UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak, appointed to the job just over a month ago, announced the most significant set of British policy measures since the Second World War on Friday, 20 March. The sweeping package—which includes a £30 billion tax holiday for corporations and a government commitment to pay part of citizens’ wages for the first time in British history—would have been unthinkable for a Conservative administration only weeks ago. The unprecedented nature of the measures, as well as the gravitas with which Sunak announced them, drove home the reality of the economic tsunami which the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed.
The global economy, as one commentator noted, is going into cardiac arrest. Central banks from Tokyo to Zurich have slashed interest rates—but this can only do so much to alleviate the pain from millions of workers staying home, assembly lines grinding to a halt, and stock markets going into freefall.
It’s almost impossible to predict the full scale of economic damage while most of the world is still fighting to contain the virus’s exponential spread, and while so much remains uncertain. Will the virus, for example, fade thanks to a combination of strict quarantine measures and warmer weather—only to return with a vengeance in the fall, causing a devastating double dip in economic activity?
What’s almost certain is that Europe is tipping into a fresh financial crisis. “Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures,” admitted ECB chief Christine Lagarde, underscoring that “there are no limits to our commitment to the euro.” The bloc’s major economies, some of which were flirting with recession even before the pandemic, are sure to blow past 3% deficit limits. They are likely to play fast and loose with EU state aid rules, too, as hard-hit firms—particularly major airlines, including Air France and Lufthansa—may need to be nationalised to keep them from folding.
As policymakers try and keep their economies afloat during—and after—this acute phase of the pandemic, they will need every scrap of revenue. It’s outrageous, then, that some $7 trillion in private wealth is hidden away in secrecy jurisdictions, while corporate tax avoidance via offshore tax havens drains as much as $600 billion a year from government coffers. New research indicated that 40% of multinational firms’ profits are squirreled away offshore.
The Tax Justice Network has identified an “axis of avoidance”—the UK, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg—which together account for fully half of the world’s tax evasion. The UK bears a particular responsibility for failing to crack down on the widespread financial malfeasance occurring in its overseas territories. While NHS staff on the frontlines of the coronavirus epidemic have expressed concerns that they are being treated as “cannon fodder” amidst a gross shortage of protective equipment, the world’s three most notorious offshore hideaways are British overseas territories.
The most famous is probably the Cayman Islands, which the EU placed on its tax haven blacklist earlier this year. For decades, ill-fated firms from Enron to Lehman Brothers stashed their problematic assets in the idyllic islands, while firms like mining giant Glencore allegedly funnelled bribe funds through the British Overseas Territory.
The Caymans have made a recent attempt to shed this reputation as a fiscal Wild West, pledging to reveal corporate owners by 2023—a move which would bring the island nation in line with EU directives. In the meantime, however, stories continue to emerge illustrating how unscrupulous companies are taking advantage of the Caymans’ lax regulation.
Just a few months ago, the Gulf Investment Corporation (GIC)—a fund owned jointly by the six Gulf countries—asked courts in both the Caymans and the United States to look into the “hundreds of millions of dollars” which have apparently disappeared from the Port Fund, a Caymans-based financial vehicle.
According to court filings, the Port Fund’s sponsor, KGL Investment Company, may have been involved in siphoning off proceeds from the sale of Port Fund assets in the Philippines. The GIC maintains that the Port Fund sold a Filipino infrastructure project for roughly $1 billion—but only disclosed $496 million in proceeds and disbursed a mere $305 million to the fund’s investors.
The “missing” $700 million didn’t just evaporate into the ether, of course. It seems highly plausible that the discrepancy has gone at least partly towards the costly lobbying effort which the Port Fund has mounted to spring its former executives, Marsha Lazareva and Saeed Dashti, from prison in Kuwait, where they’ve been locked up after being convicted of misappropriating public funds. The high-powered lobbying campaign has run up a tab of millions of dollars and roped in everyone from Louis Freeh, the head of the FBI from 1993 to 2001, to Cherie Blair, the wife of former British PM Tony Blair.
The sordid saga is the perfect illustration of how cunning companies can exploit the lack of regulatory oversight in fiscal paradises like the Caymans to keep cash out of public coffers. There are countless such examples. Netflix reportedly shifts money through three different Dutch companies to keep its global tax bill low. Until mere months ago, tech titan Google took advantage of a tax loophole dubbed the “Double Irish, Dutch sandwich”, channelling huge sums through Ireland to “ghost companies” in tax havens including Bermuda and Jersey, both British dependencies.
European leaders can no longer afford inaction on stamping out these financial black holes. Ibrahim Mayaki, the co-chair of a recently-created UN panel on illicit financial flows, remarked that “the money that is being hidden in offshore tax havens, laundered through shell companies and outright stolen from public coffers should be put towards ending poverty, educating every child, and building infrastructure that will create jobs and end our dependence on fossil fuels.”
Right now, it should be put towards retrofitting critical care beds, ensuring that Italian doctors treating coronavirus patients have the gloves that could save their own lives, and providing support to Europe’s small businesses so that they don’t go belly up.