Let’s say I’m a South Africa-based factory owner and you’re a solar panel salesperson from New York City. I want some solar panels to make my factory more self-sufficient, and we agree I’ll pay you $1 million for them. But I ask you a favor: Could you invoice me for $1.2 million and then deposit the extra $200,000 that I just gave you into another company’s bank account in New York City. You’re eager to close a big sale, so we agree to the deal.
You might know false invoicing is illegal, you might not, but it’s very unlikely either of us gets caught anyway. What you don’t know is that I actually made most of that $1,200,000 from my side business, smuggling poached elephant ivory to China; the money I’m about to wire into your bank account comes from my Canary Islands bank account where I send all my business earnings to minimize tax obligations; and I’m going to use that $200,000 to purchase stolen art from a broker in midtown Manhattan so I can decorate my future retirement home in the Seychelles, where another company I control anonymously just purchased some beachfront property.
Each year, roughly $1 trillion moves out of developing countries through a tangled network of anonymous shell companies, tax havens, and trade mispricing techniques like our invoice example, according to Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a Washington, D.C.-based research organization that studies these so-called illicit financial flows and their beneficiaries. That’s $10 in illicit financial outflows for every $1 of foreign aid flowing in.
GFI and its allies support greater financial transparency as the antidote to illicit financial flows. “While regulation can require a lot of work on the part of government regulators, transparency requires minimal work by comparison,” says Clark Gascoigne, GFI communications director. “Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously wrote that ‘sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.’”
A little transparency can go a long way, for example, when it comes to shell companies like in the example above that are used to buy stolen art or to purchase land anonymously.
Around 2 million corporations and LLCs are registered annually in the U.S. alone. The vast majority of those companies do great things like creating jobs and wealth and in more and more cases some form of social good. But a tiny percentage of shell companies slip through the cracks each year, allowing poachers, corrupt dictators, small arms dealers, terrorists, drug traffickers, and human traffickers to conduct illicit business as easily as any Fortune 500 company.
On May 24, 2012, a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing weighed-in on a recently re-introduced bill that if passed would allow law enforcement and tax authorities easier access to the information needed to determine which companies registered in any U.S. state are legitimate and which are shell companies for criminals. Forty-one nonprofits and business groups signed an open letter to the Senate and House in support of the reform. It’s just one of many ways to reduce opportunities to do harm while increasing opportunities to do good.
“In the 21st century, a world of ubiquitous cheap information, it should be possible to close down the space for illicit financial flows by establishing mechanisms for data sharing,” says Owen Barder, senior fellow and Europe director at the Center for Global Development. “We have the opportunity now to change the rules of the game so that international financial flows benefit, rather than impoverish, the majority of people round the world.”
The extent of benefits to developing countries from reducing illicit financial flows isn’t yet known, but the potential is huge. “[Save the Children’s Head of Research] Alex Cobham recently documented that if Zambia were selling its copper at world market prices, instead of laundering it through Switzerland to take the profits off-shore, Zambia’s GDP would be 50% higher,” says Barder.
“The issue is getting nothing like the attention it deserves,” Barder adds. “There are no academics researching the poverty impact of illicit financial flows. NGOs deserve credit for raising the issue, but it needs to be underpinned by more rigorous and comprehensive research.”
Of course cynics may be inclined to think if some loopholes close then criminals will just find another way around. That’s no excuse, says Gascoigne.
“Transparency makes it hard to find new loopholes. While regulations can often be twisted and circumvented by innovative accountants and attorneys, transparency mechanisms are much harder to circumvent,” he asserts. “Moreover, we know what loopholes currently exist, and we know how to address them. If we close these loopholes and new loopholes arise in the future, we can address them in turn. But that is no excuse for ignoring the problems in front of us today.”