Rumours about Vladimir Putin's wealth have been circulating for a long time. He's been called the richest man on earth, with the estimated fortune of 40 billion dollars. Or pounds. Or roubles. Nobody really knows. The new leaked documents show a mere 2 billion offshore trail leading to him. It's almost a figure too small for the leader of the biggest country in the world, rich in oil, gas and other natural resources, who often tops the lists of the most powerful men in the world and is unaccountable to anyone. But then it's only one company's leak, in only one tax haven.
People in Russia are not going to start a revolution over Putin's alleged wealth. They are too used to their leaders being corrupt. He is not the first one, and he is not the last one. Why is the West so bothered about him stealing money from the Russian people anyway? It didn't seem too bothered about it when Yeltsin and "The Family" were doing it... The now dead Berezovsky, one of Russia's most corrupt people, even got a political asylum in the UK alongside other corrupt individuals from all over the world. Forgive me but indignation with Putin when your own system allows stolen money settle on your shores seems a bit hypocritical.
But perhaps the focus on Putin's alleged offshore-structured wealth will make the world realise that something has to be done about the rogue industry that hides the cash for the rich and powerful. A staggering number of 72 current or former heads of state, including Iceland's PM and David Cameron's father, are on the leaked list.
The availability of such structures to hide funds in anonymous companies makes looting of the budgets, especially common in developing countries, very easy. It's a whole dark side of the moon economy out there. The examples are numerous. The son of Equatorial Guinea's President used a California shell company to purchase a $30 million mansion in Malibu and a British Virgin Islands shell company to purchase a $37.5 million Gulfstream jet, despite his modest official salary.
In Congo state mining assets were sold off to a series of BVI companies whose full list of owners are secret, but which are associated with an Israeli diamond billionaire, a close friend of the Congolese president at that time. The mines were then sold onto the world market at much higher prices. The natural question is who pocketed the difference? By some estimates the loss was around $1.3 billion from these sales, twice the Congolese health and education budget combined.
Shell companies, secrecy jurisdictions, like Delaware in the US and the British Virgin Islands, where people can set up companies without naming who benefits as owners of these companies, and opaque corporate ownership structures represent the primary methods used by corrupt individuals to hide their cash. Why is it allowed to go on?
The common factor between money laundering and terrorist financing is that they both try to disguise the money. Money laundering disguises it at the front end, where it originates, while terrorist financing disguises it at the back end, at its destination. Both use offshore schemes to do that.
The Tax Justice Network argues in its widely cited report "The Price of Offshore Revisited" that $21 trillion to $32 trillion in "financial" wealth was "hidden" in OFCs and so is "virtually tax free". Similarly Raymon Baker claimed that in the early 2000s around $1 trillion in "dirty money" crosses borders every year, and that there was $5 trillion in accumulated hidden assets (as of the early 2000s).
Advocates of the "innocent until proven guilty" approach forget that it's near impossible to check out all the names on the planet who might or might not have offshore accounts. But the system of public register will make it easier by default.
Not everyone who uses offshore structures is dodgy. Sometimes the reasons are perfectly fair and understandable. Some people simply feel uncomfortable with others knowing how rich they are. A list of beneficial owners can be used by gangsters looking for a big ransom, thus increasing the risk of kidnapping. Wealth-control could be used to fight political opponents back in some of their home countries. Concerned parties also object to the introduction of the register citing the right to financial privacy. In all fairness, how many of us would like to have to effectively post the copies of our bank statements on a board outside our houses for everyone to see?
The answer could be a private list that can be accessed by investigating law enforcement authorities within 24 hours on request. The UK has led the way on the issue. In 2013 David Cameron made transparency the key theme of G8 summit in Northern Ireland. The UK government has told its overseas territories, the BVI and the Cayman islands, to prepare timetables when they will be implementing a central register or a similar system. Bermuda has already got a central register but the government wants it to be more accessible for the law enforcement agencies. However, the UK initiatives were criticised for the lack of the systematic verification because they solely rely on self-reporting.
Like with the global warming, this issue requires a global agreement. Lack of universal application will cause mass migration of business from the Crown Dependencies and British Overseas Territories to Delaware in the US, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seychelles, Panama, Bahamas, Dubai, Mauritius etc. The UK risks losing a decent degree of influence over well-regulated offshore business, if it is the only country that goes ahead with it. It might result in the UK having zero influence over companies which relocate to poorly-regulated or unregulated jurisdictions.
Public register is perhaps too much to ask, but the pressure should be on the introduction of the global private register accessible for the international law enforcement authorities, if we really want to fight corruption. Those countries and territories that refuse to implement the register should face sanctions.