If you haven’t heard, the world’s leaders have been hiding billions of dollars. And one law firm is telling exactly how they do it. Well, they aren’t exactly telling you how, it’s just that someone has stolen their data and given it to journalists. Here are some headlines and links to what I am talking about before I move onto the next layer of analysis.
- Panama Papers: a massive document leak reveals a global web of corruption and tax avoidance by Matthew Ygelsias at VOX
- Panama Papers firm under scrutiny once again by Alan Gomez at USAToday
- Panama Papers money hidden offshore by Luke Harding at The Guardian
- 8 most important things to read to understand the Panama Papers document leak by Tara Golshan at VOX
- Panama Papers Scandal Brings Down Iceland’s Prime Minister by Steven Erlanger at The New York Times
Mossack Fonseca is a law firm that helps people and companies setup shell corporations. It has helped many political leaders in Russia, China, Iceland, to name a few. It has also helped private citizens. FIFA executives come into mind. And though Amazon probably wasn’t a client of Mossack Fonseca, the company uses a shell company based in Luxembourg to “avoid” taxes on UK income. So, this is a common strategy for hiding assets and evading taxation.
What is notable about this data leak is both the shear amount of data that was leaked: over 200 people had setup more than 214,000 companies shown in 11.5 million files amounting to 2.6 terabytes of data covering 40 years of the law firm’s work.
Here are some highlights of what the data shows:
- Since the AML enforcement boosts of 2009, there have been more deactivations than incorporations of shell companies.
- United States is one of the top intermediary firm incorporators.
- United Kingdom is one of the top places to locate intermediaries and acted as a tax haven.
- British Virgin Islands is the most sought after location for shell corporations formed by Mossack Fonseca.
- Banks, though required to report potential money laundering, have been actively involved. Seven of the top ten banks that Mossack Fonseca was involved with are well known international firms you probably have heard of.
- Mossack Fonseca has also helped companies that provided access to funds to the Syrian government, the same government that has been tear the country apart and killing many.
- The first politician to fall because of this leak is Iceland’s Prime Minister
- VIX, the indicator of risk in the financial markets was up 10.2% by noon in Chicago on the day that the Icelandic Prime Minister resigned.
Importance of understanding Shell Corporations for AML Programs
Shell corporations are worrisome because the laws that allow such companies provide secrecy. And there is nothing wrong with secrecy in itself, but it attracts and fosters tax evasion and financing of some dubious activity, some of which result in death. Any comprehensive source of AML focus on the importance of routing out shell corporations, but the forces to have shell corporations is much greater. Banks and law firms make billions on hiding money for clients while AML programs are tiny in comparison. Just think about it. Large global banks based in the US and Western Europe have about 2% of their headcount in Compliance, of which, about half of it in AML Program. How much of their headcount is in High Net Worth Wealth Management groups? 10%? 15%? And that doesn’t include investment banking units that help corporations setup shell corporations.
Crime will not be completely wiped out, no matter what we do. But one things seems to be pretty clear: Wealth Inequality fuels shell corporation. As the world creates more people getting a ever smaller share of global growth, those with a share of the global growth is inclined to hide it. The pattern is stark. Greater the inequality, more likely the wealthy are likely to form shell corporations. This is a very odd result to such logic. Countries like Denmark have very few people involved in forming shell corporations and hiding assets and income from tax authorities even though their tax rates are much higher than places like the United States. Denmark’s public school teachers and kitchen staff get paid enough to afford a five week vacation while most Americans are one medicial bill away from bankruptcy. As a matter of fact, the US needs lenient bankruptcy rules because we bankrupt so many people.
I know that this article has turned into a economics argument, but the truth is that AML Programs are a way to cope with the symptoms of an climate and culture of beating the system, not a way of improving it.
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Marcus Maltempo is a Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist and a Certified Fraud Examiner with more than a decade of experience helping banks, law firms and clients manage investigations and regulatory responses.