased revenue and market share led it to favor the interests of these banks over investors.

“Put simply, this alleged conduct is egregious – and it goes to the very heart of the recent financial crisis,” said Attorney General Holder. “Today’s action is an important step forward in our ongoing efforts to investigate – and – punish the conduct that is believed to have contributed to the worst economic crisis in recent history. It is just the latest example of the critical work that the President’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force is making possible.”

Attorney General Eric Holder was joined in announcing the filing of the civil complaint by Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Stuart F. Delery, and U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California André Birotte Jr. Also joining the Department of Justice in making this announcement were the attorneys general from California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Iowa and Mississippi, who have filed or will file civil fraud lawsuits against S&P alleging similar misconduct in the rating of structured financial products. Additional state attorneys general are expected to make similar filings today.

“Many investors, financial analysts and the general public expected S&P to be a fair and impartial umpire in issuing credit ratings, but the evidence we have uncovered tells a different story,” said Acting Associate Attorney General West. “Our investigation revealed that, despite their representations to the contrary, S&P’s concerns about market share, revenues and profits drove them to issue inflated ratings, thereby misleading the public and defrauding investors. In so doing, we believe that S&P played an important role in helping to bring our economy to the brink of collapse.”

Today’s action was filed in the Central District of California, home to the now defunct Western Federal Corporate Credit Union (WesCorp), which was the largest corporate credit union in the country. Following the 2008 financial crisis, WesCorp collapsed after suffering massive losses on RMBS and CDOs rated by S&P.  “Significant harm was caused by S&P’s alleged conduct in the Central District of California,” said U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Birotte. “Across the seven counties in my district, we had huge numbers of homeowners who took out subprime mortgage loans, many of which were made by some of the country’s most aggressive lenders only because they later could be securitized into debt instruments that were given flawed ‘AAA’ ratings by S&P. This led to an untold number of foreclosures in my district. In addition, institutional investors located in my district, such as WesCorp, suffered massive losses after putting billions of dollars into RMBS and CDOs that received flawed and inflated ratings from S&P.”

The complaint, which names McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. and its subsidiary, Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC (collectively S&P) as defendants, seeks civil penalties under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA) based on three forms of alleged fraud by S&P: (1) mail fraud affecting federally insured financial institutions in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341; (2) wire fraud affecting federally insured financial institutions in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343; and (3) financial institution fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1344. FIRREA authorizes the Attorney General to seek civil penalties up to the amount of the losses suffered as a result of the alleged violations. To date, the government has identified more than $5 billion in losses suffered by federally insured financial institutions in connection with the failure of CDOs rated by S&P from March to October 2007.  “The fraud underpinning the crisis took many different forms, and for that reason, so must our response,” said Stuart F. Delery, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Department’s Civil Division. “As today’s filing demonstrates, the Department of Justice is committed to using every available legal tool to bring to justice those responsible for the financial crisis.”

According to the complaint, S&P publicly represented that its ratings of RMBS and CDOs were objective, independent and uninfluenced by the potential conflict of interest posed by S&P being selected to rate securities by the investment banks that sold those securities. Contrary to these representations, from 2004 to 2007, the government alleges, S&P was so concerned with the possibility of losing market share and profits that it limited, adjusted and delayed updates to the ratings criteria and analytical models it used to assess the credit risks posed by RMBS and CDOs. According to the complaint, S&P weakened those criteria and models from what S&P’s own analysts believed was necessary to make them more accurate. The complaint also alleges that, from at least March to October 2007, and because of this same desire to increase market share and profits, S&P issued inflated ratings on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of CDOs. At the time, according to the allegations in the complaint, S&P knew that the quality of non-prime RMBS was severely impaired, and that the ratings on those mortgage bonds would not hold. The government alleges that S&P failed to account for this impairment in the CDO ratings it was assigning on a daily basis. As a result, nearly every CDO rated by S&P during this time period failed, causing investors to lose billions of dollars.

The underlying federal investigation, code-named “Alchemy,” that led to the filing of this complaint was initiated in November 2009 in connection with the President’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.

Department of Justice Sues Standard & Poor’s for Fraud in Rating Mortgage-Backed Securities in the Years Leading Up to the Financial Crisis, Department of Justice Press Release, Feb. 5, 2013

Bank Secrecy: Wegelin

Wegelin & Co, the oldest Swiss private bank, said on Thursday it would shut its doors permanently after more than 2 1/2 centuries, following its guilty plea to charges of helping wealthy Americans evade taxes through secret accounts.  The plea, in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, marks the death knell for one of Switzerland’s most storied banks, whose original European clients pre-date the American Revolution. It is also potentially a major turning point in a battle by U.S. authorities against Swiss bank secrecy.  A major question was left hanging by the plea: Has the bank turned over, or does it plan to disclose, names of American clients to U.S. authorities?.. Wegelin admitted to charges of conspiracy in helping Americans evade taxes on at least $1.2 billion for nearly a decade. Wegelin agreed to pay $57.8 million to the United States in restitution and fines. Otto Bruderer, a managing partner at the bank, said in court that “Wegelin was aware that this conduct was wrong.”  He said that “from about 2002 through about 2010, Wegelin agreed with certain U.S. taxpayers to evade the U.S. tax obligations of these U.S. taxpayer clients, who filed false tax returns with the IRS.”..

The surprise plea effectively ended the U.S. case against Wegelin, one of the most aggressive bank crackdowns in U.S. history.  “Once the matter is finally concluded, Wegelin will cease to operate as a bank,” Wegelin said in a statement on Thursday from its headquarters in the remote, small town of St. Gallen next to the Appenzell Alps near the German-Austrian border.  But the fate of three Wegelin bankers, indicted in January 2012 on charges later modified to include the bank, remains up in the air. Under criminal procedural rules, the cases of the three bankers – Michael Berlinka, Urs Frei and Roger Keller – are still pending.,

Although Wegelin had about a dozen branches, all in Switzerland, at the time of its indictment, it moved quickly to wind down its business, partly through a sale of its non-U.S. assets to regional Swiss bank Raiffeisen Gruppe.….Wegelin, a partnership of Swiss private bankers, was already a shadow of its former self – it effectively broke itself up following the indictment last year by selling the non-U.S. portion of its business.

Dozens of Swiss bankers and their clients have been indicted in recent years, following a 2009 agreement by UBS AG (UBSN.VX), the largest Swiss bank, to enter into a deferred-prosecution agreement, turn over 4,450 client names and pay a $780 million fine after admitting to criminal wrongdoing in selling tax-evasion services to wealthy Americans…Banks under U.S. criminal investigation in the wider probe include Credit Suisse, which disclosed last July it had received a target letter saying it was under a grand jury investigation…Zurich-based Julius Baer and some cantonal, or regional, banks are also under scrutiny, sources familiar with the probes previously told Reuters. So are UK-based HSBC Holdings (HSBA.L) and three Israeli banks, Hapoalim, Mizrahi-Tefahot Bank Ltd and Bank Leumi (LUMI.TA), sources also said previously.

Under its plea, Wegelin agreed to pay the $20 million in restitution to the IRS as well a civil forfeiture of $15.8 million, the Justice Department said.  Wegelin also agreed to pay an additional $22.05 million fine, the Justice Department said. U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, who must approve the monetary penalties, set a hearing in the case for March 4 for sentencing.  Last year, the U.S. government separately seized more than $16 million of Wegelin funds in a UBS AG account in Stamford, Connecticut, via a civil forfeiture complaint.  Since Wegelin has no branches outside Switzerland, it used UBS for correspondent banking services, a standard industry practice, to handle money for U.S.-based clients.  n court papers, Bruderer said that Wegelin “believed it would not be prosecuted in the United States for this conduct because it had no branches or offices in the United States and because of its understanding that it acted in accordance with, and not in violation of, Swiss law and that such conduct was common in the Swiss banking industry.”

The case is U.S. v. Wegelin & Co et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-cr-00002.

Excerpts, Nate Raymond and Lynnley Browning, Swiss bank Wegelin to close after guilty plea, Reuters, Jan. 4, 2013

The Flight of Gold: what Afghanistan, China and Iran have in common

Packed into hand luggage and tucked into jacket pockets, roughly hewed bars of gold are being flown out of Kabul with increasing regularity, confounding Afghan and American officials who fear money launderers have found a new way to spirit funds from the country.  Most of the gold is being carried on commercial flights destined for Dubai, according to airport security reports and officials. The amounts carried by single couriers are often heavy enough that passengers flying from Kabul to the Persian Gulf emirate would be well advised to heed warnings about the danger of bags falling from overhead compartments. One courier, for instance, carried nearly 60 pounds of gold bars, each about the size of an iPhone, aboard an early morning flight in mid-October, according to an airport security report. The load was worth more than $1.5 million.

The gold is fully declared and legal to fly. Some, if not most, is legitimately being sent by gold dealers seeking to have old and damaged jewelry refashioned into new pieces by skilled craftsmen in the Persian Gulf, said Afghan officials and gold dealers.  But gold dealers in Kabul and current and former Kabul airport officials say there has been a surge in shipments since early summer. The talk of a growing exodus of gold from Afghanistan has been spreading among the business community here, and in recent weeks has caught the attention of Afghan and American officials. The officials are now puzzling over the origin of the gold — very little is mined in Afghanistan, although larger mines are planned — and why so much appears to be heading for Dubai.

“We are investigating it, and if we find this is a way of laundering money, we will intervene,” said Noorullah Delawari, the governor of Afghanistan’s central bank. Yet he acknowledged that there were more questions than answers at this point. “I don’t know where so much gold would come from, unless you can tell me something about it,” he said in an interview. Or, as a European official who tracks the Afghan economy put it, “new mysteries abound” as the war appears to be drawing to a close.

Figuring out what precisely is happening in the Afghan economy remains as confounding as ever. Nearly 90 percent of the financial activity takes place outside formal banks. Written contracts are the exception, receipts are rare and statistics are often unreliable. Money laundering is commonplace, say Western and Afghan officials.  As a result, with the gold, “right now you’re stuck in that situation we usually are: is there something bad going on here or is this just the Afghan way of commerce?” said a senior American official who tracks illicit financial networks.

There is reason to be suspicious: the gold shipments track with the far larger problem of cash smuggling. For years, flights have left Kabul almost every day carrying thick wads of bank notes — dollars, euros, Norwegian kroner, Saudi Arabian riyals and other currencies — stuffed into suitcases, packed into boxes and shrink-wrapped onto pallets. At one point, cash was even being hidden in food trays aboard now-defunct Pamir Airways flights to Dubai.

Last year alone, Afghanistan’s central bank says, roughly $4.5 billion in cash was spirited out through the airport. Efforts to stanch the flow have had limited impact, and concerns about money laundering persist, according to a report released last week by the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.  The unimpeded “bulk cash flows raise the risk of money laundering and bulk cash smuggling — tools often used to finance terrorist, narcotics and other illicit operations,” the report said. The cash, and now the gold, is most often taken to Dubai, where officials are known for asking few questions. Many wealthy Afghans park their money and families in the emirate, and gold dealers say more middle-class Afghans are sending money and gold — seen as a safeguard against economic ruin — to Dubai as talk of a postwar economic collapse grows louder. But given Dubai’s reputation as a haven for laundered money, an Afghan official said that the “obvious suspicion” is that at least some of the apparent growth in gold shipments to Dubai is tied to the myriad illicit activities — opium smuggling, corruption, Taliban taxation schemes — that have come to define Afghanistan’s economy.

There are also indications that Iran could be dipping into the Afghan gold trade. It is already buying up dollars and euros here to circumvent American and European sanctions, and it may be using gold for the same purpose.  Yahya, a dealer in Kabul, said other gold traders were helping Iran buy the precious metal here. Payment was being made in oil or with Iranian rials, which readily circulate in western Afghanistan. The Afghan dealers are then taking it to Dubai, where the gold is sold for dollars. The money is then moved to China, where it was used to buy needed goods or simply funneled back to Iran, said Yahya, who like many Afghans uses a single name.

Excerpt, MATTHEW ROSENBERG, An Afghan Mystery: Why Are Large Shipments of Gold Leaving the Country?, NY Times, Dec. 15, 2012

Who is the Master of Mastercard? credit card blockades

A blockade on WikiLeaks payments processor DataCell by Visa, MasterCard and American Express is unlikely to violate EU competition rules.  MasterCard, Visa and American Express, among others, stopped processing payments for WikiLeaks when it started releasing about 250,000 secret US diplomatic cables in 2010. This made it hard to raise funds, and WikiLeaks has said the blockade resulted in a 95 percent donations reduction, which cost the organisation more than US$50 million.

DataCell, the company that processed WikiLeaks donations until the blockade started, last year filed a complaint with the European Commission, suggesting the blockade is a violation of European competition rules.  The Commission, however, does not think that is the case. “On the basis of the information available, the Commission considers that the complaint does not merit further investigation because it is unlikely that any infringement of EU competition rules could be established,” an official of the European Commission said in an email on Tuesday.

he Commission said it looked at the impact of the blockade on DataCell and at the impact on the markets in which it operates. “It appears that DataCell is not prevented from accepting card payments for its own services or for the benefit of other parties; it is only payments for the benefit of WikiLeaks that DataCell cannot process. It seems unlikely that this would lead to harmful effects to competition and to consumers on the payment services markets concerned,” the official said.  It is unclear when the Commission will issue a final decision. “We never announce that in advance,” the official said.

WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, was displeased with the news. “These companies should not have the power to impose an economic death penalty,” he said during a news conference that was available via a live video link in Brussels. Assange is in self-imposed political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning related to accusations of committing sexual offenses…

While the European Commission is unlikely to decide the payment blockade against WikiLeaks violates competition laws, the European Parliament last week called for legislation to regulate credit card companies’ ability to refuse service to organizations such as WikiLeaks. The Parliament voted in favor of a text that “considers it to be in the public interest to define objective rules describing the circumstances and procedures under which card payment schemes may unilaterally refuse acceptance.” [see European Parliament resolution of 20 November 2012 on ‘Towards an integrated European market for card, internet and mobile payments’ (2012/2040(INI))

“Visa can set the rules of the market”  The Commission will be asked to consider the text for laws limiting the rights of credit card companies to refuse service.  “The Commission’s assessment to not even investigate is in total opposite direction of the political will,” said Andreas Fink, CEO of DataCell, in an email. Fink read the preliminary report send to him by the Commission.

“It basically sounds like they were hunting for an excuse to not have to investigate it,” he said. The Commission essentially reasoned that one less small player in the market doesn’t change the market mechanics, while the intention of competition rules is to avoid powerful, monopoly-like players like Visa dictating to the market, Fink said…. adding that when Visa ordered service providers to stop DataCell payments to WikiLeaks in Iceland, MasterCard and American Express transactions were automatically canceled as well.  “So Visa can set the rules of the market,” dictating to other credit card companies, Fink said. “This is competition control at its finest,” he said, calling the situation “absurd.”

Credit card blockade of WikiLeaks donations likely to be legal, EU says, Computerworld, UK, Nov. 28, 2012

Wall Street Manipulation of Energy Markets

The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is taking on big banks for their questionable energy trade.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has slammed Barclays (pdf) with a demand to pay $470 million in fines for allegedly manipulating electricity markets in the western US to benefit the bank’s financial swap positions from 2006 to 2008.  Messages and email exchanges between Barclays energy traders released earlier this month reflect their efforts to manipulate and cheat their way to profits. What’s more disturbing is the glee the Barclay’s traders took in manipulating the energy markets with a total disregard for the costs to consumers.

The Barclays traders’ own words are damning:

“I totally f**kked with the Palo mrkt today. . . . Was fun. Need to do that more often.”

The attitude expressed doesn’t get much clearer than that.

In another instant message, the same Barclays trader wrote, “I’m gonna try to crap on the NP light and it should drive the SP light lower.”

The response from his colleague: “That is fine.”

Enron’s energy traders could have written the Barclays’ traders’ scripts. Remember Enron traders gloating, “He just f—s California,” and “He steals money from California to the tune of about a million” a day?  Only the traders’ attitudes are more obscene than their language. So saturated in arrogance, the traders had no concern they might get caught — which makes it even better that they did.

Though FERC hasn’t historically had much to do with regulating Wall Street, that is changing. FERC now also is going after JPMorgan Chase (pdf) and Deutsche Bank  (pdf) on similar charges.  The Los Angeles Times reports that JP Morgan’s questionable trades in the power market in 2010 and 2011 may have cost California residents and businesses more than $200 million. The no-holds-barred pursuit of profiteering no matter what laws and regulations are violated or what the cost is to the public has become a hallmark of Wall Street from Enron to Barclays.

While Wall Street may not have gotten the message that Enron-esque conduct is wrong, it’s gratifying to see FERC step up to hold banks accountable using the power from a post-Enron law. The 2005 Energy Policy Act gave FERC the authority to prevent market manipulation in the energy markets.  Not only does FERC have the power to fine companies as much as $1 million a day per violation, but it also has the ultimate weapon: the ability to suspend authorization to sell. JP Morgan knows that FERC is not afraid to flex this muscle.

Just last week, FERC suspended the authorization for a JPMorgan unit, J.P. Morgan Ventures Energy Corp., to sell electricity at market-based rates for six months beginning next April. FERC took this step because it found that JPMorgan had filed “factual misrepresentations” and omitted material information in filing with FERC and in communications with the California Independent System Operator. JPMorgan will be able to offer electricity for sale only at prices based on specified factors, so that utilities can continue to be able to meet demand.  FERC is relatively new to dealing with Wall Street, but it is quickly learning that a strong jolt is necessary to get banks to comply.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which often works side-by-side with FERC, is expected to see similar cases of energy market manipulation as a result of whistleblower information provided to the CFTC’s new whistleblower reward program created under Dodd-Frank. The outcome of the FERC cases against Wall Street could provide a useful roadmap for future whistleblowers.

Excerpt from, Erika Kelton, Barclays’ Traders Show How Much Fun Wall Street Has Manipulating Markets, Forbes, Nov. 20, 2012

Rating Agencies on Fire

The ruling in the Federal Court of Australia on November 5th held Standard & Poor’s (S&P) jointly liable with ABN AMRO, a bank, for the losses suffered by local councils that had invested in credit derivatives that were designed to pay a high rate of interest yet were also meant to be very safe. The derivatives in question were “constant proportion debt obligations” (CPDOs). These instruments make even the most ardent fans of complex financial engineering blush: they are designed to add leverage when they take losses in order to make up the shortfall. S&P’s models, which the court said blindly adopted inputs provided by ABN AMRO, gave the notes a AAA rating, judging they had about as much chance of going bust as the American government.

S&P denies that its ratings were inappropriate, and plans to appeal. But evidence before the court suggests a world of harried analysts being outsmarted by spivvy bankers. It also indicated a disturbing lack of curiosity by S&P analysts and a desire to cover up for the firm’s failings even when they fretted about a “crisis in CPDO land” and worried that some buyers of these products were “in no hurry to stay in front of the truck”. Instead of warning investors that it had made mistakes, the court found that the firm continued to provide glowing opinions on new CPDOs coming out of the ABN AMRO factory.  There is nothing in the ruling to suggest the shoddy behaviour that took place in this instance was widespread across the firm. It would be a mistake to attribute all ratings that subsequently turn out to be wrong to negligence. Making predictions is hard, as Yogi Berra, a famously quotable baseball player, noted, especially when they are about the future.

But the Australian case does challenge a central part of the defence proffered by S&P and other ratings agencies (Moody’s and Fitch are the other two big ones) in some 40 ongoing cases worldwide alleging negligence. They argue that ratings are merely opinions and protected by constitutional safeguards on free speech, and that only imprudent investors would take decisions solely based on them.  This defence has already worked in a number of high-profile cases in America. Investment analysts and lawyers reckon that there is no sign that courts elsewhere are likely to follow the Australian ruling; it may not even survive the appeal. But the reasoning in the Australian case is persuasive. The judge argued that agencies could not wash their hands of all responsibility if investors took their ratings at face value and then lost money. “The issuer of the product is willing to pay for the rating not because it may be used by participants and others interested in financial markets for a whole range of purposes but because the rating will be highly material to the decision of potential investors to invest or not,” the judge wrote.

The tendency of investors to rely on ratings is reinforced by the privileged access that agencies have to information about issuers. The agencies’ defence that theirs is just an opinion wears thin when, having looked under the hood and kicked the tyres, they then tell investors to make up their own mind from a distance. It would help if regulators forced issuers of bonds and other rated securities to provide more public information. That would allow investors to do more of their own due diligence and enable more competition between agencies to provide the best analysis to investors rather than the best service to issuers.

Ratings agencies: Crisis in ratings land?, Economist, Nov. 10, at 74

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Italian prosecutors filed suit against five former employees of Standard and Poor’s (S&P) and two former employees of Fitch [corporate websites] for allegedly manipulating the market and abusing privileged information that led to the rating agencies’ downgrades of Italy. Though magistrates in Rome and Milan have refused to support the claim, prosecutors from the southern town of Trani contend that the agencies failed to respect European rules of transparency.

Barclays and Qatar: an Unholy Alliance?

U.S. authorities are investigating Barclays  for potentially violating anti-corruption laws during its scramble to raise money from Middle Eastern investors in the early days of the financial crisis.  The probe, being conducted by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, is at an early stage…The U.S. investigation follows a similar probe that British regulators opened earlier this year.

According to people familiar with the probe, it is examining Barclays’ use of middlemen serving as brokers to connect the bank with powerful Middle Eastern interests at a time when the bank was seeking a cash injection from investors in the region.  Barclays disclosed the investigation at the same time it reported a GBP106 million third-quarter loss…The new investigations represent the latest blows to a once-proud British institution. This summer, Barclays paid about $450 million to settle U.S. and British charges that it sought to manipulate benchmark interest rates, sometimes at the behest of top executives. The ensuing political furor led to the abrupt resignations of Barclays’s chairman, chief executive and chief operating officer.

The Justice Department and SEC investigation involves possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which among other things bars companies with U.S. operations from bribing overseas politicians or corporate executives in order to win business.  In June 2008, as the financial crisis was gaining steam, senior bankers at Barclays persuaded the Qatar Investment Authority and other investors to inject about GBP4.5 billion into the British bank, seeking to erase fears about Barclays’s health. As part of that deal, Barclays hired the Qatar fund to provide “advisory services’ in the Middle East. The bank later disclosed that it was paying about GBP238 million in fees and commissions to Qatar Investment Authority and related entities.

This summer, the U.K.’s Financial Services Authority launched a formal investigation into Barclays’s public disclosures of those arrangements. The probe focused on past and present Barclays executives, including finance chief Chris Lucas, as well as on the manner in which Barclays wooed the Qataris to invest, according to people familiar with the matter.

Excerpts, Barclays Faces U.S. Anti-Corruption Probe, MarketWatch, Oct. 31, 2012

Bankers with Chainsaws – logging companies and their banks

Some big banks do little more than pay lip service to environmental issues. HSBC likes to think of itself as different. It has signed up to many initiatives, including the Equator Principles, a set of social and environmental standards launched in 2003 for project financiers….

Sarawak (Malaysia) has lost more than 90% of its “primary” forests to logging and has the fastest rate of deforestation in Asia. Sarawak has only 0.5% of the world’s tropical forest but accounted for 25% of tropical-log exports in 2010. As timber stocks have become depleted, the loggers have moved into the palm-oil business, clearing peat-swamp forests to make way for plantations. The deforestation has been accompanied by abuses against indigenous groups, including harassment and illegal evictions. Allegations of corruption and abuse of public office dog Abdul Taib Mahmud, Sarawak’s chief minister, finance minister and planning-and-resources minister, who is believed to have firm control over the granting of logging licences. Mr Taib has long denied being corrupt.

Global Witness, a campaigning group, has analysed the publicly available financial records of seven of Sarawak’s largest logging and plantation companies.  It identified loans and other financial services from HSBC that it estimates have generated at least $116m in interest payments and $13.6m in fees for the bank since 1977. Although lending has declined over the past decade, HSBC continues to list Sarawak loggers among its clients, in apparent violation of its own Forest Land and Forest Products Sector Policy.

On paper HSBC’s forest policy gets high marks, including from BankTrack, a network of NGOs that monitors lenders. When it was drawn up in 2004, the policy required clients to have 70% of their activities certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), or equivalent, by 2009, with evidence that the remainder was legal. (The FSC is a global non-profit body that sets standards and does independent certification for logging and forest products.)

Not only did the seven firms analysed fail to meet that deadline, but none has any FSC-certified operations today. Ta Ann Holdings, for example, listed HSBC as a “principal banker” in its 2011 annual report. Ta Ann does not have FSC certification, and has failed to obtain full verification of the legality of its Sarawak concession under the independent “Verified Legal Origin” scheme. The firm has been accused of clear-felling rainforest that is home to endangered orangutan and of cutting down conservation forest for plantations. Ta Ann told Global Witness it is “collaborating closely with HSBC towards achieving full compliance” with its forest policy.

Another forestry conglomerate that is still banking with HSBC, according to its annual report, is WTK Holdings, whose intensive logging is widely believed by pressure groups to have caused landslides that ended up blocking a 50km (31-mile) stretch of river in 2010. None of WTK’s operations is FSC-certified.

In all, Global Witness identified six loans, totalling $25m, made by HSBC to non-compliant Sarawak loggers since the bank introduced its forest policy. HSBC said in 2004 that it would stop doing business with clients that failed to make a reasonable effort to comply by 2009.  The Economist asked HSBC to comment. The bank declined to discuss its clients because of confidentiality, but said it is “not accurate” to state that its clients are in violation of its forestland and forest-products policy. It said current data show that 99% of its forest-sector clients worldwide (by size of lending) are “compliant” or “near-compliant” with its policy. What precisely it means by “near-compliant” is unclear…..HSBC’s  continued involvement, however modest, allows logging firms to claim credentials they don’t deserve. Ta Ann, for instance, has run adverts saying it holds forest-policy certification from HSBC. That looks like a figleaf.

Deforestation in Sarawak: Log tale, Economist, Nov. 3, 2012, at 75