Measuring illicit flows in the SDGs

Today (Tuesday 15 December) is the last day of the consultation on ‘grey’ indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals – that is, the ones where there remains a substantial degree of uncertainty about the final choice of indicator. To the surprise of literally no one, this includes 16.4: the illicit financial flows (IFF) indicator.

At the bottom of this post is my submission, which makes two main proposals for the way forward. Short version: we need a time-limited process to (i) improve data and (ii) build greater methodological consensus; and we need to include from the outset measures of exposure to financial secrecy which proxy for IFF risk.

The consultation

The full list of green and grey indicators is worth a look, as much as anything as a snapshot of where there’s more and less consensus on what the new development agenda will, and should, mean in practice. The late-October meeting of the Inter-Agency Expert Group (IAEG-SDGs) produced a plethora of documents showing the range of positions.

As an aside, I particularly liked the IAEG stakeholder group‘s demand for a proper inequality measure in 10.1:

The omission of any indicator to measure inequality between countries is glaring. We propose an indicator based on either the Gini coefficient or Palma ratio between countries which will not require additional data from states, but will provide a crucial guide to the effectiveness of the entire agenda. In general, inequality is not limited to income and therefore Gini and Palma must be measured within countries. Of the proposals to measure inequality, we support 10.1.1 comparison of the top 10% and bottom 40% and further breakdown wherever possible.

On illicit financial flows, this was the sensible and promising position of the UN Chief Statisticians:

Target 16.4. As commented by many countries, the indicator on illicit financial flows, while highly relevant, lacks an agreed standard methodology. Statistical programmes in international organizations stand ready to support the IAEG to initiate a process for developing such a methodology and support the gradual implementation of the indicator in future monitoring.

This engagement of international organisations is exactly what has been lacking in this area, and what organisations producing estimates such as our colleagues at Global Financial Integrity, have long called for: “don’t complain about our methodology, do better”.

Below is my quick submission. (The consultation phase only runs 9-15 December, and I only heard yesterday – clearly need to spend more time on…) Any comments very welcome.

Two proposals: Illicit flows in the SDGs

At present, there is great consensus on a target in the SDGs to reduce illicit financial flows, but a lack of consensus on an appropriate methodology and data sources by which to estimate them (and hence to ensure progress). There are important implications for the SDG indicator, set out below. To summarise:

  • A fully resourced, time-limited process is needed to bring together existing expertise in order to establish priorities for additional data, and a higher degree of consensus on methodology, so that by 2017 at the latest consistent IFF estimates (in current US$) will be available; and
  • Recognising that even the best such estimates will inevitably have a substantial degree of uncertainty, and are likely also to lack the granularity necessary to support national policy decisions, additional indicators should be adopted immediately which proxy for the risk of IFF and provide that granularity – specifically, by measuring the financial secrecy that countries are exposed to in their bilateral economic and financial relationships.

Illicit flows are, by definition, hidden. As such, most approaches rely on estimation on the basis of anomalies in existing data (including on trade, capital accounts, international assets and liabilities, and of the location of real activity and taxable profits of multinational corporations). Almost inevitably then, any estimate is likely to reflect data weaknesses as well as anomalies that result from illicit flows – so that one necessary response is to address the extent and quality of available economic and financial data, especially on bilateral stocks and flows.

In addition, there is no consensus on appropriate methodologies – despite leading work by many civil society organisations, and growing attention from academic researchers. In part, this reflects the failure of international organisations to engage in research here – a failure which should be rectified with some urgency, as part of the second necessary response which is to mobilise a sustained research effort with the aim of reaching greater consensus on high quality methodologies to estimate illicit financial flows.

Since the SDG indicators are needed almost immediately, the efforts to improve data and methodologies should be resourced in a strictly time-limited process, ideally under the auspices of a leading international organisation but recognising that the expertise resides with civil society (primarily among members of the Financial Transparency Coalition) and in academia, so that the process must be fully inclusive.

The results of this process are unlikely to be available before 2017. In addition, it must be recognised that the eventual estimates of illicit financial flows (IFF) will not be free of uncertainty. Moreover, individual IFF types (e.g. tax evasion or money-laundering) do not map onto individual channels (e.g. trade mispricing or non-declaration of offshore assets), so that overall IFF estimates – however good – will not immediately support granular policy responses.

The SDG indicators should therefore include, starting immediately, a set of measures of risk. Since IFF are defined by being hidden, measures of financial secrecy therefore provide the appropriate proxies. The stronger a countries’ trade or investment relationship with secrecy jurisdictions (‘tax havens’), the greater the risk of hidden, illicit components. For example, there is more risk in trading commodities with Switzerland than with Germany; and less risk in accepting direct investment from France than from Luxembourg.

The Tax Justice Network publishes the major ranking of secrecy jurisdictions, the Financial Secrecy Index (FSI) every two years. This combines measures of financial scale with 15 key indicators of secrecy, in a range of areas relevant across the horizon of IFFs. The African Union/Economic Commission for Africa High Level Panel on Illicit Flows out of Africa, chaired by H.E. Thabo Mbeki, published pioneering work using the FSI to establish indicators of vulnerability for each African country, separately for trade, investment and banking relationships.

In addition, each country and jurisdiction should be asked to publish the following information annually, in order to track consistently the contribution of each to financial secrecy affecting others:

  1. the proportion and absolute volume of domestically-established legal persons and arrangements (companies, trusts and foundations) for which beneficial ownership information is not publicly available;
  2. the proportion and absolute volume of cross-border trade and investment relationships with other jurisdictions for which there is no bilateral, automatic exchange of tax information; and
  3. the proportion and absolute volume of domestically-headquartered multinational companies that do not report publicly on a country-by-country basis.

These indicators map to three proposed IFF targets which are estimated to have very high benefit-cost ratios.

By prioritising the suggestions made here, the SDG process can make a great contribution to both the analysis and the curtailment of IFFs.

mbeki vulnerability

Tax Justice Research Bulletin 1(6)

June 2015. Surprising everyone by actually arriving within the stated month, here’s the sixth Tax Justice Research Bulletin – a monthly series dedicated to tracking the latest developments in policy-relevant research on national and international tax, available in full over at TJN.

This issue looks at a new paper in The Lancet on the potential links between direct taxation and health outcomes including child mortality; and at research on the suitability or otherwise of accounting data for tax purposes. The Spotlight falls on tobacco taxes, the shameful manipulation of economic arguments by Big Tobacco, and a paper entitled The Single Best Health Policy in the World: Tobacco Taxes. If this issue was any more health-y, you could put a vest on it and send it out to do a half-Iron Man with Owen Barder.

June’s tune, via Sarah Knott, is Jawad Ahmad’s ‘Bhola kya karey – Wo jiay ya marey’. 

The main research event  of the month, nay the year, is the TJN annual research workshop at City University, which you’ve either just attended (great to see you!) or just missed (boo).

This year’s thematic focus was on the flawed notion of “competition” between nation states, and there’s a cracking set of papers from a whole range of disciplines (from philosophy to accounting) and backgrounds (including practitioners, civil society researchers and academics from universities from Hong Kong to Barcelona); and touching on all sorts of tax and non-tax aspects of ‘competition’, with insights into everything from Guernsey’s dominant investment position in annexed Crimea, to the ‘voluntariness’ of migration; and from regulatory responses of commodity traders to the role of KPMG in systemic regulatory arbitrage.

The workshop ended with a really engaged discussion about the relative merits of taking on the entire logic of state competition, versus the practical value of keeping focus on tax.

There’s certainly an important challenge in reclaiming the word ‘competition’ in this context, which has been used almost as a synonym for ‘no government intervention’ – when ensuring competition may well require greater intervention, in order to prevent power abuses leading to further concentration. The creators of the ‘Global Competitiveness Index’, for example, probably don’t see themselves as advocates for a world regulatory body, preventing unfair competition between states…

Submissions for the Bulletin, including tax-related melodic suggestions, are most welcome.


HSBC, money-laundering and Swiss regulatory deterrence

Number-crunching, a la Private Eye: the case of HSBC and its Swiss fine for “organisational deficiencies” in relation to money-laundering.


$42.8 millionFine imposed on HSBC by Geneva authorities for "organisational deficiencies" related to money-laundering uncovered in #SwissLeaks
More than $100 billionAmount held in accounts exposed in #SwissLeaks
0.04%Fine as a percentage of (revealed) assets under management
0.00%Likely deterrent effect


Not all the assets under management were laundered, of course. Far from it, we must hope. But the “organisational deficiencies” – including reassuring clients that no information would reach their home authorities, or using offshore accounts to circumvent disclosure requirements – represent risks that applied to the whole operation.

To put it another way, the fine is about a fifth of the £135 million in tax that HMRC recovered in the UK alone.

Even the prosecutor imposing the fine was embarrassed, and “launched a stinging attack” on the Swiss law that apparently prevented anything within yodeling distance of being a deterrent.

New publication: The Financial Secrecy Index

EG FSI grab

The Financial Secrecy Index is the Tax Justice Network’s flagship index of secrecy jurisdictions, or ‘tax havens’. The idea emerged from discussions at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, in January 2007.

In part, it came from frustration with a popular view of corruption as a ‘poor country’ problem – when all the analysis of experts in the Tax Justice Network showed high-income countries as central to financial crime.

And in part, it stemmed from recognition that the lists of ‘tax havens’ compiled by the OECD, IMF and others would never solve the problem – because the subjective, political nature of their processes meant that the jurisdictions left on the list were not the most dangerous, but merely the least powerful (the least able to negotiate their way off).

Since 2009, the Financial Secrecy Index (FSI) has been published biennially as a ranking of major secrecy jurisdictions. It combines a ‘secrecy score’ with a measure of global scale. The secrecy score reflects around 50 measures of financial secrecy, most compiled by international organisations. The scale measure reflects the importance of each jurisdiction in providing financial services to non-residents around the world.

Figure 1 shows how the main lists used have failed to capture the bulk of this activity – in most cases, including jurisdictions which in total account for a smaller share of global activity than the top ten by scale. Indeed, list-based approaches would in general have been more encompassing, and of equivalent financial secrecy, if they had simply listed instead the top ten of the FSI (by the combination of secrecy and scale).

FSI fig1

The 2009 G20 was probably the final high point for international policymakers trying to use tax haven lists to make progress. The one attraction was that it used an objective and relevant criterion (number of tax information exchange agreements), but set the bar so low that it was almost immediately depopulated, with no discernible impact – hence the academic assessment as a fairly dismal failure.

Since then, the importance of specific policies as required for progress on the FSI has come to dominate the international agenda (in rhetoric, if not yet in practice) – from automatic information exchange, to public registries of beneficial ownership.

The FSI itself has been used in a whole range of ways, including by central banks and international organisations, by rating agencies and in risk analysis, in a number of other indices, and now increasingly in academic studies.

Now a full paper on the FSI is being published for the first time in a leading academic journal, Economic Geography. Here’s the abstract:

Both academic research and public policy debate around tax havens and offshore finance typically suffer from a lack of definitional consistency. Unsurprisingly then, there is little agreement about which jurisdictions ought to be considered as tax havens—or which policy measures would result in their not being so considered. In this article we explore and make operational an alternative concept, that of asecrecy jurisdiction and present the findings of the resulting Financial Secrecy Index (FSI).

The FSI ranks countries and jurisdictions according to their contribution to opacity in global financial flows, revealing a quite different geography of financial secrecy from the image of small island tax havens that may still dominate popular perceptions and some of the literature on offshore finance. Some major (secrecy-supplying) economies now come into focus. Instead of a binary division between tax havens and others, the results show a secrecy spectrum, on which all jurisdictions can be situated, and that adjustment for the scale of business is necessary in order to compare impact propensity. This approach has the potential to support more precise and granular research findings and policy recommendations.

I was working at the Center for Global Development when this paper was being written, and the ungated version is published in their working paper series.

IFF risk intensityWe hope that the FSI continues now to be used increasingly in research. We know of one major paper on the FSI which is forthcoming, and a number of applications are under discussion. These include the creation of measures of vulnerability to financial secrecy index, which were piloted in Thabo Mbeki’s high level panel report for the Economic Commission for Africa (the figure shows the relative intensity of financial secrecy of the partners for bilateral trade and investment for each country).

We plan a major evaluation of the index after the 2015 edition comes out in November, so we would warmly welcome comments and criticisms of the methodology.

We’re grateful to all who have contributed to the creation and construction of the index over the years, not least John Christensen, Moran Harari, Andres Knobel, Richard Murphy, Nick Shaxson and Sol Picciotto (who may have had the idea first, and certainly provided the whisky that drove the discussion).

And we’re grateful also for important funding to this work from the Ford Foundation, the Joffe Trust, Misereor and Oxfam-Novib; as well as broader support for dissemination and mobilisation from Norway and Christian Aid.

It’s not necessarily easy to fund work that challenges accepted intellectual positions directly. But it can be the only way that policy errors are undone.

Tax Justice Research Bulletin 1(3)

March 2015. The third Tax Justice Research Bulletin is out, catch it in its full glory (with backing track suggested by Christian Hallum) on its TJN home.

Mahon2015 fig2This issue looks at new papers on the responsibilities of tax professionals in respect of abusive tax behaviour and corruption; and on the parallels between the 1974 banking crisis and that of 2008, and policy lessons that emerge. The Spotlight considers contrasting views on tax and freedom.

One thing to flag: a call for papers from UNU-WIDER, who are stepping up their interest in tax. The call is open until 30 April, and is part of WIDER’s new project on ‘The economics and politics of taxation and social protection’ which is also worth a look (includes call for research proposals and researcher vacancies).

As ever, ideas for the Bulletin are most welcome – including suggested music.

PS. Congratulations to tax lawyer @jolyonmaugham on formally becoming a QC this month – now so silky he could feature in Barcelona’s midfield.

The failures of international financial regulation: 1974 all over again

[D]espite the dramatic changes which have occurred in the nature of global financial markets over the past forty years, the challenges to the regulatory and supervisory system first identified in the banking scandals of 1974 have persisted.

I remember when reading Nick Shaxson’s ‘Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world’, being particularly struck by the archival research on the ping-pong between the Bank of England and UK Treasury officials over the potential risks of allowing financial ‘wizards’ to set up in UK territories and feed global money into the City of London. I also wondered why there wasn’t more academic research of that sort – there is, for example, on monetary policymaking, so why not on financial regulation? The answer, as so often, is just my ignorance.

Catherine Schenk (professor of economic history at Glasgow) has been doing just this for some time. ‘Summer in the city: Banking failures of 1974 and the development of international banking supervision’, reconstructs the discussions around the creation of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and efforts to learn the lessons of crisis – lessons that would be repeated periodically, up to 2008 at least.

The paper tells the story of the UK’s banking liberalisation and subsequent property boom of the early 1970s, followed by a sharp reversal that left many banks over-exposed. At the same time, the rapid internationalisation of banking, and growth of offshore centres since the late 1950s, was revealed to be well ahead of national regulators. Schenk’s story features frauds and fragility from St Helier to Tortola…

Schenk ewsAnd in 1975, the creation of the Basel Committee. An important consideration was the gap between home and host country regulators, as it had been for the Committee’s predecessor the Groupe de Contact – and remained unsolved. The demand for an early warning system went unmet, in the face of different regulatory approaches and a common resistance to cross-border sharing of banks’ information.

The historic parallel with the 2008 crisis (and many in developing countries) doesn’t need much elaboration – primarily the use of less regulated jurisdictions to facilitate massive credit creation, feeding into property and other asset bubbles rather than productive investment. And, sadly, the same underlying argument as in 1975 continues to prevent more effective regulation today: namely, that banks must trust their regulators in order to provide them with the sensitive information necessary for effective regulation, and this is incompatible with regulators sharing that information.

Organisations as diverse as the Economic Commission for Africa and ONE have called for the Bank for International Settlements to publish their data on bilateral banking holdings; but that old argument about regulator trust keeps it private.

Is each crisis an opportunity? We’ve had a lot of similar crises, and missed a lot of opportunities to reduce the probability of repeat. This paper does a great job of exploring one of the big ones.