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No one used to care about offshore finance. Or at least, hardly anyone.
Back in 2003, recalls Alex Cobham, now head of research at the Tax Justice Network, a small band of activists started lobbying against what they saw as the insidious role of tax havens. The campaigners would spend months trying to get meetings with the right policymakers, only to be told: “We have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Today, the offshore world has become a lightning rod for public anger at a global elite perceived to be using the hidden conduits of the international financial system to stash their fortunes beyond the taxman’s reach.
Millions of leaked documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca represent the largest — but only the latest — milestone in offshore finance’s reluctant journey into the public eye.
“The real tipping point was the financial crisis,” says Mr Cobham. “People experiencing austerity have a different kind of interest in the decisions that are taken about taxation and spending.”
Since then, tax evasion and tax fairness have moved from the policymaking fringe to become the subject of parliamentary hearings, a central issue in a US election season dominated by populist anger, and the underpinning of new financial transparency rules spearheaded by the G20.
Meanwhile, star economists such as Thomas Piketty — and his student, Gabriel Zucman, author of last year’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens — have found plenty of takers for their argument that inequality is a threat to democracy, and that the offshore system worsens that problem.
If a single person can be credited with drawing popular attention to the offshore world, it may be Bradley Birkenfeld. The banker resigned from UBS in 2005 and proceeded to disclose to the US authorities how his former employer had helped Americans to evade tax. In 2007 he told a US Senate investigation that thousands of US clients had shielded their cash from the tax authorities. “I didn’t see anyone declare any of those [Swiss] accounts in my entire career,” he said.
The Senate probe, chaired by the relentless investigator Carl Levin, lifted the lid on some of the techniques of offshore secrecy, in particular the use of shell companies registered in offshore tax havens — or “secrecy jurisdictions”, as campaigners call them — such as the British Virgin Islands and the Bahamas. These front companies, alongside other ruses to eliminate paper trails, allowed clients to disguise their ownership of cash and assets.
In 2009, UBS agreed a settlement with US prosecutors that included a $780m fine for enabling tax evasion.
Dozens more Swiss banks have since reached settlements and Credit Suisse in 2014 incurred a $2.6bn penalty. In the process the banks blew a hole in the discretion that had for decades been their trademark.
Alongside US prosecutors’ humbling of Swiss banks there were more parochial scandals that resonated with taxpayers watching their welfare systems take deep cuts in the wake of a financial crisis that emptied treasuries.
A defining moment came on the morning of June 21 2012, on the Twitter feed of the British celebrity comedian Jimmy Carr. When his use of a legal tax avoidance scheme had been revealed two days earlier, Mr Carr had declared: “I pay what I have to and not a penny more.”
After less than 48 hours, during which David Cameron, UK prime minister, had described such conduct as “morally wrong”, the comic tweeted that he had made “a terrible error of judgment” and “will in future conduct my financial affairs much more responsibly”.
The Jimmy Carr episode “showed that the world had changed”, says Mr Cobham.
In the developing world, analysts of poverty have long been concerned that the structure of multinational businesses allows them to shift profits — and thus tax liabilities — away from countries in Africa or Asia where they operate to places where corporation tax rates are minimal.
In 2014, a team led by Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president, estimated that Africa loses $50bn a year to accounting fiddles, often involving tax havens. The same year, an exposé by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — the group behind this week’s Panama Papers disclosure — deepened such concerns by revealing secret deals approved by Luxembourg that allowed about 350 companies to cut their global tax bills.
In the UK, stories about taxation were suddenly afforded outraged headlines on front pages. A notable example was a 2012 Reuters investigation of Starbucks’ tax affairs that revealed that the US coffee group since 1998 had paid just £8.6m of UK income taxes on £3bn of sales.
In parliament, opposition MP Margaret Hodge turned her committee into a forum for haranguing the authors of “sweetheart” tax deals for multinationals such as Vodafone and Goldman Sachs. She lambasted tax officials for the failure to prosecute all but one of the thousands of account-holders whose offshore assets were exposed in a leak from HSBC’s Swiss unit last year.
Across the Atlantic, tax dodging has become an emblem of what has left so many Americans infuriated with the business and political elite, says Frank Clemente, executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness, a liberal advocacy group.
“Americans are really upset about Washington. They think it is a cesspool filled with special deals. The place they can see this most clearly, with the politicians enriching the rich corporations, is in the tax system,” says Mr Clemente.
Campaigners against financial secrecy have already seized on the Panama leaks to push for concerted action at an anti-corruption summit Mr Cameron is hosting in London next month.
Mr Cameron — whose late father is reportedly named in the leaked documents as a Mossack Fonseca client — is said to see combating corruption as part of the legacy he wants to leave. If he plans to use public anger to make his case, the available reserves thereof have just been topped up.
Additional reporting Barney Jopson in Washington