BOOK REVIEW: Secrecy havens must go
by Sandhya Jain on 06 Feb 2011 1 Comment

As a successful chartered accountant with an evolved sense of responsibility regarding the crisis engendered in the world by the growing number of fiscal scandals that are sending nations, societies and people into crisis, M.R. Venkatesh has issued a clarion wake-up cal to Indian society with his seminal Sense, Sensex and Sentiments. The Failure of India’s Financial Sentinels. And not a day too soon. As one scam after another roils our economic and political life, and scams like 2G spectrum in turn involve bank loan and realty scams, the opacity of our public life and sheer lack of accountability of power structures hit us like bolts from the blue.


Venkatesh has clinically analysed India’s problems in the context of globalization, focusing particularly on the very current problems of tax evasion, the flight of capital from India via hawala routes, and return of tainted money as foreign investment. Also discussed cogently are the issues of government laxity, and complicity, most notably in the UPA decision to permit participatory notes to operate in the Indian stock market. The book investigates the collusion of national elites and international commercial and criminal interests in this vicious cycle, and their capacity to twist national laws, regulations and processes to their ends.


The key problem, as he is quick to explain, is the unpleasant truth of lack of political will at the level of the G-20 nations in tackling the growing menace of tax havens. This is particularly true of the United Kingdom (almost all tax havens are former British colonies!) and the United States (whose elite love offshore havens and who’s government loves the power of blackmail these havens afford it over tin-pot dictators in the third world). Thus the crisis of what are politely called secrecy jurisdictions continues because they serve the economic interests of powerful and unaccountable people.


Yet many of the problems posed by secrecy jurisdictions can be quickly remedied by strengthening international cooperation by sharing information on cross-border flow of funds. With the nation, the author finds that money power has helped certain people with authority to promote a chosen few by making laws that suit them, or to break inconvenient laws with impunity. The system of regulators is grossly inadequate to deliver justice, provided the regulators are interesting in serving the nation.


Rough estimates of flight of capital out of India suggest between USD 22-27 billion, thus making India the fifth highest in the world in terms of illicit outflows, after Russia (USD 32-38 billion), Mexico (USD 41-46 billion), Saudi Arabia (USD 54-55 billion), and China (USD 233-289 billion). Most of this capital disappears into scenic Mauritius or Jersey, then moves on to major financial markets in Europe and North America, but some returns under the guise of foreign investment to benefit from tax holidays and other special treatments.


From the late 1970s, capital has enjoyed great international mobility, with no matching steps at the international level to cope with side-effects like tax evasion, which is now endemic the world over. Worse, abetting financial crime has become a major profit centre for banks and other financial intermediaries, making corruption one of the most corrosive facts of public life. The World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery initiative estimates that cross-border flows of proceeds from criminal activities, corruption and tax evasion amount to between USD 1 trillion and USD 1.6 trillion a year, roughly half of which comes from the developing and transitional economies. That only 0.01 percent of dirty money flowing through Switzerland is detected is a measure of the international laxity in the matter of cracking down on tax evasion and money laundering.


Experts now feel that the corruption debate must expand from politicians and government servants seeking bribes to incorporate the bribe-payers and the financial intermediaries who create and manage the legal subterfuges through which illicit cross-border financial flows are routed via Offshore Financial Centres (OFCs) into the mainstream banking system. The secretive legal instruments used by multinational companies and rich individuals to dodge taxes are also used for many criminal activities like market rigging, insider trading, payment of illicit political donations, embezzlement, fraud, and payment of bribes and commission kickbacks. These need to be exposed.


Most illicit financial flows go through complex structures like legal entities operated by intermediaries working in secrecy jurisdictions. A typical tax evasion strategy might begin with an offshore trust created in Mauritius, which serves as sole shareholder of an offshore company registered in the Isle of Man using nominee directors and shareholders, and this in turn is a front for a secret bank account in Zurich, Switzerland. The ultimate beneficiaries of this structure may have no apparent connection with the original trust, the company of the bank account. In other words, the entire façade, which is expensive to create and operate, is designed only to frustrate investigation.


It may sound strange to us in India, but these tax havens are actively marketed by financial intermediaries to potential clients throughout the world by mainstream newspapers and magazines such as The Economist – which gives an idea of the financial stakes their governments have in perpetuating these essentially criminal pads. The advertisements are an open invitation to illicit financial flows and tax evasion. They expose a major fault line in the system. While capital is almost fully mobile, the ability to police cross-border dirty money flows is nation-based and international judicial cooperation is almost non-existent.


Governments and multilateral agencies downplay concerns about dirty money except when drugs and terrorism are concerned. But this too is not the whole picture as we now know that most western banks owe their liquidity to the drug trade out of Afghanistan and other locations like Kosovo (the latest revelation). So the global financial system in reality encourages and facilitates laundering of money. Neither the World Bank nor International Monetary Fund has tried to investigate or quantify illicit financial flows and tax evasion – or shown any concern to tackle these problems.


Terrorism and the drug trade are intimately linked, so unless there is serious political will among the nations that dominate the world financial system and control the tax havens, little can be expected to stem the rot. While money laundering has been made an offence, and financial institutions and intermediaries in the ‘wars’ on drugs and terrorism given responsibility to know the originators and beneficiaries of all financial transactions, there have been many instances when banks failed to follow the rules and inform the authorities about huge and suspicious currency transactions in certain accounts, most notably Madhu Koda, former Jharkhand chief minister, and his associates.


There are also charitable trusts that are set up as a front for ‘special purpose vehicles’ used for international tax planning and for hiding both assets and liabilities ‘off-balance sheet’, as happened with the American Enron and British bank Northern Rock, both of which collapsed spectacularly. The near collapse of the Greek economy in May 2010 can be directly linked to the levels of tax evasion there. Experts say things are worse in countries like India.


Venkatesh deals extensively with the related issues of money laundering, participatory notes and a lax regulatory regime, stressing their deleterious effects on the domestic economy and national security. He advocates strong action in three critical areas of crime, corruption and capital market manipulation, because as long as the close nexus between the criminal, the politician and unscrupulous businessman flourishes, India’s national security and future are in danger. A must read for all who want to do something to stem the rot…


Sense, Sensex and Sentiments. The Failure of India’s Financial Sentinels

M.R. Venkatesh

Knowledge World, New Delhi, 2010

Pages: 336

Price: Rs 595/- 

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