#SwissLeaks – Tax transparency for accountability

hsbcleakMuch of the #SwissLeaks data has been in the hands of tax authorities for 5 years. Many of the questions raised relate to individuals and to particular regulators and governments – but there’s also a broader question that goes to the type of solutions that will address the broader loss of trust in tax authorities’ effectiveness and independence. Clear policy changes are needed to recover trust and accountability.

Last night the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), and a host of international media organisations from Le Monde and The Indian Express to the BBC and CBS, broke publicly a leak of documents from HSBC’s Swiss bank, dating to 2005-2007. TJN provides a little historical context here, while Richard Murphy poses some highly pertinent questions. Oh, and TJN’s Jack Blum gave a cracking interview to 60 Minutes.

The broader lesson

If there’s a broader lesson here – and there is! – it’s that providing data privately to tax authorities is insufficient. The leaked data provided privately to (mainly European) governments in or around 2010 simply failed, in different ways, to deliver accountable and effective taxation.

  • Exhibit I: UK. Since receiving details of more than 1,000 cases in 2010, the UK has undertaken 1 (one) prosecution. The coalition government that came to power in 2010 also negotiated a very bad agreement with Switzerland that TJN had shown beforehand would not only protect tax evaders from transparency and prosecution but would also fail to bring in anything like the claimed sum of revenue. In addition, the government appointed as a Lord and trade minister Stephen Green, who had been the chief executive and then chairman of HSBC during the entire period.
  • Exhibit II: Greece. Somewhat further down the road of accountability is Greece, where the then minister of finance is now facing charges of “attempted breach of trust at the expense of the state and improperly interfering with a document”, for alleged actions relating to the loss of the list received from France, and the possible removal of relatives’ names.
  • Exhibit III: India. As of last month, The Indian Express reports that 15 people were facing prosecution out of more than 600 names provided by France in 2011. Today, they have published data from #SwissLeaks relating to 1195 names.
  • Exhibit IV: USA. Here the questions relate, once more, to what action exactly followed from the 2010 receipt of leaked data from France – and whether HSBC should have been allowed to maintain its banking licence. As The Guardian notes, no reference to the case features in the HSBC settlement of nearly $2bn relating to sanctions-busting activities.
  • Exhibits V and VI: Denmark and Norway. With thanks to @FairSkat and @SigridKJacobsen respectively, both of these countries with a relatively strong reputation for fair taxation did the ‘inexplicable’ and chose not to request the data from France. In the wake of the #SwissLeaks story, both now seem likely to.

Without confidence in fair and accountable taxation, governments risk the erosion not only of wider tax compliance, but of state-citizen relations and so of effective democracy (see e.g. recent behavioural and cross-country studies on the important role of tax).

That doesn’t necessarily mean that individual taxpayer data should be in the public domain. While some countries go to this length, many consider it a serious violation of privacy.

What sort of transparency is needed for accountable taxation? 

How can governments (re)build trust that the rich and powerful – not to mention the criminal – will not simply go uncounted behind closed doors?

Here’s a suggestion – comments welcome:

  1. Publish data on the aggregate bank holdings in other jurisdictions of residents, as declared by the banks and through automatic information exchange between jurisdictions (in effect, the national components of the locational banking data collected but not published by the Bank for International Settlements, which was called out by the Mbeki panel and African Union last week);
  2. Publish data on the equivalent, as reported by taxpayers;
  3. Publish regular updates on the status towards resolution of any discrepancy, e.g. “three cases accounting for 27% of last year’s discrepancy are now being prosecuted; investigations continue into 154 cases which account for a further 68%; while further work is underway to determine the nature of the remainder of the discrepancy (5%).” Addendum: @AislingTax points out quite rightly that I need another category here: the ‘gap’ which is not a gap, but rather relates to other features of the tax system such as non-doms in the UK.

A parallel case is that of the watering down of proposals for country-by-country reporting by multinational companies. Publication is necessary so that companies are held to account for abuses, but also so that tax authorities (and governments) are held to account for fair and effective taxation.

Private provision of this data to tax authorities may allow them to tax companies more effectively, but does nothing to demonstrate to citizens if such an opportunity is actually taken. Much of the #Luxleaks data was available to tax authorities, in theory or in practice, but only publication has led to a policy response.

As I twoth last night, the lesson of #SwissLeaks is that accountability demands public transparency.


Mbeki panel showcases new risk-based illicit flows approach

We’ve already blogged at TJN about the Mbeki panel’s historic report on illicit financial flows (IFF) out of Africa. Here I want to pull out a particular aspect, a new approach to IFF which is pioneered in the report.

All IFF approaches to date have focused on estimating the actual scale of flows, in currency terms, on the basis of anomalies in data on cross-borders flows and/or stocks. This raises (at least) two inevitable problems. First, the data are imperfect – and hence anomaly-based estimation may confuse bad data on ‘good’ behaviour with good data showing ‘bad’ behaviour. Second, the behaviour in question is, by definition, likely to be hidden – so it may be unrealistic at some higher level to expect public data to provide a good measure.

Intuition for a risk-based approach

The alternative, or complementary approach, is to pursue a risk-based analysis. Because of the behaviours involved, whether IFF are strictly legal or not, they contain some element of social unacceptability that means the actors involved will prefer to hide the process. For that reason, the risk of IFF will be higher – all else being equal – in transactions and relationships that are more financially opaque.

That will mean, for example, that the chances of uncovering IFF will be higher in anonymous shell companies than in companies with complete transparency of accounts and beneficial owners. Not all anonymous shell companies will be used for IFF, but the risk is higher. Similarly, at a macroeconomic level (at which level much data tends to only be available, unfortunately), trading with a relatively financially secretive jurisdiction such as Switzerland will be characterised by a higher IFF risk than trading with a relatively financially transparent jurisdiction such as Denmark.

Scoring financial secrecy

At present, the most common measure of financial secrecy is the Financial Secrecy Index (FSI), published every two years by the Tax Justice Network, and now used widely—for example, as a component of the Basle Anti-Money Laundering Index and of CGD’s Commitment to Development Index, and as a risk assessment tool recommended in the OECD Bribery and Corruption Awareness Handbook for Tax Examiners and Tax Auditors.

The secrecy score on which the FSI is based reflects 49 measures, grouped to form 15 indicators, which capture a range of aspects of financial secrecy from transparency of beneficial ownership and accounts, through international juridical cooperation. The secrecy score ranges in theory from zero (perfect financial transparency) to 100 per cent (perfect financial secrecy); in practice no jurisdiction has scored less than 30 per cent.

Calculating IFF risk measures

Consider an illustration, involving one country’s exports – say Ghana. For each trading partner, we combine its share of Ghana’s exports with its secrecy score (which ranges from zero to 100). The results can be summed to give an overall level of secrecy for all of Ghana’s exports, and this score reflects Ghana’s vulnerability to IFFs in its exports (the flow-weighted average financial secrecy of all partners). If we multiply this vulnerability score by the ratio of Ghana’s exports to GDP, we obtain a measure of the country’s exposure to IFF risk, which can then be compared across other stocks or flows.

A vulnerability of 50, for exports equal to 10 per cent of GDP, would give an exposure of 5 per cent. This is equivalent to Ghana carrying out 5 per cent of its exports with a pure secrecy jurisdiction (that is, one scoring 100 out of 100), while all other exports go to completely transparent trading partners. The exposure can then be thought of as Ghana’s pure secrecy-equivalent economic activity, as a ratio to its GDP. (Note: Where no secrecy score is available we apply the lowest observed score of 33. This will bias scores downward, though much less so than assuming a zero score.)

IFF risk calculation

This measure of intensity of exposure to IFF risk can then be compared (given data), across time, countries and stock or flow types (with some important caveats). Table AIV.4 from the Mbeki panel report provides an indication of the overall intensity of exposure across African countries (excluding the major conduit jurisdictions).

Further detail can be found in Annex IV of the Mbeki panel report, while Alice Lépissier and I are working on a full paper to follow. Comments on the approach are very welcome indeed.

IFF risk intensity

Show me the Follow the Money!

I had the great pleasure this week of attending three days of meetings of the Follow the Money network, in Berlin, courtesy of T/AI and ONE. A humbling amount of techie knowhow on show, and great goodwill too. Data geeks, criminal investigators, civil society activists, INGO advocates, hackers and all, ranging from corporate transparency to extractive resources, from budget analysis to local service provision, from money-laundering to… tax?

No show moneyIt wasn’t, and still isn’t exactly clear to me where TJN fits in. There’s a certain tendency to focus on (i) domestic issues rather than international aspects, and (ii) pure revenue questions rather than any of the other components of the 4 Rs of tax.

But maybe that doesn’t matter. What is clear is that there are great opportunities in terms of joining up existing work, and developing new collaborations. In that vein, a few speculative thoughts. Comments/offers/engagement on any or all would be most welcome.

  1. Country-by-country

This year sees the first big swathe of public country-by-country reporting, for EU banks. TJN will reach out across the network and try to compile these data as are they filed. The opportunity will then exist to work these into a standard format – not only to allow analysis of the extent to which banks’ activities may raise red flags in terms of tax risk, but also as an input to…

  1. Bank ownership project

There was a lot of interest around banking in partiMaptheBanks screen-shot-2014-12-10-at-12-00-10cular, from explicit criminality (be it Russo-Moldovan money-laundering, Swiss-US tax evasion or global market rigging) to  troubling patterns that may suggest illicitness if not actual illegality (from profit-shifting to avoid taxation, to the very curious patterns of licensing that OpenCorporates have started to turn up at Map the Banks. Hack day ahoy?

  1. The Offshore Game

The Offshore Game, a new TJN project dedicated to uncovering the illicit in sport, will soon have its hard launch with a report on offshore ownership. Other topics of interest include match-fixing and the associated role of gambling, corruption in national and international sports governing bodies, third-party ownership of players, tax affairs of all concerned… In fact, a good part of the FtM agenda comes out to play here.

  1. Show me the Follow the Money!

One of the more exciting ideas discussed, and also one in which there seems to be a clear role for TJNery, is the possibility of putting together (for a single country at first) a complete, integrated set of data on where the money goes (and doesn’t – because the lost revenues to e.g. corporate profit-shifting and individual offshore evasion are equally worth tracking, as the tax paid as it enters the spending process). Of all the possibilities, this feels like it might do most to show what the FtM network can deliver, beyond the sum of its parts.

With thanks to @jedmiller!