Baba Ramdev wants it back, or else…. The government claims it is on the trail, but…. Anti-corruption crusader Prashant Bhushan works up a lather over it and even lambasted a former Supreme Court judge recently for upholding a law that enabled businessmen to save taxes by registering themselves with post-office addresses abroad. Business tycoons are mum on the subject.
Yes, we are talking about tax havens abroad, the place where businessmen allegedly stash away their illegal wealth.
But what are tax havens really? Why do postage-stamp countries like Liechtenstien or the Cayman Islands host them? And why do businessmen and politicians keep their slush money there instead of equally unholy – but handy – places back home? Here’s a Dummy’s Guide to tax havens.
What are tax havens?
Tax havens are countries or principalities or near-sovereign territories that allow you to pay little or no tax and also guarantee you secrecy about the funds you hold in their banks. They are called by other names, too, like offshore financial centres, innovative financial centres, etc, depending on your inclination. One man’s innovations are another man’s black money.
What is black money? How do I know if the money I get from the shopkeeper is black or white?
It’s not the colour. Black money is simply income on which taxes have not been paid. If you pay your builder cash for booking a flat, you are generating black money for him. Every time you buy something without a bill, you may be facilitating black money generation.
How are tax havens defined?
Nicholas Shaxson in his book Treasure Islands suggests that a tax haven is a place “that seeks to attract business by offering politically stable facilities to help people or entities get around the rules, laws and regulations of jurisdictions elsewhere.”
It is similar to the definition offered by Richard Murphy of Tax Justice Network. Shaxon also suggests that more than half of world trade passes, at least on paper, through tax havens. Over half of all banking assets and a third of foreign direct investment by multinationals corporations are routed off shore.
How many tax havens exist currently?
There are presumably more than 70 tax havens in the world. At least 40 countries/territories market themselves aggressively as tax havens
(Source: Internal Revenue Service, USA, on Abusive Offshore Tax Avoidance schemes –Talking Points, January 2008)
The well-known tax havens are Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Channel Islands, and Cayman Islands, among others.
Who uses these tax havens?
Of course, tax dodgers and other assorted varieties of crooks helped by institutions and entities like banks.
Raymond W Baker, in his pioneering work on tax havens, says: “I have lost count of the number of anonymous entities existing in these jurisdictions. Several years ago, the British Virgin Islands alone reportedly had 180,000 and the Caribbean as a whole had 500,000. More were being formed at a reported rate of nearly 200,000 a year. The total is certainly well over a million by now, and some experts put the number as high as three million. According to various estimates, half of cross-border trade and investment passes through a tax haven or a secrecy jurisdiction at some point along the way”.
(Capitalism’s Achilles Heel: Dirty Money and how to renew the free market system, page 36, John Wiley & Sons Inc, NJ 2005I).
The US Government Accountability Office reported in 2008 that 83 of the USA’s biggest 100 corporations had subsidiaries in tax havens. Tax Justice Network discovered that 99 of Europe’s 100 largest companies used offshore subsidiaries. In each country the largest users by far were banks.
How much money is stored in these havens?
This is a tricky issue since we are talking about unaccounted or black money. There are estimates, but each one comes with an assumption. There are three interesting questions: How much global money is there in all these tax havens? How much Indian money is stashed away illegally here? How much Indian money is, specifically, in Swiss accounts?
First, let us look at the volume of the untaxed black money that is estimated to circulate in and dominate the global financial markets unquestioned and unsupervised. These monies, which have no declared or known owners, are laundered into the official financial markets of the world through the intervention of tax havens, which are countries that levy no tax or levy what is an apology for a tax, so as to attract capital. These tax havens are largely tiny-tots in the global geography and demography but they hold the rest of the world to ransom, as explained in detail later. These are currently called “secretive jurisdictions”.
Now, let us see the latest estimate of the volume of the black money that traverses through the financial system of the world.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated in 2010 that the balance-sheets of small island financial centres alone added up to $18 trillion — a sum equivalent to about a third of world GDP (Shaxon). The IMF estimates the size of global black money — excluding Switzerland, China, Taiwan and the oil-exporting economies — at US$ $18 trillion. But that’s still an underestimate, says the IMF!
Gian Maria Milesi-Ferretti, an economist for the IMF in Washington, said statistical information on Luxembourg, one of the largest offshore financial centres in Europe, illustrated the extent of the problem. He said: “Luxembourg is one of the few offshore centres that disclose detailed statistics on assets and liabilities held in the financial sector, which makes it invaluable to understand cross-border money flows.” (Just to recollect our school maths, one trillion is 1,000 billion and 100 crore make a billion; GDP is Gross Domestic Product, which is a nation’s income in a year.)
The latest available IMF figures show portfolio assets held by foreigners in Luxembourg to be worth $1.5 trillion at the end of 2008. But looking at statistics provided by the Luxembourg government on portfolio investment liabilities for the country – the mirror image of the asset information held by the IMF – there is a big discrepancy. The investment liabilities in Luxembourg were $2.5 trillion – $1 trillion (€726 billion) more than the assets reported.
Milesi-Ferretti said: “This is a huge difference, almost 40%, and is unlikely to be entirely accounted for by the fact that some countries do not report their portfolio investments or their destination to the fund.”
How much Indian money is kept abroad?
Global Financial Integrity (GFI) — a non-profit research organisation working in the area of tax havens — has estimated that the present value of illegal financial flows held abroad is nearly $500 billions. Our GDP at the time the report was made was nearly US$ 1,200 billon. This means nearly 40% of our national income is held outside the country. Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare are on the right track, but whether a fast will get the money back is anyone’s guess.
Here are some numbers in rupees: At Rs 45 to the dollar, the money stashed abroad comes to Rs 22.5 lakh crore (Rs 2,250,000 crore. At the time of the general elections in 2009, experts of the Congress party had disputed the very existence of large volumes of black Indian wealth held abroad.
But there can really be no dispute about the broad size of Indian wealth stashed away abroad. GFI says that more than two-thirds of this amount has been stashed away after the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1990s. It means that those aspects of liberalisation which facilitated this process must be scrutinised as part of the preventive efforts needed to tackle the accumulation of Indian black wealth abroad on an ongoing basis. (Even Prashant Bhushan has a point).
Now let us look at what kind of black money from elsewhere is lodged in secret Swiss bank accounts. Nearly 1 trillion out of 2.8 trillion Swiss francs (CHR) is black money, says Konrad Hummler, Chairman of the Swiss Private Bankers Association. (See August 2009 Swiss Review, “Atlantic hurricane hits Switzerland in full force”). Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame has told an Indian TV channel that Indians are the largest investors through Swiss banks. This means out of US$ 1 trillion (the Swiss currency is actually a bit costlier than the US dollar, but we are looking at ballpark figures here). more than half could be owned by Indians. This alone comes to US$ 500 billion. And this is only bank deposits.
Is money kept in instruments other than deposits?
There are other exotic financial products offered by Swiss banks — offshore also — where Indians are invested. Plus there are funds accumulated directly abroad through commissions in defence contracts (remember Bofors?), which is not going out of the country. It just doesn’t come in.
The International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (Money Laundering and Financial Crimes, March 2009, by the US Department of State suggests that 30-40% of the inflows may be sent there by hawala (Couriers take money in rupees, convert it to dollars abroad, and then deliver it where it is needed. They also do the reverse: take dollars abroad, convert it to rupees, and being it back during election time).
During 2007-2008, according that report, formal inflows were US$ 42.6 bn (and so 40 percent of this, $18 bn, could be reflected as illegal “flows” not captured by the law). This sum could be paid for in rupees here but stored in tax havens abroad. These hawala deals are for only one year.
Hence one can conclude that GFI’s estimate of US$ 500 billion is a conservative one and $1.5 trillion could be the outer limit. This means the volume of black money held abroad could be anywhere between Rs 22.5 lakh crore and Rs 67.5 lakh crore at current exchange rates of Rs 45 to the US dollar.)
That’s nothing to sneeze at. We will see in our next instalment how it went and how to bring it back.
R Vaidyanathan is Professor of Finance at IIM, Bangalore