Only a fool holds dirty money in his own name. The world’s financial system offers safer and friendlier ways to hide the proceeds of crime. Shell companies–those with no real operations–are one, phoney trusts and foundations are another (see “Trusts: The weak link”).
Belatedly, life is getting a bit more difficult for tax evaders, money launderers and those who abet them. One big move–now backed by the British government–is to oblige limitedliability companies to give details of their real owners. This newspaper has argued in favour of such a duty: limited-liability status is a kind of public subsidy (if the firm goes bust, the shareholders are not responsible for its debts). It was never meant to be a means of concealing ownership. Yet in many places it is just that: only six of 69 jurisdictions surveyed last year by Eurodad, an anti-corruption network, required all types of firm to record beneficial-ownership information.
Spurred by complaints from the police, pressure from campaigners and public distaste for tax-dodgers, the British government wants not only to set up a proper registry of beneficial ownership, but also to make its contents public. If the detailed regime matches the promise, this will be an important breakthrough. But Britain should also coax its offshore dependencies into greater openness. Some are conscientious, others less so. Even official investigators can find it hard to get the information they need. America can do more to help, too: states such as Nevada apply scandalously little scrutiny to the identity of those forming companies. European governments are keen to collect more tax, but many have been less eager to make corporate ownership transparent.
Cleaning up corporate ownership will increase public confidence in the financial system. But it is only the start. The misuse of trusts and other non-corporate entities is also a big problem. These have proper purposes, such as managing charitable donations, ring-fencing employee pension plans, safeguarding assets for children or organising wills and bequests. But they too enjoy a legal advantage: they are a way of parking assets. That seems fine as long as the trusts pay tax on profits (just as companies do) and their beneficiaries pay tax on any disbursement or benefit (just as shareholders do).
Instead, trust law has become a murky world. In many places there is no rule that trusts must disclose their existence, let alone pay tax on their earnings. “Orphan assets”, no longer legally owned by the person who put the money into the trust but not yet belonging to the trust’s potential beneficiaries, offer plenty of room for abuse. Some trusts, revealingly, even have flee clauses, where the trustees are obliged to try to change the domicile of the trust if the tax police start asking questions. A structure that was set up to protect the wives of medieval crusaders has ended up being used by the sort of businesspeople who greet the Russian leader as “Vladimir”.
Far better to concentrate on two simple rules. First, all trusts and foundations should be registered, just as companies are, and their beneficiaries, both actual and potential, should be disclosed. Second, the trustees and the beneficiaries should be legally responsible for reporting any disbursements or benefits, and for making sure the tax is paid on them. Both the European Union and America are tiptoeing in this direction, but Luxembourg, Switzerland and some micro-states are resisting. It would be much better if they worked together. Trusts are a useful vehicle–but not for dodgy goods.
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