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23.11.2019 Feature Article

Illicit Cross-Border Financial Flows Still Rife

Illicit Cross-Border Financial Flows Still Rife
NOV 23, 2019 FEATURE ARTICLE

An estimated $21 to $32 trillion of private financial wealth is located, untaxed or lightly taxed, in secrecy jurisdictions around the world.

Secrecy jurisdictions - a term we often use as an alternative to the more widely used term tax havens - use secrecy to attract illicit and illegitimate or abusive financial flows.

Illicit cross-border financial flows have been estimated at $1-1.6 trillion per year: dwarfing the US$135 billion or so in global foreign aid. Since the 1970s African countries alone have lost over $1 trillion in capital flight, while combined external debts are less than $200 billion. So Africa is a major net creditor to the world - but its assets are in the hands of a wealthy élite, protected by offshore secrecy; while the debts are shouldered by broad African populations.

Yet all rich countries suffer too. For example, European countries like Greece, Italy and Portugal have been brought to their knees partly by decades of tax evasion and state looting via offshore secrecy. A global industry has developed involving the world's biggest banks, law practices, accounting firms and specialist providers who design and market secretive offshore structures for their tax- and law-dodging clients.

'Competition' between jurisdictions to provide secrecy facilities has, particularly since the era of financial globalisation really took off in the 1980s, become a central feature of global financial markets.

The problems go far beyond tax. In providing secrecy, the offshore world corrupts and distorts markets and investments, shaping them in ways that have nothing to do with efficiency. The secrecy world creates a criminogenic hothouse for multiple evils including fraud, tax cheating, escape from financial regulations, embezzlement, insider dealing, bribery, money laundering, and plenty more.

It provides multiple ways for insiders to extract wealth at the expense of societies, creating political impunity and undermining the healthy 'no taxation without representation' bargain that has underpinned the growth of accountable modern nation states. Many poorer countries, deprived of tax and hemorrhaging capital into secrecy jurisdictions, rely on foreign aid handouts. This hurts citizens of rich and poor countries alike.

What is the significance of this index?
In identifying the most important providers of international financial secrecy, the Financial Secrecy Index reveals that traditional stereotypes of tax havens are misconceived. The world’s most important providers of financial secrecy harbouring looted assets are mostly not small, palm-fringed islands as many suppose, but some of the world’s biggest and wealthiest countries. Rich OECD member countries and their satellites are the main recipients of or conduits for these illicit flows.

The implications for global power politics are clearly enormous, and help explain why for so many years international efforts to crack down on tax havens and financial secrecy were so ineffective, it is the recipients of these gigantic inflows that set the rules of the game.

Experts analysis revealed that recently things have genuinely started to improve. The global financial crisis and ensuing economic crisis, combined with recent activism and exposure of these problems by civil society actors and the media, and rising concerns about inequality in many countries, have created a set of political conditions unparalleled in history. The world's politicians have been forced to take notice of tax havens. For the first time since the first index was created in 2009, one can say that something of a sea change is underway.

World leaders are now routinely talking about the scourges of financial secrecy and tax havens, and putting into place new mechanisms to tackle the problem. For the first time the G20 countries have mandated the OECD to put together a new global system of automatic information exchange to help countries find out about the cross-border holdings of their taxpayers and criminals. This scheme is now being rolled out, with first information exchanged in 2017.

Yet of course these schemes are full of loopholes and shortcomings: many countries are planning to pay only lip service to them, if that and many are actively seeking ways to undermine progress, with the help of a professional infrastructure of secrecy enablers. The edifice of global financial secrecy has been weakened - but it remains fully alive and hugely destructive. Despite what you may have read in the media, Swiss banking secrecy is far from dead. Without sustained political pressure from millions of people, the momentum could be lost.

The only realistic way to address these problems comprehensively is to tackle them at root: by directly confronting offshore secrecy and the global infrastructure that creates it. A first step towards this goal is to identify as accurately as possible the jurisdictions that make it their business to provide offshore secrecy.

This is what the FSI does. It is the product of years of detailed research by a dedicated team, and there is nothing else like it out there. We also have a set of unique reports outlining detailed offshore histories of the biggest players in the game.

Maxwell Awumah
Maxwell Awumah, © 2019

The author has 3 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: MaxwellAwumah

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