Category Archives: shadow finance

How and Where to Get a Secret Account in the USA

South Dakota, quarter---2006, image from wikipedia

After years of lambasting other countries for helping rich Americans hide their money offshore, the U.S. is emerging as a leading tax and secrecy haven for rich foreigners. By resisting new global disclosure standards, the U.S. is creating a hot new market, becoming the go-to place to stash foreign wealth. Everyone from London lawyers to Swiss trust companies is getting in on the act, helping the world’s rich move accounts from places like the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands to Nevada, Wyoming, and South Dakota.

Rothschild, the centuries-old European financial institution, has opened a trust company in Reno, Nevada a few blocks from the Harrah’s and Eldorado casinos. It is now moving the fortunes of wealthy foreign clients out of offshore havens such as Bermuda, subject to the new international disclosure requirements, and into Rothschild-run trusts in Nevada, which are exempt.  Others are also jumping in: Geneva-based Cisa Trust Co. SA, which advises wealthy Latin Americans, is applying to open in Pierre, S.D., to “serve the needs of our foreign clients,” said John J. Ryan Jr., Cisa’s president.  Trident Trust Co., one of the world’s biggest providers of offshore trusts, moved dozens of accounts out of Switzerland, Grand Cayman, and other locales and into Sioux Falls, S.D., in December, ahead of a Jan. 1 disclosure deadline….

No one expects offshore havens to disappear anytime soon. Swiss banks still hold about $1.9 trillion in assets not reported by account holders in their home countries, … Still, the U.S. is one of the few places left where advisers are actively promoting accounts that will remain secret from overseas authorities….The offices of Rothschild Trust North America LLC aren’t easy to find. They’re on the 12th floor of Porsche’s former North American headquarters building, a few blocks from the casinos. (The U.S. attorney’s office is on the sixth floor.) Yet the lobby directory does not list Rothschild. Instead, visitors must go to the 10th floor, the offices of McDonald Carano Wilson LLP, a politically connected law firm. Several former high-ranking Nevada state officials work there, as well as the owner of some of Reno’s biggest casinos and numerous registered lobbyists. One of the firm’s tax lobbyists is Robert Armstrong, viewed as the state’s top trusts and estates attorney, and a manager of Rothschild Trust North America.

“There’s a lot of people that are going to do it,” said Cripps. “This added layer of privacy is kicking them over the hurdle” to move their assets into the U.S. For wealthy overseas clients, “privacy is huge, especially in countries where there is corruption.”….

Rothschild’s Penney wrote that the U.S. “is effectively the biggest tax haven in the world.” The U.S., he added in language later excised from his prepared remarks, lacks “the resources to enforce foreign tax laws and has little appetite to do so.”….The U.S. failure to sign onto the OECD information-sharing standard is “proving to be a strong driver of growth for our business,” …

In a section originally titled “U.S. Trusts to Preserve Privacy,” he included the hypothetical example of an Internet investor named “Wang, a Hong Kong resident,” originally from the People’s Republic of China, concerned that information about his wealth could be shared with Chinese authorities.  Putting his assets into a Nevada LLC, in turn owned by a Nevada trust, would generate no U.S. tax returns, Penney wrote. Any forms the IRS would receive would result in “no meaningful information to exchange under” agreements between Hong Kong and the U.S., according to Penney’s PowerPoint presentation reviewed by Bloomberg.
Penney offered a disclaimer: At least one government, the U.K., intends to make it a criminal offense for any U.K. firm to facilitate tax evasion.

Excerpt from Jesse Drucker, The World’s Favorite New Tax Haven Is the United States, Bloombert, Jan. 27, 2016

Can George Soros Control China?

George Soros. image from wikipedia

A handful of mainly U.S.-based macro hedge funds have led bets against China’s yuan since late last year (2015) and the coming weeks should tell how right they are in predicting a devaluation of between 20 and 50 percent. Texas-based Corriente Partners… [bets against the yuan].The firm reckons rush by domestic savers and businesses to withdraw money from China will prove too strong for authorities to resist and control, even with $3.3 trillion in FX reserves, the biggest ever accumulated.  London-based Omni Macro Fund has been betting against the yuan since the start of 2014. Several London-based traders said U.S. funds, including the $4.6 billion Moore Capital Macro Fund, have also swung behind the move.  Data from Citi, meanwhile, shows leveraged funds have taken money off the table since offshore rates hit 6.76 yuan per dollar three weeks ago…

That has prompted comparisons with the victories of George Soros-led funds over European governments in the early 1990s. Chinese state media on Tuesday warned Soros and other “vicious” speculators against betting on yuan falls.

“China has an opportunity now to allow a very sharp devaluation. The wise move would be to do it quickly,” Corriente chief Mark Hart said on Real Vision TV this month.”If they wait to see if things change, they will be doing it increasingly from a position of weakness. That’s how you invite the speculators. Every month that they hemorrhage cash, people look at it and say, ‘well now if they weren’t able to defend the currency last month, now they’re even weaker’.”

“It’s a popular trade. I can’t imagine a single western hedge fund has got short dollar-(yuan),” Omni’s Chris Morrison said.Derivatives traders say large bets have been placed in the options market on the yuan reaching 8.0 per dollar and data shows a raft of strikes between 7.20 and 7.60. The big division is over pace and scale.  Corriente and Omni both say if China continues to resist, it may be forced this year into a large one-off devaluation as reserves dwindle….

China’s response to yuan pressure has underlined a difference with earlier currency crises: Beijing has an offshore market separate from “onshore” China into which it can pump up interest rates at minimal harm to the mainland economy.  Earlier this month, it raised offshore interest rates, making it prohibitively expensive for funds to leverage overnight positions against the yuan. That sent many reaching for China proxies, including for the first time in years, the Hong Kong dollar.“We have a direct position in the (yuan) but it’s much easier to trade second-round effects of China,” said Mark Farrington, portfolio manager with Macro Currency Group in London. “The Korean won, Malaysia, Taiwan, are all easier plays.” … [Hedge funds] say Beijing may have spent another $200 billion of its reserves in January 2015; at that rate, most of its war chest would evaporate this year and the yuan weaken by a further 18-20 percent. Omni’s Morrison states “That is a fundamental misconception [to believe that Chinese authorities control the yuan]. They’re not making the tide, they’re just desperately holding it back.”

Excerpts from PATRICK GRAHAM, Hedge funds betting against China eye ‘Soros moment, Reuters, Jan. 26, 2016

Stolen Money, Europe’s Tax Havens and Nigeria’s Stolen Cash

Authorities in Switzerland are in talks to arrange the return to Nigeria of $300 million confiscated from the family of its former military ruler, Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s foreign minister said.  The corruption watchdog Transparency International has accused Abacha of stealing up to $5 billion of public money during his five years running the oil-rich nation, from 1993 until his death in 1998.  Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said $700 million had already been repatriated from Switzerland, adding that he met Swiss representatives last week for further talks.  “They have also now recovered, in the same context, another $300 million of which there is ongoing discussion to have that repatriated as well,” he told journalists on Monday.

In 2014, Nigeria and the Abacha family reached an agreement for the West African country to get back the funds, which had been frozen, in return for dropping a complaint against Abba Abacha, the son of the former military ruler.  He was charged by a Swiss court with money-laundering, fraud and forgery in April 2005, after being extradited from Germany, and subsequently spent 561 days in custody. In 2006, Luxembourg ordered that funds held by the younger Abacha be frozen….He has asked the Britain and the United States for help recovering money stolen from Africa’s biggest economy by some of the country’s elite over several years.

Switzerland and Nigeria discuss return of $300 million stolen by Abacha, Reuters, Jan. 13, 2016

The Future of Oligopolies: Bright

Direktorium. image from wikipedia

[F]inance was a crucial prop for profits in the two decades to 2007, with the banking industry expanding rapidly and industrial firms such as GE and General Motors building huge shadow banks. The regulatory clampdown since the financial crisis means this adventure is now over.
Third, after 2007-08 firms relied heavily on pushing down the share of their profits that they paid out in wages. But now there are hints that wages are rising. On October 14th Walmart said that higher pay and training costs would lower its profits by $1.5 billion, or just under 10%, in 2017. A week later Chipotle, a fast-food chain specialising in burritos big enough to ballast a ship, blamed falling margins on labour costs. If the share of domestic gross earnings paid in wages were to rise back to the average level of the 1990s, the profits of American firms would drop by a fifth.  

Faced with stagnation, the quick fix is share buy-backs, which are running at $600 billion a year in America. They are a legitimate way to return cash to investors but also artificially boost earnings per share. IBM spent $121 billion on buy-backs over the past decade, twice what it forked out on research and development. In the third quarter its sales fell by 14%, or by 1% excluding currency movements and asset disposals. Big Blue should have invested more in its own business. Walmart spent $60 billion on buy-backs even as it fell far behind Amazon in e-commerce…. The Brazilian investment firm 3G has become a specialist in buying mature firms and cutting what it claims is fat. Sales at its most recent target, Kraft, are falling at a rate of 5% a year. 3G is the force behind the proposed $120 billion takeover of the brewer SABMiller by AB Inbev. Inbev’s volumes are shrinking at a rate of 2%. In America the telecoms, cable and health-insurance industries are consolidating. The aim is to create stodgy oligopolies.

Peak Profits: The Age of the Torporation, Economist, Oct. 24. 2015, at 59

A Ready-Made Vehicle for Dirty Money: Trade

Money-laundering. image from wikipedia

A few years ago American customs investigators uncovered a scheme in which a Colombian cartel used proceeds from drug sales to buy stuffed animals in Los Angeles. By exporting them to Colombia, it was able to bring its ill-gotten gains home, convert them to pesos and get them into the banking system.This is an example of “trade-based money laundering”, the misuse of commerce to get money across borders. Sometimes the aim is to evade taxes, duties or capital controls; often it is to get dirty money into the banking system. International efforts to stamp out money laundering have targeted banks and money-transmitters, and the smuggling of bulk cash.

But as the front door closes, the back door has been left open. Trade is “the next frontier in international money-laundering enforcement,” says John Cassara, who used to work for America’s Treasury department. Adepts include traffickers, terrorists and the tax-evading rich. Some “transfer pricing”—multinationals’ shuffling of revenues to cut their tax bills—probably counts, too. Firms insist that tax arbitrage is legal, and that the fault, if any, lies with disjointed international tax rules. Campaigners counter that many ruses would be banned if governments were less afraid of scaring off mobile capital. Trade is “a ready-made vehicle” for dirty money, says Balesh Kumar of the Enforcement Directorate, an Indian agency that fights economic crime. A 2012 report he helped write for the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, a regional crime-fighting body, is packed with examples of criminals combining the mispricing of goods with the misuse of trade-finance techniques. Using trade data, Global Financial Integrity (GFI), an NGO, estimates that $950 billion flowed illicitly out of poor countries in 2011, excluding trade in services and fraudulent transfer pricing. Four-fifths was trade-based laundering linked to arms smuggling, drug trafficking, terrorism or public corruption.

The basic technique is misinvoicing. To slip money into a country, undervalue imports or overvalue exports; do the reverse to get it out. A front company for a Mexican cartel might sell $1m-worth of oranges to an American importer while creating paperwork for $3m-worth, giving it cover to send a dirty $2m back home. One group of launderers was reportedly caught exporting plastic buckets that cost $970 each from the Czech Republic to America. To lessen the risk of discovery the deal may be sent via a shell company in a tax haven with strict secrecy rules. This may mean using a specialist “re-invoicing” firm to “buy” the oranges at an inflated price with an invoice to match and charge the importer the true price. The point is to get paperwork to justify an inflated transfer to the seller. Re-invoicers are used by multinationals to shift profits around, which gives them a veneer of respectability, says Brian LeBlanc of GFI—but they also “feed a giant black market in the offshore manipulation of paperwork”…

American authorities have ratcheted up penalties for banks that assist money-launderers, knowingly or not. In 2012 they reached a $1.9 billion settlement with HSBC after concluding that Latin American drug gangs had taken advantage of lax controls at its Mexican subsidiary. And last year they imposed a $102m forfeiture order on a Lebanese bank implicated in a complex scheme involving the export of used cars to West Africa with the proceeds funnelled to Hizbullah, an Islamist group. Alternative remittance systems and currency exchanges, such as the trust-based hawala networks in Asia and the Middle East, and Latin America’s Black Market Peso Exchange (BMPE), offer another route to launder money through trade. ..A recently leaked Turkish prosecutor’s report describes an alleged conspiracy involving Turkish front companies and banks, an Iranian bank and money-exchangers in Dubai. By marking up invoices for food and medicine allowed into Iran—to as much as $240 for a pound of sugar—the scheme gave Iranian banks access to hard currency from Iran’s oil sales that was locked in escrow accounts overseas, to be transferred only for approved transactions…

In the meantime, launderers who curb their greed and invoice goods worth $10 for $9, or $11, will probably continue to get away with it. A dodgy deal is almost impossible to spot if the pricing is only slightly out and you see just one end, says one American investigator. “You can study the slips all day long, and all you see is stuff being imported and exported.”

Excerpts from Trade and money laundering: Uncontained, Economist, May 3, 2014, at 54

The Bitcoin Haven: Hong Kong

bitcoin

Entrepreneurs in Hong Kong are scrambling to offer new services for bitcoin investors and enthusiasts in the region, despite a dip in confidence after the collapse of Mt Gox, a Japanese online exchange. The former British territory’s status has been enhanced by mainland China making it hard for the Bitcoin business—banning financial institutions from dealing in bitcoins and closing the bank accounts of online trading platforms.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, continues to be run under the “one country, two systems” set-up, agreed before it was handed back from British to Chinese sovereignty. So it has its own monetary authority and its own British-style legal system. A slew of startups are racing to lay out a network of Bitcoin ATM machines (where you pay money in to obtain bitcoins) and to open exchanges for online buying and selling, while a handful of bricks-and-mortar businesses are starting to accept payments in bitcoins.

As in so many areas, straightforward regulations and high-quality local talent have been the key to Hong Kong’s early success. Promising ventures have found no shortage of capital in the city. Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong tycoon and Asia’s richest man, was an early investor in BitPay, a Bitcoin payment technology.

Still, the industry is experiencing growing pains, too. Two of the city’s first Bitcoin ATMs stopped working soon after being set up in March. Aurélian Menant, a former investment banker who left his job last year to start Gatecoin, a digital-currencies exchange website, waited nine months for his company to be granted a licence as a money-service operator.

Yet in spite of the teething problems, many observers believe Hong Kong’s transparent legal framework and its position on China’s doorstep can make it a leading global centre for Bitcoin, just as it has been for many other commodities. Authorities in the city have made their position clear. John Tsang, Hong Kong’s financial secretary, told a room of teenagers recently: “Bitcoin is not a currency. Just like your armour in World of Warcraft, since we don’t regulate those, we won’t be regulating Bitcoin.” In addition, any assets gained from the buying and selling of bitcoins are subject to the city’s attractive low flat-tax rate.

Some think the key for Bitcoin startups is to attract capital from flush mainland Chinese investors. The problem for David Shin, a Hong Kong banker who launched Cryptomex, a Bitcoin crowdfunding investment platform, is that investors in China “like to hoard their bitcoins”. Mr Shin hopes his venture could coax them to invest in startups, and that those businesses would in turn improve the security of transactions and earn digital currencies wider legitimacy.

Bitcoin in Hong Kong: Still different, Economist,  June 7, 2014, at 50

Automatic Global Information Sharing in Tax Matters

oecd  may 6, 2014

Forty-seven countries, including the Group of 20 and some prominent tax havens, [adopted a declaration–Declaration on Automatic Exchange
of Information in Tax Matters] on May 6, 2014 that will shake up the sharing of tax information. Under the present system, countries have to file requests with each other for data on suspected cheats…In the future the states will automatically exchange information once a year. This will include bank balances, interest income, dividends and the proceeds of sales, which can be used to assess capital-gains tax…The deal also increases pressure on banks to identify the ultimate owners of shell companies and trusts, behind which tax evaders often hide.

The catalyst for the agreement was America’s Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). The law, passed in 2010, will soon impose stiff penalties on foreign financial firms that fail to declare their American clients. Once America began pushing for automatic declarations, other big countries did the same.

The most eye-catching signatory to the accord is Switzerland, whose banks were at the centre of the scandals that gave rise to FATCA. The world’s most famous offshore wealth-management centre was built on supposedly ironclad bank secrecy, but it has been forced to buckle under international pressure. (The American authorities, for instance, are currently leaning on Credit Suisse to plead guilty to charges of aiding American tax dodgers.) This is momentous: for the Swiss, agreeing to swap client data systematically is the cultural equivalent of Americans giving up guns. Singapore, which has earned a reputation as the Switzerland of the East, is also a party to the deal.  Britain’s offshore satellites, such as Jersey and the Cayman Islands, are grudgingly on board. But it will be harder to corral Panama, Dubai and the havens dotted around the Indian and Pacific Oceans (although blacklisting can be a powerful tool). Until they sign up, the likes of Switzerland and Luxembourg may have an excuse to drag their feet in implementing the new rules.

Still, the pace of change has been remarkable. Global information exchange, unthinkable a decade ago, is within reach. Tax evaders can be ingenious, but their options are narrowing fast.

Tax evasion: The data revolution, Economist, May 10, 2014, at 74