Five steps to end global tax evasion

Rarely have politicians and business leaders met at Davos against such a gloomy backdrop. The World Economic Forum (WEF) helped to set the tone this month when it issued a chilling dystopian vision of mass youth unemployment, wholly inadequate elderly care provision and widening global inequality. WEF’s global risks 2012 report suggested fresh economic turmoil and social upheaval could wipe out gains produced by globalisation. Nationalism, populism and protectionism threatened to take root, it warned.

The world is calling for a bold vision of economic justice to counter dislocation and austerity. But since the global economic crisis reasserted its icy grip after a brief Keynesian impasse, world leaders have failed to deliver one. The inability to articulate a narrative beyond a long, hard march out of economic malaise ultimately caused by politicians’ and regulators’ failure to adequately supervise the financial system is resulting in a widespread disillusionment with mainstream politics that threatens to undermine faith in democracy.

World leaders need to respond quickly, and business must play its role. A good place to start is talking up the idea that there are mechanisms beyond severe budget cuts to eliminate sovereign debt. There is money in the global financial system that, if accessed and used wisely, could go a long way to mop up deficits and reinvigorate the global economy.

That treasure trove is the $3.1tn of tax, equivalent to 5.1% of global GDP, which according to international campaign group Tax Justice Network is illegally evaded in 145 countries, covering 98.2% of the world’s population. In December, Washington-based thinktank Global Financial Integrity confirmed the reality of vast sums of cash flowing freely through an unregulated financial system last month. Developing countries, it said, lost $903bn in illicit outflows during 2009 ??? a year when economic activity was severely constrained.

The majority of these flows are washed through tax havens. These secrecy jurisdictions act as cover from international tax authorities. Disturbingly, the obstacles placed by the global financial system that would allow individual countries to track down and repatriate this cash are prohibitively burdensome. This is why a new age of financial transparency and accountability is required. Five key reforms would lay the foundations for this:

1. The rapid introduction of multilateral automatic tax information exchange between tax agencies in every single jurisdiction. This would ensure money illegally held offshore was easily identified and accounted for.

2. The introduction of new levels of financial transparency requiring the public disclosure of the ultimate human beneficiaries of companies, trusts and foundations. This is needed to prevent the further subversion of countries’ tax bases whether by high net worth individuals, businesses, corrupt politicians, criminals or terrorists. It is also required to restore faith in the rule of law and the democratic process as the current non-disclosure of beneficial ownership is corruption’s best friend.

3. The global introduction of country-by-country reporting so that every company has to publicly state financial details relating to its turnover, profits, costs, employees and taxes in every jurisdiction it operates in where its revenues exceed $5m. It is astounding that in the 21st century, it is impossible for citizens in many resource-rich nations to establish whether their country has got a fair deal from its oil, gas or minerals.

4. Concerted international action needs to be taken to ensure the hundreds of billions of dollars lost to exchequers by companies artificially inflating their costs and deflating profits through intra-company transactions ??? known as transfer mispricing ??? is identified, contained and reduced.

5. The harmonisation and codification of money-laundering laws to a restrictive level. Even the City of London shows brazen disregard for rules to stop money laundering, according to a report last June by the UK’s Financial Services Authority.

Together, these reforms would show that world leaders were acting in their citizens’ best interests, and would go a long way to averting WEF’s dystopian nightmare.

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