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In praise of off-shore tax havens

The last few years has seen a spate of "scandals" about the use of off-shore tax havens. The hacking and subsequent leaking of data about who does and does not hold assets in off-shore jurisdictions has become an old perennial in the British press, rather like the "COLD weather happens in winter and QUITE HOT weather happens in summer", whose alarmist capital letter laced headlines are such a lazy part of contemporary "journalism". 

The increasing sophistication of the hackers, whether Russian-inspired or not, has resulted in a steady trickle of information becoming a torrent. After the relatively filleted release of data in the so-called "Panama Papers", the data release of the "Paradise Papers" is even larger.  Of course, just natural curiosity dictates that the off-shore ownership, or even just "ownership", of assets is of general public interest.  Celebrities, from the Royal family to the cast of Mrs Brown's Boys, are shown to wealthy, which may not be such a surprise, and to hold assets in places like the Cayman islands or Bermuda, which might be more of a surprise.

The UK press, in one of the more spectacular episodes of hypocrisy to which they are regularly prone, affects to be shocked and appalled by the fact that so many people "avoid tax" by holding assets in multiple off-shore and international jurisdictions. Just to remind the public at large: Rupert Murdoch, an Australian who naturalised American for tax purposes, holds assets in multiple off-shore jurisdictions. Lord Rothermere, living in Wiltshire, but legally domiciled in France for tax purposes, holds the Daily Mail and General Trust through off-shore holdings in Bermuda.  The owners of the Daily Telegraph, the rather sinister Barclay Brothers, domiciled off-shore in Sark, control their empire though the Channel Islands. The pornographer Richard Desmond controls the Express group through a series of off-shore holdings, as does the Russian Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the Evening Standard and the Independent. Bluntly, the off-shore ownership of media assets is quite legitimately a matter of public concern, especially given the occasionally important business relationships that their owners have with anti-democratic regimes, such as Russia or China.

Neither is there any doubt that off-shore holdings are routinely used by criminal organisations to hide the sources of wealth acquired by crime. Mind you the fact is that all jurisdictions are used by criminals- there is no single crime-free jurisdiction in the world, not even the Vatican. There is no doubt that some of the tax avoidance schemes operated in certain jurisdictions, even if they may be perfectly legal, are nevertheless extremely questionable on ethical grounds.

The fact is that the overwhelming amount of money and the overwhelming proportion of transactions are undertaken in off-shore tax jurisdictions for entirely legitimate reasons. These could, for example, include the establishment of a single neutral jurisdiction for a corporation which has conflicting tax or compliance requirements in different countries where they operate, or to hold assets that are involved in international M&A.

Nevertheless there is no doubt that the off-shore world exists because of tax, and that is a scandal. However it is not the scandal that the public imagination believes.  The scandal, especially in the UK, is not the off-shore tax code but the on-shore one.

The United Kingdom now has a tax code that is 27,000 pages long.  In the past two decades the standard political solution has been to promote certain policies through tax incentives. The result is a massive and unwieldy tax code which is literally impossible to understand, let alone to comply with. Last night I had a small dinner with a UK government Minister and the subject of export support came up, and with it the suggestion of... you guessed it... tax incentives. Yet at every further release of off-shore data the asinine politicians demand tougher regulation and more tax inspectors.

The result is not merely the longest tax code in the world: as a result HMRC is one of the largest tax bureaucracies in the world with over 120,000 employees. The cost of administration of the Revenue is over 3% per annum, which is over  £21 billion every year, and that does not count the tax credit system, which is a further cost. Neither does it count the cost of compliance in the economy at large: the massive number of tax accountants that are needed to submit a return for even the most basic tax matter. The fact is that tax collection and administration is one of the biggest businesses in Britain and it adds exactly nothing to our national wealth. The annual budget never simplifies, it only complicates.

The scale of this failure is what has created the need for off shore holdings. The fact is that the very offices that  HMRC works from are owned by funds who are legally based in off-shore jurisdictions. The HM in HMRC also invests using off-shore holdings: she, like most of the rest of us, is compelled to do so by the drastic negative effect on investment returns if she does not.

So when you see more blazingly hypocritical headlines in our off-shore owned press about the iniquity of holding assets off-shore, spare a thought for the real scandal. The fact that politicians have given up any idea of real tax reform. This utter failure of leadership is yet another example of the UK at its very worst. Off course it is "difficult", but unless it is tackled, all value-added businesses will end up off-shore and all that will be left will be estate agents and tax inspectors: not a recipe for the dynamic post-Brexit future that the off-shore, hypocritical, extreme right-wing, verminous British press insists is the coming future, against all evidence to the contrary.           

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