From West Africa to Tibet, new locales enter the offshore secrecy market

In most of the world, offshore tax havens are facing dark days. In June, members of the G8 agreed to crack down on offshore tax evasion, and further reforms are expected at a G20 summit this month. Even some of the world’s best known tax shelters are starting to change their ways: the British Virgin Islands just entered talks with the US Treasury on compliance with US tax law, and the Swiss government just approved an agreement for Swiss banks to pay hefty fines for sheltering tax fugitives.

But in some countries, the appeal of secretive international capital remains too strong to pass up. Despite the broad crackdown on existing tax havens – or perhaps because of it – these countries and localities are loosening their tax and transparency laws in the hopes of becoming the next offshore destinations.

John Christensen, the director of Tax Justice Network, an advocacy group that campaigns against financial secrecy, said that efforts to clamp down on offshore havens came mostly from membership groups such as the European Union, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the G8. “The pressure might appear to be global, in fact it’s quite regionally constrained,” Christensen said. “Outside those regional groupings and political groupings countries are starting to see opportunities.”

The world’s aspiring tax havens are located in areas from eastern Europe to a tiny coastal nation in West Africa to a province high in the Himalayas in Tibet. Christensen said that a common factor among them was weak governance, and that new entrants to the offshore market are likelier to attract illicit funds. “They’re much more likely to try to compete at the more dirty end of the spectrum, attracting capital from within their region,” he said.

Here is ICIJ’s rundown of five of the places moving toward becoming the next magnets for offshore cash:

·         The Gambia

The Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa, a narrow strip located just below Senegal. It has created an online corporate registry that allows investors to rapidly create secretive trusts and companies, reports The Economist, and has already incorporated several hundred companies.  “The registration of corporate structures can be achieved online in less than 30 Seconds,” boasted a promotional email from the Gambia’s online registry, according to the blog Tax Research UK. Christensen said that growing natural resource wealth in West Africa had created personal fortunes whose owners were likely among the target clients for an offshore haven in the region.

·         Latvia

Latvia is set to join the Euro zone in 2014, and many believe it is aiming to become the region’s next tax haven. It has a much lower corporate tax rate than the European Union average, reports Der Spiegel. Since the beginning of 2013 it has also allowed holding companies – firms that hold stock for other companies – tax free foreign profits from dividends and stock sales. Much of the influx of new foreign money to Latvia came after the financial collapse in Cyprus, a Latvian banker told Deutsche Welle, and Latvia may soon follow in Cyprus’s footsteps as a leading destination for offshore secrecy.  

·         Shannan prefecture, Tibet

The Shannan prefecture is located in Tibet at the foot of the Himalayas, between the capital city of Lhasa and the kingdom of Bhutan. The Shannan government has created a lower corporate tax rate for investors than the rest of China, reports the Financial Times, and Tibet also allows private equity firm partners to pay much lower personal income taxes. Shannan is likely to be a tax haven for investors from China, and experts consulted by the FT interpreted the changes as an effort by the Chinese government to exert greater control over an area whose population is more than  90 percent ethnic Tibetan. In the first half of 2013, the government of Shannan reported that its tax revenues were up 110 percent from the same period a year earlier.

·         Nairobi, Kenya

It remains uncertain whether Nairobi will seek to become a new tax haven, but a concerted effort is underway. Nairobi is negotiating with TheCityUK, a membership group for the UK financial services industry, about becoming an “Independent Financial Center” to serve the East African region. Nick Shaxson, a critic of offshore secrecy and author of Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World, told a columnist for Al Jazeera: “Make no mistake. This is a tax haven they want to set up.”

·         Northern Territory, Australia

Update: This possible tax haven appears unlikely to pan out – since he made the proposal to reduce corporate taxes, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was soundly defeated at the polls on September 7.  His opponent, current Prime Minister Tony Abbott, had proposed a development plan for the Northern Territory that did not include differential tax rates.  

Like Nairobi, the plans for Australia’s Northern Territory are still in the proposal stage. Earlier in August, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called for cutting the corporate tax rate in the region 10 percent lower than the rest of the country. The tax cuts would be part of a broader plan for a special economic zone in the Northern Territory, which would also include a streamlined regime for foreign investments.

  •      Puerto Rico, United States

In case its beautiful beaches weren’t enough, Puerto Rico recently rolled out another attraction to lure Wall Street millionaires: a zero percent tax rate on investment income. The arrangement, according to NPR, means that capital gains and dividends for the island’s residents are completely tax free, and service income such as hedge fund management fees is taxed at only four percent. There’s one catch: it’s not permitted to simply set up a shell company, a person has to move to Puerto Rico in order to enjoy the benefits. As of this March, reported the New York Times, a “handful” of millionaires had made the move and another 40 had applied.

  •     The Netherlands

A new report by the nonprofit advocacy group SOMO found that the Netherlands has become “the EU’s biggest tax haven,” as measured by its profusion of shell companies serving as conduits for foreign money.  “It is estimated that there are currently 23,500 letterbox companies in the Netherlands,” the study found. SOMO estimated that Portuguese companies alone have shifted at least $4 billion in profits to the Netherlands from 2009 through 2011.

  •        Bitcoin

Some economists believe that online currencies such as Bitcoin could become the tax havens of the future because there is no mechanism for ensuring that earnings in Bitcoin are reported to tax authorities. In addition, Professor Omri Marian writes of the University of Florida in Michigan Law Review, online currencies do not require financial intermediaries such as banks and investment firms that are subject to pressure from governments.  “Cryptocurrencies have the potential of defeating the recent successes of governments in battling offshore tax evasion,” Marian wrote.

Are we missing any emerging tax havens around the world? Send a message to @sashachavkin or schavkin@icij.org, or leave a comment on our Facebook page, and we will update the story.

  

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