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Tax havens

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Until the financial crisis of 2008, tax havens were seen as exotic places, Caribbean islands or Alpine financial fortresses patronized by celebrities, gangsters and wealthy aristocrats.

Since then six issues have become clear, which make us reflect:

a) the phenomenon is much bigger and more central to the global economy than anyone could imagine;

b) the laundering of money from global drug trafficking is favoured – a business equal to the value of global oil trade, which rescued many of the big global banks from bankruptcy in the 2008 financial crisis;

c) the funding of terrorism is developed – a “low cost” war with a very high strategic effect;

d) it distorts the international financial mechanism by changing the data and costs of operations, thus making them unpredictable;

e) the amount of money available in tax havens makes mass corruption possible, which is now endemic in both developing and developed countries;

f) the biggest tax havens are not where we thought they were.

According to recent estimates, tax havens collectively cost governments 500-600 billion U.S. dollars a year in tax revenue lost, through legal and other means. Low-income economies account for about 200 billion U.S. dollars of that lost revenue: a higher GDP share than advanced economies and more than the 150 billion U.S. dollars they receive each year in foreign development aid. American Fortune companies alone held approximately 2.6 trillion U.S. dollars offshore in 2017, although a small portion was repatriated following the U.S. tax reforms in 2018.

Companies are not the only beneficiaries. Individuals have hidden 8.7 trillion EU dollars in tax havens, according to 2017 estimates by Gabriel Zucman, an economist of Berkeley’s University of California. The more accurate and complete 2016 estimates by the economist, James S. Henry, point to a surprising total of up to 36 trillion US dollars.

Moreover, since the main users of tax havens are large financial institutions and other multinationals, the system damages small and medium-sized enterprises, by increasing monopolisation.

Powerful governments, too, have an interest: most of the main tax havens are located in countries with advanced economies or in their territories. The Tax Justice Network’s Corporate Tax Haven Index ranks – among the top three – British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, all UK overseas territories. The Financial Secrecy Index identifies Switzerland, the United States and the Cayman Islands as the top three jurisdictions for private wealth.

With a view to better understanding why rich jurisdictions are at the top of the list, let us try to think about how many very wealthy Africans hide secret assets in Geneva or London, as well as how many rich Swiss or British people would instead bring assets to some African capital cities. Offshore capital tends to flow from poor to rich countries, thus causing more damage than the populations that international mafia groups make converge in Europe.

The offshore system is also growing: it has contributed to a drastic fall in average corporate tax rates by half, down from 49% in 1985 to 24% in 2019. For U.S. multinationals, corporate profits moving to tax havens increased from around 5% to 10% of gross profits in the 1990s to around 25-30% in 2019.

The principles of the international system of corporate taxation were established by the League of Nations (1920-1946) almost a century ago. Therefore, until about ten years ago, there were few political curbs on the expansion of tax havens. After the aforementioned 2008 crisis, however, governments have been under pressure: 1) to bridge large budget deficits; 2) to appease voters who were furious about bank bailouts funded by taxpayers’ money and 3) about the increase in inequalities and in the ability of multinationals and the rich people to evade taxes.

The Panama Papers and the Luxembourg Leaks have shown the use of tax havens for often harmful purposes and have increased pressure to do something about it. The OECD has launched two major projects.

One is the Common Reporting Standard(CRS), a regime for the automatic exchange of financial information across borders to help tax authorities to track the taxpayers’ offshore assets.

The CRS, however, has many loopholes. For example, it enables people with the right passport to apply for residence in a tax haven rather than in the country where they live.

Nevertheless, the CRS has brought some results. In July 2019 the OECD estimated that 90 countries had shared information on 47 million accounts worth 4.9 trillion euros; bank deposits in tax havens had been reduced by 20-25% and voluntary disclosure prior to implementation had generated 95 billion euros in additional tax revenue for the OECD and G20 Member States, which include the major emerging market economies.

The other initiative is the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, targeted to multinationals. It is the OECD effort to “realign taxation with economic substance” without breaking the long-standing international consensus in support of the free competition principle. Although BEPS has improved transparency for multinationals, it has ultimately been seen as a failure by the OECD, especially for the digitalised economy.

In January 2019 the dam started to crack. The OECD recognised the need for “solutions going beyond the free competition principle”. In March 2019, Christine Lagarde, the then IMF Managing Director, defined the control method as “obsolete” and “particularly harmful to low-income countries”.

She called for a “fundamental rethinking”, shifting to approaches based on income allocation formulas. In May 2019, the OECD published a road map proposing reforms based on two pillars: (i) determining where taxes should be paid and on what basis, and what part of profits should be taxed on that basis; (ii) convincing multinationals to pay a minimum level of taxes.

Professor Reuven Avi-Yonah, of the University of Michigan’s Law Faculty, said that the plan was “extraordinarily radical” and would be “almost inconceivable” even five years ago.

But a radical change is feasible. The Tax Justice Network now sees that its four key demands – initially dismissed as utopian – are gaining global support: automatic exchange of financial information across borders; public records of the actual ownership of financial assets; country-by-country reporting, and a single tax with a distribution formula.

Corporate taxation, however, is only the beginning: we should consider the forces that make the offshore system work. Switzerland is a case in point. Politicians in Germany, in the United States and in other countries have clashed with Switzerland over banking secrecy, with little success. In 2008, after discovering that Swiss bankers had helped U.S. clients to evade taxes, the Department of Justice adopted a different strategy: it targeted not the country, but its bankers and banks.

For the first time Switzerland has made important concessions on banking secrecy. It is understood that any effective international response must include strong sanctions against those who facilitate private business, including accountants and lawyers, especially when they favour criminal activities such as tax evasion.

Financial flows in search of secrecy or fleeing corporate taxation increase inequalities and vulnerability to crises and cause unquantifiable political damage. Meanwhile this capital shrouded by banking secrecy infiltrates Western political systems and destabilises them as poverty and unemployment increase. While financial capital flows from the poorest countries to the tax havens of the rich world, it follows the aforementioned migration of job seekers, not needed by the already saturated markets of destination.

The financial network of tax laundering operations favours the choice of unfair operations without any moral evaluation of the means to be used to enhance capital.

There will be those who cry out for freedom of trade, but suffice to point out to them the list of money laundering companies operating in tax havens.

The greater the scale of financial transactions, the less their freedom and autonomy must be. This will be the next big international issue to be solved with less talk and more deeds.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

Economy

Synchronicity in Economic Policy amid the Pandemic

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business-economy

Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see.Carl Jung

The Covid pandemic has elicited a number of deficiencies in the current global governance framework, most notably its weaknesses in mustering a coordinated response to the global economic downturn. A global economy is not fully “global” if it is devoid of the capability to conduct coordinated and effective responses to a global economic crisis. What may be needed is a more flexible governance structure in the world economy that is capable of exhibiting greater synchronicity in economic policies across countries and regions. Such a governance structure should accord greater weight to regional integration arrangements and their development institutions at the level of key G20 decisions concerning international economic policy coordination.

The need for greater synchronicity in the global economy arises across several trajectories:

· Greater synchronicity in the anti-crisis response across countries and regions – according to the IMF it is a coordinated response that renders economic stimulus more efficacious in countering the global downturn

· Synchronicity in the withdrawal of stimulus across the largest economies – absent such coordination the timing of policy normalization could be postponed with negative implications for macroeconomic stability

· Greater synchronicity in opening borders, lifting lockdowns and other policy measures related to responding to the pandemic: such synchronicity provides more scope for cross-country and cross-regional value-added chains to boost production

· Greater synchronicity in ensuring a recovery in migration and the movement of people across borders.

Of course such greater synchronicity in economic policy should not undermine the autonomy of national economic policy – it is rather about the capability of national and regional economies to exhibit greater coordination during downturns rather than a progression towards a uniform pattern of economic policy across countries. Synchronicity is not only about policy coordination per se, but also about creating the infrastructure that facilitates such joint actions. This includes the conclusion of digital accords/agreements that raise significantly the potential for economic policy coordination. Another area is the development of physical infrastructure, most notably in the transportation sphere. Such measures serve to improve regional and inter-regional connectivity and provide a firmer foundation for regional economic integration.

The paradox in which the world economy finds itself is that even as the current crisis is leading to fragmentation and isolationism there is a greater need for more policy coordination and synchronicity to overcome the economic downturn. This need for synchronicity may well increase in the future given the widening array of global risks such as risks to cyber-security as well as energy security and climate change. There is also the risk of the depletion of reserves to counter the Covid crisis that has been accompanied by a rise in debt levels across developed and developing economies. Also, the speed of the propagation of crisis impulses (that effectively increases with technological advances and globalization) is not matched by the capability of economic policy coordination and efficiency of anti-crisis policies.

There may be several modes of advancing greater synchronicity across borders in international relations. One possible option is a major superpower using its clout in a largely unipolar setting to facilitate greater policy coordination. Another possibility is for such coordination to be supported by global international institutions such as the UN, the WTO, Bretton Woods institutions, etc. Other options include coordination across the multiplicity of all countries of the global economy as well as across regional integration arrangements and institutions.

Attaining greater synchronicity across countries will necessitate changes in the global governance framework, which currently is characterized by weak multilateral institutions at the top level and a fragmented framework of governance at the level of countries. What may be needed is a greater scope accorded to regional integration arrangements that may facilitate greater coordination of synchronicity at the regional level as well as across regions. The advantage of providing greater weight to the regional institutions in dealing with global economic downturns emanates from their greater efficiency in coordinating an anti-crisis response at the regional level via investment/infrastructure projects as well as macroeconomic policy coordination. Regional development institutions also have a comparative advantage in leveraging regional interdependencies to promote economic recovery.

In conclusion, the global economy has arguably become more fragmented as a result of the Covid pandemic. The multiplicity of country models of dealing with the pandemic, the “vaccine competition”, the breaking up of global value chains and their nationalization and regionalization all point in the direction of greater localization and self-sufficiency. At the same time there is a need from greater synchronicity across countries particularly in the context of the current pandemic crisis. Regional integration arrangements and institutions could serve to facilitate such coordination in economic policy within and across the major regions of the world economy.

From our partner RIAC

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Economy

A New Strategy for Ukraine

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Authors: Anna Bjerde and Novoye Vremia

Four years ago, the World Bank prepared a multi-year strategy to support Ukraine’s development goals. This was a period of recovery from the economic crisis of 2014-2015, when GDP declined by a cumulative 16 percentage points, the banking sector collapsed, and poverty and other measures of insecurity spiked. Indeed, we noted at the time that Ukraine was at a turning point.

Four years later, despite daunting internal and external challenges, including an ongoing pandemic, Ukraine is a stronger country. It has proved more resilient to unpredictable challenges and is better positioned to achieve its long-term development vision. This increased capacity is first and foremost the result of the determination of the Ukrainian people.

The World Bank is proud to have joined the international community in supporting Ukraine during this period. I am here in Kyiv this week to launch a new program of assistance. In doing this, we look back to what worked and how to apply those lessons going forward. In Ukraine—as in many countries—the chief lesson is that development assistance is most effective when it supports policies and projects which the government and citizens really want.

This doesn’t mean only easy or even non-controversial measures; rather, it means we engage closely with government authorities, business, local leaders, and civil society to understand where policy reforms may be most effective in removing obstacles to growth and human development and where specific projects can be most successful in delivering social services, particularly to the poorest.

Looking back over the past four years in Ukraine, a few examples stand out. First, agricultural land reform. For the past two decades, Ukraine was one of the few countries in the world where farmers were not free to sell their land.

The prohibition on allowing farmers to leverage their most valuable asset contributed to underinvestment in one of Ukraine’s most important sources of growth, hurt individual landowners, led to high levels of rural unemployment and poverty, and undermined the country’s long-term competitiveness.

The determination by the President and the actions by the government to open the market on July 1 required courage. This was not an easy decision. Powerful and well-connected interests benefited from the status quo; but it was the right one for Ukrainian citizens.

A second area where we have been closely involved is governance, both with respect to public institutions and the rule of law, as well as the corporate governance of state-owned banks and enterprises. Poll after poll in Ukraine going back more than a decade revealed that strengthening public institutions and creating a level playing field for business was a top priority.

World Bank technical assistance and policy financing have supported measures to restore liability for illicit enrichment of public officials, to strengthen existing anticorruption agencies such as NABU and NACP, and to create new institutions, including the independent High-Anticorruption Court.

We are also working with government to ensure the integrity of state-owned enterprises. Our support to the government’s unbundling of Naftogaz is a good example; assistance in establishing supervisory boards in state-owned banks is another. We hope our early dialogue on modernizing the operations of Ukrzaliznytsia will be equally beneficial.

As we begin preparation of a new strategy, the issues which have guided our ongoing work—strengthening markets, stabilizing Ukraine’s fiscal and financial accounts; and providing inclusive social services more efficiently—remain as pressing today as they were in 2017. Indeed, the progress which has been achieved needs to continue to be supported as they frequently come under assault from powerful interests.

At the same time, recent years have highlighted emerging challenges where we hope to deepen and expand our engagement. First, COVID-19 has underscored the importance of our long partnership in health reform and strengthening social protection programs.

The changes to the provision of health care in Ukraine over recent years has helped mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and will continue to make Ukrainians healthier. Government efforts to better target social spending to the poor has also made a difference. We look forward to continuing our support in both areas, including over the near term through further support to purchase COVID-19 vaccines.

Looking ahead, the challenge confronting us all is climate change. Here again, our dialogue with the government has positioned us to help, including to achieve Ukraine’s ambitious commitment to reduce carbon emissions. During President Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington in early September we discussed operations to strengthen the electricity sector; a program to transition from coal power to renewables; municipal energy efficiency investments; and how to tap into Ukraine’s unique capacity to produce and store hydrogen energy. This is a bold agenda, but one that can be realized.

I have been gratified by my visit to Kyiv to see first-hand what has been achieved in recent years. I look forward to our partnership with Ukraine to help realize this courageous vision of the future.

Originally published in Ukrainian language in Novoye Vremia, via World Bank

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Russia, China and EU are pushing towards de-dollarization: Will India follow?

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Authors: Divyanshu Jindal and Mahek Bhanu Marwaha*

The USD (United States Dollar) has been the world’s dominant currency since the conclusion of the second world war. Dollar has also been the most sought reserve currency for decades, which means it is held by central banks across the globe in significant quantities. Dollar is also primarily used in cross-border transactions by nations and businesses. Without a doubt, US dollar’s dominance is a major reason for the US’ influence over public and private entities operating around the world. This unique position not only makes US the leader in the financial and monetary system, but also provides incomparable leverage when it comes to coercive ability to shape decisions taken by governments, businesses, and institutions.

However, this dynamic is undergoing gradual and visible changes with the emergence of China, slowdown in the US economy, European Union’s independent policy assertion, Russia-US detachment, and increasing voices from across the world to create a polycentric world and financial system in which hegemonic capacities can be muted. The world is witnessing de-dollarisation attempts and ambitions, as well as the rise of digital or cryptocurrencies at an increasing pace today.

With Russia, China and EU leading the way in the process of de-dollarisation, it needs to be argued whether India, currently among the most dollarized countries (in invoicing), will take cue from the global trends and push towards de-dollarisation as well.

Why de-dollarisation?

The dominant role of dollar in the global economy provides US disproportionate amount of influence over other economies. As international trade needs a payment and financial system to take place, any nation in position to dictate the terms and policies over these systems can create disturbances in trade between other players in the system. This is how imposition of sanctions work in theory.  

The US has for long used imposition of sanctions as a tool to achieve foreign policy and goals, which entails restricting access to US-led services in payment and financial transaction processing domains.

In recent years, several nations have started opposing the unilateral decisions taken by the US, a trend which accelerated under the former president Donald Trump’s tenure. He withdrew US from the JCPOA deal between Iran and US, aimed at Iran’s compliance with nuclear discipline and non-proliferation. Albeit US withdrawal, other signatories like EU, Russia, and China expressed discontent towards the unilateral stance by the US and stayed committed towards the deal and have desired for continued engagements with Iran in trade and aid.

Similarly, the sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the Crimean conflict in 2014 did not find the reverberations among allies to the extent that US had wanted. While EU members had switched to INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) which acts as a special-purpose vehicle to facilitate non-USD trade with Iran to avoid US sanctions, EU nations like Germany continue to have deep trade ties with Russia, and  EU remains the largest investor as well the biggest trade partner for Russia, with trade taking place in euros, instead of dollars.

Further, despite the close US-EU relations, EU has started its own de-dollarization push. This became more explicit when earlier this year, EU announced plans to prioritize the euro as an international and reserved currency, in direct competition with dollar.

Trajectories of Russia, China, and EU’s de-dollarisation push

Russia has emerged as the nation with the most vigorous policies oriented towards de-dollarization. In 2019, the then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had invited Russia’s partners to cooperate towards a mechanism for switching to use of national currencies when it comes to transactions between the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It must be noted that in Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which functions as a Russian-led trade bloc, more than 70 percent of the settlements are happening in national currencies. Further, in recent years, Russia has also switched to settlements in national currencies with India (for arms contracts) and the two traditionally strong defence partners are aiming at exploring technology as means for payment in national currencies.

Russia’s push to detach itself from the US currency can also be seen in the transforming nature of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves where Russia for the first time had more gold reserves than dollars according to the 2018 data (22 percent dollars, 23 percent gold, 33 percent Euros, 12 percent Yuan). As per the statement by Russian Finance Minister in 2021, Russia aims to hold 40 percent euro, 30 percent yuan, 20 percent gold and 5 percent each of Japanese yen and British pound. In comparison, China holds a significant amount of dollar denominated assets as forex reserves (50 to 60 percent) and has the US as its top export market with which trade takes place mostly in US dollars. Moreover, Russia has also led the push by creating its own financial messaging system- SPFS (The System for Transfer of Financial Messages) and a new national electronic payment system – Mir, which has witnessed an exponential rise in its use.

While China-Russia trade significantly depends on euros instead of  their own national currencies (even though use of national currencies is slowly rising), instead of pushing the Chinese national currency Renminbi (RMB), Beijing is aiming towards establishing itself as the first nation to issue a sovereign digital currency, which would help China to engage in cross border payments without depending on the US financial systems. Thus, for China, digital currency seems to be the route towards countering the dollar dominance as well as to increase its own clout by leading the way for an alternate global financial system operating in digital currencies. It needs to be noted here that EU has succeeded in internationalizing the euro and this can be seen in the fact that EU-Russia trade as well as Russia-China trade occurs predominately in euros now.

Will India follow suit?

Indian economy’s dynamic with dollar is different than other major economies in the world today. Unlike China or Russia (or EU and Japan), which hold dollars in significant amounts, India’s reserve is not resulted by an export surplus. While others accumulate dollars from their earnings of trade surplus, India maintains a large forex reserve even though India imports less than it exports. In India’s case, the dollar reserves come through infusion of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and Foreign Portfolio Investment (FPI), which reflects the confidence of foreign investors in India’s growth prospects. However, accumulation of dollar reserves through this route (which helps in offsetting the current deficit faced in trade), India remains vulnerable to policy changes by other nations’ monetary policies which are beyond India’s own control. For instance, it has been often highlighted that a tightening of the US monetary policy leads to capital outflows (capital flight) from India, thus impacting India adversely.

New Dehi has resisted a de-dollarization push for long. Back in 2009, when Russia and China had started the push via BRIC mechanism (Brazil, Russia, India, China grouping), it was argued that New Delhi would not like to upset Washington, especially after the historic US-India civil nuclear agreement was signed just a year before in 2008 -for full civil nuclear cooperation between the two nations.

Further, currency convertibility is an important part of global commerce as it opens trade with other countries and allows a government to pay for goods and services in a currency that may not be the buyer’s own. Non-convertible currency creates difficulties for participating in international market as the transactions take longer routes for processing (which in case of dollar transactions, is controlled by US systems).

 Just like Chinese renminbi, Indian rupee is also not yet fully convertible at the exchange markets. While this means that India can control its burden of foreign debt, and inflow of capital for investment purposes in its economy, it also means an uneasy access to capital, less liquidity in financial market, and less business opportunities.

It can be argued that just like the case of China and Russia, India can also look towards having a digital currency in the near future, and some signs for this are already visible. India can also look towards having an increased share of euros and gold in its foreign exchange reserves, a method currently being used by both China and Russia.  

Conclusion

An increasing number of voices are today pointing towards the arrival of the Asian age (or century). With China now being the leading economic power in the world, US economy on a slowdown, and emergence of an increasing polycentric structure in world economy, the dominance of dollar is bound to witness a shake-up. In order for global systems to remain in sync with the transforming economic order, structural changes like control over leading economic organisations (like IMF and World Bank) will become increasingly desirable.

With an increasing number of nations now looking towards digital currencies and considering a change in the mix of their foreign exchange reserves, a general trend is now visible even if it would not mean an end to dollar’s dominance in the immediate future. As the oil and gas trade in international markets also start shifting from dollar, geopolitical balance of power is expected to witness a shift after decades of US dominance.

Major geopolitical players like China, Russia and EU have already started their journey to counter the dominance of dollar, and the strings of US influence on political decisions that come with it. According to Chinese media, Afghanistan’s reconstruction after US-withdrawal can also accelerate the global de-dollarization push as nations like Saudi Arabia might look for establishing funds for assisting Afghanistan in non-dollar currencies. So, conflict areas highlight another avenue where de-dollarization push will find a testing arena in coming times.

India has several options for initiating its de-dollarization process. Starting from Russia-India transactions, trade with Iran, EAEU, BRICS and SCO members in national or digital currencies can also become a reality in near future. Considering India’s present dollar dependence, whether US sees India’s move towards de-dollarisation as a direct challenge to US-India relations, or accepts it as a shift in the global realities, has to be seen.  

*Mahek Bhanu Marwaha is a master’s student in Diplomacy, Law and Business program at the OP Jindal Global University, India. Her research interests revolve around Indian and Chinese foreign policies and trade relations.

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