Panama Papers and the offshore holdings delusion

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The world is abuzz with the articles published by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) based on one of the biggest data leaks in history. The articles dubbed as ‘Panama Papers’ are based on leaked data of the Panamanian law firm Mosack Fonseka. The internal documents of the firm were leaked by an anonymous source to the German Newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung which passed them to ICIJ. The scandalous leak contains about 11.5 million files covering 40 years of operations of offshore accounts and shell companies in tax havens like Panama, British Virgin Islands and the Seychelles. The offshore holdings have been linked with international figures including current and former presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and celebrities. Among the repercussions of this probe have been resignation of Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson to concession of UK’s Prime Minister David Cameroon that he benefited from an offshore trust fund in the Bahamas set up by his father.

The articles claim that high profile politicians and their close associates have used tax havens to hide their wealth. The other accusation that is tied with these offshore holdings is using them for tax evasion. But the fact that not all offshore holdings are linked with illegal activities evades most people. Similarly, most media have focused on the theme of ‘tax evasion’ while the revelations are mostly linked with hiding wrongdoing by corrupt officials not just tax evasion.

The New York Times reported,

“Holding money in an offshore company is generally not illegal, although such financial arrangements can be used in illegal ways — for example, to facilitate tax evasion or money laundering.”

Though the Panama Papers exposed cases where people have used offshore holdings for hiding assets and evading taxes, there is a myriad of legitimate reasons for setting up offshore accounts and shell companies. Generally, people use shell companies because of government restrictions on certain transactions and capital controls. Companies may also use offshore companies for tax efficiency through legal tax planning. Moreover, multinationals use shell companies to reap the benefits of flexible corporate regimes and investment diversification opportunities abroad. The New York Times describes some of the legitimate reasons behind shell companies in the article titled “The Panama Papers: Here’s What We Know,” as follows:

“There are many valid uses of offshore shell companies for multinational corporations, joint ventures and wealthy individuals. Many countries restrict the sale of real estate to their citizens or to companies registered there. American retirees looking to purchase homes in such countries form offshore companies that buy the properties to abide by the law.”

“Companies establishing joint ventures in countries with weak or corrupt legal systems also create offshore companies, based in a jurisdiction like the British Virgin Islands or the Cayman Islands, that own the enterprises.”

The Kathmandu Post reported that the statistics of Department of Industry (DoI) shows that 20 percent of FDI entered Nepal from tax havens till last fiscal year. The government officials suspect that FDI from tax havens may be linked with money laundering. However, the reason why FDI is entering Nepal from tax havens like the British Virgin Islands could be because of our corrupt system and capital restrictions like mentioned above.

One important aspect about ‘tax evasion’ is the case when tax rates cross the threshold that people are willing to abide by. When taxes are excessive, people naturally tend to try to find ways to evade them—whether through offshore holdings or other ways. The other aspect is whether the taxes you are paying to a government are reflected in the services it provides. People may be willing to pay even high taxes if they are satisfied with the way the government uses taxes. Else, even if taxes are low, people may want to evade them. For instance, if a government is not efficient and transparent while handling taxpayers’ funds, people will not be willing to pay taxes even when tax rates are low.

If you are interested in learning other legitimate reasons for setting up shell companies, here’ s the link to Huffington Post’s article titled “5 Legitimate Reasons to Have an Offshore Company

Dinesh Karki

Dinesh Karki

Dinesh Karki is an independent researcher. He has Economics degree from Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Suzhou, China.