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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Super Rich Hide $21 Trillion Offshore, Study Says

Frederick E. Allen, Leadership Editor of Forbes.

Grand Cayman (left)
It's isn't beaches like this that draw the extremely wealthy to the Cayman Islands. (Photo credit: toddwickersty)

A new report finds that around the world the extremely wealthy have accumulated at least $21 trillion in secretive offshore accounts. That’s a sum equal to the gross domestic products of the United States and Japan added together. 

The number may sound unbelievable, but the study was conducted by James Henry, former chief economist at the consultancy McKinsey, an expert on tax havens and offshoring. It was commissioned by Tax Justice Network, a British activist group.

According to an early report on the study in The Guardian, Henry’s research shows that at least £13tn [$21 trillion] – perhaps up to £20tn [$31 trillion] – has leaked out of scores of countries into secretive jurisdictions such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands with the help of private banks, which vie to attract the assets of so-called high net-worth individuals. Their wealth is, as Henry puts it, “protected by a highly paid, industrious bevy of professional enablers in the private banking, legal, accounting and investment industries taking advantage of the increasingly borderless, frictionless global economy“. According to Henry’s research, the top 10 private banks, which include UBS and Credit Suisse in Switzerland, as well as the US investment bank Goldman Sachs, managed more than £4tn [$6.2 trillion] in 2010, a sharp rise from £1.5tn five years earlier.

The report’s analysis, based on data from many sources including the Bank of International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund, indicates that enough money has left some developing countries since the 1970s to pay off all their debts to the rest of the world. “The problem here is that the assets of these countries are held by a small number of wealthy individuals while the debts are shouldered by the ordinary people of these countries through their governments,” the report says. Money has especially flowed out of oil producing states. Some $700 billion has left Russia since the 1990s: $305 billion has flowed out of Saudi Arabia since the 1970s, and about the same amount from Nigeria.

Henry calculates that some 92,000 people, a thousandth of a percent of the world’s population, control $9.8 trillion, and that if all the $21 trillion that has been off-shored earned 3% a year and were taxed at 30%, it would raise $188 billion in revenues, more than rich countries spend on aid to the developing world every year.

The rich in the USA pay on average about 15% taxes, much less than middle-class workers. That 15%, however, is based on reported income which does not include money filtered to off-shore tax havens. Consequently, many of the rich are actually paying less than a 15% tax rate, and perhaps much less.

These are the same people who wine and cry at the thought of paying their fair share of taxes - which can never happen as long as they are hiding money off-shore. But they don't even want to pay their share of taxes on income that they actually report. All the while they begrudge the poor a few crumbs from the table, calling them all sorts of names. 

Maybe Berni Madoff was right - he's just an ordinary businessman.