The Shell Game

The end of offshore banking in Europe?

April 12, 2013
Obsession
Borders
April 12, 2013
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Jeroen Dijsselbloem, Jean-Claude Juncker
Luxembourg’s prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker (right) starts spilling the beans.(AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

There’s a perfect storm brewing against offshore banking, and it seems to be breaking in Europe right now.

The pressure to close deficits in advanced economies and deal with inequality has turned a spotlight on tax evasion. In the US, it led to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which comes into force this year and requires foreign banks to share account information with the Internal Revenue Service.

In the last week, the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Spain have begun an automatic information sharing program modeled on FATCA. On April 10, Luxembourg announced it would begin sharing information about its EU customers’ accounts with their home countries, and begin negotiating a similar agreement with the United States. (Austria remains the last EU country that won’t share tax information.) And, after a scandal where a senior government minister admitted to using an offshore account, French president François Hollande will ask a special prosecutor to to pursue cases connected to offshore money.

At least in Luxembourg’s case, the straw that broke the camel’s back may have been last month’s debt crisis in Cyprus. It became clear that European officials saw the mass of Russian deposits in Cypriot banks, which likely included laundered funds, as an impediment to a rescue. And when a rescue was finally agreed, Cyprus’s offshore financial business was not spared the consequences. As one of only two European countries with a financial sector larger as a share of GDP than Cyprus, Luxembourg came under pressure to change its ways.

So being a tax haven is starting to look rather less attractive as a business model for small European countries. However, while critics of bank secrecy applaud the new agreements to share information, it’s not much use when accounts are in the name of shell companies.

“When someone opens a Swiss bank account, they don’t open it in their own name, they open it with a Panama corporation, Delaware, Cayman Islands,” Rebecca Wilkins, a senior counsel at the non-profit Center for Tax Justice, says. “Under the UBS scandals, of the individual prosecutions, every single one so far has involved a shell company.”

Many of these fronts have recently been revealed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which obtained records from companies that help customers set up offshore companies disguising their ownership. While legal, this can be exploited by crony capitalists, con men, and tax evaders, leaving government officials in the dark as to who ultimately benefits from a company’s assets.

Laws that reveal the beneficial owners of corporations can be a tough sell for banks trying to sell discretion. After a money laundering crackdown in Lichtenstein, the country’s financial sector shrank 30%. But the US Treasury Department is expected to release new rules in the coming weeks that may force banks to find out who their customers are, and tell the authorities.

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