Is the veil of secrecy that has sheltered tax havens and their cosseted inhabitants for decades about to be torn down? If you believe the rhetoric of western politicians, the island enclaves and Alpine citadels that offer refuges for publicity-shy firms and super-rich individuals are about to be hit by an unprecedented assault.
Gordon Brown’s speech to Congress last week typified the new hard-line tone. Basking in multiple standing ovations, the prime minister asked: ‘How much safer would everybody’s savings be if the whole world finally came together to outlaw shadow banking systems and outlaw offshore tax havens?’
For countries and territories that built their economies on their tax haven status, these are alarming words. In the words of one official: ‘The tax havens thought they found the goose that laid the golden egg. Now they are being told to cut its throat. Predictably, they are very reluctant to do so.’
Tax havens have long been seen as an irksome but unavoidable fact of life. But now they are a top policy priority.
There are two reasons for this. At a time when world economic activity it tanking, national treasuries are desperate to shore up their shrinking tax bases.
Campaigners at the Tax Justice Network claim £181billion of government revenues are lost every year because of the use of tax havens – although such estimates are widely questioned.
On top of this, tax havens were central to some of the exotic and sometimes illegal investment activities that have brought the world banking system to its knees.
Western governments want to bring them into their regulatory net as part of a wide-ranging crackdown on ‘casino capitalism’.
Exhibit number one is Sir Allen Stanford, the financier accused of running a multi-billion dollar fraud from the tiny island of Antigua.
The backlash was already well under way during last year’s presidential election campaign. Barack Obama repeatedly attacked the Cayman Islands, singling out a building in George Town, the island’s capital city, that houses 18,000 companies.
But now a new, draconian bill 77 – the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act 77 – is passing through Congress with presidential backing.
Cracking down will be a central issue at the forthcoming London G20 summit, as leaders attempt to reshape the global financial architecture.
France and Germany have recently raised the stakes by calling for Switzerland to be added to a tax haven blacklist – an extraordinary threat to the nation’s longstanding bank secrecy laws.
Scenting the winds of change, Singapore is already moving to water down its banking laws. Jersey is today expected to sign an agreement with Britain under which it opens its opaque financial system up to greater scrutiny.
Offshore players claim the more extreme rhetoric is misguided. Charles Jennings, managing partner of leading Cayman Islands law firm Maples and Calder, says: ‘There has always been an almost colonial approach to Caribbean jurisdictions, in which they are somehow regarded as fungible.
‘We are as far away from Antigua as Sweden is from Gibraltar both physically and in terms of our regulations.’
And there is an element of hypocrisy in Britain’s position in particular. Brown has spent years defending non-dom taxpayers and allowing the City to operate hand in hand with offshore havens under a threadbare regulatory net. It is unclear now how genuine his new tough talking stance is.
As Vince Cable of the Lib Dems says: ‘While Gordon Brown is rattling on about how terrible it all is, for many years he actively encouraged activities in the Channel Islands (and elsewhere) because the City told him it was necessary to use these places to attract business to London.’
While it is easy for politicians to bash offshore tax havens, obtaining an international agreement on a crackdown will be far from straightforward.