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Nomi Prins: Gimme Shelter (From the Tax Man)

A look at what the leading presidential candidates are saying about tax dodging, post the Panama Papers

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Image taken from Flickr user DonkeyHotey

By Nomi Prins
By arrangement with TomDispatch

There’s a pile of money hiding offshore. It’s true that jobs are also leaving the United States because American companies find it convenient to cut labor costs by moving manufacturing abroad, the economic issue you’re hearing most about in this election season. But the stunning amount of money that continues to flow across American borders (and those of other countries), and eventually disappears into the pockets of the corporate and political elite, ultimately causes even more damage to our finances and our lives.

While the two leading candidates for the presidency, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have indeed suggested cosmetic fixes for a situation that only grows more extreme with the passage of time, they have themselves taken advantage of numerous tax “efficiency” strategies that make money evaporate. Of course, you shouldn’t doubt for a second that they’ll change their ways once in the Oval Office.

As with so much in our American heritage, there’s a history to the “offshore” world, too. Finding places to shield money from tax collection first became commonplace among upper-crust industrialists, bankers, and even public servants back in the 1920s. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, a millionaire mogul who served presidents Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding, and Herbert Hoover (and had a knack for cutting taxes on the wealthy), left office under mounting congressional probes into his tax evasion strategies.

Fast-forward about a century and tax dodging has been woven into the fabric of the lives of the affluent and corporate worldwide in an extraordinary way. According to an April 2016 Oxfam report, the top fifty US companies are hoarding more than $1.4 trillion in cash offshore.

What’s more, for every dollar that these firms spent lobbying Congress for “favorable” tax treatment (a collective total of $2.6 billion between 2008 and 2014), they received $130 dollars in tax breaks and $4,000 in subsidies from the US government. These companies, including Pfizer, Goldman Sachs, Dow Chemical, Chevron, Walmart, IBM, and Procter & Gamble, created “an opaque and secretive network” of more than 1,600 company subsidiaries located in tax havens that they decided to disclose. (Because of the weak reporting requirements of the Securities and Exchange Commission, there could be thousands more.) According to a March 3rd report from the Citizens for Tax Justice, the Fortune 500 companies are now saving $695 billion in federal income taxes on a total of $2.4 trillion in offshore holdings.

Fast-forward about a century and tax dodging has been woven into the fabric of the lives of the affluent and corporate worldwide in an extraordinary way.

Americans can’t afford to ignore such tax games, since we’re the ones who, in effect, wind up paying the taxes these firms don’t. For government policymakers, such tax evasion is a grim matter of attrition, since the US (and other countries) plunge ever deeper into debt thanks to such antics and then find themselves cutting services or raising taxes on us to cover the gap between the money they’re losing and the taxes they’re collecting.

Not only are such firms unpatriotic, they are parasitic and while they’re at it, they use similar techniques — let’s not call it theft (though it is) — to avoid tax payments in the poorest places on Earth. As Oxfam reports, “the biggest burden” of tax havens “falls on the poorest people.” In the process, they only increase already oppressive levels of inequality globally.

Tax “secrecy” specialists — people working in the money-hiding field — help rich individuals, multinational corporations, political leaders, terrorists, and organized crime groups divert cash and capital, sometimes in staggering amounts, from local economies into an obscure, complex, multi-layered global financial network that operates outside any national or international regulatory or tax system. Given this, isn’t it a little surprising that the top candidates for the presidency barely pay lip service to the impact of such hidden money? What toothless policies they have proposed to deal with the phenomenon will do little or nothing to change it.

The Panama Papers

US trade agreements generally include rosy promises about partnering with regional economies around the world to encourage the flow of goods and services across borders. At the same time, they generally are focused on the obliteration of barriers that in any way restrict money from flowing out of the United States or into the embrace of other nations. The free movement of capital, or financial globalization as it’s called, has been a bedrock Washington policy for a century and, since the 1980s, places like Panama — a renowned tax haven — have abetted this process.

A month ago, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released a trove of documents, 2.6 terabytes of them, including “more than 4.8 million emails, 3 million database files, and 2.1 million PDFs.” These were turned over by an undisclosed source (“John Doe”), communicating through encrypted channels to avoid repercussions. Now known as “the Panama Papers,” they reveal how elite multinational companies, the super rich, and government figures have engaged in tax-dodging practices engineered by a single Panama City-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca (MF).

In addition to public officials and billionaires, more than 500 global banks, their subsidiaries and branches, have registered at least 15,600 shell companies there using MF’s services. That word “shell” is descriptively accurate since such “companies” rarely have employees and are commonly no more than a post office box providing a façade through which books can be doctored, taxes dodged, losses concealed, and money-laundering and other criminal actions carried out. And keep in mind that MF, which acts for approximately 300,000 companies, is only the fourth largest provider of such offshore services globally.

One mega-bank that used its services extensively was HSBC, which created an astonishing 2,300 shell companies with that law firm’s help. We’ll return to HSBC.

Mossack Fonseca’s official mission, it claims, is “to deliver quality, reliable and comprehensive services to our worldwide clients in the legal, trust, investment consultancy, and digital solution fields.” That’s code for helping select establishment outfits and dubious enterprises to avoid paying taxes on profits, investments, or money made from buying and selling real estate, luxury yachts or planes, oil wells, weapons, or drugs, among other things.

Secrecy is its calling card. Tax havens, or locales amenable to tax dodging, whether in the Caribbean, Central America, Switzerland (still the world’s top location for financial secrecy), or for that matter the state of Delaware, exist to circumvent tax laws. Period. And these operations are so shady that even the functionaries working in the shadows to establish such secret accounts are barely aware of exactly who owns them, where the money came from, or where it’s going. For regulators, prosecutors, and tax collectors, the opacity is far worse.

You don’t necessarily have to be rich or powerful to access the services of such offshore firms and banks, but it helps. Some havens take anyone ready to put up a minimum of $25,000, while others demand staggering sums. Western Samoa, for instance, requires a cool $10 million to get started.

The most alarming aspect of the Panama Papers revelations was not MF’s clientele or even its secretive practices, but that what it does is completely “legal.”

The most alarming aspect of the Panama Papers revelations was not MF’s clientele or even its secretive practices, but that what it does is completely “legal.” Nor was this the first such disclosure. In November 2014, for instance, the “Luxleaks” scandal involving a whole “menagerie of Luxembourg-based tax schemes,” as the Guardian put it, was disclosed by two whistleblowers from the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. (Luxembourg is a major European tax haven.) Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Facebook, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, and Microsoft were on the list of its more than 350 multinational “tax avoiders.”

Avoiding vs. Evading Taxes and Corporate Inversions

Avoiding and evading taxes are technically considered different kinds of acts, the former being legal in the US, the latter not. According to the Internal Revenue Service, “Taxpayers have the right to reduce, avoid, or minimize their taxes by legitimate means.” Tax evasion, on the other hand, involves an “act to evade or defeat a tax, or payment of tax” by “deceit, subterfuge, camouflage, concealment, attempts to color or obscure events, or make things seem other than they are.”

The line between the two is obviously thin and vague, but both practices result in the same thing: paying fewer taxes or hiding money.

The subject of tax avoidance and evasion has generally gotten little traction on the campaign trail in election 2016, the exception being corporate “inversions.” These happen when, for example, an American company merges with a foreign one in a tax haven, and so gets a lower tax rate by re-incorporating (filling out some paperwork) there. This, too, is “legal,” although it represents the purest form of corporate tax evasion. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the practice began in Panama about 30 years ago.

In 2014, companies with household names like Apple, Microsoft, Pfizer, and General Electric avoided paying a collective $90 billion in taxes through inversion strategies. Apple led that list, holding $181.1 billion offshore. That’s a lot of iPhone sales.

The Leading Candidates and Hidden Money

Tax havens are, in essence, perfectly “legal” criminal facilities designed to steal money from the rest of us. The two leading candidates in this election season, however, aren’t talking about closing down tax havens for good (which would piss off lots of rich people, banks, drug cartels, and terrorists). They are instead focused on getting companies to voluntarily repatriate, or return, profits made abroad for taxation purposes or on closing tax “loopholes” that allow money to disappear. Neither, however, offers much detail as to what that means.

Both do share one thing, however, when it comes to tax havens: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have companies registered at the same address (also “shared” by 285,000 other companies) in Wilmington, Delaware. In other words, they make use of the “Delaware loophole,” which allows for the legal shifting of earnings from elsewhere in the country to the ultimate tax haven state in the US. Neither, as Rupert Neate of the Guardian has written, has been willing to offer any explanation for this. That’s the political beauty of loopholes: closing one is different from eradicating an entire practice but suffices as a promise.

Hillary

Hillary has gone after tax havens before. In 2004, as a New York senator, she vowed to close tax loopholes for “people who create a mailbox, or a drop, or send one person to sit on the beach in some island paradise and claim that it is their offshore headquarters.” She introduced no bills to do so, however.

She has spoken out against corporate tax inversions, too. She wants Congress to prevent them by imposing what she calls a “commonsense fifty percent” threshold on them; in other words, as long as a company keeps at least half of its operations in this country, it would be considered a US company for tax purposes, no matter the inversions. She also has favored an “exit tax” to ensure that multinationals pay a “fair” share of US taxes owed on earnings stored overseas. Both of these suggestions would put some modest limits on offshore tax dodging (after the fact), but not come within a country mile of banning it.

On such subjects, she can sound strong indeed at appropriate moments. In February 2016, for instance, she said, “We need to go after a company like Johnson Controls that is trying to avoid paying taxes after all of us bailed it out by pretending to sell itself in a so-called inversion in Europe.” It evidently didn’t matter to her that the same automotive parts company set to merge with Tyco International (based in Ireland to dodge taxes) had donated money to the Clinton Foundation charity as recently as December 2015. (Johnson Controls denied Hillary’s claims that it had received a bailout during the financial crisis.)

Hillary, lest we forget, joined the board of directors of the the Clinton Foundation, the family charity, in 2013. She resigned in April 2015 to run for president. Now, keeping it in the family, her husband, Bill, and her daughter, Chelsea, remain standing members of the board. Spawned from the William J. Clinton Foundation, founded in 1997, the charity has raised $2 billion, has about 2,000 employees (including at times members of Hillary’s political team), and boasts an annual budget of $223 million.

Like many gilt-edged couples, Hillary and Bill Clinton have themselves utilized onshore and offshore tax loopholes. In 2010, they used a common tax-dodging technique by placing their multi-million dollar home in Chappaqua, New York, in a “residence trust.” After he left office, Bill spent five years as an “adviser” to billionaire (now-ex-pal) Ron Burkle’s investment fund, Yucaipa Global, which had funds registered in the Cayman Islands and Dubai. That alliance netted Bill at least $15 million.

Hillary’s bedrock thinking on money flowing out of the US and into the offshore world can best be seen in her support for the 2012 US-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement when she was secretary of state. The agreement removed “barriers to US services, including financial services,” which actually simplified the process of squirreling money away in or through Panama by allowing it to flow freely into that country.

The Clinton Foundation inhales donations from people using tax havens (including Panama). Although Hillary denounced Mossack Fonseca’s dealings on cue after the Panama Papers story broke, a number of individuals and multinationals that have contributed to the foundation used MF to establish offshore accounts, according to McClatchy. These include Canadian mining billionaire Frank Giustra who features in the foundation’s $25 million top-tier donor bracket, and two firms tied to Ng Lap Seng, the Chinese billionaire implicated in a major donor scandal involving the Clintons and the Democratic National Committee.

Similarly, in a speech she gave at the New School in July 2015, Hillary highlighted the “criminal behavior” of global bank HSBC. In 2012, the behemoth financial institution agreed to a record $1.92 billion settlement with the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department for enabling drug cartel money laundering and violating US sanctions by conducting transactions for customers in Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Burma. She vowed, “On my watch, it will change.”

Yet, in 2014, the Clinton Foundation accepted between $500,000 and $1 million from that bank.

The Panama Papers are but one conflicted instance in which Hillary’s stated beliefs, her actions, and the generosity of her friends and acquaintances came together in a contradictory fashion. The evidence suggests that tax-dodgers will, in fact, be able to breathe a sigh of relief if she becomes president. Her actions are likely to — if you’ll excuse the expression — trump her words when it comes to curtailing the behavior of offshore scofflaws in significant ways. And speaking of Trump…

The Donald

Consider the fact that The Donald won’t even disclose his tax returns. His indignantly delivered explanation is that they are “under audit.” Under the circumstances, don’t hold your breath. Perhaps he doesn’t make nearly as much money as he claims — or maybe he has an embarrassing tax haven habit. Who knows?

Ironically, Mossack Fonseca’s Panama City headquarters is located a mere seven-minute drive from the Trump International Hotel and Towers in Panama City. (If you’re interested, its website is pitching a bargain on rooms at “15 percent off our currently available Best Unrestricted Rate.”) That decadent complex is one of many sketchy enterprises to which Trump lent his name for licensing purposes. According to his (unaudited) personal financial disclosure report filed with the Federal Election Commission, the deal earned him $5 million. In true Trumpian style, lawsuits and battles surround the endeavor.

Under the tax plan he’s touting in his presidential campaign, US businesses would see a reduction in their maximum tax rate from thirty-five percent to fifteen percent. This lower rate (“one of the best in the world”) would, he claims, render corporate inversions unnecessary. The Donald apparently hopes that corporate America will be so eternally grateful to him that they’ll move their money back onshore and pay taxes on it voluntarily (though most of them already don’t pay the top tax rate here anyway).

Trump’s views on a “repatriation tax holiday” that would let companies bring home their overseas stashes on a one-time basis for little or nothing have shifted over the course of his candidacy. Last year, he proposed the repatriation of hidden funds without penalty or taxation of any kind. Now he’s advocating a more populist one-time ten percent tax on them.

Although a key promise of his tax reform plan is to end the practice of stockpiling money in offshore accounts by American companies, he has personally invested in many of the companies that do so. As CBS News noted, in October 2015, Trump owned stock in twenty-two of the top thirty Fortune 500 companies ranked by their number of offshore subsidiaries. It’s a group that has engineered 1,225 tax-haven subsidiaries holding $1.4 trillion. Of course, Trump has a keen understanding of the practices that disguise or shelter money from taxes. As he explained to supporters in Iowa this January, when it comes to his own business enterprises, “I pay as little as possible. I use every single thing in the book.”

Bernie

As far as we know, Bernie has no personal experience with tax havens and has a far more structured plan than either of the leading candidates to combat their money-sucking, tax-dodging prowess. His policies would prevent American companies from avoiding US taxes through inversions, block them from escaping taxes by establishing a post office box in a tax haven site, and end the practice of letting corporations defer paying taxes on profits from offshore subsidiaries.

In the real world, financial speculation, crime, and tax evasion — sorry for this word again — trump the highly touted goal of “free trade” when it comes to tax havens. Bernie understood this well when he voted against the Panama “free trade” agreement of 2011. In a Senate speech on the subject, he presciently noted that “Panama is a world leader when it comes to allowing large corporations and wealthy Americans to evade US taxes by stashing their cash in offshore tax havens. And the Panama free trade agreement would make this bad situation much worse.”
He was right then and he remains right today. Unfortunately, no one was listening or interested in acting on his warning — certainly not Hillary, who, as secretary of state, characterized the agreement as “an example of the Obama Administration’s commitment to economic statecraft and deepening our economic engagement throughout the world.”

In practical terms, Sanders went significantly further than Hillary by formulating actual legislation on the subject. Last April, he introduced the Corporate Tax Dodging Prevention Act of 2015 in the Senate. Among other things, it aspires to “prevent corporations from sheltering profits in tax havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands and would stop rewarding companies that ship jobs and factories overseas with tax breaks.”

Regarding inversions, he would treat companies as American for tax purposes if they were majority-owned by US interests and operating in this country. Even his plan, however, would fall short unless it made inversions illegal — and too many companies are invested in not letting that happen.

Ted

Ted would abolish the Internal Revenue Service and enable people and companies to file taxes on a postcard, so there’s no real point in further analysis of his “positions” on tax havens.

When the wealthy and powerful hide money from governments or speculate with it in sneaky ways, it destabilizes economies and enables the commission of crimes that place a further burden on ordinary people.

Missing Money Costs

As of 2014, according to Gabriel Zucman, University of California economist and author of The Hidden Wealth of Nations, at least $7.6 trillion, or approximately eight percent of global financial wealth, was “missing” somewhere offshore. His analysis demonstrates that the sorts of tax-dodging practices we’ve been discussing put governments across the planet in the red by approximately $200 billion annually. Tax avoidance by major US companies costs governments an additional $130 billion per year since nearly a third of their profits are hidden offshore.

The U.N. estimates that tax dodging by multinational companies costs developing countries $100 billion a year, an amount “equivalent to what it would cost to provide basic life-saving health services or safe water and sanitation to more than 2.2 billion people.”

There are, in other words, harrowing costs to tax dodging. When the wealthy and powerful hide money from governments or speculate with it in sneaky ways, it destabilizes economies and enables the commission of crimes that place a further burden on ordinary people. When money flows from the economic necessities needed by the less privileged to the top fraction of a percent of the world’s population and is then hidden offshore, essentially “disappeared,” it’s a net drain on and a blow to the world economy. This impacts jobs and the quality of our future. Unfortunately, the leading candidates in this election year aren’t championing a major change for the better.

Nomi Prins, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of six books, a speaker, and a distinguished senior fellow at the non-partisan public policy institute Demos. Her most recent book is All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power (Nation Books). She is a former Wall Street executive. Special thanks go to researcher Craig Wilson for his superb work on this piece.

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