Why do people go offshore?

George HodgsonTaking a global view, the period since 2008 has been marked by unprecedented activity aimed at improving tax transparency. First of all we had tax information exchange on request. More recently the move has begun to automatic exchange of tax information. The same period has also seen enormous emphasis internationally on improving the availability of beneficial ownership information.

All this activity focused on improving transparency ought, logically, to have been bad news for the so-called ‘secrecy jurisdictions’. It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that the reality looks somewhat different.

Researchers at the European Parliament have dug out some rather curious statistics from the Bank of International Settlements. Over the period 2008-2015 cross-border deposits have grown on average by 2.81 per cent. Over the same period, cross-border deposits in the rest of the world have grown by 1.24 per cent. In other words, during a period of unprecedented activity regarding building transparency, the share of the offshore centres in the cross-border deposit market has actually gone up.

What does that imply? Some will undoubtedly represent this as clear proof that current transparency measures aren’t working. Indeed the same EU Parliament report that presents the statistics goes on to request ‘a study on the feasibility of a global register of all financial assets held by individuals, companies and all entities such as trusts and foundations’. This just goes to show that Big Brother still has his supporters!

Others might see the continued growth in offshore in an age of transparency as demonstrating that the appeal of offshore in reality has little to do with ‘secrecy’. It is hard to imagine that any client moving funds to one of the major offshore centres does not expect those funds to be reported at some point to their domestic tax authority. It is impossible to believe that any of their advisors do not know that at some point their client’s position is likely to be reported to their domestic tax authority.

The conclusion therefore has to be that most of the funds going offshore are there not for secrecy but for other reasons, for example geographic diversification; strong financial infrastructure; or tax neutrality. But it is clear that regardless of the move to transparency, offshore centres still have strong client appeal.

George Hodgson is Interim Chief Executive of STEP

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