Anonymous investors' cover is finally blown

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The Independent Online

What is the world coming to? First the Swiss agree to open their books to Interpol, then the Cayman Islands government says it will admit who is behind the brass plates that adorn the sun-drenched country.

What is the world coming to? First the Swiss agree to open their books to Interpol, then the Cayman Islands government says it will admit who is behind the brass plates that adorn the sun-drenched country.

Now banks in Liechtenstein are stopping people from opening accounts anonymously. So where can a self-respecting cocaine baron go to launder his money these days?

The change of heart in Liechtenstein has come at the end of years of intense pressure, not least from the German government. Its secret service described the tiny principality, sandwiched between Austria and the eastern border of Switzerland, as a "paradise for money launderers".

The Organisation for Economic Development put Liechtenstein on top of its list of "unco-operative countries" when investigating financial crime.

And ask the investigators from the Serious Fraud Office or Arthur Andersen how much help Liechtenstein was when they were trying to dredge through the ashes of the collapsed empire of the late Robert Maxwell.

When trying to trace missing pensioners' funds, they hit a brick wall of Stiftungs (that's the local term for trusts).

In typical Liechtenstein fashion, the sea change was announced with a whisper. The Liechtenstein Bankers Association wrote a letter to the government saying that, from now on, whenever anyone came to open an account they must reveal whose money it was.

This followed on a move by the parliament to approve a whole series of measures to combat white-collar crime. The news sent shudders among investors in the listed Liechtenstein banks, as the markets fretted about loss of income, though the prince who owns the country's largest bank appeared to be unruffled.

But even these concessions are not enough for many investigators, who want Liechtenstein banks to open their books. The Principality will come under pressure from the European Union - its case has not been helped by accusations that some $109m of the fortune salted away by the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha is now hidden in Liechtenstein.

If the alpine route to financial secrecy is closed, there are still a few places that will take your money without asking questions.

The Paris-based Financial Action Task Force instances the Cook Islands, the Republic of Nairu and tiny Niue, where 1,800 people living on a lump of coral host 3,000 Russian companies. These islands are all in the Pacific and - incidentally - all of them are part of the Commonwealth.

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