Tax revenue keeps civilization afloat but not all taxpayers play by the same set of rules. While some wealthy and well-connected people have avoided paying trillions of dollars in taxes, you are left to cover the bill.
The Pandora Papers are a leak of almost 12 million documents that uncovered hidden wealth, tax avoidance and money laundering by some of the world’s rich and powerful. These include the King of Jordan, the presidents of Ukraine, Ecuador and Kenya, the prime minister of Czech Republic, and more than 130 billionaires from Russia, the United States, Turkey, and other nations. This leak comes years after the well-known Panama Papers.
This is made possible by tax heavens. These are generally countries or places with low or no corporate taxes that typically limit public disclosure about companies and their owners. Independent countries like Panama, some areas within countries like the U.S. state of Delaware, or territories like the Cayman Islands are examples of such.
What is offshoring: technicalities and legalities
When investigations such as this come to light, talks about tax evasion or money laundering inevitably lead to discussions about the practice of offshoring and its legalities and technicalities. Offshoring can be succinctly defined as the practice of moving economic activities (be it a company or a bank account, etc.) from the country of origin towards a foreign jurisdiction overseas, separate from the one where the beneficial owner resides. Therefore, in its simplest form, as the name indicates, offshoring is primarily a geographic activity of moving operations from one country to another. However, the legal intricacies and moral aspects that revolve around it make it an activity quite frowned upon in the international community.
Offshoring offers a number of enticing advantages to those who practice it, such as simpler corporate regulations and possibly lower costs for companies going offshore, as well as better asset and lawsuit protection. Moreover, and perhaps the biggest reason why people choose to move their enterprises and records of less than morally righteous business deals to countries such as Panama or the British Virgin Islands has to do with the tax benefits those countries provide to outsiders, as well as a promise of financial privacy and confidentiality that many appreciate in order to keep their financial transactions under the radar.
Concerning these taxation benefits, most of the so called “Tax Heavens”, terribly appealing to offshoring practices, allow these foreign entities to usufruct from an entirely different fiscal system from the national one, having to pay much less taxes (and in some particular cases none at all) and to collect tax-free capital gains from the operations conducted.
However, and as ludicrous as it may seem, the issue lies in the fact that this practice of moving operations from one country to another mostly to pay less taxes is entirely legal in many cases. In fact, despite all the scandal surrounding the Papers, most of those indicated are not infringing any law – rather they just opt to adhere to a judiciary and fiscal system quite different from the one in their home country. Hence, while tax evasion is illegal, tax avoidance by moving to a different jurisdiction is entirely legal, only not very morally accepted by society.
Why is this practice legal then?
That is a rather difficult question to answer as these offshore tax heavens have existed for many decades and not much seems to have been done to end them, despite all the investigations that have revolved around them in the past few years. In the end, it is very much the issue that many of the power players who could actually have a say in putting a stop to these practices – such as politicians and influential personalities – are also those that benefit the most from it, making it clear that it is really not much in their interest to limit offshoring in the near future.
From the Panama Papers to the Pandora Papers
The Pandora papers are similar to its predecessor, the Panama Papers, in that they both revealed the inner workings of offshore loopholes and shed light on many of the dealings that some high-profile, well-known figures engaged in.
Both the Panama and the Pandora papers consist of millions of files, 2.6 TB and 2.94 TB worth of information, respectively, which included legal and financial documents detailing many of the activities and property purchases of high-profile individuals, including billionaires, politicians, and world-leaders.
The Pandora papers were obtained and compiled by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) from a variety of different sources of information: 14 in total. ´
Meanwhile, its predecessor, the Panama Papers, came from a single source: Mossack Fonseca. Mossack Fonseca was a law firm and provider of corporate services, located in Panama (therefore, Panama Papers) that specialized in offshore financial services and that, before the leak, had a very relevant position in the industry. Because of this, it had access to large amounts of documents and files that detailed the activity that went on within the offshore dealings of many individuals. In 2016, a whistle-blower, whose identity is still unknown, leaked many of Mossack Fonseca’s documents to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
While offshore activities are not, by themselves, illegal, they can be used to disguise and hide criminal activities. As a result, with the help of the information detailed in the Panama Papers, crime authorities in many different jurisdictions were able to uncover criminal activity and arrest and prosecute many suspects: In the U.S., the Panama Papers allowed the IRS to uncover several cases of tax evasion through offshore dealings, ultimately leading to the arrest of several people; U.S. authorities also found several cases of fraud. The Canada Revenue Agency also claims to have discovered 35 different cases of tax evasion. In late 2020, Germany issued two international arrest warrants for Juergen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca (the founders of Mossack Fonseca) for their involvements in the criminal activities of Mossack Fonseca, although they are unlikely to be extradited.
However, these types of investigations and legal procedures often take years to culminate in an arrest or a conviction and, so, we can expect that the Panama Papers will continue to aid authorities in investigations for many years to come. That will likely also be the case for the more recent Pandora Papers.
A possible solution – The Global Minimum Tax
A possible solution to tax heavens might be through a global minimum tax. A global deal to ensure big companies pay a minimum tax rate of 15% and make it harder for them to avoid taxation has already been agreed by 136 countries. The global minimum tax rate would apply to overseas profits of multinational firms with 750 million euros ($868 million) in sales globally. Governments could still set whatever local corporate tax rate they want, but if companies pay lower rates in a particular country, their home governments could “top up” their taxes to the 15% minimum, eliminating the advantage of shifting profits. A second track of the overhaul would allow countries where revenues are earned to tax 25% of the largest multinationals’ so-called excess profit – defined as profit in excess of 10% of revenue. Applying a similar version to individuals might just do the trick to combat tax avoidance by wealthy individuals.
Offshoring allows companies and individuals to take advantage of low or no corporate taxes and limit public disclosure about companies and their owners. These practices are legal, but they pose a fundamental morality question. Offshoring practices provide benefits for the countries being used as the offshoring destination while negatively impacting the ones from which the money is being taken out off. This might create social unrest on these practices as taxpayers feel like not all citizens/companies are paying their fair share.
Sources: DW, Forbes, ICIJ, The Guardian.