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.

 

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.