Don’t Look, Won’t Find

DLN

 

Don’t Look, Won’t Find – Money Laundering in the UK

Transparency International – UK just published “Don’t Look, Won’t Find” which exposes enormous gaps in the UK’s ability to stop illicit money coming into the the country.

The report shows how all sectors, from banking to the enablers of money laundering like the accounting firms, legal firms, company registration firms to the sellers of final products and services like auction houses, private education, fail the test of oversight and reporting on a consistent basis.

This means that huge amounts (tens of billions of £’s) enter the country illegally from China, Russia, Africa and elsewhere – depriving those countries of the money they need and, as a by-product, pumping up house prices in London.

I had the privilege to Chair the Advisory Committee for this report – part of the Corrupt Capital project at TI-UK which aims to uncover how London (a major financial centre) needs to work hard to rid itself of corrupt capital that enters its system here and in the many tax havens to which it is connected world-wide.

Those who have written this report have done an excellent job of uncovering the chaos that exists in oversight and reporting systems in the UK.

 

Don’t Look, Won’t Find

The Battle of Life

150706_Chartists    150706_AfricanMigrants

In 1846, Charles Dickens published one of his Christmas stories – “The Battle of Life”. Very few remember it now, although at the time it was as popular as A Christmas Carol. While it was a romantic story, it was also a metaphor for living – a reality that the mid-Victorians daily confronted – the battle of life.

As Peter Ackroyd noted in his biography of Charles Dickens:

“…the real importance of the story is to be found in its title. The Battle of Life was a phrase which meant a great deal to mid-Victorian Englishmen: it was even something of a truism in a world for which struggle and domination were the twin commandments, where the worship of energy and the pursuit of power were the two single most significant activities, where there was a constant belief in will, in collision, in progress. Darwin and Malthus both described “the great battle of life” and “the great battle for life”, the important confusion between the two phrases materially assisting the evolutionist’s case”

 

Samuel Smiles, maybe the exponent of what are known as “Victorian values” summed it up:

“The battle of life is, in most cases, fought uphill; and to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honour. If there were no difficulties there would be no success; if there were nothing to struggle for, there would be nothing to be

achieved.”

Battles of life are still fought daily – for survival, for religious conviction, for self-esteem, for self-betterment, for the rights of others unable to fight for themselves, for equality.

In the 21st Century developed world, we often think that the battle of life has been won – we are economically well-off, pretty well educated and maybe complacent about our success. Yet, on a world scale, the battle of life daily persists and it is when we are confronted by the scale of that battle (as many British people were recently in Tunisia and as many were just ten years ago in London) that we are reminded that the Battle of Life goes on unabated.

In Dickens’s time, Britain was well underway with its industrial revolution and bestrode the world as an economic power house even if its working people were poor, with little chance of benefitting from the wealth creation. This gave rise to Chartism – working people’s attempts to gain access to power but this was dealt with by the oligarchy in power at the time in Britain. Our wealth generation was based on a world as supplier and this required a growing Empire from which to extract the raw materials it needed to feed the industrial base and to sell its goods – and a labour force here and overseas that provided it with unceasing supplies to make the machinery of the factories function.

We may have come a long way since then in this country but we remain pre-occupied with ourselves. Not much has changed in terms of Government and institutions since that time. We still have a House of Lords, we retain “first past the post” voting, London remains far wealthier than the rest of the country, we retain a certain disrespect for foreigners, we still want to play a major world role (although much of that is through our soft power status). We remain one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – still with a veto power. London retains its place as a major financial centre – which many believe assists our economy but many others rue its dependency on money laundering and the part it played in the 2007/08 financial meltdown.

Of course, the world is changing around us. China is now the largest economy in the world and while its per capita wealth is far lower than the west, the fact that it is so large means that, at the centre, it can aggregate massive amounts of money that can be used by Government. This is the real power of growth and economic vitality – the ability to amass funds centrally to spend on military might and security even as millions are still impoverished. On a smaller scale, North Korea still spends money on nuclear weaponry while so many starve.

In Africa and Asia, thousands try to escape the torment of their home countries to live aboard – leading to high-risk escapes on the high seas and many deaths and the recent scenes just across the Channel in Calais.

Industry is now global. The 19th Century British labour market that kept wages low and poverty high (and on which Marx and Engels – living in London and Manchester for most of their lives – based das Capital upon) is now also global – with an international labour market that has exactly the same problems as we had here two hundred years ago: low wages and desperate health and safety conditions (that have led to hundreds of lives lost in building the stadia for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar).

Meanwhile, it would be hard to extract much of this change from the recent General Election here. An election fought by the winning Conservatives on short-term tax breaks and a fear of the unknown – when that “unknown” was held to be Labour Party leftism and Scottish independence fears; when Liberal Democrats lost public trust over university funding; when UKIP gathered around 3 ½ million votes on the back of fear of the foreigners.

It was hard to feel motivated by the short-termism and fear-mongering that underscored that election. It was an election where Liberal Democrats were sent back to the 1970’s in terms of seats won and where they lost more votes in one election than could have been believed and when many argue liberalism should be the 21st Century political answer to all the changes and aspirations of a 21st Century world.

21st Century Aspirations – Economic Freedoms and Responsibilities

It has been educational to listen to the two Liberal Democrat contenders for that party’s leadership recently. Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, two out of the eight remaining Lib Dem M.P.’s in the House of Commons, both appeared before at the Institute of Public Policy Research at separate events.

They spoke and answered questions on a range of issues but the focus was on what liberalism meant to them.

Tim Farron told the meeting at the IPPR that he bases his liberalism on five key values: Freedom, Equality, Quality of Life, Internationalism and Reform. In his manifesto, a sixth value was added – a new economy.

Norman Lamb spoke about similar values and his experience of working as a Health Minister.

Both noted how their vision was formed by Jo Grimond and the debt they (and we) owe to William Beveridge – the man behind social services and the NHS, who identified the “five evils” of society as of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease as the drivers behind the need of government to be involved in society to a greater degree than before.

It is interesting to remember that Liberal have had to move a long way from the idealists of the 19th Century. While the Tories represented the landowners then, the new middle classes of that Century (who were behind the Free Trade movement as were the Liberals of that time) were not looking towards improving the lot of the common man (and certainly not women). The Factories Acts were gradually introduced throughout that Century as a result of pressure from outside Parliament and often against the deep-seated reservations of the capital class.

Liberals of the 21st Century now understand what J K Galbraith called the “social balance” between the public sector and the private to ensure that needs are met but that individuals are still able to model their own lives within a society that does not deprive them of aspiration and opportunity but actually seeks to improve those life chances. Liberalism also aims to ensure that the individual that lives most of their lives in “civil society” are able to do so with real freedom to enjoy and be fulfilled in that life. Life should not be just a centralized, top-down socialism nor a numbers-driven economics-only rat-race. Life is a complex mix where wealth creation is important (wealth being not just quantity of life but also quality) and so is ensuring that opportunity (such as good education, health and housing) is available to all so that individuals can become the most that they are able. When we also use our abilities on a global stage and enshrine this within the crucial notion of freedom (to believe in and voice your own views without fear), this is 21st Century Liberalism.

Because both Tim and Norman understand the critical elements of liberalism (something central to Nick Clegg – as he understood in a speech in 2012 to …but never reinforced outside that so that people would know what they were voting “for”), it is difficult to separate them on the basis of views held.

For me, the issues come down then, to this:

If Liberals want to become a force for real good in the UK (and world) and want to play a political role and not just be seen as a pressure group, they do not have to be just great campaigners, clammering for redistribution and fairness, but they have to ensure that there is a Liberal Economic Philosophy that enough people believe in.

Liberal Economics for the 21st Century

Having completely bought into all the other values of liberalism, it seems to me that the Liberal Democrats (and Liberal Party before them) have sometimes not grasped the central perceived need of most people – economics and economic freedom. The industrial revolution embedded the zeal for wealth creation amongst the capitalist class that has since become the underlying basis for how people see their lives.

Increased wealth creation has led to better health for those who are fortunate enough to live in the economically developed world and to longer and better lives. Illness does not mean death as it did in the 19th Century for us in the UK. Food is plentiful (although food bank use is on the rise) and we do not suffer from stunted growth as happens too frequently in the developing world – we suffer more from obesity. Education is open to all (albeit in different and not yet good enough for all). Our streets are relatively clean and we have a police force that is designed to serve and a set of laws that are mainly enforced without social stress. We have freedom of expression and democracy.

Much of this is down to wealth creation so that we can be said to be well up Maslow’s Hierarchy of need.

However, inequality is now increasing and the challenges of this country in a world where countries like China are now beginning to dominate economic growth are substantial. The impact is serious in areas like London where housing costs are so high because of the demand from those from overseas – many thought to be laundering questionable money through the London property market.

We also see scenes in Calais on a daily basis how those countries that are not providing economic freedom to their citizens – through corruption and war and mismanagement that leads to hunger and illness – drive their own people from those countries. This is an international problem – African migrants

So, how could Liberal Democrat economic philosophy be developed to tackle the issues that impact everyone – which everyone believes to be crucial to their lives and those of their families and within which the other values of liberalism can be seen to flourish?

We have to focus on responsible wealth creation in this country and overseas that marries the need to galvanise wealth creators (small businesses, risk-takers, new science, co-operation between public and private sector) along with a focus on great education that motivates and provides opportunity, understands how we develop sustainable growth (that assists the environment and connects us with it – not just seeing it as “natural capital” in the way that the 19th Century mill-owner saw workers as capital) and international. In the latter, we have to understand how the UK is a seller to the world and a buyer to the world but also part of that world. That world needs to ensure that the poorest are given opportunities and that sink-holes like corruption are eradicated. That equal playing field that liberalism feels so deeply is now an international playing field.

Economic freedom (the ability to grow our wealth) in a responsible way should be part of any liberal philosophy. But, it is not the 19th freedom to trade freely – it has to be a freedom with responsibilities attached. Together, economic freedom with responsibilities would help us win the battle of life that we all face.

Gulliver’s Travails – HSBC’s Satire on the rest of us

150225_Gulliver

 

It seems like Jonathan Swift’s best act of satire has been mixed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s best story-telling and then updated to the 21st Century as HSBC were derided before the House of Commons Treasury Committee today (25th February, 2015).

Nick Shaxson wrote “Treasure Islands” about tax havens but even he could not have foretold what looks like a complete satire on British society perpetrated by our biggest bank.

The Chair and CEO of HSBC Holdings (Stuart Gulliver and Douglas Flint) may well have been crafted by Swift and Stevenson. Lemuel Gulliver and Captain Flint (or his parrot that sat on the shoulder of Long John Silver) are two of the greatest characters in British fiction.

Gulliver’s Travels was (especially in its pre-Bowdlerised version) a satire on government and the British people.

Treasure Island was a story about man’s greed.

How odd that its two best-known characters come together before the Commons treasury Committee – both trying their best to defend their own position and that of their bank’s.

The Satire

HSBC are surely being disingenuous or maybe downright satirical pouring scorn on the general public. As they have been dealt blow after blow around money laundering, gold pricing, Swiss bank tax evasion and others, the satire has grown.

We sit open-mouthed at the sight of senior business folk that have earned £ millions but who take no overall account for the problems that were caused on their watch. Banking is now held in total contempt by most yet no-one has been brought to account in the UK since the banking-induced recession in 2007/8.

To the banks, the rest of society appears to be merely a group of Lilliputians finding a giant on the beach but being so impressed by their size and strength that we can do nothing.

To the banks, the rest of society appears to be like treasure chests that are theirs to own.

This is the reversal of their original intention – which was to lubricate business and to enable tomorrow’s investments to be made earlier. Society needs to find a way out of the satire that is being played on itself and what better opportunity is there than in the dual presentation of Swift and Stevenson’s characters before us?

No Impunity?

It is very hard to feel empathy for wealthy bankers who have presided over such failings. Douglas Flint points out that he has not taken bonuses for some time and Stuart Gulliver believes that banks are now being held to higher account than the Church and the armed services. The first is irrelevant and the second is a disgraceful statement that does much dis-service to any organization that has made so many gross errors of judgement and suffers so little governance – governance that is only applied when mistakes are found out.

The ability of senior bank staff in the UK to maintain complete impunity from prosecution remains a singular insult to the rest of the population that has seen real wage deflation since 2007/8.

However hard it is to bring bankers to justice under UK law, there seems to be as little chance of action now as there was when Gordon Brown was snuggling close to that community when the roof caved in.

HMRC appears complicit in its investigations since the receipt of whistle-blown data five years ago but that should not inhibit the UK’s investigators from doing more than the Treasury Committee – which seems to accept that it cannot find anything out before it goes wrong time after time after time and just hopes that HSBC gets it right sometime.

Messrs Gulliver and Flint had an uncomfortable day today and I am sure that they are working hard to make things right. Yet, claims that they did not know what was going on in Switzerland (or elsewhere where the bank failed) are weak claims that have not been sufficiently critiqued. When HSBC bought the Swiss private banks, they knew the secrecy laws in that country and they knew that there were major risks. To adhere to the escape clause of Swiss secrecy in a UK-registered company with world-wide shareholders seems to be an attempt to escape responsibility for any problems that might ever be encountered when an acquisition is made.

The reputational losses to HSBC as a result of the acquisition is substantial. HSBC’s shareholders should be mounting a class action on that basis alone as today statements were made that seemed to suggest that when HSBC makes an acquisition in a place of opacity, no matter what the outcome the senior staff that signed off on the acquisition cannot be held to account.

That is in addition to the nonsense that HSBC Board members should be relieved of governance responsibilities if there is secrecy in a jurisdiction.

This is surely a great satire perpetrated on the rest of us. Someone does need to unravel it. Swift originally wrote Gulliver’s Travels as a gross satire on society. We should not allow Gulliver’s Travails (and Flint’s) be Bowdlerised in the same way.

Russia = Putin = Corruption = Disaster

and how to “PEP” up sanctions

 

Ben Judah has a great article on the Russian problem in today’s (July 27, 2014) Sunday Times which can be summarized as a set of simple equalities:

 

Russia = Putin = Corruption = Disaster

 

In Stalin’s time, the USSR (especially in the period after the Second World War to his death in 1953) was equated with one man – Stalin – and he ruled through intense fear. When Gorbachev succeeded in the destabilization of the Soviet Union, the West believed that the tumbling Berlin Wall symbolized the breakdown of Soviet norms, the ending of Communism and the establishment of democracy.

 

What was misunderstood (and remains misunderstood) was that the intrusion of market economics into an historically centralized set of nations that made up the USSR had massive risks. The risks were not considered by the libertarian economists that ruled in the 1980’s and for some time after that. In mature economies, the rivalry between Keynes and Hayek could be maintained with pendulum swings from one to the other as decades passed. Indeed, as we now know (or some of us know) the drive towards economic equilibrium is a fantasy but mature economies can adjust regularly and maintain decent GDP growth (even if the measure if substantively flawed).

 

In the newly emerging states that had formed the Soviet Union, the drive for libertarian economies in states that were predominantly centralized in terms of power and decision-making led (without any real checks and balances) to an elite ownership of resources (mainly natural resources) through which wealth in such under-developed economies was generated. Thus, the oligarchs were formed – and they have dominated those states ever since.

 

The oligarchic state is driven by elites and supported by fear, corruption and domination of those not in power. To many in those countries, this is just another chapter in their history of such elite domination. The incipient middle class (as Ben Judah points out), which had been promised a new world order, is now dispossessed. The working class sees no change and as long as jobs are there for them cannot force themselves to complain.

 

Into this oligarchic domain, Vladimir Putin has risen to the top. He is no more than the prime oligarch – the most elite in a country of corrupt elites. His ability to clean up the chaos after Yeltsin and to show who’s boss in a country that always seemed to prefer strong, central leadership (an ingrained characteristic made part of the Russian DNA for centuries) meant that he could dominate political and economic levers. Those who he considered risks were quickly destroyed (sent to prison or even killed). He is not Stalin and he does not control the masses because of a communist-type brainwashing. There is no-one in Russia who believes he has a moral suasion. It is the immoral suasion of power through corruption that keeps him in power and he is tolerated by many and venerated by many others for just that.

 

This power through corruption showed itself in a country like Ukraine. Yanukovych was simply Putin’s oligarch in situ – his corrupted vassal in Russia’s little sister. The danger to Putin that began with Yanukovych’s downfall was stark and a risk to his strategy of power through corruption. When people (some who may well be of the extreme right and no better for that) rise up and force out one strand of corruption in a vassal state, it is a danger for Russia and Putin in particular. This could not be tolerated.

 

It has led directly to the deaths of 298 passengers on Malaysian Airways flight MH-17, most likely hit by missiles from a Russian Buk anti-air missile system stationed in Eatern Ukraine and manned by Ukrainian dissidents. This disaster is a natural outcrop from the corruption at the heart of Russia and Ukraine. In my earlier paper on this I showed the Triangle of Misrule at the heart of such societies:

 

 Slide1

 

This triangle which engulfed Russia and several of its ex-Soviet Union states, now impinges on the West. The deaths of 298 people from across the world as a direct result of Russian corruption provides a shocking example of the risks. Putin has put himself above the law in Russia in a similar way to the Chinese politburo in China and the dos Santos family in Angola (and many others around the world).

 

The UK has played its part in that London has acted as the money-launderer for many oligarchs that have bought properties here and used the banking system to wash money corruptly (although not illegally under Russian law – until Putin changes the implementation of those laws) gained.

Sanctions

As the West considers its next move, it should be ensuring that each and every wealthy Russian seeking to move money outside of Russia is seen as a PEP (politically exposed person). Banks have to treat individuals that are politically entrenched in their own countries and have to seek assurances that their money is not the result of illicit political activities.

 

In Russia, every oligarch has been involved politically – that is how most obtained the “rights” to natural resources or phone systems or whatever in order to make their money. Why not do the obvious and require each bank world-wide that is asked to deal with such individuals to treat them all as PEP’s unless they can prove otherwise? FATF (Financial Action Task Force) produces guidelines on PEPs which describe them as people who have had or have a prominent position that can be abused. In endemically corrupt nations, all senior corporate positions are such – you don’t have to be a government minister or civil servant to have a prominent position that can be abused (or where the prominent position was the result of such abuse).

 

Make all such oligarchs and their staff and their lawyers and accountants PEP’s. It won’t stop them doing business but it could reduce their ability to flow their corrupt money around the world – and money is the basis for their power. It is also the basis for Putin’s – a PEP if ever there was one who has used the banking system and hidden behind the opacity of trusts and companies seemingly owned by others to stash billions outside Russia. Now is the time for Governments to deliver on better transparency in international cash flows and identities of companies and trusts.

 

Opacity = corruption = elites = Putin = Disaster

 

 

Cutting through the Fog – Corporate Secrets and Beneficial Ownership

David Cameron promised last week at the Open Government Partnership Summit that companies registered in the UK would be obliged to reveal their ultimate ownership and that the public would have access to those records.

This was a major statement of intent: evidence that the UK was not going to condone the opacity of companies or owners that could possibly be engaged in criminal dealings or those who are perfectly innocent but choose to inhabit the same smog-bound territory of corporate secrecy.

Why the secrets?

More accountability is a hard-won struggle in an era where our secrets are open to secret services like the NSA and where government secrecy is hard to lessen, Through all this opening up, companies (and Trusts) operating on an international level have reatained an unwelcome ability to shield themselves from public view. At a time of real debate about privacy (Snowden, The Guardian, the NSA, Angela Merkel’s mobile), companies that seek privacy have remained relatively immune.

Companies are treated as individuals under the laws of most countries yet have the ability to hide their ownership and deal with their taxation (if operating multi-nationally) wherever they choose. This means, of course, that they usually choose what is right for them not for the wider society in which they operate. That is their remit. The recent shake-down of Starbucks, Google and others over taxation – which, to date, has yielded not much more than the voluntary promise of payment of a few tens of millions by Starbucks – was a tip of the iceberg moment. With corporate taxation in the UK heading downwards, the current government coalition seems determined to accept the Institute of Directors’ call for companies not to be taxed on their profits at all!

However, one thing about tax is that we can all see how much a large corporate pays in the UK (about a year after the event when it publishes its accounts). What we don’t see easily is where a company has overseas affiliates with which it “trades” – such as paying royalties for the use of its name – in secret jurisdictions where tax is often negligible.

This nonsense of transfer payments and royalties (which HMRC showed last week to the Public Account Committee it has no real understanding over) shifts massive amount offshore and out of the country where real business was done to tax havens.

The fear often cited that proper taxation would force companies out of the UK is nonsense. They do real and profitable business here – the UK is the world’s seventh biggest economy (or thereabouts). Why on earth does anyone believe that they would move away from doing business here? Can anyone imagine that Apple would close its Covent Garden store if they had to pay real tax in the UK rather than shift profits to where the name “Apple” is deemed by a tax expert to reside? Being afforded the space to sell its (excellent) products in the UK, to use our roads, lights, take on people educated here and all the other benefits of selling in the UK (which includes the iconic area of Covent Garden in London) are well worth the entrance fee of corporate taxation.

Offshoring the owners

However, David Cameron’s speech was not specifically about offshoring taxation – it concerned beneficial ownership issues and these are, of course, linked to taxation in a major way but it is much more than that.

The fog of hidden beneficial ownership means that companies are set up which can channel profits or simply flows of revenue to places where tax does not apply and where no-one knows the beneficiary. This is a typical and easy-to-organise ruse of the criminal world. For many years, criminal networks have laundered their revenues offshore – it used to be through the transportation of suitcases full of notes; these days, it is a little easier. This not just saves tax – it transforms illegal earnings into clean money that can then be brought back again into the real economies via the normal banking system.

With the improved ease of transmission of money across the world, it just takes complicit banks to enable the movement (along with some accountants and lawyers to get things under way) and, hey presto, money surfaces wherever it is wanted without anyone knowing.

Just watch the antics of Breaking Bad attorney Saul Goodman – now getting his own series. The essence of monetary manipulation is built around secrecy and contacts. Governments cannot easily stop the development of the latter, but they can do much to stop the former – making beneficial ownership transparent.

Lining Up for Secrecy – the Fog of War

To the vast majority of us, this is obvious, but to many it is a declaration of war. Many secrecy-led jurisdictions are concerned about their future. It is not just Cyprus where the dominance of “financial services” is far too big for the country – Cyprus became completely over-dependent on banking, Russia and lack of due diligence. According to the Tax Justice Network there are 73 secrecy jurisdictions around the world that they analyse.

Of these, a staggering 35 have some substantive connection with the UK. One of those is Jersey and Jersey Finance’s CEO, Geoff Cook, voiced his concern on Friday when he heard David Cameron’s pitch. In his blog he refers to the public register:

It is not yet clear what will be on such a register but unless this is adopted by the G20, I would confidently predict that  Mr Cameron is likely to have lots of friends in the AID world and insufficient food on the table at home.
Protecting business interests, trade secrets, safeguarding personnel from fringe, sometimes violent campaigning groups, from corrupt political elites and from criminals are all real and weighty concerns.  It is telling that the NGO community are happy to  subject those who have worked hard and done the right thing to a much greater degree of scrutiny than almost any other constituency in society.
There is little difference from opening up the private company arrangements of business owners to the public glare of NGOs, journalists, cyber criminals and the assorted flotsam and jetsam of the worldwide web, than for ordinary bank accounts. If the logic holds good do we not need to know the balance publicly of all personal bank accounts so that all can be sure we came by our cash by legitimate means?
We have nothing to hide in Jersey and we have been active supporters of government to government information exchange. However, the voyeuristic tendencies of politically correct elites should not be indulged and indeed will not be by the vast majority of countries, leaving the UK out on an uncompetitive, uncomfortable and potentially impoverished limb.

It is extraordinary that arguments for secrecy over beneficial ownership are now wrapped up in screams about safety from “violent” campaigning groups and cyber criminals. These are the words of fear – fear for a future that may have been predicated on the Cyprus model and lack of such due diligence.

Secrecy over beneficial ownership allows vast amounts of money to be electronically channeled out of not just the UK developing nations. That cannot afford the losses. Huge amounts of wealth properly owned by citizens of countries such as Guinea, DRC, Angola and others are secretly moved and laundered – often with the help of banks (who are now in the firing line of authorities especially in the USA). As TJN itself states:

Secrecy jurisdictions facilitate illicit financial flows.

Illicit financial flows stem from three major sources: bribery (corruption in its narrow sense), criminal activity and cross-border tax evasion. In doing so, secrecy jurisdictions and the secrecy providers operating through them play not only a major role in preventing the poorest countries from developing out of a state of dependency and poverty, but they help creating a criminogenic environment in which all sorts of crimes can thrive and feast on the fruits of breaking the law.

The crimes that are facilitated and whose financial reward is secured by financial opacity and the resulting secrecy comprise, but are not limited to: tax evasion, aggressive tax avoidance, money laundering, terrorist financing, drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal arms trading, non-payment of alimonies, counterfeiting, insider dealing, embezzlement, fleeing of bankruptcy orders, illicit intelligence operations, insider dealing, all sorts of fraud, and many more.

Clearing the Fog

David Cameron has made a real commitment but there are real obstacles to further progress.

The first is implementation.

Those involved in celebrating the introduction of the Bribery Act in 2011 are rightly concerned that its implementation is suspect. As Jack Straw, then Minister of Justice, said in the original White Paper, there was unlikely to be many cases brought before judges as a result of the Act. This has been borne out in practice along with insufficient funding of investigations, low numbers of court actions and Bribery Act guidance that was aimed at stifling the Act’s powers. Proper and funded implementation of real transparency and public availability of that information is now key to ending secret beneficial ownership for UK-registered companies.

The second issue is around Trusts. These are not covered by the PM’s statement or commitment yet Trusts are a key secrecy weapon for criminal activity across the globe.

The third issue is that the commitment only applies to the UK. This will serve some purpose in helping to clear money laundering from this country but the UK should now use its leadership wherever it has influence. This is direct in the 35 secrecy jurisdictions mentioned above but also in other forums where the UK has any influence – such as the G20, EU, FATF (Financial Action Task Force).

The fog remains but the UK is beginning to spy a way through – taking a lead on an issue on which millions of lives depend outside the UK. It is not the problems of those in Jersey’s Finance Ministry we should most be concerned with but the problems of those in countries where massive corruption by those in power is facilitated by banks and secrecy jurisdictions – resulting in billions leaving the countries (far higher than Aid going in) and that means millions having to survive on a $ a day with no medical facilities let alone schools or economic opportunities.

Time to see above the fog.

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.

 

Going Soft on Power

We are all looking back on 2012 as the year when the UK has been said to lead the way in a number of areas – the Olympics, Sir Bradley Wiggins and the Tour de France, Murray and the US Open, James Bond and the Queen, with Danny Boyle wrapping it all up to show the UK on the side of good.

But, like every nation, we are not just the nice guys. The UK has also become better known internationally for bribery and bank irregularities (LIBOR fixing, money laundering for terrorists), the Leveson inquiry into the press and phone hacking, the indictment of our police over Hillsborough, alleged police wrongdoing that led to a cabinet minister resigning (Andrew Mitchell) and Jimmy Savile reminding us all of what this country was like just recently.

So, 2012 has been a very strange year for the UK – a “curate’s egg” of a year. Monocle Magazine (itself named after an eyepiece that was popular in the 19th Century) rated the UK the world’s top “Soft Power” in 2012 as a result of the Olympics, Murray’s tennis feats and James Bond (among other things). Yet, at the same time, our banks are being shown up for massive failures on LIBOR, HSBC’s lack of control and willingness to allow money laundering on an exceptional scale and the recent Rolls Royce bribery allegations.

The UK is home to amazing ideals and potential: from sports stars and a tremendous passion for sport, home of democratic freedoms, a country based on welcoming the world to its shores and an internationalism based on a long-lost Empire and a need to be important but be seen to be doing the right thing; an independent spirit that makes us not want to be subsumed in Europe or the USA but to straddle the middle and be all things to all.

The UK is also home to the World Wildlife Fund and to a host of NGO’s and charities that see the UK as the centre of the struggle for the world to be a better place. Our aid programme (directed by DfID) is well-meaning even if sometimes misguided (recent nonsense in Rwanda being a good example).

Yet, business and financial irregularity brings our self-righteousness back to earth with a bump.  While we may be able to export a high degree of soft power through our great sporting and artistic talents, a nation like the UK has to be wary that its reputation is not completely destroyed by letting our ancient mercantile and trading instincts come first. Sometimes we don’t know if we are on the side of James Bond or SMERSH.

Britain’s “export” trade

The UK was a mercantile nation well before becoming the first into the Industrial Age and its Empire was established on the back of pioneering instincts and a trading mentality – heavily mixed with politics and ownership. Our wealth was built on the back of exploration and an eye for what sold well – whether it was gold or slaves.

Whereas the Chinese and its tributary system did not seek to rule the countries with which it traded, the UK sought vertical integration through Empire. It exported its laws, its systems, its language and its instincts throughout the world – the good and the bad. Writers like Niall Ferguson have debated whether, on balance, the British Empire has done good or bad overall, but, like the apology being demanded currently for Turing, this is history. As AN Wilson so majestically says in “The Elizabethans”, it is hard for us to look back on that age with the eyes and experience of the 21st Century.

What matters today are the after-effects of the actions taken and also in the actions being taken today along with the belief systems that are current. While Monocle may be right that we export some good and reap some soft power, the UK also exports some bad that may well negate the soft power that we so want to aspire to at a time when the West’s economic power is diminishing fast. Joseph Nye calls the mix of soft and hard powers,  our overall “smart power” and we are in danger of losing the “smarts”

When Transparency International – UK was setting up its “Defence against Corruption” project and I was an adviser to them, a great deal of discussion took place about how corruption has three legs  –  the corrupted (the government and individuals who were bribed), the corruptor (usually a company that did the corrupting) and the nation where the corruptor was based.

Much of the discussion around TI’s Corruption Perception Index is about the first, but the latter two are as much party to the corruption as the corrupted.

When Jack Straw originally produced his white paper which ended with the introduction of the Bribery Act (a very late addition to the codifying of our laws and the subject of many years fighting between NGO’s and companies as well as between the UK government and OECD – where we had signed up to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention many years before), he pointed out that the UK was a relatively bribery-free nation.

It is true that since the times of Samuel Pepys (when anything could be bought through bribery) the UK has cleaned up its act at home. As we became wealthier, we became less corrupt (although there remain many instances of bribery and corruption still).

However, in some ways we became more Confucian – we were most obsessed with doing right at home and exported our worst sins overseas. Companies from the UK in many industries such as energy, construction and aerospace and defence bribed for business. As the recent ITV programme “Exposure” aired on 10th October, 2012 showed, bribery by British firms overseas remains too common despite the Bribery Act. Rolls Royce is accused of two major acts of corruption in Indonesia and China dating back several years. It will have to show that its systems and policies are now consistent with the Bribery Act requirements or staff could be held culpable.

National reputation – national character

In the defence industry, the cry was always “If we don’t bribe, the French will”. The Chinese and Russians may be the chief bribing competitors these days but we have now enacted the Bribery Act – so, by law the exporting of bribery by companies from the UK should be at an end – including any company that does any business in the UK.

Maybe the issues that have been uncovered at Rolls Royce are old news but many concerns persist and suggest that the short-term gain mentality remains. In a posting from October I reported on a Financial Times article (from a survey by FTI Consulting) that showed a third of board members in the UK would bribe if they felt it was needed to win business. This worrying statistic shows clearly that the UK’s soft power base is in danger.

Our 2012 national reputation was portrayed in Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony as quirky but unselfconscious; a nation of tremendous artistic, scientific, engineering and business success, caring and cultured. Ai Weiwei summed it up well in an article in the Guardian (it is well worth reading the whole article:

“Brilliant. It was very, very well done. This was about Great Britain; it didn’t pretend it was trying to have global appeal. Because Great Britain has self-confidence, it doesn’t need a monumental Olympics.”

This was a characteristic portrayed throughout 2012 – a year when our sporting achievements have been at their highest in athletics, in golf (along with the rest of Europe), in tennis, in cycling and in cricket (we even beat New Zealand at rugby). Only in football (our national sport) has a less than successful and a less than wholesome image been portrayed.

But, maybe this is where the link may be. Football has become a huge business and business has no ethics of its own – we are continuously told that companies have no souls (as tax avoiders such as Google, Starbucks, Amazon and the rest show clearly). Football was a working class sport but is now a multi-billion pound successful business. Its sporting soul has disappeared as our exports grow – its “self-confidence” becoming mere hubris.

Soft power and hard exports

It could be said that football has not suffered yet along with its financial success (it still has its fan base). It took someone like Lord Coe to defeat the doomsayers that forecast the Olympics in London, with its huge corporate branding, would go the same way but it was a success with real people. Football remains hugely popular but the corruption in FIFA allied to racism at football grounds in Eastern Europe and the huge pay gap between the performers (being paid £20,000 and upward per week) and the fans means that its brand is continuously being corrupted.

If, in the age of smart power, if it is to be a continuing success, brand UK has to be clear and focused, not tainted by bad business ethics. It means not just abiding by the rules of international business but setting the standards – to take advantage of the good will that has been gained in 2012.

This means swapping the short-term (unreal) benefits of poor, 19th trading standards (where bribery and corruption was rife) to set real standards that are enshrined in the 2011 Bribery Act but where the UK has not put in the resources to implement the Act, where the US has shown a willingness to prosecute its own malfeasants in a way that shames successive UK governments.

Soft Power has to become (to use Nye’s term) smart power. Smart power is the ability to take advantage of the benefits that come from our leadership in key areas and to trade on them. Danny Boyle (through the Olympics opening ceremony and his refusal of a knighthood) shows the way away from the 19th Century mercantilistic British norms to a UK that has the ability to lead the world with its soft power allied to economic and political capabilities. This means waking up to what the 21st Century could mean – a global economy where improved communications can kill a business in progressively much shorter times as well as upsetting the benefits that the likes of Tolkein (The Hobbit is a classic British tale) and Fleming and the rest have provided to the country as a whole.

It means being self-confident enough to be seen to espouse good business not business at any price or any cost. There was no government reaction to the FT report cited above. There should have been. Doing good business is becoming the next stage of capitalism – we should be at its forefront as the challenge of the Chinese and others (who aspire less to this cause than the vocalized western consensus since WWII) grow: good business rather than bad business.

This is a hard ask in the depths of recession – but, if the UK is to capitalize on its soft power base, then a UK for the 21st Century has to be built on a smart power base – rather than simply going soft.

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.

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.