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Why few Americans appear in the Panama Papers

Friday, April 8, 2016 - 10:12

[WASHINGTON] From Russia to China, and Britain to Iceland, the revelations of the "Panama Papers" have tarnished officials and the wealthy over the implication that they hide riches offshore.

But one group is not there: prominent Americans. US tycoons and politicians are notably absent in the leaked files of the Panama law offices of Mossack Fonseca, which created thousands of shell companies worldwide to hide the identities of their ultimate owners, some of whom may have been evading taxes.

There is Hollywood mogul David Geffen, the Asylum Records and Dreamworks SKG co-founder. But there's no Americans comparable to Iceland's prime minister, or henchmen of the Russian premier - all in the Panama records - at least in what has been disclosed so far.

"There are a lot of Americans, but they are more like private citizens," said Marina Walker Guevara, deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists which coordinated the investigation and release of the Panama Papers.

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However, that hardly means Americans have fully embraced financial transparency, she told AFP.

"It doesn't show that the US is outside of the offshore system; the US is actually a big player." One possible reason for their small presence in the Panama documents is that US citizens hoping to hide funds and activities offshore were not drawn to Spanish-speaking Panama as a haven, when there are options like the British Virgin islands and the Cayman Islands.

"Americans have so many tax havens to choose from," said Nicholas Shaxson, author of "Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World," a 2011 book on secretive centers for hiding money.

Indeed, Americans do not have to go abroad to hide funds and activities behind anonymous corporations: they can create them at home.

States like Delaware and Wyoming allow the creation of such companies, for just a few hundred dollars, that conceal their ultimate financial beneficiary.

And while US banks are normally required to "know their customers," they can bypass that rule and open accounts for shell companies, ensuring total discretion for someone who wants to move money around quietly.

The US Treasury is moving to stop the practice, which can be used by arms and drug traffickers to launder funds and ranks the United States third in the Tax Justice Network's ranking of the world's least transparent countries, well above Panama.

The Treasury is moving to plug that loophole, however.

"We're in the last stages of drafting the final rule," a Treasury official told AFP.

But there is another possible reason that Americans are not so visible in the Panama Papers.

Spurred by the need to halt huge, blatant tax evasion by Americans using foreign banks, Washington in recent years has cracked down with lawsuits, arrests and tighter laws that have targeted both the banks offering safe haven and those hiding money in them.

Swiss banks were hit in particular. UBS and Credit Suisse, respectively, had to pay fines of US$780 million and US$2.6 billion for having helped US citizens hide money.

The result, Mr Shaxson said, is that now "there are a few tax havens around the world that are very frightened of American clients, because they know that the US can hit them." Nevertheless, the seeming absence of Americans from the Panama Papers has fed conspiracy theories, such as claims the leak of the files was orchestrated by the CIA to destabilise Russia and other countries.

But Walker Guevara said there is still a lot to be examined in the trove of 11.5 million documents that make up the Panama Papers, and there could be more about Americans in there.

"It's a huge trove of documents and maybe there's something hiding there that we haven't found yet. It's a work in progress."

Offshore entities, of themselves, are not illegal. But they can be used to launder money or hide assets from tax authorities in other countries.

AFP

For more coverage of the Panama Papers, visit bt.sg/panama_papers

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