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.

Do Companies Exist???

David Cameron is an astute politician and he understands that, at last, there is a popular movement for equity in taxation. This equity includes companies paying a reasonable share of profits. Ian Birrell in The Independent sees this as the start of a movement but this is a campaign that people like Richard Murphy have waged for many years.

True, much of the publicity around his work and that of organisations like the Tax Justice Network and Action Aid have revolved around tax and the developing world. This is where multinationals – especially in the energy and mining sectors – have often connived with governments with a corrupt result that siphoned off hundreds of billions of dollars from the state into the pockets of individuals, elite groups and corporates.

The Dodd-Frank Act – and its focus on country-by-country reporting of tax in such areas – was aimed at opening up governments and companies payments.

However, the taxation effects of tax havens, low tax jurisdictions and multinationals with expertise in moving their tax affairs wherever they want has also created the opportunity for such multinationals to pay if they want, where they want. Organisations like the Institute of Directors, whose members are mainly smaller companies with less multinational options, have recently come out in favour of zero corporate tax rates – on the basis that it is people that should pay tax, not companies.

What’s a Company for?

There are many who believe that a company should not pay taxes – that the market economy needs to ensure that companies are free (within the law) to grow and prosper and that their assumption of human qualities (they are seen as entities under the law) is a fiction. It is people that need to be taxed – not companies and the IoD, for example, in its paper “How to get rid of Corporation Tax” (written following a similar paper from the 2020 Tax Commission) strongly advocates the elimination of all corporation tax as the company is a mere conduit for shareholders, staff etc who should pay all the tax on disbursements from the company.

This begs the question about the essential qualities of a company in a market economy – what is it that makes a company different from an individual – why shouldn’t it pay tax?

Limited liability provides individuals with the scope to take risks. It is a formula from which individuals seeking to build a business can bring in investment knowing that the only requirement to repay (if managing a legally proper business) is limited to the value of the shares as well as any loans taken out. It is limited liability that was fully developed in the Netherlands in1602 when stock was tradable on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange that gave the push to enterprise in Europe. Taken up by the British, it heralded the industrial revolution.

Joint stock companies (having limited liability) were the original, defining force that differentiated companies from individuals pursuing business opportunities. Now, most business is done with limited liability.  Governments have lost track of the ability of such joint stock companies to register in whatever jurisdiction they want and to appoint Directors that have nothing to do with the business – often purely there to hide ownership.

Clearly, companies have a huge presence. Their marketing ability is as the company – not the individuals that are behind it. Advertising and brand management is aimed at providing the public with an identifiable face. A company relies on its customers seeing it as a tangible and identifiable organization with which customers can do business. It has a legal basis (and can take action as such and be actioned against as a result) as well as a moral requirement – the advent of CSR is merely a tangible outcome of the way that companies are seen to be real and impact the environment and society in many ways.

If it quacks…..

We all know that companies are the centre of entrepreneurship and product and service creativity. In a market economy, the rise of joint stock corporations have worked to de-risk investments so that competition has been developed and economic growth maintained since the early 1800’s. This growth has developed some enormous corporations in businesses as wide as energy, food, utilities, construction, defence and aerospace, pharmaceuticals and beyond. Every area of opportunity is mined by the evolution of companies across the globe. Governments have progressively sought to assist business but, under pressure from society (people) laws have been passed which inhibit them to what society believes are proper norms.

These laws include health and safety and employment laws but also include tax laws. As a result, companies make decisions on where to locate – although this often includes where it needs to sell as much as where it can find skilled staff or suppliers.

Apart from rogue traders, set up with the need to hide its affairs within foreign jurisdictions and behind false Directors, many MNC’s (multinational corporations) are able to move their profits around by manipulation of licensing and other features. Rather than pay tax on profits in the areas in which they make the money, accountants can provide companies with boltholes in which the rates of tax are very low.

The IoD and others believe that companies are not real – that Governments should give up on them and rely on the payments they make to people on which tax should be paid.

The question arises: if a company is a distinct entity in law; if it can be held responsible for its impact on the environment, its impact on people, its duty of care to customers – why, oh why, should it not pay taxes? Why should society not look to some repayment from the company itself – which benefits hugely from joint stock activities as well and huge benefits that are introduced for companies such in terms of infrastructure, government regulations, and a myriad of other incentives – rather than (in this instance only) having to seek tax purely from receivers of income from companies. Taxing companies is, in principle, correct as it is the company that derives the income from a location.

If tax is to be separated, then the long-term outcome for companies would be potentially the loss of other benefits (such as joint-stock arrangements) as the legal distinction becomes blurred. Not just the thin end of the wedge – but a potentially disastrous change.

Companies have to play their part

If companies exist in law as distinct entities, which they do worldwide, then it is reasonable that they face up to the reasonable demands of the society in which they operate. Company law, however, may set up companies as distinct but the reality is that the company has no moral code except that which society imposes. People have moral codes, companies (which are organisations of people) do not. CSR is reactive to society, not pro-active and while companies have a need to become sustainable (in terms not just of resources but sustainable in terms of the relationship with its customers and the societies in which they operate) it is extremely rare for them to lead – to take such societal risks.

This is true in most areas. Health and safety leaders in companies were years ahead of the legal changes in places such as California but were reacting, quite properly, to likely long-term changes. Those that did so were ahead of the game when laws changed in areas such as environmental restrictions.

This reactive ability (changing as the environment changes in an evolutionary way) makes the best companies resilient – sustainable. It shows they are real entities as much of society as any other organizational form or the individuals that self-organise around them and within them. Companies are a part of society and should contribute to society as a key part of it. This means that opting out of a crucial element of the system – taxation – is ludicrous on grounds of the companies’ relationship with society – whether that opting out is legal or not.

The dangers are obvious. The crack in society would be potentially dramatic – companies would be seen to have no fiscal contract with society. This may well be the case for MNC’s now but the public backlash is starting to inhibit their ability to prosper in this environment. Companies that properly pay their tax are now selling this proposition to their customers – companies such as J Sainsbury whose pride in paying proper company tax in the UK is seen in distinct contrast to those MNC’s like Amazon, Starbucks and similar. The latter is threatening to disentangle itself from future investment in the UK if David Cameron (and his “time to smell the coffee remarks”) persists in trying to get them to pay tax where they trade rather than using licensing and royalties to hid their true profits.

Companies are a key part of society. They have to act as such and not just contribute to society solely through CSR documents. They have to be seen to contribute and tax is one of the most obvious manifestations of that contribution.

Let tax be paid where the trade is made

Let’s end the notion that companies should not pay corporation tax and let’s get on to the next step of the ladder – working out how to ensure that royalties, tax havens, tax schemes, fake Directors and the like are no longer tolerated and that tax is paid where the trade is made.

 

See: Do Companies Exist – Part II

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.