Paul Vallely: There is no moral case for tax havens

They are the epitome of unfairness and injustice, leaving ordinary citizens to foot the bill for multinational corporations

Share
Related Topics

There is a building in the Cayman Islands that is home to 12,000 corporations. It must be a very big building. Or a very big tax scam. Tax havens are in the spotlight since the Chancellor, George Osborne, did a deal the other day with the Swiss authorities to slap a levy on secret bank accounts held there by British citizens. Opinions are divided on the move, which could net the Treasury £5bn, but which tacitly legitimises bank accounts kept secret from the Inland Revenue. It is a de facto amnesty for those guilty of tax evasion crimes. And they will pay less than they would if they declared their income to the British taxman.

Are there any legitimate reasons why anyone would want to have a secret bank account – and pay a premium to maintain their anonymity – or move their money to one of the pink dots on the map which are the final remnants of the British empire: the Caymans, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands?

The moral case against is clear enough. Tax havens epitomise unfairness, cheating and injustice. They replace the old morality embodied in the Golden Rule of reciprocity – that we should do as we would be done by – with a new version that insists that those who have the gold make the rules.

The old view, the neocon American Christopher Caldwell wrote recently, subscribes to a religious understanding of money that was universal in the Christian world before the rise of Protestantism, which acknowledges that people are alive but money is not, making it wrong for the latter to take precedence over the former – a notion as outdated as usury, he suggested tartly.

But what is the moral case for tax havens? We can dispense with the argument advanced by their administrators that if they didn't take the money it would simply move to more distant locations; that is the self-serving logic of a man who sells torture equipment to an oppressive regime. Apologists insist that tax havens protect individual liberty. They promote the accumulation of capital, fair competition between nations and better tax law elsewhere in the world. They also foster economic growth. So much so, the Institute of Directors has said, that Britain should not curb tax havens but emulate them, promoting the growth of more hedge funds in the UK.

Yet even if all that were true – and it is not – does it outweigh the ethical harm they do? The numbered bank accounts of tax havens are notoriously sanctuaries for the spoils of theft, fraud, bribery, terrorism, drug-dealing, illegal betting, money-laundering and plunder by Arab despots such as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali, all of whom had Swiss accounts frozen.

The corruption spreads contagion, as the financial writer Nicholas Shaxson showed in Treasure Islands, his book about offshore finance which exposed secrecy, corruption and intimidation in places as seemingly innocent as that land of milk and money, such as Jersey in the Channel Islands.

But the moral bankruptcy of the tax haven runs deeper. Indeed it is intrinsic to its purpose. The British Virgin Islands is the global capital for the incorporation of offshore companies. Though it has a population of just 22,000, it has 823,502 registered companies which make vast amounts of money through the wonder of transfer pricing. It works like this. Suppose I manufacture a product in Africa and sell it in the UK. If I am a canny businessman I set up an intermediate company in a tax haven. It need do nothing except exist on paper. But through it I can buy all the products I make in Africa, dirt cheap, and then sell them, at a much higher cost, to my UK subsidiary. The African and British companies do not, thus, make much profit, so I have little or no tax to pay. All the money stays offshore, where taxes are low or non-existent. This is perfectly legal. But it distorts the world economy and means I pay no tax. I can also borrow where rates are lowest and keep my costs where they are most tax deductible.

That is why General Electric paid no taxes in 2010, despite $14.2bn profits. It's why Barclays, with 181 subsidiaries registered in the Caymans, paid relatively little UK tax on its worldwide profits. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, with 152 subsidiaries in tax havens according to the US government, paid no net UK corporation tax between 1988 and 1999.

Half the world's trade flows through tax havens. Every multinational uses them routinely. So do banks. Almost 70 per cent of international trade now happens within, rather than between, multinationals. Christian Aid reckons that tax dodging costs developing countries at least $160bn a year – far more than they receive in aid. The US research centre Integrity estimated that more than $1.2trn drained out of poor countries illicitly in 2008 alone.

Tax injustice is systemic to the tax haven. Barack Obama once understood that. During his election campaign he promised to crack down on corporate loopholes and tax havens. But he and other world leaders have not delivered on bursting open the seedy secret underworld of tax havens that nurtured the hedge funds, derivative trading and off-balance sheet lending that fuelled the 2008 global financial crash.

Their malign influence continues, with hedge funds accounting for at least 30 per cent, and perhaps as much as 60 per cent, of current trading on the London and New York exchanges. There, they have quintupled short-selling. They have turned credit default swaps, designed as a protective insurance, into a way of betting on the failure of a company. The Caymans (population 50,000) is home to 70 per cent of hedge-fund registrations worldwide.

And, as rich people waive their taxes, poor people wave goodbye to their jobs. "The rich are different from you and me," Scott Fitzgerald famously said. "Yes," wisecracked Ernest Hemingway in response, "they have more money." Today the difference is that they pay less in taxes.

The real shame of Osborne's half-baked deal with Switzerland is that it has undermined the revised EU savings tax directive. That would have required an automatic exchange of information on income in bank accounts throughout the EU and in Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Britain's tax havens. All the EU member states, but two, had approved it. It would have dealt not just with individuals but also with companies, trusts, foundations and other complex structures.

Some say an attack on tax havens is an attack on wealth creation. It is no such thing. It is a demand for the good functioning of capitalism, balancing the demands of efficiency and of justice, and placing a value on social harmony.

The billionaire investor Warren Buffett recognised that in The New York Times when he scathingly asserted the US Congress is in thrall to the super-rich. Thanks to his clever investment managers he pays only 17.4 per cent in tax – half what his office workers pay. That does not just boost inequality. It undermines faith in the fairness and integrity of the international financial system. And that is a political time bomb.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness