The recent onslaught against “Tax Havens” has inevitably included Belize. The definition of a tax haven is internationally recognized (the OECD) as “…a country characterized by low or zero taxation, a lack of transparency and a refusal to provide information to foreign tax authorities.” The crusade was revived during the recession whilst “advanced” countries saw their financial system wither and shrink. In fact, many first world politicos have blamed tax havens for their role in the global crisis. The irony of it all is that these “Offshore Financial Centers” were a product of first world countries, and are today better regulated, more transparent, and in comparison, the largest scandals and frauds have occurred largely “onshore”.
The Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey, physically closer to France than the UK, are remnants of the historical effects of William the Conqueror, who acquired the British Isles in 1066. A substantial measure of self-government and certain privileges (tax and otherwise) were their “reward” for their loyalty to the UK Crown in 1204. They were thus referred to as “offshore,” i.e. not part of larger land areas. As such, it is a fact that the European nations that created the concept which has proven successful at leveling the playing field now require an excuse to contain and suppress international efficiency. The State of Delaware initially entered the arena after they realized the greater corporate registration revenues available by providing more flexible corporate laws. They now sneakily strive to distinguish themselves as a “Corporate Haven” and not a “Tax Haven”, but a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. Concurrently, the European microcenters of Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra, and larger Switzerland and Austria had already served cross border industrialists, nobles and intertwined sovereigns for centuries. These started giving way to similar but more efficient centers like Panama, Bahamas, the Caymans, BVI, Bermuda and eventually Belize among others.
Nothing was said until each of these former colonies started clamouring for and achieving Independence and then the first world countries’ sources started giving way to global scattering of income. Competition had arrived and thus an excuse was needed. The same way September 11, 2001 afforded the US a highway to enact the Patriot Act and further civil liberty indiscretions, the recent financial turmoil and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme came as a miracle that could not be thought up had they tried.
First World Sized Scandals
Bernie Madoff is accused of swindling rich, sophisticated and professionally advised first world citizens around $65 billion US. His operations were based not “offshore”, but right in New York and London. He was supposed to be regulated by the SEC and even the famous and various departments did not raise an eyebrow. These include the IRS, the FBI and the CIA who were all supposed at the time to be tracking “suspicious” banking activity and money laundering activity based on the previously rammed down Patriot Act. It can be said that at least $65 billion of illegally obtained funds, were thus “laundered” right under the watchdogs’ noses.
Sir Allen Stanford, a US citizen, has been the poster child for “offshore” scams. However, only his bank was based in Antigua and his main Stanford Financial Group was actually based in Houston. Further, being a US citizen, the US authorities had extra territorial jurisdiction over him anywhere in the world he went. He still operated with impunity right under, from and with, the US, US citizens and foreign investors. His bank associates were even in Belize soliciting clients at one point in time, but luckily, the few Belizeans were a bit more financially savvy due to their offshore exposure.
Also Houston-based, was the giant Enron that was the model of how to falsify accounting records. Some other examples of creative accounting include now reputable companies like Xerox, AOL, Bristol Myers Squibb, Duke Energy (once an investor in BECOL/BEL), Freddie Mac, Halliburton (of Iraq/Afghan war fame), Kmart, Merck, Merril Lynch, Qwest, Tyco International, Worldcom, Chiquita and AIG. These were all perpetrated to a large extent by one of the following accounting firms: PWC, Ernst & Young, KPMG, Arthur Andersen, Deloitte & Touche (though some are no longer existent in their former states due to the scams they participated or rather, structurally advised).
Then there was the European trader Jerome Kerviel that caused equal loss to Societe Generale, Nick Leeson at Barings, the Russian Mafia laundering billions through the (then) respected Bank of New York. Bear Sterns, Lehman Bros., BCCI (that was used by the CIA to finance Osama bin Laden), Northern Rock, WAMU are just a few of the more well known fiascoes. Their products included subprime mortgages, reverse mortgages, derivatives, swaps and options and the list goes on.
In the US, more details are required to obtain a driver’s license than to form a corporation. In Belize, a licensed practitioner at the minimum must secure a passport copy, utility bill as proof of address and two bank references on a person wishing to incorporate an International Business Company (IBC). They are bound by Know Your Customer principles and a Code of Conduct. The US Department of Commerce has estimated that approximately $2 trillion US is held in US banks deposited by foreign persons. It is there because of US exemptions on interest income. This is exceedingly far more than the approximately $250 Million US on deposit in Belize from foreign persons. This local amount is insignificant compared to the rationale for the US onslaught targeting the $12 trillion that they claim is deposited in tax havens. It is less than 1% of the $100 billion Senator Carl Levin, one of the proposers of the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, states is “lost” each year by the IRS. Which country as a whole then really benefits by the exploitation and use of those same deposits that circulate in its local economy?
While privacy and tax minimization are major reasons investors go offshore, it is not a preponderance of persons who do so for illicit activity. One is entitled to arrange his affairs in the most efficient and economical manner. In fact, offshore is not illegal as the propaganda asserts. Not to report/pay due taxes back home (“onshore”) is illegal, but most people using offshore structures in fact do so. If properly arranged with cross-border professional advice, the structures work in resourceful harmony. Because this has worked so well and because even UK and US courts recognize the legality, is the reason for the attempt to find other moral reasons not to allow offshore centers to continue. We have become a victim of our own success. Further, there are various reasons people wish for anonymity. Kidnapping or the targeting of affluent persons has become an industry in many countries. Tax reports are sold to criminal gangs and some countries have over- zealous investigative branches of government (some governments spy on their citizens and others utilize this information for extortion and repression). People guarding against economic espionage to protect the success of their patented business models seek out confidentiality and trust. In the US now, one can purchase almost anyone’s Social Security number and address or it can be stolen from garbage, obtained online or wirelessly extracted from large store computers. It can be said that it is a by-product of advanced nations’ increasing lack of regulations and penalties to prevent identity theft, technological espionage and usurious penalties for even the slightest breach of any regulation that has scared its own citizens into the arms of foreign lands. Now the US is swiftly turning its own citizens into international pariahs akin to citizens of North Korea, Cuba and Iran, so that many providers, some countries and some banks now hesitate if not outright reject having any US citizen as a client in any form. But then again, that may indeed be the intention.
The International Financial Services Commission (IFSC) of Belize licenses and regulates among other tasks, all local practitioners. There are 66 IBC agents, 36 Trust agents, 14 International Insurance Service Providers and about 20 more licensed agents for less known offshore activities (though a few of the aforesaid offices overlap) for a total of 136 separate fee entities. Their annual fees average $5,000.00 and most are required to place capital requirements in local banks. The services and products sold pay to the government a minimum of 100.00 USD with a similar sum annually (for IBC’s). At last week, there were about 86,000 IBCs on record (though some have since been struck off the register). Trusts are harder to number, having only recently been required to register and even then, the actual figure is private. As stated, there are also emerging areas that are not accounted for in the following conservative estimate (that does not take into account capital deposits and are based on minimum government charges).
86000 X 100 USD 8.6 Million USD since commencement
Conservative Estimate of 5000 Incorporations for this year
5000 X 100 500,000.00 USD
If 50% (conservatively) are still active, annual fees are
43000 IBCs X 100USD 4.3 Million USD
IFSC Annual fees (not initial charges) for 136 providers
136 X 2500USD 340,000.00 USD
Number of Staff at conservative employment of 4 per
service provider 136 X 4 = 544 persons @ the minimum
salary of 200 USD per week 136X4X52X200 USD 5.7 Million USD
Per week per Provider (X 136):
Average of 5 Notarizations (@ 15 USD to Notaries)
136X5X52X15USD= 530,000.00 USD
Average of 5 Apostilles (@ 25 USD to GOB alone)
136X5X52X25USD = 884,000.00 USD
Courier Service (on average for each of the aforesaid
at an average of 30 USD per Fed Ex, DHL, & TNT)
(Notarizations)136X5X52X30+ (Apostilles) 136X5X52X30
=1060800USD+1060800USD= 2,121,000.00 USD
Most Conservative ANNUAL Estimate 14,375,560.00 USD
The above does not take into account professional formation fees ranging from USD 300.00-1000.00 per IBC/Trust that each provider charges to stay in business, all the bank accounts opened, (that usually require a minimum of 1000 USD to activate), the corresponding offshore bank employment, not only service provider staff, advertising, BEL and BTL charges, rent expenses, certified copies of any document from the registry, searches, legal opinions, or any other service and all other consequential charges, staff and activity fees.
In sum, it can safely and conservatively be said that at minimum, the offshore industry pumps over 14,000,000.00 USD annually into the Belize economy that is not repatriated.
Instead of lowering their own taxes to stimulate more economic activity and to have more disposable income at the end of the day for their own citizens, OECD countries demand that small jurisdictions change their own tax systems or face sanctions. The hypocritical irony is that they have achieved that high level of development precisely because they also enticed foreign direct investment into their economies with tax breaks and concessions and until competition emerged, sought to crush and monopolize it.
The State of Delaware alone has 850,000 incorporations. 50% of all NYSE companies and 60% of Fortune 500 companies are incorporated in Delaware. This is 10 times more incorporations than Belize. While most states require a for-profit corporation to have at least one director and two officers, Delaware laws do not have this restriction. All offices may be held by a single person who also can be the sole shareholder. The person, who does not need to be US citizen or resident, may also operate anonymously. In most US states one can form a company online, without visiting the US and with no actual signatures at all. Delaware offers “1-hour service”. So does Nevada, whose official site offers “limited reporting and disclosure requirements”. Nevada incorporates in one year more than all Belize has so far incorporated since its inception in the industry. How can any due diligence be performed under those circumstances? How can those states or their agents truly know their customers? It is routinely stated by persons in the industry that the US is the world’s largest tax haven.
Yet, after enacting further pieces of legislation that strengthened/widened the Money Laundering and Prevention of Terrorism Act, they still wish to negate our modest gains. Belize is not a target or harbour for terrorists, but we join their fight inter alia, against that global scourge — and this is our reward? This is their appreciation? They cannot curb their drug appetite, we fight and die on our streets here with less resources, funds or manpower while at the same time they do not control their firearm exports into our small states. Where is the reciprocity? Instead of dwelling or stressing that it is G20 financial products, “professional” advisors and firms, lack of updated regulations or worse, G20 government departments asleep at the wheel that are the cause of the global financial meltdown, we should demand that they restore their institutions before seeking to intrude in the internal affairs of other countries — another once inviolable international law principle.
But, the reality is, if international treaties or sanctions do not achieve the desired end, and by chance a small state is the rare victor in the international mechanisms set up by G20 states, they are simply ignored with no enforcement. The recent case of Antigua VS the United States over Online Gaming and Antigua’s success at WTO is a clear example. As with this recent onslaught, it again is contrary to the long established international law principle that countries are not only free to design their own tax systems, but that one state cannot enforce the tax laws of another. What we see occurring is international blackmail and terrorism as they themselves define it that cannot be deemed legal or moral and for which Belize should strenuously resist any inevitable G20 badgering.