Published: July 24, 2012
Earlier this month, I decided to see how hard it would be to set up my own offshore bank account. I figured it would be pretty difficult, because I’m not rich and don’t have a team of tax lawyers to oversee my money and because the E.U. and U.S. governments have been cracking down on tax havens by imposing stricter tax-sharing requirements. So I proceeded with some caution.
I ended up working with A&P Intertrust, a Canadian company that I chose largely because I liked its Web site the best. A&P works with the governments of Panama, the British Virgin Islands and Belize. (Other companies that I contacted prefer the Seychelles, Cyprus or the Cayman Islands, where Mitt Romney has been reported to have money.) I decided to start my shell company in Belize because it would be exempt from all Belizean taxes and, as A&P’s site explained, “information about beneficial owners, shareholders, directors and officers is not filed with the Belize government and not available to the public.” And I’ve been to Belize and like the place.
Setting up the company was a lot cheaper than I expected. A&P offered to open a bank account to stash my fledgling operation’s money in Singapore — a country, the Web site also noted, that “cannot gather information on foreigners’ bank accounts, bank-deposit interest and investment gains under domestic tax law.” It offered to assign a “nominee” who would be listed as the official manager and owner of my business but would report to me under a secret power-of-attorney contract. Then an A&P associate asked me to fill out the incorporation information online, just so she wouldn’t type in anything incorrectly. The whole thing took about 10 minutes.
Amazingly neither A&P nor I broke any law in Canada, Belize, Singapore or the United States.
Setting up an account may be easy, but managing one is expensive. Following the law requires a team of lawyers and accountants to carefully monitor tax laws in dozens of countries and maintain accounts that stay on the safe side of confusing rules. It’s not really worth the cost for anyone other than wealthy investors looking to put aside money, tax-free, for future generations. Or for large multinationals who prefer to centralize their global cash-flow stream in a place that doesn’t tax corporations or require a lot of financial reporting. Why would a huge company like G.E. want to pay U.S. taxes every time its Spanish subsidiary sells parts to a company in Belarus when it could avoid them by incorporating offshore?
The Bank for International Settlements, which collects voluntary reports from banks in 44 countries, offers the best single source of data. It counts around $31 trillion of foreign-owned assets in the world’s banks and estimates that about $4 trillion is in offshore financial centers. An estimated $1.5 trillion is in the Cayman Islands alone. The country of 52,000, which is about the size of Blaine, Minn., has more foreign-owned deposits than Japan or the Netherlands. By the B.I.S.’s own estimation, the data — which do not include reports from Belize, the Seychelles and other offshore havens — are quite incomplete. The Tax Justice Network, a global research firm that advocates against such havens, suggests that the amount hidden offshore is between $21 trillion and $32 trillion. If properly taxed, that could yield more than $200 billion in revenue around the world.
Lately the United States and the European Union have expressed deep frustration with the international system of sharing tax information. In order to investigate my Belizean company’s bank account in Singapore, for instance, the I.R.S. would need to identify my bank and bank-account number, prove I had broken the law and then petition judges in Belize and Singapore to issue court orders forcing the release of my information. It’s a nearly impossible standard. It can also be easily undermined by enlarging the web of new accounts.