German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung featuring the “Panama Papers” expose of 11.5 million documents allegedly exposing the secret offshore dealings of aides to Russian president Vladimir Putin, world leaders and celebrities including Barcelona striker Lionel Messi. Photo: AFP
Inside Out
by David Dodwell
Inside Out
by David Dodwell

The perfectly legitimate role of offshore tax centres

Their reputations may be dubious but Panama, the British Virgin Islands, Singapore, Hong Kong, Jersey, Lichtenstein or Switzerland serve a valuable role when it comes to looking after your money

Before the dust begins to settle on the now-famous “Panama Papers”, let me get something off my chest: aside from the fascinating and valuable light thrown on actual and potential criminal activity, and on the array of exotic channels by which people can disguise or hide ill-gotten gains, the reality is that offshore centres like Panama, the British Virgin Islands, Singapore, Hong Kong, Jersey, Lichtenstein or Switzerland serve a multitude of valuable roles.

The sanctimonious hyperventilation of some media commentators is hypocritical or naive or both, and clouds efforts to draw important insights, or provide reasonable policy guidance for the future.

As equity-market watchdog David Webb noted on RTHK’s Backchat last week, there is nothing abhorrent about offshore financial centres per se, but our main gripe should be about transparency.

There have been efforts since the release of the “Panama Papers” to suggest that this is all to do with the super-rich 1 per cent who we perceive to be hijacking the world’s wealth, and ducking away from tax obligations that we ordinary mortals continue dutifully to bear. Controversy has been compounded by recent outrage over Apple’s derisory tax payments in Britain, and over Pfizer’s tax-dodging attempt to become a low-tax-paying Irish company by backing itself into Allergan.

These are all legitimate matters of public concern, but please let us retain some perspective: offshore tax centres play many perfectly legitimate roles, without which much of the global trade and investment that goes on today would not be possible.

Market watchdog David Webb says when it comes to offshore financial centres we should be more worried about transparency. Photo: K.Y. Cheng
First, some perspective. When millions of Chinese fled civil-war-torn China in the late 1940s and early 1950s, seeking safe haven in Hong Kong, they did so because of a perfectly reasonable concern to protect the lives and livelihoods of themselves and their families. They chose Hong Kong as a safe haven. They saved and built their wealth here to ensure their livelihoods were not destroyed by the chaos that was at the time engulfing the mainland. Savings were kept safely out of China because of fears over how those funds would be expropriated. Hong Kong’s global standing as a stable safe haven for personal and corporate location has remained intact ever since.

Offshore financial centres have always acted as safe havens against such chaos or personal insecurity, and should be allowed to continue to do so. Is Hong Kong to be stigmatised as a tax haven because it offers a company low and simple tax arrangements compared with France, or Italy or India or wherever?

More perspective: I, like tens of thousands of expatriates in Hong Kong, am a tax-optimising traveller. When I settled permanently in Hong Kong, I did so not just because the work was interesting, the transport infrastructure marvelous, and the salary package attractive – nor simply to escape the awful British weather. I did so because I escaped onerous British taxes, and horrendous, stressful weeks completing nonsensically complex tax returns for Britain’s Inland Revenue.

When I uplifted my Financial Times pension from Britain and placed it in a Hong Kong trust, I did so perfectly legally and transparently because if I had the pension sent to me monthly from Britain, it would be taxed. This was a pension built on a lifetime of hard-earned labour that had already been taxed once. I saw no justification for Britain’s inland revenue to tax me a second time. Was I acting unethically by eliminating a tax obligation to the British Government? Or was I quite reasonably taking advantage of available law to make sure I could survive through a long, and hopefully healthy retirement?

Building savings, and providing long-term security to my family – using transparent and legal channels – is not something I think I should feel embarrassed about. Nor should governments that create complex and burdensome personal and corporate tax regimes be surprised if people relocate to other jurisdictions where operating overheads are less onerous, and tax rules more simple and comprehensible. And I see no harm in professionals building careers advising companies and people how to minimise these overheads, so long as it is legal to do so.

But there are other very good reasons for offshore financial centres to exist. As trade has exploded over the past four decades, so companies have become progressively more international, with operations sprawling across many economy and tax jurisdictions. Choosing a single low-tax base from which to coordinate such potentially messy production networks makes eminent good sense. So too is a zero-tax offshore location valuable as a way of avoiding double taxation for companies operating in more than one economy.

I escaped onerous British taxes, and horrendous, stressful weeks completing nonsensically complex tax returns for Britain’s Inland Revenue

As private wealth booked in offshore centres jumped 7 per cent in 2014 to US$11 trillion, Boston Consulting Group last year noted: “Current political and economic tensions, such as those in the Middle East and Latin America, continue to drive that demand for offshore domiciles that offer high levels of stability.”

Clearly, stability in an uncertain world as something worth paying for.

It is not surprising, given the complexity and opacity of China’s fast changing economy, that still today most investment into and out of the mainland is routed through offshore centres like the Caymans or the British Virgin islands (which in 2012, the latest date for which data is available, was the world’s fifth largest recipient of foreign investment inflows). Use of such centres makes incorporation simpler, gives access to tried and tested legal systems including for arbitration, and tax-neutral treatment of investment. All legitimate reasons from my vantage point.

So let us focus on what should be focused on: the opacity that disguises the flight of corrupt money, the financing of terror, and illegal manoeuvres circumventing legal obligations. Expecting banks to “know your customer”, and enabling them to share information on suspect movements of money, would be helpful. Governments can also help here by making tax systems more simple. This might not be as glamorous as a peek into the lives of the super-rich, or of Putin’s favourite cellist, but it would be a good start.

David Dodwell is executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group