So and so’s. How Some Banks Con

What does HSBC stand for? What do we do about it?

“so and so” – an undefined person considered beneath contempt

  • So, HSBC is shown by the BBC to have systematically organized illegal tax benefits for hundreds or thousands of its customers through its Swiss subsidiary. No surprise.
  • So, HMRC (the UK’s tax collection agency) has recovered only £135 million since that time in tax and penalties out of billions that are illegally saved each year. No surprise.
  • So, HMRC and this government agreed with the Swiss authorities (after the leaks about HSBC were found) not to prosecute except where the cases would be virtually guaranteed to succeed. No surprise.
  • So, the then Sir Stephen Green (now Baron Green), then HSBC’s CEO at the time is not talking and the Conservatives (via the chief Secretary to the Treasury – David Gauke) say that there is no evidence that he directly knew of what was going on. No surprise.
  • So, the Conservatives demand to know why Ed Balls, now Shadow Chancellor and then City (of London) Minister did nothing at the time. No surprise.
  • Anyone see the actions that the issues and finger-pointing provoke? Just politicians ranting at each other while the poor taxpayer – those “so and so’s” who have been squeezed mercilessly since the banking industry exploded in 2007/8 – is left with the bill – lower wages and austerity.

Meanwhile, the real “so and so’s” who should have been prosecuted and some doing time in prison are seen as outside the justice system – no longer within the law despite proof of a multi-billion pounds swindle on the UK.

So what?

Well, there has been extreme tax fraud – no-one denies it. Even HSBC accepts that they have had to make major changes in their banking practices – although, according to staff who have left HSBC this did not really make any progress until well into 2011.

Sir Stephen Green may well not have known the specifics. CEO’s of big banks (and most large organisations) are sheltered from the bad things going on but it is no defence to state that they did not know “specifically”. CEO’s are appointed as heads of such organisations and set the tone – the culture – of any organisation. As such, they are culpable for any major misdeeds that occur. In his excellent book on RBS, Shredded, Ian Fraser takes apart any claims that CEO’s can be said to have stood outside the fray. Maybe RBS was even worse than HSBC but senior management set the culture and reap the rewards of profits – Sir Stephen would have benefitted personally from the gains made through tax fraud in the Swiss subsidiary and, if he did not know what was happening (just as Henry II is alleged to have made the claims about Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170), then his lack of pro-activity in finding out would have been a joke. We don’t seem to have learned much in 845 years!

Anyway, if Sir Stephen Green knew nothing and is as innocent as a puppy, then how can Ed Balls (City Minister at the time) be accused of knowing everything by the people who then appointed Sir Stephen Green (now Baron Green of Hurstpierpoint) to Government in 2010?

Is there really a case against Ed Balls when the good Baron knew nothing, apparently? David Gauke sounded ridiculous on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme today because he was being so. Stupid political points were being made when the “so and so’s” who rule the world (the bankers) are freed from the rigours of the law (and any ethical codes) and continuously benefit.

Public Accounting for the “So ands so’s”

So, Margaret Hodge (the Chair of the British Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – PAC) states that she will bring those responsible before her Committee. She states, quite properly, that the UK is not “aggressive enough” is tackling these issues. Even though the issues occurred during the previous Labour Government’s period in office, Mrs Hodge states very clearly that Stephen Green has a responsibility – he either “knew” of the tax dodges or was “asleep at the wheel” – quite right!

The PAC should now (seven years too late) point to what should be done: not just who is culpable but how the UK will recover the lost tax and how the UK will not stand for repeated situations. The USA fines banks billions of dollars. The UK (with the political establishment too much in hock to the banks and the civil servants and HMRC too timid and weak) does almost nothing but whimpers about no-one being responsible and it being too difficult to prove.

Which “so and so’s” are running the madhouse?

Isn’t it time that those who have suffered so much from the banks’ failures begin to see some recompense? This is not a desire for revenge but failures of this size have not led to a discernible change in this country’s culture or efforts to ensure such failures do not recur.

HSBC seems not to have been penalized for tax avoidance schemes and a culture that would not be tolerated even at Tesco. The UK has a need to change the way it deals with abhorrent schemes and aberrant behaviours. Politicians and those who work in the public sector need to feel the pressure that the public wants them to be under – pressure that needs to result in the defence of public needs. If it does not, then Syriza in Greece was an outcome of such lack of public interest and UKIP in the UK is another (although not quite the anti-aberrant banking behavior that is needed). If this Government does not ensure that the “so-and-so’s” aren’t allowed to run the country, then May’s general election in the UK will see an even more angry electorate ditching them.

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The G8 at Enniskillen – No Hospitality to Tax Dodgers

Spendthrifts and tax dodgers

Six years on from the bank-induced recession, governments in the G8 are in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland to consider problems that they have failed to solve since the invention of taxation. While not as old as Enniskillen’s oldest building, built by Hugh “the hospitable” Maguire (who died in 1428), it is high time serious politicians acted.

Large sovereign deficits (spendthrifts pre-2007 and financial system saviours post-2007) and the inability of Finance Ministers to take more tax from their citizens has caused some nations to focus their attention after hundreds of years on the anomalies of the corporate tax system. This system enables companies (tax dodgers) to shift their tax burden offshore – away from where they make their money – through transfer prices, royalties and the like to places where the tax burden shrinks to almost nothing.

Margaret Hodge (the chair of the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – PAC) has pursued a fierce campaign against large companies that have, in her view, not paid their due corporate taxes in the UK.

The HMRC (the UK’s tax collectors) have, for many years, decided to be “pragmatic” and reach deals with those same companies on the basis that tax law is insufficient to compel the larger companies to pay reasonable rates of taxation – and the companies have more and better (and better paid) tax lawyers and accountants than the HMRC could dream of.

The PAC has not accused companies of illegality but has stated often that they should pay tax where they earn profits and has cast doubt on the companies’ honesty and morality. Google claims its sales take place in low tax / tax haven Ireland despite the reality of closing the deals in England – as the PAC has claimed and has brought forth witnesses who have testified to this.

What the debate between public and private sectors have shown is clear (to most of us). It is that corporate taxation is very hard to collect currently and that companies believe they are duty bound to reduce their tax to the minimum possible. For there is no social heart in a company – it is not really a person (even if it is granted that status in law), it has to meet the demands of the legal system and its shareholders (while ensuring its customers are satisfied on the way).

Tax-dodging Companies Have No Afterlife

There is a misinterpretation that great companies can find a soul but we should understand that, while they are all made up of real people, companies (especially large ones) take on a life of their own and are propelled by the dynamics of corporatism. A company knows that it has but one existence – there are no stories of “good” companies going to heaven.

Companies that pursue good CSR (corporate social responsibility) do often have good people working for them but the CSR is there because civil society (which includes a lot of customers – real people) demands it. Sustainability is best developed with a good understanding of the society around the company. This means understanding social responsibility where it is seen to be legally needed or where it will benefit the company in the medium term.

This rarely stretches to paying more tax than is needed. For every Starbucks (frightened by bad publicity to throw money in the direction of HMRC) there are 1,000 Googles and Amazons and Apples. Tax is not for sale and paying tax not required by law does not gain a company angel’s wings.

The Spendthrifts’ dilemma

However, since 2007, there have arisen massive deficits in many sovereign nations’ coffers. Suddenly, there is a need to fill those cavernous holes and the substantial drift in the share of income from individual wage earners to high net worth individuals and companies (companies don’t have a vote – outside of the city of London and there are not that many rich people – even if they control most of the wealth) means that the attention of government has shifted in times of recession.

Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the OECD, said recently that taxing the “man on the street” wasn’t economically desirable or even politically possible, so for many finance ministers the only option was “to cut, cut, cut more, rather than have a proper balance between revenue and the expense”.

He said this while overseeing the signing by more countries of automatic exchange of tax information – Austria, Switzerland and Singapore coming to the table.

However, other than austerity, which is now causing huge unemployment in countries such as Greece and Spain, the only target is corporate. This may be a turning point after hundreds of years – a Clause 4 moment – or it may be just rhetoric.

Spendthrifts chasing tax-dodgers – Tax Havens and Beneficial Ownership

Linking this to the G8 and David Cameron is obvious. Companies are able to avoid tax if they can somehow show that their profits are made outside of the higher tax areas. This can only be done if there are places with very low taxation that will accommodate them – these are the tax havens. Nicholas Shaxson’s excellent book “Treasure Islands” tells the story of these tax havens extremely well and also the appalling impact that they have on the poorest countries of the world.

Developing nations are rife with corruption and the corrupt are big users of tax havens – really, they are laundering their money.  Today’s Sunday Times article on the use of Latvians as front Directors for companies operating scams tells this story.

This is possible because of the secrecy that exists in most jurisdictions. If there was transparency and the only issue was lower taxation, then we would have a real competitive environment. Unfortunately, that is not the situation – although it is changing quietly with projects like the one above. If transparency becomes the norm, then the corrupt and criminal (whether they are terrorists or drug barons) will have far fewer places to go. There is no better place to learn about beneficial ownership than at Global Witness – which has driven this issue from the start – see their “Idiot’s Guide to Money Laundering.” It’s so easy anyone can do it – trouble is, most are!

This is why transparency is so critical and why politicians are attempting to use transparency to open up tax havens – at last – and the end to ownership secrecy.

Once there is transparency, then the next step is to determine where profits are legitimately made. This means that the policing of royalties and transfer pricing cannot be at the whim of large corporates but there has to be international agreements that specify what is allowable. International tax laws should not predetermine rates of tax, but double taxation should not equate to zero taxation – it has to mean that tax is payable in the countries where the business is done.

The final requirement is to ensure that beneficial owners of companies are known by the taxation authorities. Why companies and trusts are allowed to be secret is beyond the comprehension of almost all of us. As Richard Murphy (Tax Research UK) has written, over 500,000 companies in the UK are struck off each year. Around a third never file accounts.  He estimates that the tax lost as a result could be upwards of £16bn per year from companies that trade but do not file accounts or tax returns.

That is in the UK alone.

Can’t Spend, can’t stop spending

Can’t tax, can’t stop taxing

 

The dilemma of western Governments that find austerity too much, too soon and who (outside of those in serious trouble like Greece, Cyprus and Spain) are unwilling to torment their citizens with mass unemployment and soup kitchens is great. This means that the deficiencies that have been all too apparent in corporate taxation for so long are seen as the final option. The 2007 banking-induced calamity has made such huge financial contortions in countries such as the UK and the USA that even the precious not-to-be-disturbed tax havens and secrecy laws are under pressure.

The G8, chaired by the UK and in Northern Ireland (rather than one of the many UK protectorates that operate as tax havens), does provide an opportunity to generate support for the ending of the nonsense that the current corporate tax system provides. Gleneagles (eight years ago) was all about international development and led to significant and positive change (even if not all the promises have been fulfilled). The same pressure and openness about tax havens and secrecy in international finance could lead to more sensible and pragmatic tax systems and, eventually (if pursued vigorously) to far less exporting of illicit funds from developing nations (such funds leave developing countries at a faster rate than aid money is put in). At least $50bn a year is lost to developing nations in Africa alone every year.

This is a great time for Enniskillen – ancient home of Hugh the Hospitable – to be remembered for its lack of hospitality to tax dodgers.

 

Waking from our tax stupor

Sleeping with Royalties

So Amazon, Starbucks and Google avoid tax and British politicians are surprised! So the big accounting firms (KPMG, Ernst and Young, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Deloittes) follow the banks in Margaret Hodge’s and her committee’s sights.

It is pretty incredible that in 2012, after hundreds of years of banking and secrecy in financial dealings that politicians seem to suddenly wake up to the fact that multinational companies move money around the world to save on tax and that wealthy individuals do the same.

Have the sleeping pills run out? Is the dreamlike state that they were in for so long worn off like a modern-day Rip van Winkle?

All this time, companies have paid large royalties to themselves in low tax jurisdictions, changed prices to do the same, set up secret companies in secrecy-oriented tax havens alongside wealthy individuals and others from the criminal and terrorist fraternity who make the tax havens their home.

As wealthy nations like the UK have slept while such as royalties escape our shores (and our tax revenues with them) to the tax havens, we have allowed even more serious crimes to take place – the looting of the developing world of their natural resources through the illegal and morally repugnant ocean of money that gets sent to such secret jurisdictions. Far more money is transferred out of the third world into such jurisdictions annually than we in the so-called developed world push back in through aid programmes: all because we allow the secrecy to continue while we sleep.

Tax evasion / avoidance and secrecy – lifelong bedfellows

The talk is about how we extract more tax from corporations and the focus has been on HMRC to review the levels of royalties it allows companies like Starbucks to pay to what appear to be false set-ups in countries like Luxemburg. Starbucks solution is to keep on doing this but to pay HMRC £10m for a couple of years as a gift.

Tax avoidance on the scale that we are seeing – tens of billions a year according to experts like Richard Murphy. He shows how little companies are paying (compared to some like Costa Coffee who appear to be paying amounts that equate to their sales and real profits). The problem is that corporation tax is based on profits and, as any good accountant knows, profits are an art form not a science. If there were no secret jurisdictions, then companies would show their total sales and profits (as shifting money inside a company cannot lose it overall – so overall profits stay the same over time) and it would be possible to tax profits based on where the sales were made. Agreements could be made between the nations in which such sales were made on a national scale and by company. So, if Google makes $1bn in profits and 10% of its worldwide sales were in the UK, then it could be taxed on $100m of its profits in the UK at UK rates unless there were good reasons not to – e.g. evidence of excess investments. Of course, the simplest method would be to completely ban royalty payments within a company or connected companies. This would ensure (at least improve the chance that) that real activity and profitability were taxed where they should be. Royalties charged outside the company to another one would continue.

Before such a solution takes hold (or something similar – making real change to dual-tax treaties), the tax authorities have to struggle with long-term negotiation with companies on esoteric and mind-numbing issues and governments have to work to destroy tax havens and secret jurisdictions. HMRC are involved in the first but the progress on the second seems to take place on a geological timescale.

Secrecy is the friend of tax evaders and avoiders. Being able to hide the actual transactions that take place is often the cornerstone of tax minimization. This is why it is so important that the current discussions between the Isle of Man and the British government on opening up all the former’s bank account to UK investigation is so significant – even if just a start. Richard Murphy estimates that this will open up 99% of such accounts.

Good start but hardly the whole picture. As Nicholas Shaxson has written in his book Treasure Islands there are many tax havens in the world from the Channel Islands to Delaware  and from Cyprus to the Virgin Islands. Each one enables secrecy of accounts and company ownership that does not just delay the ability of tax authorities to open up the information but stymies it completely in many cases.

Transparency – letting the light in

Earlier this year, Global Witness issued a report – Grave Secrecy that highlighted the following:

Global Witness believes a further dramatic change  is required: the identities of the real, ‘beneficial’ owners of all companies should be publicly available in the country they are incorporated, and nominee directors and shareholders should be held liable for their clients’ actions. The EU has the opportunity to take the lead on this over the next 18 months as it updates its anti-money laundering laws.

This matters because ‘shell’ companies – entities that are little more than just a name on a piece of paper – are key to the outflow of corrupt money that keeps poor countries poor. Those who loot state funds through corruption or deprive their state of revenues through tax evasion need more than a bank: they need to hide their identity behind a corporate front. Countries such as the UK might have a company registry and consider themselves ‘onshore’, but as long as they only collect shareholder information, they are effectively permitting hidden company ownership – which means they are as offshore as any palm-fringed island and will continue to facilitate corruption, tax evasion and other crimes. This needs to change.

Their investigations showed how easy is was to set up false companies (in one case with a director who was no longer alive) which would often not operate but to which financial transactions would be placed – disguising the remittance of funds from one jurisdiction to another. Money laundering of this type is thus rampant internationally.

This is not much different from the tax avoidance of legitimate companies who, arm in arm with politicians and tax authorities, have been sleep walking to the current position. Now, with so many countries deep in recession and with Governments indebted and working hard to stay financially afloat, the general public is angered at what seems to be the slanting of tax benefits away from those who are working hardest to those who manage money and financial flows.

Robert Peston (BBC financial commentator) writes today (December 8th):

“Companies perceived by people, politicians and media as, in some sense, not making a proper contribution to the societies from which they extract their revenues and profits, will over time become marginalized within those societies”

Secrecy has bred tax opportunism and money laundering and it is right to conjoin those terms even if in law they differ. While the recession keeps its grip on the western world, there will be no let up on the public’s desire for some better form of equality whether against the wealthiest 1% or the top companies who control most of society. This equality of outcome – paying the right tax for the benefits that accrue from the nation that houses that company (such as roads, police, defence forces, education and the like) – is a central theme for this recession.

To become transparent is the requirement for the 21st Century and especially during the economic downturn. The internet has given us all the ability to learn what is happening within seconds and to act on it. So, Starbucks is today hit by demonstrations despite its ploy of giving a charitable donation to HMRC.

However, real transparency will require the ending of tax havens, the ending of impunity for those who are guilty of money laundering and for those who enable it (whether lawyers, firms of accountants or banks – many of whom are now facing corporate fines but few individuals are facing prison).

We should have a transparency law operating in all jurisdictions (similar to the country-by-country reporting) which would require multi-nationals to declare their sales in every country in which they do business, an end to tax havens and secrecy, real Directors allowed to operate companies, an end to the transfer of funds of PEP’s (politically exposed persons who operate with impunity and take billions out of countries desperate for the money they transfer into their own accounts) and a general set of legal requirements which ban artificial tax avoidance schemes.