Report Finds Super Rich Around the World have Avoided Paying Taxes on More Than $21 Trillion of Hidden Wealth

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Posted July 10, 2013

Interview with James S. Henry, lead researcher for Tax Justice Network report, "The Price of Offshore Revisited," conducted by Scott Harris. This interview was previously broadcast in the program posted on Aug. 1, 2012

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During last year’s presidential election one of the central debates between Democrats and Republicans – between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney, was over how much should the nation’s wealthiest citizens have to pay in federal taxes. On that issue polls found most voters in favor of letting the Bush era tax cuts lapse for the wealthy, while retaining tax cuts for families earning $250,000 dollars and under annually. But a July 2012 report undertaken by the Tax Justice Network paints a disturbing picture of tax avoidance, finding that the super rich in the U.S. and around the world are hiding at least $21 trillion in offshore accounts, avoiding paying millions of dollars in taxes in their home countries.

In their report titled, "The Price of Offshore Revisited," the Tax Justice Network found that the wealth hidden in tax shelters is equivalent to the United States and Japanese economies combined. While the public is familiar with tax havens in banks located on far off exotic islands, the report found that UBS, Credit Suisse, and Goldman Sachs are among the top private banks managing offshore accounts for the world’s wealthiest people.

The authors of the report, relying on data from the World Bank, the IMF, the United Nations, central banks, the Bank for International Settlements and other sources, concluded that the impact of unpaid taxes is staggering, where global financial inequality is much greater than originally estimated and growing. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with the lead author of the report, James S. Henry, a former chief economist with McKinsey & Company, who summarizes his investigation, tax cheating’s effect on inequality and how governments can reform banking regulations to capture billions in lost tax revenue.

JAMES S. HENRY: Well, the headline number is $21 trillion of offshore private financial wealth – that's bonds, stocks, as well as bank deposits on alternate investments like hedge funds. It doesn't include so-called non-financial assets like real estate, art collections, yachts and intellectual property. There's an important offshore market there as well. Most of the city of London is actually owned offshore at this point through offshore companies. But what we're focusing on here is just financial wealth. Much of this is concentrated in the hands of about 10 million people at most around the planet. And the growth of the activity has been accounted for by a relative handful of major international banks which have made it a business to help the wealthiest people on the planet take their money out of their home countries, invest it abroad tax-free and use a variety of schemes to defend it against taxation.

The havens that we all hear about – the so-called "Treasure Islands" like the Caymans, Bermuda, the Bahamas and Panama and Jersey – these are really to be thought of mainly as conduits in this system. The real destination havens for this capital and the place that actually ends up being invested are the major financial centers of the world. New York, London, Zurich and Geneva, Belgium is another one, Lichtenstein. These are places that people actually end up investing their capital. Nobody wants to have their funds sitting in Tortola or Bahamas for very long. So they use shell companies that are registered in places like Cayman Islands or Bahamas and then the ultimate investments are made in these major countries.

BETWEEN THE LINES: James, briefly please tell our listeners a little bit about how these offshore tax havens contribute to income inequality, in the United States, particularly.

JAMES S. HENRY: Well, I think if it is possible for the wealthy to basically go back to the 1920s and roll back the clock to the days before really progressive income taxation, effectively legislating themselves a tax cut by taking funds offshore. It's hard reduce your tax rate below zero; those practices are things that ordinary folks have a hard time keeping up with. So small business has a hard time, for example, taking advantage of the off-shoring of intellectual property that companies like Google, Microsoft and Pfizer and other leading technology companies have used. They basically park their intellectual property in Bermuda or Ireland and then pay themselves royalties that are not taxed. And then they come back to the U.S. government and ask for a tax break when they repatriate all these profits they've off-shored back to the United States. So that's in the corporate world and that's separate from the price of offshore revisited. We're talking there about corporate and this is about individuals. But there's a lot of ways in which this haven architecture has been abused and affects the distribution of wealth. One of them is on the corporate side. On the individual side, it's basically an invitation to the more aggressive members of the wealthiest class to hide money offshore and to not report it in the home country and basically avoid any tax burden at all. Effectively, there's a lot of Romneys out there, and he's just one of many folks, probably not even the most aggressive in terms of this practice.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What's been the reaction to this report? And are there any viable solutions here in terms of reining these tax shelters through international treaties or such? I wish it was simple, but I'm sure it's not. You'll probably tell me that.

JAMES S. HENRY: We've seen a tremendous response from all over the globe. We've had inquiries from India, Russia, journalists in Argentina, Chile. This is a global story. It's kind of unprecedented, the response we've had, and I've been studying this field since the 1980s. I wrote my first piece on this in 1986. And I've been waiting for any kind of interest on the part of policymakers. What to do about it? There are many things we can do to clamp down on the worst abuses. We can have automatic information reporting, which the United States has with its friends in Canada and UK, but it doesn't extend now to Mexico.

The Mexican finance minister asked Tim Geithner to help share the same information on Mexican investors that he was giving to the Canadians and he got no response. You know that automatic information reporting on offshore earnings is an important step forward. I think that regulating pirate banking and the kind of misbehavior of the big banks here is something we ought to consider.

And then, it may be possible to get people to agree on a minimal tax while we're waiting for tougher enforcement, just a .5 percent of what's parked in the banks now would generate enough to pay the entire foreign aid bill from the OECD. So at least we'd get something from all the offshore tax evasion, the drug money, all the dirty money that's sitting in these offshore accounts while we're waiting for tighter enforcement.

James S. Henry is a former chief economist with McKinsey & Company and lead author of the Tax Justice Network report, "The Price of Offshore Revisited." Find links to the report and related articles at TaxJustice.net.

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