Monday, January 28, 2013

Death of a Tax Haven

A recent post of mine (Lunching with the Stars) harked back to The Good Old Days of the tax-haven in Nassau, Bahamas, and my youthful part in its goings-on in the late 1960s. We lived in Nassau from April 1967 to September 1970, and they were the happiest days of our lives. Plenty of things to do and places to visit, and money to burn.

Paradise on earth. Linda taught Home Economics at the JFK Secondary School, until the kids fell under the influence of the local Black Power movement and began harassing the white teachers. Then, she took the Sylvia Gill secretarial course and worked in a law firm. I spent the whole of our time in Nassau with a major trust-company owned by a consortium of British and Canadian banks.

Early on, we invested 90% of our Canadian savings in a little sports-car – the only new car we have ever owned. We flew off the Island every ten weeks on average, during our whole time; that was a more sensible use of our wages than wasting the money at restaurants and bars. We were so scandalously overpaid that we quit work and headed for the caves of Crete, via Perth, Australia. (My Zorba the Greek post of January 2012 reported how that dream ended.)

The tax-haven began collapsing soon after we left. The long-existing tensions between the black and white native-Bahamian communities were one major factor, the drive for political independence from Britain another. Young white expats tended to be sympathetic to the civil-rights cause of the local blacks, and indeed many of them (the expats) had helped the all-black PLP political party to a wafer-thin victory in the watershed elections of January 1967.

Unfortunately, it suited the strategy of the PLP of the time to foster the notion that the white expats could not be trusted to maintain their support. The Party was probably right in that belief. We all reckoned that the drive for independence would cost the Islands their prosperity. And so it proved.

Expats in the tax-haven sector were pushed out of their comfort zone, and packed up and left. The banks and trust companies set up subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands. Some of their Offshore clients followed, one by one, and new clients were diverted to Cayman by their domestic tax-advisors. Public Revenue dropped alarmingly, and government finances found themselves in a downward spiral. The country’s loss was Cayman’s gain, down to the last penny.

In view of our Caymanian politicians’ increasingly vocal loss of confidence in our British connection, more and more of us expats here fear that our tax-haven may be sacrificed on the same altar of populist foolishness that killed Nassau’s. The omens are very much the same. We don’t have the black-white racism, but the perpetual fostering of native Caymanians’ resentment and mistrust of expats exactly mirrors the Bahamian experience of forty-odd years ago.

If Britain were to pull the plug on Cayman (read Trouble in Paradise, December), where would the clients go? To the new and revitalised Nassau? Or to the BVI – that long-patient bridesmaid-in-waiting? Offshore types have been sniffing around BVI for years now, and don’t like what they see. It’s not developed enough! It doesn’t have the infrastructure! But most of the sniffers are too young to know how woefully undeveloped Cayman was, at the time of the Nassau exodus in the 1970s.

Linda and I spent a weekend here in 1968, a bit before the Bahamian banks started shifting their business here. Unpaved roads, mosquitoes, four or five scruffy tax-haven professionals, and more mosquitoes. BVI today is infinitely better prepared to take our business than Cayman was to take Nassau’s back then. It would be stupid to dismiss it as a suitable successor.

I wish I could say that neither the FCO nor the C I Government were stupid enough to shrug off the danger. Regrettably, I can’t. I know they are.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Monopoly Money and the Gold Standard

Not long after our family’s working vacation in The Big Apple, I bumped into Ian in the supermarket. “I’m just back from Singapore on business”, he said, “and I saw Ross on one of the cable-TV channels there, in my hotel room one night!” Our son had grown up with Ian’s son, and I was glad somebody had caught Ross’s fleeting moment of glory.

Linda and I were there on the spot, but we didn’t see any of the TV coverage. The opening day of the tournament coincided with an earthquake in Mexico that was later estimated to have killed at least ten thousand people. Every TV station in New York City turned its entire transmission time over to reports from Mexico. The 1985 World Monopoly Championship in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria was ignored utterly.

Ross had lain fifth at the end of the first day, in a field of twenty, and was on track to make the cut for the final table. Aged barely ten, he was what a French magazine called “le benjamin” – the youngest competitor. The US champion – Jim Forbes, a CPA from Florida – explained to the prospective US audience that the mental pressure would prove too much for a child, and he was right. Ross blew out to tenth during the next day’s play. Although – who knows? – maybe it wasn’t the pressure at all; maybe his luck just ran out. Jim also missed the cut, and he was the oldest competitor, in his late 30s.

It was a nine-day wonder here at home, when a (then) nine-year-old beat out several local bankers, lawyers and accountants to win our Islands’ first formal Monopoly Tournament one Saturday morning. I had dropped him off and gone shopping, so as not to cramp his style, and it was all over by the time I got back to give some post-game comfort to a gallant loser. The adults were standing around looking sheepish, and the boy was being told where and when he could collect his prizes – airline tickets to New York and accommodation at the Waldorf Astoria.

Winning at Monopoly is 90% luck and 10% skill & awareness. Landing on Mayfair and Park Lane (Boardwalk and Park Place in the US version) requires pure luck; bankrupting everybody else inside twenty minutes requires quick wits and some gambling skill. Think of poker, but with less money and less time. (The 1983 World Champion came second in 1985, by using his experience to maximise his luck.)

It wasn’t so easy in New York. No casual Saturday morning in shorts and flip-flops, but hot lights and hubbub in the ballroom of the Waldorf. Spectators wandered around the tables speaking in tongues while watching the champions from twenty nations do their thing. It was fast-paced stuff. The bankers enforced the tournament rules strictly. Minimal stoppages were allowed for the consummation of property deals, but all negotiations had to be conducted on the run while keeping an eye on the continuous movements of dice and tokens – all within a ninety-minute limit.

There was real money at stake: US$15,140 to the Champion, winner take all. $15,140 was the total of the Monopoly Money sold with each game. Most games in existence still have that amount, and its purchasing power is unchanged - in the game. However, the purchasing power of the US$15,140 prize money has greatly depreciated since 1985. Take a moment to think why that is.

The game’s bankers use “hard money”. What a contrast to the real-life Central Bankers who have screwed up their nations’ real-life economies by financing asset bubbles with money created out of thin air. Monopoly Money’s value is maintained by not allowing any inflation of the money-supply. Monopoly Money is disciplined in a way that actual currencies aren’t. In effect, it adheres to a gold standard. It’s a good thing Monopoly games don’t involve Central Bankers. I mean, imagine the chaos.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Lunching with the Stars (Tax-haven)

Among my trust company’s international clients in Nassau 1967-70 were rich and famous authors and movie stars. When they visited, they always had lunch with one or other of our top bosses, and if they were particularly boring some of us young minions had to go along and help entertain them. As Marlon Brando once said, “An actor is a guy who if you ain’t talking about him he ain’t listening.”

Thanks to their agents and tax-lawyers, the famous clients rarely earned much in their own name. Mostly, they were persuaded to commit to exclusive contracts with Bahamian companies owned by the trust company as Trustee of what were called discretionary charitable trusts. It was the companies that signed all the big-money deals with the movie-companies and book-publishers.

In exchange for diverting all his future earnings to “his” Bahamian company, each client would receive a lifetime salary. That made some sense. After all, it’s an uncertain world out there for actors and authors. In those occupations, you’re only as good as your last success, right? Damn right! The lifetime salaries were very modest, and they were taxable in the clients’ home countries. The income from the hugely rewarding contracts was tax-free in the hands of Bahamian companies.

The schemes had to be plausible enough for the tax-man to buy into, in the US or UK or wherever; and they were. That’s how tax-lawyers and tax-haven entities earn their fees. It’s how we young minions earned our salaries, and our occasional free lunches.

Each company-owning discretionary charitable trust contained a list of potential beneficiaries, who were liable to pay tax (in their home countries) on whatever distributions they received out of the trust’s income – namely, dividends received from the companies whose profit came from the fat contracts . Among those “discretionary” beneficiaries were family members of the star, as well as a regular charity, and sometimes the President of the USA or the British Prime Minister.

The companies did pay occasional dividends to their related trusts. But the only distributions ever paid out by the trusts – at the discretion of the trustees – were to the designated charities, and charities don’t normally pay tax. The President and Prime Minister were only ever there as a blind. Hey, Mister Tax Man! If you try to tax any of the named potential beneficiaries, we will distribute some money to those officials. Good luck trying to tax them. (I recall one trust that went so far as to name the Director of the IRS. Heavy manners, as we say here!)

It was a cunning plan, and was probably designed by former Internal Revenue collectors in collusion with domestic tax-lawyers. Trust companies, generally set up and owned by international banks, merely administered the entities in tax-free jurisdictions.

This is all ancient history, now, which is mentioned only to give a taste of what Offshore tax-havens do, for those readers who don't know. I’ve no idea whether discretionary charitable trusts are still used as tax-avoidance vehicles. Linda and I left Nassau in 1970, just ahead of the run-up to the political independence that killed the tax-haven for a generation. I worked in two tax-havens after that, but Nassau was the innovative Daddy of them all.

There were several other standard schemes, which may or may not still be used; the charitable trusts were always my favourite. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there are still mansions in Hollywood that are owned by Bahamian companies, and rented out cheaply to rich and famous movie stars. Maybe I even had lunch with one or two of them, back in the day.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Friends of Frank Sinatra (T-14, Kuwait 1965)

Backpackers were so rare in Kuwait during the ten days we were there that the English-language radio station sought me out for an interview, for which they paid me ten dinars (ten pounds sterling). The City’s cheapest hotel was costing us ten shillings a night, so the fee did our budget the world of good.

The interview only lasted five minutes, after which the station would play a song between my segment and the next. Did I have a favourite song? “Oh, anything by Frank Sinatra,” I said. B-L-E-E-E-P! The station manager hit the stop-recording button and called down to me. “I’m afraid that singer is banned in Kuwait, Mr Barlow” he said. “He has friends who are supporters of Israel, and Israel is our enemy.”

Oh dear. Some Jewish Mafia don or Sammy Davis Junior, I guessed. (Sammy was a Jewish convert and a member of Frank’s “Rat Pack”.) I was given a second chance, and chose the most Gentile singer I could think of. As the tape rolled again, I said, “Oh, anything by Perry Como.” Sighs of relief all round, and my ten quid was safe! The Kuwait of the ‘60s was a popular place of exile for dispossessed Palestinians, and their presence no doubt influenced Kuwait’s hostility towards what the region’s Arabs all regarded as an illegal state.

7th January was Christmas Day according to the Orthodox Church’s calendar, and a Christian-Palestinian family kindly invited us to share their Christmas Dinner. The man and his wife spoke fluent English, so they had probably worked for the British colonial administration up until the successful Jewish rebellion and declaration of independence.

On their wall was a faded map of British Palestine, with the part claimed by Israel marked with criss-cross lines spanned by the English words “OCCUPIED TERRITORY”. The towns and villages were all identified by their Arab names (in Roman script), not their new Hebrew names.

That was the day we learnt of Winston Churchill’s status as a War Criminal, in Palestinians’ eyes. They held him responsible for authorising the invasion of the land by the European Jews, and the ethnic-cleansing program by which so many towns and villages came to be swept clean of their native residents.

We were quite taken with Kuwait. It was a long, long way short of what it is now, but was an oasis of prosperity in the midst of the Third World poverty we had experienced in recent weeks. I found the local Price Waterhouse office and asked if there were any jobs going; but the English manager-cum-messenger was too much of a prick even to meet with me. He spoke to me on his office intercom.

A Kuwaiti businessman offered Linda ten dinars a week to sit at a receptionists’ desk and look pretty. “No work, just lookee lookee”, he assured her. No mention of special overtime rates for special services; but we suspected that was an unspoken condition, so we made our excuses and left.

A few weeks after leaving Kuwait, we were sipping tea in the makeshift home of another Palestinian family (also Christians, from the icons on the walls) in a refugee camp outside Jericho. They spoke no English, and we no Arabic, so we all just sat around exuding goodwill. There was no map on their wall, and we had never heard of their home village.

The refugees’ political leaders have always sought an independent Palestine, within its old borders. The people in the camps, though, simply hanker after their ancestral villages, and trust in God to get them back there someday. They are a stiff-necked people, like their ancestors [Exodus 32:9].

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Summer of ’63 (T-13, Scandinavia)

My son, who works in Oslo, was on his company’s short-list for a free trip to Svalbard/Spitzbergen last year, and was disappointed to miss out on visiting the most northerly town in the world. I was offered a free trip there myself, back in 1963, but I let the opportunity pass without regret. Ross’s journey would have been by air, both ways: mine by a fifteen-foot fishing smack that stank of old engine oil.

After marking my 24th birthday with a very quick dip in the harbour at Narvik just inside the Arctic Circle, I was ready to take on my next adventure. I flagged down a filthy little boat just heading out for the Lofoten Islands a couple of hours to the west.

The stench of the oil persuaded me to stay on deck the whole time. The prospect of sleeping below for seven nights in a row in the Arctic Ocean persuaded me to turn down the offer of a ride to Svalbard, a thousand miles away up near the North Pole. He probably survived the journey; I don’t think I would have.

Hitch-hiking along the western coast of Norway was mostly hiking, back then. Cars were scarce among the fisherfolk and farmers, in the days before deep-sea oil made the nation rich. I crossed into Sweden and back a couple of times, just for the fun of it, and spent one night inside a secret military area in the middle of Sweden, courtesy of a young couple whose family had a forest cottage there.

(Access to a family hytte in some isolated spot is a sacred Scandinavian privilege that outranks any and all military rules – although as a precaution I was asked to keep my head down while passing the guardpost.)

The highlight of the evening was the angry reaction of my hosts’ toothless old grandmother to being introduced to me. On the evidence of a recent TV documentary she knew that Australians were black people, and she felt insulted by her family’s attempt to pass me off as one of them. She sulked for most of the evening, but at least she didn’t betray me to the Swedish FBI or whatever.

In Helsinki an Aussie carpenter invited me to come with him to a job he had lined up south of Stockholm, where I signed on as a carpenter’s mate in a farm-home for autistic children. The next evening, Dr Ritter asked me to take the place of one of the housefathers who had been called away suddenly. If I’d stayed, my whole life had been different; but I’ve never been spontaneous. Ross would have stayed, which is why his life has been more exciting than mine.

So after my agreed three weeks I was on my way back to London, to a promised job with an accountancy firm. A week in Oslo rounded off my first Scandinavian adventure, sleeping on the floor of an apartment rented by the Australian speed-skating team. They were the only four boys in Australia in 1963 who a) knew how to race on ice and b) were willing to drift around Europe for a year and try to win races. The Australian Association had just enough money to pay their entry-fees, but they had to find their own food and lodgings.

Their greatest – indeed, their only – success to date had been beating the Luxembourg team into last place, in some German event. The more beers we drank, the funnier the story became. They had taken on board the classic advice on cross-country skiing: it’s best to begin with a small country.

In Oslo they worked on the dock as casual labourers, as I did during my stay with them. No formalities. We turned up, signed on, helped the cranes move cargo around for a few hours, and collected our wages in cash at the end of each day. Better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, they reckoned.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Offshore tax-havens - what they do

According to most reports in the mainstream media, Offshore tax-havens siphon off trillions of dollars every year that high-tax nations would otherwise spend on health care, education and sorely needed infrastructure. Also, as a sideline, the tax-havens launder money for crooks. Their existence is a crime against humanity, and a symbol of how rotten the world of business has become.

Well, yes and no...

The siphoning of the trillions of dollars is partly true, though it is not the tax-havens who do the siphoning; they are merely passive go-betweens. Much of the siphoned money is not destined for the legitimate benefit of taxpayers, but for unnecessary invasions and occupations of faraway places. Those actions really are a crime against humanity. If the criminal warmakers would stop doing them, they would have the extra trillions to spend on health, education and sorely needed infrastructure.

It’s a sad fact of life that most high-tax nations are controlled by people whose self-interest mocks all notions of decency. Arguably, the less money left in their hands, the more humane place the world would be. As it is, their budgets provide for the destruction of health, education and infrastructure in the Middle East. And/or in Black Africa, which is being mooted as the next victim of the NATO military machine.

More millions of lives will be ended, and more trillions of dollars will be diverted away from the provision of health care, education and sorely needed infrastructure at home, into the bank accounts of the wanton destroyers of the quality of life in other countries. Most of the money will be channelled through Offshore tax-havens, yes, but always with the full knowledge and consent of the rulers of the high-tax nations and their tax-collectors.

The tax-collectors (IRS, Internal Revenue and the like) and their political masters know exactly how much is going to which tax-havens and for what purpose. After all, it’s the legislators who write the laws, and the tax-collectors who write the regulations. How could they not know?

It’s partly true, too, that Offshore tax-havens launder money for crooks. Actually, the havens facilitate the transfer of moneys for anybody who asks, pretty much. It’s impossible for the local facilitators to know which money belongs to crooks and which belongs to legitimate trading companies. Both those categories are advised by lawyers, accountants and banks that are licensed in high-tax nations. After all, wire-transfers aren’t accompanied by memos that say “This money is the property of the Mafia. Don’t mix it up with Exxon’s.” Be reasonable.

Transfers do include money belonging to criminals not approved by the rulers of the high-tax nations. Some of it belongs to drug-smuggling gangs who are actually in competition with gangs protected by the CIA and other official agencies. That’s pretty cheeky, eh?

Is the existence of Offshore tax-havens a crime against humanity? Well, only to the degree that all international trade is, and the licensing of international trading companies’ lawyers, accountants and banks is. Many properly licensed international trading companies are involved in serious crime, you know – far more serious than petty tax-dodging. Think of Blackwater, Halliburton, and all the other destroyers of lives and infrastructure in the world, and the banks that finance them, and the politicians and retired generals who work for them.

Last question: What happens to the trillions of dollars sent to the tax-havens? One never reads or hears about that. In fact, none of it stays here, except for a miniscule percentage taken as fees by facilitators. Why would it stay here? Our local economies couldn’t possibly find a use for it; Cayman’s GDP is less than a billion dollars, for goodness sake. Rather, it is invested by its owners in ever more inventory, to be traded for ever more profits. Round and round and round it goes.

All the high-tax nations' senior politicians and tax-collectors know about it.