No Accounting for the End of the World?

Jacob Soll’s book “The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Making and Breaking of Nations” makes a good case for economic progress being firmly based on the ability to account for that progress. Although he does not show direction of travel (or cause to effect) with certainty, there is a common sense from his historical analysis from ancient Greece to more recent times in the theory that progress is based partly on an ability to undertake double-entry book keeping. This measures progress but also provides the degree of transparency that ensures “buy-in” from society.

 

This may not be a riveting “eureka” moment for many and Soll’s dallying with more metaphysical comparisons about the debits and credits of a good life being reflected by the righteous in the way that good businesses and people (like Josiah Wedgewood of pottery fame who not just promoted cost accounting but used the principle of accounting to balance their sins and good deeds) do their accounting is somewhat stretched. However, there seems ample evidence that at both a corporate / organisational and national level, economic progress is assisted greatly by the ability to count your profits and losses – to show how progress is being made.

 

Soll refers to corruption in the past that resulted from both poorly kept accounts (at corporate and national levels) and those clever enough to hoodwink auditors and investors through manipulation of accounts.

 

From the analysis, it is clear that investors need good data to make informed decisions and that citizens need to know how governments spend their money – not just for the sake of transparency but to provide worthwhile and useable information. In the majority of developed nations, corporate accounting is subject to GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) or equivalent; in other countries there is a wide disparity of accounting standards or a lack of them – in Afghanistan, it will hardly be a surprise that there is no accepted principle of accounting and very few qualified accountants from there.

 

Despite the developed world’s professional standards, this does not prevent disasters on the scale of the 2007-8 banking crisis or Enron or a host of other “accounting” failures. Often, auditors don’t see the problems and may even see them and do nothing.

 

On a national basis, the same is true. While it is hard to judge the efficacy of national accounts (which are the subject to revision for many years), it is hard to believe that any country which does not work hard to make its national accounts transparent is one where real economic progress is being made or where opacity is not hiding something sinister.

Back in 2010, Global Witness highlighted this in its report “Oil Revenues in Angola” which documented the problems that Sonangol (Angola’s state oil and energy company which was then considering a public stock listing) had in reporting its revenues. That report, one of the few independent reports in a sector that is riven with corruption, argued for greater transparency, improved systems and independent auditing to the highest standards for an organization through which Angola’s wealth derives. Soll would argue that its secrecy and lack of transparency and independent auditing shows all the hallmarks of a corrupt society. But, pressure on Sonangol to provide more and better information (better accounting) is a key approach.

Numerous, other examples exist in many countries – many where natural resources exist that should benefit the population but where the “resource curse” is made possible by lack of proper accounting to high standards, properly audited and verified.

Similarly, the Dodd-Frank Act in the USA opened up country-by-country reporting to reveal how much revenue was entering such countries. The USA (and hopefully with the EU to follow) are attempting to go around the opacity of nations (and their lack of accounting capability) to find the real accounting data through those that have that ability and are subject to our own norms of accounting – the major energy companies. In this way, good accounting may be accessible by the back door to show citizens of the affected nations just how their Governments provide for them (or don’t).

 

A recent example of this is shown by an analysis made by Richard Murphy (the progenitor of country by country reporting) on recent data issued by Barclays Bank. It shows, through analysis of that data, how Barclays shields its profits from the UK Exchequor.

 

 

 

 

Value accounting – can we properly Account for Natural Resources?

 

One of the latest “opportunities” for accountants is accounting for natural resources – our natural capital. It is believed that if we make up a balance sheet of all our assets (and liabilities) then we will better know by valuing them what impact we are making on them. We naturally sympathize with a society that is striving to understand its failings and what to do about them. There is no question that if it was possible for governments (nationally and internationally) to properly assess value in our natural capital, then we could (somehow) impose some sort of value adjustment to problems caused by companies and governments when doing the things they do that adversely impact our natural capital or trade-off costs and benefits and make better decisions.

 

There is a natural and realistic desire in some governments to properly account for their natural capital. For example, The Scottish Forum on Natural Capital aims to focus on its natural capital and

 

“To deliver on its goals, the Scottish Forum will:

  1. Calculate the monetary value of Scotland’s natural capital and the cost of depleting it. This will involve coordinating experts including accountants, people from business, academics and policymakers.
  2. Communicate to a broad range of businesses and other stakeholders the risk of depleting Scotland’s natural capital and the huge economic value from protecting and enhancing it.
  3. Set up collaborative projects to deliver tangible action to protect and enhance Scotland’s natural capital.”

 

 

The calculation of that value and the link between that and effective action are major challenges. This is because the pricing mechanism for such resources does not exist. Accounting is based on the ability to reach a value determination on goods and services. It is not always right but much of double entry book-keeping methodology is based on market prices – the prices actually paid for goods and services. Market prices provide information on those goods and services that allows a profit and loss account and balance sheet to be derived.

 

Now, even existing and well understood basic accounting is often flawed or wide open to judgement. An example from the recent past: in the days of high inflation, companies (that anyway provide accounts that are usually out of date by the time a user receives them) were encouraged to undertake inflation-based accounting in addition to actual costs. Oil companies still provide two sets of accounts (one takes the data back to the latest oil prices). Which is correct? Neither (although only actual costs are used by taxation authorities)– but, they may be aids to better informed decisions.

 

Accounts are always an approximation of reality. So, for example, accounts show labour costs (the costs of people who work in a business or organization) as costs. Yet, of course, people are only recruited to add value. Unfortunately, there is no balance sheet valuation of the benefits that they can provide. Back in the 1970’s, it was fashionable to consider whether people should have a value assigned to them on the Balance Sheet (much like footballers used to be valued on the Balance Sheets of football clubs). This proposition lasted only a short time and people are not valued on a balance sheet – except in those companies with traded shares where “goodwill” (the difference between the stock value of the company and its balance sheet value) contains an undefinable figure for people. Google’s share price (usually viewed as a multiple of earnings – its P/E which is currently around 30) takes account of its extraordinary people talent – but, in a way that the market is willing to trade – a form of market pricing.

 

When the accounting mechanism is brought to natural capital, it is much harder to “account” for it – there are limited pricing mechanisms.

 

At a micro-level, companies can provide information on where their natural risk lies (e.g. how they source materials upon which they survive, where the risks are and what they are doing about it) but some of this is pricing, much of it is risk analysis. From the latter (just like any risk analysis) actions can be taken to minimize risks and maximize opportunities.

 

Companies also produce “externalities” – they impact the environment, for example, through CO2 emissions, use and abuse transportation systems, can destroy environments. So, clean-up costs need to be established when developing projects along with the minimization of health hazards and environmental degredation. Governments in many countries can work with businesses to save the environment and recast it. In the developing world, this is harder. Many instances occur whereby companies ravish areas of natural beauty and poison locations with the side effects of their production processes and do not pay the consequences. This is often a corrupt bargain but becomes the norm where natural resource extraction and its “value” overcomes the perceived value given to those dependent for their lives and health on the land: from China to DRC, from mining to forestry.

 

The key problem is linking the micro activities to the macro (governmental) responsibility for the environment. The notion of valuation at least focuses the mind. The question is whether valuing natural capital (and the wide range of – usually erroneous – assumptions that have to be made in a non-market priced environment) is useful and whether such valuations can be used to make decisions – even whether there is a use for such decisions on a quantity basis at all. For decisions based solely on price (where all the risks are not taken into account) will be wrong except where there is a market-based pricing formula available (and, of course, perfect pricing relies on perfect information on both sides – which never occurs). We can “see” how Barclays used low tax jurisdictions (see the TJN report referred to above) to shield profits and decisions can, in future, be made as a result. Valuations of natural capital are far more tenuous.

 

The drive to valuing our “natural capital” in business jargon (through pricing) is centering our attention on this critical area. However, at this early stage of natural capital ideas development (although not at an early stage in the degradation of the planet) we should be understanding what we want out of it.

 

What if all the alligators in the world were to be destroyed because enough people were willing to pay the price for alligator skin handbags and shoes? Would this be acceptable because we “paid the price”? Clearly not as the value of preserving such an animal is not easily factored into the price – who assesses it and who sets it when the “value”of having alligators is unpriceable. That is why ivory sales are (in the main) banned. There is no price allowed in the system for the elimination of elephants from our natural environment – we have made a collective decision to try to stop it rather than pricing it.

 

This suggests that the “value” placed on part of our “natural capital” is not quantifiable in business terms – even if the costs of certain degradations (and “externalities”) are.

 

Not only do we need to ask the right questions, we have to start with the answers we want or the history of Easter Island is just repeated on a massive scale.

 

There is a place for good accounting – and good accounting should know its place.

 

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And Quiet Flows the Money (Apologies to Sholokhov and the Don)

We have recently heard how HSBC have been guilty of extraordinary money laundering that allowed the corrupt and the criminals to export “their” money around the world with impunity.

We are also told by the Tax Justice Network that tax havens contain over $21 trillion of funds – much of that the result of money laundering, all of it hidden from sight.

Money flows around the world in amounts that make ordinary people dizzy – yet, governments are scared to remedy the essential problem that the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” banks and the laws that allow tax havens permit: at best, a gross distortion of the economic well-being of the vast majority (99.5% or more) of us that don’t work the system; at worst, a criminal shadow state that has the power to dictate our lives because of its financial muscle.

HSBC – dark deception

US Senator Carl Levin called HSBC misdeeds “stunningly unacceptable”. The broad acceptance that money can flow around the banking system no matter where it comes from and no matter where it is going strikes at the heart of a system mired in 19th Century but caught up in the plundering of the 21st.

Mexican drug cartels have (amongst many others) been able to syphon billions of dollars of their income (derived through murder and extortion and leading to the deaths of thousands, the misery of hundreds of thousands and the cost of those nations where demand for their drugs exist) as if they were the local car rental firm.

Regulators (see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/9413299/HSBC-money-laundering-where-was-the-regulator.html) were inept at …regulating. The laws were broken time and time again and there is no question that HSBC’s guilt is equivalent to a conspiracy to flout the legal system.

As the Senate investigation found, between 2007 and 2008 there was around $7bn moved from Mexico into the US via HSBC. Mexican authorities pointed out to regulators and the bank that this was highly suspicious but no action was taken.

Above this, banks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh were provided with accounts despite their alleged terrorist connections.

This deception by the banks – where they know all the problems that being found out would cause – cannot be deemed to be a simple error of judgment. The dark deception practiced by HSBC goes to the very core of not just banking but the whole way nations work. HSBC has torn at the very heart of natural justice and ethics by thinking that the banking system is, somehow, not part of the world. The flow of money to them is something else – not the prime culprit and with no one hurt by their deceitful acts. They are, of course, completely wrong!

Banks’ dark deception is the same deception as any launderer of stolen goods. While we prosecute the small criminals, the huge criminal acts are allowed to escape. This costs us all. How?

Money flowing out of control

Without the ability to transfer their huge “wealth”, drug traffickers, corrupt politicians, the mafia and the rest would not be able to use that “wealth”. If an Angolan politician (and I use that country as an example advisedly) wants to gain any benefit from the oil wealth generated and passed into his or her bank account in Angola, the money has to be transferred to another country – somewhere that money can be invested or to buy goods (like mansions or yachts) that effectively launders that money. When Denis Christel Sassou-N’Guesso, the son of the President of the Congo, was shown by Global Witness in 2007 to have spent $35,000 on designer goods and other items (and went to court with them and lost), it may have seemed trivial – even to someone who earns much less than that a year from his “job” in his country. When he failed to pay his court costs, I had to pursue him into France (I was working with Global Witness at the time) and we found his expensive apartments in Paris and threatened him with bailiffs. He paid up!

But, how did he get his money out from a country where the vast majority is completely impoverished – under $2 a day income?

Through the banks, of course. Banks that are supposed to take account of PEP’s – politically exposed persons – and run checks on them to ensure that the money is obtained properly.

So, money flows without barriers around the world – banks appear oblivious to the terrors that their inactions cause.

Dark regulation – FATF

Of course, our guardians are supposed to be the regulators – people and systems entrusted by the “free world” to guard us against the corruption of the banking system.

Under the framework of the Financial Action Task Force – FATF (see:  http://www.fatf-gafi.org/pages/aboutus/) we are supposed to be provided with safety.

FATF’s objectives are stated as:

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is an inter-governmental body established in 1989 by the Ministers of its Member jurisdictions.  The objectives of the FATF are to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system.  The FATF is therefore a “policy-making body” which works to generate the necessary political will to bring about national legislative and regulatory reforms in these areas.

It is up to each country to develop its own safeguards and laws, but the system is failing. FATF make recommendations and while they have in recent years opened themselves up to more scrutiny and NGO participation, they are slow to act as any centralized, world organization can be.

If FATF was working, then the HSBC’s “stunningly unacceptable” inactions would not have occurred.

In each country, the laws and practices are separately developed. The US regulation of HSBC has been found to be appalling.  The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) had 50 investigations into HSBC between 2005 and 2010 in areas of anti-money laundering and found 80 problem areas. However, in not one of those cases did it require any major changes to take place. This laissez-faire attitude to such a serious problem again strikes at the heart of governance – banking and nation.

This then means that the Compliance management system within the bank was flawed and unable to resist the calls to make money. Compliance officers are weak and under pressure from the moneymaking machine that is the bank. The fact that David Bagley (HSBC’s Head of Compliance) resigned from his role is no surprise – who knows that he will remain in HSBC in a different role????

So, failure at international level (FATF); failure at national level (OCC); failure at HSBC (Bagley) – the whole system is designed to fail and meets that objective.

Darker than dark – islands of tax heaven

If that was all, it would be bad enough, but it gets so much worse. The Tax Justice Network reports that $21 trillion is held in tax havens. Anyone who had read Nicholas Shaxson’s excellent book – Treasure Islands (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Treasure-Islands-Havens-Stole-World/dp/0099541726/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1342962917&sr=8-2) will be familiar with how dark and dangerous the world’s elicit affair with tax havens is. $21 trillion of unseen “wealth” is stored away from taxation and from sight.

The USA and UK are especially complicit in this as the UK has its own tax havens in London, Jersey, Guernsey and its protectorates in places like the Cayman Islands. Because it supposedly provides wealth to important people who influence our affairs, successive UK governments have been scared to interfere. Recently, as much to do with the involvement of the Liberal Democrats in government as anything, small steps have been started to end many tax avoidance schemes and the use of moral judgment has entered our language. This is causing such a fuss that the good citizens of Jersey are threatening to break off from the UK – horror of horrors. It is but a small start.

The USA is not exempt from blame as Shaxson shows so well. Delaware – the Blue Sky State – makes its money from tax evasion. Offices in Delaware are home to hundreds of companies located there for tax reasons.

This costs us (the 99.5% who don’t have the opportunity to avoid tax in this way) a fortune. We end up with higher VAT, higher social security, higher income tax, corporation tax, inheritance tax and other sales taxes as a result.

As reported in the Guardian yesterday concerning the $21 trillion

This gargantuan sum is difficult to comprehend, but it becomes more understandable at a parochial level. According to an earlier report by the PCS union, the Tax Justice Network and War on Want, the use of tax havens costs the UK taxpayer at least £16bn a year, double the annual budget of the Department for International Development.

The River of Hades around the world

The confluence of the HSBC horrors combined with the system of tax havens that operate is of a worldwide network of money flows that are outside the law and jurisdictions. While we berate the investment banks for their sub-prime disasters of 2007 and for Diamond’s culture problems at Barclays, the basic banking systems are at fault in a worse way.

For, it is basic banking on which we trust to get money from one account to another. Nat West’s recent debacle in the UK, when its IT systems went haywire, shows what can happen when the basic system goes wrong.

How much worse it is when the basic system of banking and our international management of that system and to where we allow money to flow is completely abhorrent – it is a very dirty hell-hole that allows bad money to flow wherever it wants and to wherever it wants. The international banks are not just bystanders in this – they are culpable and implicit in crime, in corruption and in impoverishing millions (and making all of us poorer).

Banks have had a very bad press but in the 21st Century as digital technology rules our lives, it is too easy for banks and their staff to evade controls.

What should be done?

FATF should have teeth and should be allowed to go beyond recommendation to sanctions.

National governments should ensure that their OCC equivalents are given the means (financially, technically and with highly skilled and well-paid management) to do the job.

Compliance Managers in banks should have complete independence from their senior management and be subject to independent audit (outside the main financial audit and by different audit firms). Independence means that they should report to compliance board which, in banks, should have independence from the main Board and include only non-execs.

Tax havens should be outlawed – tax should be payable where profits are made and any scheme set up to avoid tax should be illegal. We have made a very small start in the UK- but only a tiny one. The moral crusade which happens at a time of worldwide recession is the time to get this in motion so that money can no longer flow illicitly and quietly.

Good Global Citizenship and Tax Havens

Barclays was cornered this week in the UK by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs into paying back around £500 million for entering into a tax avoidance scheme – despite signing up to a Government scheme not to do such things. Bob Diamond now looks foolish after his vow to make Barclays a good citizen.

For many years, it has been “OK” for companies and high income earners to shield their earnings behind tax avoidance schemes. Since the introduction of welfare states across the world, companies and individuals have sought to minimize the tax that society needs to work through the system. They have systematically sought to challenge the efforts of democracies to manage the tax base. In some countries like Greece, there has been a tacit buy-in by Governments (and those in Government with their fingers in the till) to allow tax to go unpaid. This leads inexorably to financial chaos and, as we now see in Greece, to progressive civil strife and poverty. This is what has happened in Africa for so long – the wealthy shield their income from the State (who are paid off to look away).

In those countries which do make a real effort to collect taxes, the best tax avoidance comes through the use of tax havens and the real killer for economic equity is the way the world accepts tax havens as a reasonable and acceptable part of our global economy.

David Cameron and many others talk a lot about fairness: the fairness that makes bankers bonuses almost a criminal offence. But, this is two-faced. While George Osborne says that the HMRC will work towards killing off general tax avoidance schemes, we have in our midst a main centre of tax avoidance – the City of London.

Nicholas Shaxson wrote brilliantly in his book “Treasure Islands” about the tax havens that bedevil the world of finance and economics. Tax havens distort, they do not equalize.  Tax havens provide the wealthy (individuals and corporates) alongside the wealthy criminals and wealthy terrorists with the ability to shield themselves from legitimate taxation. Providing a legitimacy to tax havens (and allowing them to proliferate worldwide – even shielding them as the UK does the Cayman Islands and elsewhere) creates massive market distortions and inequalities. Legitimate and democratic tax collection is continuously stymied by the tax havens – just a step from the wealth-grabbing in Angola or the tax avoidance mentality that is Greece.

Taxation is a central plank of democratic society.  While the Tea Party and similar libertarians might rage against central government tax and tax collections as a scourge of society, we know that society is centred on a democratic ideal of the wealthy properly financing the society on which it depends to provide a basic source of welfare to the poor and sick, for defence, for infrastructure. Society is more than just the wealthy and privileged creating an elite life. Angola is a good example of how fortunate elites manipulate the wealth of a nation to appropriate its total wealth and Sonangol (its so-called publicly owned oil company – really commanded by its country’s leadership who reap its financial benefits) has been built to achieve the grabbing of oil and energy wealth from the citizens.

The nations that democratically elect their leaders (and, it is to be hoped the new rich of China and Brazil and others) should take heed to the dangers posed by the examples of the wealth grabbers in the energy-rich nations. It is here, in the UK (City of London, Jersey), the USA (such as the state of Delaware) as well as the better known haunts of the Dutch Antilles or the Cayman Islands, where huge financial flows (from the legitimate wealthy alongside the illegitimate) travel in order to reduce the legitimate tax take of the countries in which the wealth is created. Tax havens are wealth destroyers.

Wealth is destroyed by tax havens because they eat away at the main body of a nation – its mass of people, its true wealth creators. Education and education systems suffer dramatically because taxation is unavailable to finance schools. Health systems suffer for the same reasons – in the UK, where we have moved vast sums to the NHS in the last Government, cut-backs are now biting as the tax take is diminished along with economic growth. In poorer countries, the wealth shift is much more dramatic.

Ambassador Nancy Soderberg (appointed by President Obama earlier this year) was in London this week to campaign for Argentina to live up to its duties in economic areas. She mentioned its lack of adherence to the Financial Action Task Force  (FATF) requirements for responsible national supervision of illegal financing – Argentina was placed on FATF’s grey list over corruption issues. But, FATF and other international bodies have failed to oversee a sustained reduction in how financial flows travel the world and to institute a level of good citizenship on a worldwide scale amongst our companies and wealthy individuals.

While steps have been taken to reduce terrorist financing and, to a much smaller extent, the benefits of illegal drug trafficking and gambling and prostitution, very minor shifts have been made in (a) defining what global good citizenship means (b) reducing tax havens and the financial flows through them.

The G20 states from time to time that tax havens are to be reduced in scope but the battle against them has hardly started. Tax avoidance on a grand scale is as bad as grand corruption (maybe bigger in scale): two sides of the same coin. Good global citizenship requires a new definition to be made – where a global consensus is sought to reduce hugely the ability of companies and individuals to create their wealth in one place and move it offshore to save tax. This simple example of good global citizenship is a cornerstone to increasing wealth creation on a wider scale. It is not socialism but realism and pragmatism. It is good citizenship.