The Pandora Papers: How the powerful hide their wealth

Why should the wealthy keep their wealth and profits in tax havens? For better tax planning or to evade taxes? Some hide their wealth so that they can claim to be bankrupt!

(L-R) Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Ambani, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw
(L-R) Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Ambani, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw

Ajit Ranade

On October 3 ICIJ released the Pandora papers, which they claim is the largest ever journalistic collaboration, involving 600 journalists from 117 countries. The collaborators included media houses like the BBC and Guardian from UK and The Indian Express from India.

The data is in 11.9 million files, consisting of documents, images, emails, spreadsheets, presentations, audio and video files and even ink on paper. The work was done mostly in secrecy over nearly two years. While the records go back to the 1970s, most of the data pertains to the period from 1996 to 2020.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is a non-profit organisation based in the US. It is fully funded by donations, and donor details are available on its website, as are its annual reports.

Its 2020 annual report says that its annual expenses were 4.7 million dollars (about 35 crore rupees). The ICIJ has a small core group of 280 investigative reporters who operate through various offices worldwide and it is also supported by a network of members from more than a hundred countries.

What the Pandora Papers reveal are the financial dealings of the super-rich, including politicians, businessmen, sports stars and celebrities. They provide data on secret private trusts ‘settled” or placed in obscure offshore tax havens and the identity of the ultimate beneficiaries of the wealth in those trusts.

The data also reveals multi-layered complex structures, possibly constructed to hide the identity of ultimate beneficiaries. There are shell companies within offshore shell companies, which safeguard wealth in the form of cash, shares, real estate ownership, aircrafts, yachts and art. The multiple layers of ownership are to make it difficult to trace the true ownership and beneficiaries.

What is different about the Pandora Papers from the earlier Panama Papers leaks, revealed by ICIJ five years ago? Unlike the Panama papers which were leaks from a single source, a law firm called Mossack Fonseca, the Pandora Papers are sourced from 14 different providers, whose identity has been concealed. It is a much more comprehensive picture of how the wealthy shift their wealth across tax jurisdictions, possibly to evade taxes or to have a system of “more efficient tax planning”. The distinction between evasion and planning is quite thin.

The ICIJ leaks (and Pandora Papers is the seventh major one, the earlier ones being Panama and Paradise) put the spotlight on the role of tax havens and the service they provide to the global wealthy elite to escape taxation and scrutiny in their home country

The G20 since the Lehman crisis has been seized of this matter, of how to prevent the base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS). The role of tax havens has been troubling because they are the cause of huge tax losses. The UK itself loses significant tax revenue due to its own Crown Territories and places like the British Virgin Islands. But despite decades of both Labour and Conservative governments, the UK has not been able to plug the loophole, making British people wonder whether the political will is strong enough.

The Pandora Papers reveal a new avenue, names individual States within the United States, which now offer trust structures to cloak ownership in secrecy.

Earlier Switzerland used to be accused of being tigh-tlipped about safeguarding ill-gotten wealth in Swiss banks. Now it is even sub-sovereign entities like States of USA. There is an elaborate ecosystem which enables this, with law firms and banks also being complicit.

The Pandora Papers show nearly 4000 banks have helped their clients set up the shell companies or offshore trusts to move their wealth away from the glare of regulators. The BEPS agenda of the G20 is now updated as BEPS 2.0. which consists of two pillars. The first is of fair allocation of profits and taxable income. The second is a global minimum tax on corporations, so that no matter where you go, at least the minimum tax will be applicable.

This initiative led by the US has already got the support of about 132 countries for a minimum tax rate of 15 percent. The first pillar will imply that even if the profits are booked in a tax haven, so long as they are not hidden, the home country can legitimately tax it. For decades big companies like Apple, Google, Amazon booked profits of their European and global income in the low tax haven of Ireland. That will now end. Indeed, the European Union has imposed a fine on Ireland for such irresponsible taxation, which amounts to “stealing the taxes” of other jurisdictions.

In India too, many of the wealthy say they have moved wealth to offshore trusts and it is all legal. Perhaps they are worried that the taxman will take away some wealth in the form of wealth tax? The sharply zooming stock market, and mega liquidity infusion has greatly increased wealth inequality in India and globally. Most developed countries have an inheritance or a stiff estate tax. India does not. Is there a fear of the return of estate duty?

Leaving aside the fugitives who have defrauded banks, or defaulted on large loans from public sector banks, another issue to think about is that even if the wealth has been salted away legally, does it reflect a flight of capital? Are high net worth individu-als moving significant assets abroad? What is their anxiety? Do they feel their wealth is not secure in India?

If India opened up its capital account completely, will we see a massive flight of capital? The Pandora Papers raise a lot of issues that need serious introspection. However, one hopes that like the Panama and Paradise Papers, they don’t become forgotten headlines in a fortnight.

(Dr.Ajit Ranade is an economist & Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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