We recently helped publicise a report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in our blog entitled Some countries “lose” 2/3 of exports to misinvoicing. As a reminder, trade misinvoicing is a form of money laundering that involves deliberately misreporting (on an invoice to customs) the value of a commercial transaction, so as to shift money illictly across borders. The study seeks to get a handle on the scale of the problem by studying mismatches between export data from the exporting countries (Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, in this case), and values reported by the importing countries, including hubs such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and United States.
There’s been some pushback against the UNCTAD study since we wrote that, and there’s lots to welcome here. In particular, the South African component in the report has prompted both business interests and South Africa’s respected chief statistician, Dr Pali Lehohla, to criticise the assessment.
From UNCTAD, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, via email:
“Some commodity dependent developing countries are losing as much as 67% of their exports worth billions of dollars to trade misinvoicing, according to a fresh study by UNCTAD, which for the first time analyses this issue for specific commodities and countries.
Trade misinvoicing is thought to be one of the largest drivers of illicit financial flows from developing countries, so that the countries lose precious foreign exchange earnings, tax, and income that might otherwise be spent on development.”
In the context of a fun Twitter fight and finger-pointing between the Swiss Bankers’ Association and the German Finance Ministry, there’s a newish story on Quartz entitled Swiss bankers swear they are trying to help Africa get its dirty money back. It begins like this:
“It irritates Valentin Zellweger that ‘no longer than six minutes into any James Bond movie, a sleazy Swiss banker still appears.’ “
This is, of course, the story that Switzerland, which is still ranked top of our last Financial Secrecy Index, has not only made *some* improvements to its egregious and globe-harming secrecy regime, but it is engaged in a furious domestic and international public-relations exercise to try and distance itself from a deeply criminal past. Nobody should ever forget Swiss bankers’ efforts to use deception, fraud and other tricks to hang onto assets belonging to the families of Jews murdered by Hitler’s regime, before being dragged into making some amends by global outrage. And as if that weren’t bad enough, there’s oceans of other murderous and criminal stuff that we shouldn’t forget either.
Well, the Quartz article continues:
In our May 2016 Taxcast: What is corruption? Well, that’s a political question, and the answer depends on who you ask. We discuss the anti-corruption summit in the City of London, the world’s capital of sleaze and ask if the sun ever set on the colonial era and the idea that corruption is a poor country issue. We explore extortive corruption versus collusive corruption and look at a new Poll which indicates for the first time the vast gulf between what the British people consider corrupt, and what has become a ‘normal’ way of doing business and politics. The overlap between the public and private spheres raises serious questions about democracy – and the nature of global fraud.
Produced and presented by @Naomi_Fowler for the Tax Justice Network.
Featuring: Nicholas Shaxson of Treasure Islands: The Men Who Stole the World, Professor Vincenzo Ruggiero of the Crime and Conflict Research Centre at Middlesex University, Will McMahon of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Professor David Whyte of Liverpool University and editor of the book ‘How Corrupt is Britain?‘, British Prime Minster David Cameron, President Buhari of Nigeria.
The UK government has failed to deliver a decisive blow against financial secrecy at its Anti-Corruption Summit. David Cameron failed to convince or compel leaders of British overseas territories and crown dependencies to end their hidden ownership vehicles, despite having called for such a move for more than a year. But despite this climbdown, it’s clear that momentum is growing for the key transparency measures that will ultimately curtail global corruption.
About that climbdown though, let’s be crystal clear what happened: the UK has decided, explicitly, in an Anti-Corruption Summit in the wake of the extraordinary Panama Papers revelations, not to hold its Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies to a standard that Afghanistan, Kenya and Nigeria just met.
Let’s hear no more about corruption as a developing country problem.
The last time the UK hosted a major summit, the 2013 G8, David Cameron’s government led from the front in helping to establish the Tax Justice Network’s three longstanding policy proposals as the global policy agenda: public registers of beneficial ownership; multilateral and automatic exchange of financial information; and public, country-by-country reporting by multinationals.
Three years later, none of them have been delivered in full, and there are concerns about the exclusion of developing countries from the progress that has been made; but the world had changed. Our director of research was sufficiently impressed to refer to it as the ‘end of the beginning‘ for progress against financial secrecy.
Since then, the UK has committed to a public register of the beneficial ownership of companies, which will be delivered next month. One hundred and one countries have signed up for the new multilateral standard for automatic exchange of information – leaving the US as the only significant financial centre outside the deal; although serious (and initially non-reciprocal) inclusion of developing countries is still needed.
The OECD has created a pretty good first go at a standard for country-by-country reporting, which is now coming into force around the world. The data is currently private to tax authorities, but……..
After the progress that had been made, the agenda for the anti-corruption summit was clear: deliver as much as possible of what still remains. Here’s a link to our pre-summit assessment guide; and here’s how the event fared on these three main asks:
1. Make country-by-country reporting public
Some progress here: 12 countries ‘will support the development of a global commitment for large multinational enterprises to publicly disclose tax information on a country-by-country basis’. If we see the glass as half-full, this is good, positive momentum towards the end-goal that everyone can see we’ll reach – and probably relatively soon. If the glass is half-empty? Well, it’s easy to commit to do something when there is global agreement. Especially if you don’t really want to do it. And they should have specified that they would publish the OECD standard data. But overall, this is a small, positive step.
2. Include the US and (non-reciprocally) developing countries in automatic information exchange
Nothing. Seriously. John Kerry spoke about the dangers of financial secrecy, without making a single commitment that would curtail the rise of Tax Haven USA as the biggest emerging global threat. And nothing of any significance on the need for developing country inclusion.
3. Establish public registers of beneficial ownership of companies, trusts and foundations, in the UK and its dependent territories at a minimum; and in as many of the 40-odd participating jurisdictions as possible.
The good news is that five countries (Afghanistan, France, Kenya, Netherlands and Nigeria) committed to public registers – in the French case the commitment included trusts and foundations. The increasing momentum here is rapidly establishing *public* ownership data as the international norm. We confidently expect to see many more commitments follow from others.
The bad news is that the UK’s Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies have comprehensively failed to meet the standard set by the UK. That was the absolute minimum, and entirely within the UK government’s hands to deliver.
In truth, the UK and its territories also need to meet the same transparency for trusts and foundations, since the former are so important to the old empire’s secrecy offering. But as we noted yesterday, David Cameron had already signalled the major climbdown in Parliament – responding to a question on his intentions for the summit with the retort that all the territories were going to have ‘central registers’: that is, central as opposed to public registers.
In the aftermath of the Panama Papers, nobody can seriously maintain that closed records held privately can be expected to reveal the necessary information to law enforcement or tax authorities when required. This is simply a recipe for bad data (deliberately and in error), only to be uncovered when it’s actually needed. The only verification process in which confidence in data quality can be broadly maintained is the scrutiny that comes from many eyes – from fully public, and indeed open data.
By continuing to resist that, in order presumably to protect the secrecy business of the UK territories, David Cameron has turned his back on the transparency legacy of 2013. This critical failure of the summit today seems to indicate instead that his government will ultimately support the UK secrecy model; for there could have been no possible better opportunity than this summit, in the wake of the Panama Papers, to take the decisive step necessary.
Postscript: In news unrelated to the Anti-Corruption Summit, the Electoral Commission announced today that they were taking Cameron’s Conservative party to the High Court for failure to disclose documents and information.