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.

Uncounted: has the post-2015 data revolution failed already?

This was originally posted at the Development Leadership Program. I’m grateful to Cheryl Stonehouse for patient(!) editing.

Counting matters. As the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report puts it:

What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted…. [I]f metrics of performance are flawed, so too may be inferences we draw.

The UN Secretary General was told two years ago by the 2012–13 High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda that any follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had to include adata revolution.

In common with the UN global thematic consultation on inequality earlier in 2013, the High Level Panel recognised that challenging inequalities and better data collection are inextricably linked – because better data make it clear which goals are and are not being met, and because with better data we can all demand answers and action.

So the data revolution can only be about changing the balance of power. Yet much of the current discussion emphasises purely technical reforms instead.

I use the term ‘Uncounted’ to describe a politically motivated failure to count that reflects power. It ignores people and groups at the bottom of distributions whose ‘uncounting’ adds another level to their marginalisation. It ignores people at the top whose uncounting hands them even greater power.

Kenya enrolment series - justin-amandaWhy do we fail to count well at the bottom? This figure shows three different series for primary school enrolment in Kenya. One comes from the Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS); one from the Demographic and Household Surveys (DHS); and one from the Ministry of Education (MOE). MOE data come directly from schools and are used as the basis for funding decisions.

Now, MOE trends tell you that progress is rapid and unsustained, while surveys look static. Which do you believe? If your children are in Kenyan state education, how well counted do you feel?

Not that survey data are perfect either. Six groups are systematically excluded from most household survey and census returns. Excluded by design are the homeless, those in institutions and nomadic populations. Ignored by undersampling are those living in fragile, disjointed households, in areas facing security risks and in informal settlements. These groups, thought to amount to around 250 million uncounted people – roughly 3.5% of today’s global population – obviously contain a disproportionate share of the world’s poorest people. They are being systematically failed even in the ‘best’ counting approaches we have.

It’s no coincidence that people in poverty are excluded. Nor is it because of technical problems that Sudan’s government in Khartoum suppresses publication of data on regional development outcomes. Or that the deaths of those living with disabilities in the UK go uncounted.

As for counting at the top, it’s equally no coincidence that high-income households are undersampled in surveys. Or that even when tax data are used to adjust the picture, major wealth – $8 trillion? $32 trillion? – remains uncounted. Or that the OECD, charged with measuring the ‘misalignment’globally between the profits of multinational companies and the actual location of their economic activity, has so far been unable to lay its hands on the necessary data.

UK wealth inequalityOur choice of measure is also important – and also political. Take a look at this chart which shows how two measures, the Gini coefficient and the Palma ratio, come up with radically different answers to the same question about income distribution. Has UK wealth inequality been flat across the crisis? Or did it fall sharply, then immediately rebound even more dramatically?

The Gini coefficient embodies such strong normative views (pp. 129–144) that it doesn’t capture well changes in the top 10%, or in the bottom 40% where most poverty lies. It is very encouraging (to me!) that instead the Palma ratio has featured in recent drafts of the post-2015 indicators.

The Palma – which expresses the ratio of income shares of the top 10% to the bottom 40% – also embodies a normative view, but it’s absolutely explicit about it. The chart of UK wealth distribution across the financial crisis shows why the Gini gave rise to so many congratulatory headlines about stable inequality, and why they’re wrong.

What might an actual ‘data revolution’ look like? If there’s no recognition of the political nature of the problem, then we’d be fooling ourselves to expect any great change: the same people and the same things will continue to go uncounted.

What’s noticeable in the discussion so far is that there has been a great deal more attention paid to the uncounted at the bottom than at the top. There’s been precious little mention of Piketty’s proposal for a global wealth register, for instance, or of specific measures that would eliminate anonymous company ownership, require states to exchange tax information with each other (think SwissLeaks), or multinational companies to publish country-by-country reporting (think LuxLeaks). Yet if we don’t start counting things that make elites uncomfortable, then we’re not doing it right.

Data reforms are, broadly, welcome; but a revolution remains far off.  People and things go uncounted largely for political, not technical reasons.

That’s why a data revolution is so badly needed. And revolutions aren’t technical: they’re political.

Legal risks and unwritten research

How cautious should advocacy organisations be about legal risks? And how much important work goes undone, or the results unreported, because the threat of legal action could be existential for the organisation?

Earlier at the (virtual) office we were discussing the importance of considering legal risks in relation to some specific pieces of work, and to some upcoming possibilities. Without getting into the detail, all have the potential to involve individuals, multinationals or major accounting firms that might be quite happy to sue over perceived reputational damage.

What does the law say?

One solution, of sorts, is to be right: don’t make mistakes, and you ought to be covered. The Defamation Act identifies a range of defences, including truth but also ‘honest opinion’ (even if untrue), and ‘public interest’.

The recent ‘serious harm’ condition also acts to limit the scope for action:

(1) A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.

(2) For the purposes of this section, harm to the reputation of a body that trades for profit is not “serious harm” unless it has caused or is likely to cause the body serious financial loss.

On balance, at least for me as a non-lawyer, it’s still easy to feel that there’s enough room for you to end up in court for saying reasonable things, with reasonable evidence.

What goes uncounted?

Needless to say, the things that will be left unresearched or unpublished, because of the chilling effect are not going to be random – they will tend to relate to powerful individuals and organisations. (Not entirely unrelatedly, presumably only the biggest advertisers can expect to see the type of rose-tinted coverage that Peter Oborne claims that HSBC enjoyed from the Telegraph.)

I suspect everyone who works in this broad area of work can come up with examples like these:

  • a colleague who has been sued (in one case, who lost for a careless, somewhat important word);
  • a major piece of research that never saw the light of day (I’m thinking of a case involving commodity pricing between a major resource-rich African country, and a small Northern European country, where it was felt the risk of being sued by a particular entity – even although it was not planned to identify it directly – was too high to risk); and
  • any number of pieces of work that were abandoned in the planning stage – so the questions were never asked – because of likely risks of trying to publish any answer obtained.

Not to mention Global Witness and Beny Steinmetz

What’s the answer? (May not contain answers)

So, I complained to twitter….

…and the twitterbrain provided a selection of answers. 

  1. Use (pro bono?) lawyers.
  2. Get sued, but have (really, really) wealthy backers.
  3. Get sued, but crowdfund a defence fund.
  4. Get sued, but have pro bono lawyers on hand.
  5. Get sued, but set up some kind of offshore structure to undertake/publish the research so it doesn’t threaten the main organisation.

I don’t much like any of the ones that start with ‘Get sued’. And lawyers are expensive. So it looks like a case of looking for ways into pro bono assistance where possible, and building in costs where necessary in funding proposals.  And, probably, just not doing some stuff that we might like to. Bah. 

Any further ideas (or offers of help, e.g. 2 above) would be most welcome. 

#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.