This week marks the one-year anniversary of the release of The Paradise Papers, a leak that included 13 million documents from a large offshore law firm. The leak detailed a number of tax avoidance techniques used by the wealthy and multinational corporations to avoid taxes. At the same time, Congress was rushing to pass the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
In light of the Paradise Papers revelations, we encouraged lawmakers to carefully review the information from the leak and consider whether their overhaul would address the tax dodging practices exposed. They chose not to do so.
Unlike the earlier Panama Papers story, where Americans were notably absent, the Paradise Papers had clear U.S. connections. There was extensive data on the tax avoidance schemes of at least 31,000 U.S. citizens, residents, and companies including household names like Apple, Nike, and Uber. Rather than consider lessons to be learned around how policies might work in practice, lawmakers chose to ignore the warning signs. The tax law passed just over a month later with minimal attention paid to any of the insights to be gleaned from the leak. It should not be surprising that the law continues to encourage multinational corporations to engage in offshore tax schemes.
Back in June, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) formally filed a complaint alleging that TelWeb, a telemarketing system, used multiple shell companies to bypass laws against telemarketing robocalls. TelWeb has been the target of other lawsuits by the FTC. The investigation alleges that the system was used to conduct billions of illegal phone calls by telemarketers through an enterprise of shell companies.
The fact that this same system has been the target of so many separate investigations is evidence of a larger problem — companies can be formed in the United States without disclosing their beneficial ownership information (the people who truly own them), allowing criminals to quickly rebrand and jump right back into doing the same illegal activities under a fresh new corporate name. TelWeb was able to use multiple shell companies throughout its scamming system, and the men in charge of connecting TelWeb to telemarketers have a history of being named in previous FTC lawsuits. Yet they were able to continue in the industry under different names.
The story of tireless congressional staff uncovering brazen misdeeds by powerful individuals and corporations in Elise J. Bean’s Financial Exposure has an anchoring quality in the context of rampant scandal that has come to characterize today’s politics. Bean’s account reiterates the point that tax avoidance and tax evasion were endemic to our financial system long before allegations against a sitting president brought them to the forefront of the public consciousness.
While the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) is an investigative body rather than a policymaking one, the inquiries into abusive tax shelters, secretive banking practices, and corporate tax avoidance that Bean describes illustrate some of the central policy problems plaguing the American tax system.
Critics may argue the data we base our calculations on is incomplete, the methodology with which we calculate tax loss figures simplistic. And they are right.
Our tax loss estimates are rough because corporate secrecy limited our access to data. We analyzed information for only a small subset of the dozens of countries in which pharma corporations operate, and only a subset of their subsidiaries in those countries. The data we found is just the tip of the iceberg, especially for developing countries.
Boston is being transformed by a luxury housing boom. A decade from now, the city’s skyline and population demographics will be fundamentally altered by decisions being made today.
This boom has clear benefits, providing jobs in the building trades and increasing property tax revenue for the city. And the city has negotiated for affordable housing set-aside or linkage funds from some projects. But the boom is not doing enough to address Boston’s acute affordable housing crisis and will accelerate economic inequality in the city.
For years, corporations stockpiled profits offshore to avoid paying U.S. taxes, with the sum growing to $2.6 trillion by 2017. Corporate apologists suggested that this cache was necessary because the corporate tax rate was too high, and they asserted that if the United States lowered its tax rate, corporations would repatriate those profits, pay taxes, invest in workers and we’d all win.
In 2016, then candidate Trump claimed there is as much as $5 trillion overseas and a tax break on those earnings would cause “all of this money to come back into our country” and “turn America into a magnet for new jobs.”
Based on previous experience with a repatriation holiday in 2004, critics argued that another repatriation tax break would be a major windfall to corporations that would enrich shareholders and accomplish little else.
In the end, corporations and their allies got their way.
Commercial Support for Ownership Disclosure Grows as National Foreign Trade Council Backs Incorporation Transparency
Momentum continues to build in the fight to tackle the abuse of anonymous shell companies.
Richard Sawaya, the vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents major U.S. multinational businesses, just endorsed cracking down on money laundering and anonymous shell companies in a new op-ed in The Hill regarding Russia sanctions.
While the FACT Coalition takes no position on most of the content in the op-ed, the penultimate paragraph of the article says:
“Congress should focus on… incorporating new ideas… that would crack down on Russian money laundering and shell corporations, expose the financial crimes of Putin cronies, and prevent U.S. real estate from being a haven for kleptocrat money, all without measurably hurting the U.S. economy.”
NFTC—whose’s board of directors consists of major U.S. businesses including Caterpillar, Coca-Cola, Exxon, Fluor, General Electric, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, and Walmart—joins the entire financial services industry, the National Association of Realtors, the vast majority of small business owners, and other large companies such as Dow Chemical, Unilever, and Salesforce in pushing for incorporation transparency.
These past few months, the fight against illicit finance received excellent news — the U.K. Government moved to require their Overseas Territories to disclose the real owners of companies they incorporate. Those territories include tax haven A-listers like Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and the British Virgin Islands. These critical legislative actions taken by the British Government should similarly be adopted by the U.S. Congress — lest America risk becoming the favorite haven for dirty money.
On February 1, the B Team published “A New Bar for Responsible Tax: The B Team Responsible Tax Principles,” with the endorsement of nine corporations (Allianz, BHP, Maersk, Natura, Repsol, Safaricom, Shell, Unilever and Vodafone). I was privileged to serve as a member of the Company Working Group that oversaw the development of the Principles over the course of 2017, representing an investor perspective.
After several years of engagement with a variety of corporations on these issues on behalf of Domini Impact Investments, I am optimistic that the B Team’s work establishes a promising platform for meaningful dialogue with corporations about their tax practices. The Principles are not perfect, but I believe they represent an important step forward.
I was therefore very disappointed to see TJN’s critique of the Principles, The B-Team: Lowering the bar for tax transparency? I reached out to Alex Cobham, Chief Executive of Tax Justice Network, and both of us felt that our exchange would be worth sharing, as other organizations evaluate the B Team principles for themselves.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was a historic opportunity to reform the international tax code and finally put an end to the rampant shell games played by U.S. companies to avoid taxes. Unfortunately, the TCJA will likely increase offshore tax avoidance and increase the incentives for companies to move jobs and operations offshore. As a new ITEP report explains, TCJA creates many new breaks and loopholes for offshore corporate profits, and while several different bills have been introduced to close them, no one bill addresses all of them.