Financial writer Adam Davidson decided to look at offshore bank accounts from Big Love's perspective by applying for an offshore account in Belize. Davidson blew his chance when he revealed his intent to write a story about offshore banking before he completed the application process in Belize. (This just in from cyberspace: Big Love accumulated more than $25 million in foreign income between 2005 and 2010, while he was governor of Massachusetts and a presidential candidate, according to an analysis of his 2010 tax return.) So, this isn't chump change that Big Love is tossing into accounts in Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland. If this is (fair & balanced) scum-sucking behavior, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
My Big Fat Belizean, Singaporean Bank Account
By Adam Davidson
Tag Cloud of the following article
Earlier this month, I decided to see how hard it would be to set up my own offshore bank account. I figured it would be pretty difficult, because I’m not rich and don’t have a team of tax lawyers to oversee my money and because the E.U. and U.S. governments have been cracking down on tax havens by imposing stricter tax-sharing requirements. So I proceeded with some caution.
First, I Googled “company registration tax haven” and randomly picked three firms that set up accounts in offshore jurisdictions. Then I called each and explained that I was hoping to minimize my tax exposure and didn’t want anyone to know anything about my finances. Each company quickly noted that I should consult a lawyer to make sure that I wasn’t breaking the law. Then they calmly explained how to create an account that, it seemed to me, was unlikely to be discovered by the I.R.S. or any other authority.
I ended up working with A&P Intertrust, a Canadian company that I chose largely because I liked its Web site the best. (The other two companies’ sites appeared stuck in a late-’90s style with lots of flashing boxes.) A&P works with the governments of Panama, the British Virgin Islands and Belize. (Other companies that I contacted prefer the Seychelles, Cyprus or the Cayman Islands, where Mitt Romney has been reported to have money.) I decided to start my shell company in Belize because it would be exempt from all Belizean taxes and, as A&P’s site explained, “information about beneficial owners, shareholders, directors and officers is not filed with the Belize government and not available to the public.” And I’ve been to Belize and like the place.
Setting up the company was a lot cheaper than I expected. A&P charged $900 for a basic Belizean incorporation and another $85 for a corporate seal to emboss legal documents. For $650 more, A&P offered to open a bank account to stash my fledgling operation’s money in Singapore — a country, the Web site also noted, that “cannot gather information on foreigners’ bank accounts, bank-deposit interest and investment gains under domestic tax law.” And for another $690, it offered to assign a “nominee” who would be listed as the official manager and owner of my business but would report to me under a secret power-of-attorney contract. Then an A&P associate asked me to fill out the incorporation information online, just so she wouldn’t type in anything incorrectly. The whole thing took about 10 minutes.
Amazingly neither A&P nor I broke any law in Canada, Belize, Singapore or the United States. The company required, in compliance with international legal standards, that I e-mail it a notarized copy of my passport, driver’s license and some other identity documents. But a company representative also reassured me that these would not be visible to any tax authority. Just before they processed the paperwork, I explained that I was a journalist working on an article about offshore tax havens, and I haven’t heard from them since. (A representative from A&P declined to comment for this article, but he did note in an e-mail that the company was still “happy to serve [me] as a client.”)
Setting up an account may be easy, but managing one is expensive. Following the law requires a team of lawyers and accountants to carefully monitor tax laws in dozens of countries and maintain accounts that stay on the safe side of confusing rules. It’s not really worth the cost for anyone other than wealthy investors looking to put aside money, tax-free, for future generations. Or for large multinationals who prefer to centralize their global cash-flow stream in a place that doesn’t tax corporations or require a lot of financial reporting. Why would a huge company like G.E. want to pay U.S. taxes every time its Spanish subsidiary sells parts to a company in Belarus when it could avoid them by incorporating offshore?
It’s easy to imagine that most other kinds of offshore activity is shady, but there is no definitive way to know, because we don’t even know how much money is in these centers. The estimates, however, are striking. The Bank for International Settlements, which collects voluntary reports from banks in 44 countries, offers the best single source of data. It counts around $31 trillion of foreign-owned assets in the world’s banks and estimates that about $4 trillion is in offshore financial centers. An estimated $1.5 trillion is in the Cayman Islands alone. The country of 52,000, which is about the size of Blaine, MN, has more foreign-owned deposits than Japan or the Netherlands.
By the B.I.S.’s own estimation, the data — which do not include reports from Belize, the Seychelles and other offshore havens — are quite incomplete. The Tax Justice Network, a global research firm that advocates against such havens, suggests that the amount hidden offshore is between $21 trillion and $32 trillion. If properly taxed, that could yield more than $200 billion in revenue around the world. Furthermore, because a 2010 McKinsey & Company report estimated the world’s financial assets at about $200 trillion, somewhere around 10 percent or more of the world’s wealth is effectively invisible. And it’s also almost certainly in the hands of the people and institutions that most actively influence major investment decisions.
Lately the United States and the European Union have expressed deep frustration with the international system of sharing tax information. In order to investigate my Belizean company’s bank account in Singapore, for instance, the I.R.S. would need to identify my bank and bank-account number, prove I had broken the law and then petition judges in Belize and Singapore to issue court orders forcing the release of my information. It’s a nearly impossible standard. It can also be easily undermined by enlarging the web of new accounts.
Next year, Washington will enact the most ambitious tax-recovery plan in history, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. Under FATCA, foreign financial firms will have to proactively identify every American account holder with assets of more than $50,000 and report details about their financial activity or face a significant penalty. The move is very unpopular among foreign banks, governments and Americans living abroad, but the more complex rules could actually mean more business for offshore centers. By the time FATCA is in full force, in 2017, truly wealthy individuals and corporations will almost certainly have used their resources to find more intricate loopholes.
One often-overlooked lesson of the financial crisis is that shenanigans don’t happen in the absence of regulation; they happen when regulations are exceedingly complex and involve confusing, overlapping regulatory authorities. Collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps were designed to squeeze through a labyrinth of laws, rules and taxes. And most of these toxic assets were formed in offshore jurisdictions, far from prying eyes and stricter reporting requirements. When Lehman Brothers collapsed, it took regulators and creditors more than a year to find out that the company comprised nearly 3,000 legal entities spread across 50 countries.
My colleagues at NPR’s “Planet Money” recently polled several economists of all political stripes and found that while they disagreed on the right level of taxation, they generally agreed that the overly complex taxation of rich people and corporations was disastrous. It all but guarantees that those people and companies will spend an inordinate amount of money figuring out how to game the system rather than come up with new ideas that improve the economy. Economists generally agree that the best tax system would be simple and strict, offering little incentive to lobby for loopholes. The big problem, of course, is that many of the people and corporations with the most influence over Congress don’t want it that way. Ω
[Adam Davidson writes the It’s the Economy column for The New York Times Magazine. He co-founded "Planet Money," NPR’s team of economics reporters whose goal is to translate often confusing and sometimes terrifying economic and financial news. Davidson was the Middle East correspondent for the public-radio program “Marketplace” (2003-2004). He has also written articles for the Atlantic, Harper’s, GQ, Rolling Stone and others. Adam Davidson received a BA (Religion and the Humanities) from the University of Chicago.]
Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves