Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Leak reveals elite tax havens

Papers showing how the rich and powerful people hide their money has been leaked. However, the credibility of the documents are questioned, writes Stefan Weichert

Leak reveals elite tax havens
Leak reveals elite tax havens
Al-Ahram Weekly

More than 11 million documents were leaked from the secretive Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca last week, showing how the richest and most powerful people on the globe hide their money. The documents were given to the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. 

An anonymous source gave the documents to the newspaper, which later shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), where from they were distributed to several media outlets. The documents show that Mossack Fonseca helped clients hide and launder their money, while avoiding sanctions and taxes at the same time. Something the company has denied. 

Among the most prominent people mentioned at the moment, the Icelandic Prime Minister David Gunnlaugson, the father of the British Prime Minster David Cameron, relatives of China’s leader Xi Jinping, the family of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Mexican magnate Juan A H Cantu, two cousins of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, high rank people in FIFA, and close associates of the Russian President Vladimir Putin are listed. However, also the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s son Alaa Mubarak is mentioned in the documents among other Egyptian business people. 

The leaked documents also include top officials in countries like Argentina, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and Ukraine. For example, the name of King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia is also on the list. 

Mossack Fonseca released a statement, stating that the company was the victim of a data breach and that “nothing we’ve seen in this illegally obtained cache of documents suggests we’ve done anything illegal”. At the moment, it is hard to determine if the company has done anything wrong, but according to ICIJ, the files include people and companies, who are blacklisted by the United States, because of drug trafficking and terrorism links. French President Francois Hollande called the leak “good revelations”, which would help increase the tax revenues from “those who commit fraud”. 

Only a few Americans, such as business guru Marianna Olszewski, and no Germans are mentioned in the leak. It has raised questions among experts and the public. For example, a Twitter user named Adam Johnson wrote that “The United States is pure and good and incorruptible” to spark a debate over the missing Americans. Others have noticed that many of the people revealed are enemies of the US and therefore questions the credibility of the anonymous source behind the leak. Also only a few Western Europeans are mentioned. 

However, Sueddeutsche Zeitung recounted Monday that “the source wanted neither financial compensation nor anything else in return, apart from a few security measures.” The source felt in danger and wanted to make “these crimes public”, the newspaper noted that according to the media outlet Politico. The source provided the paper with 2.6 terabytes of data, more than would fit on 600 DVDs, with documents dating all the way back to the 1970s. It includes emails, PDF files, photographs and internal documents from the Mossack Fonseca’s database. 

“I think the leak will prove to be probably the biggest blow the offshore world has ever taken because of the extent of the documents,” said Gerard Ryle, director of ICIJ, according to BBC. 

However, the question of the few Americans listed is still debated. According to the international tax expert Lee Sheppard, who spoke to Yahoo Finance and is a contributing editor at Tax Analysts, “People in other countries pay a lot more in taxes than we do (in the US). In other countries, nearly every rich person has a tax haven bank account. Proportionately, the US doesn’t have as large a problem.”

However, according to the news outlet Politico, the issue is more complicated. The assistant editor Danny Vinik points out that $1.2 trillion were hidden in offshore banks in 2014 by Americans. Therefore, it is more a question of where the Americans hide their money, he suggested, and pointed to Bermuda, Cayman Islands and Singapore.

“I think Panama is a disfavoured country among US advisers because it is viewed as an outlier relative to world norms,” said Edward Kleinbard, a professor of law and business at the University of Southern California, according to Politico.

“If there was a leak from Singapore, as opposed to Panama, which is what we have so far, we might find more [evasion],” said Reuven Avi-Yonah, a law professor at the University of Michigan, according to Politico. 

People and companies, who use tax havens like Panama, normally hide avoid paying taxes by hiding their ownership of their money. Methods include using shell companies, which looks like a legitimate business, but is nothing more than an empty shell to hide the owner of the money. Another method is to use offshore financial centres in countries like Panama, where there is very low or non-existent taxes on financial transactions. It is possible to make transactions almost completely anonymous by using bearer shares or bonds.      

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