More than two million emails that shed light on the biggest tax dodge in history - trillions of dollars hidden in offshore accounts - have been uncovered by the British newspaper The Guardian and the Washington, D.C.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
Some $32 trillion has been hidden in small island banking hubs which host a bevy of trust funds, shell corporations and other tax havens, the Tax Justice Network estimates.
This money is to the financial world what the Higgs boson and dark matter are to particle physics: It's tough to prove it's there, but the universe doesn't make much sense without it. It's just a matter of connecting the money to the people hiding it.
That's been a tall order... until now.
An Unprecedented Tax Dodge
Next to this bombshell, Wikileaks looks like a first-grader's game of Telephone.
In fact, the leak contains more than 200 gigabytes of data, compared with Wikileaks' two gigabytes.
The information is still being sifted through, even as it's being released to the public, but here's some of what's been found so far:
- American Denise Rich, ex-wife of pardoned tax cheat Marc Rich, has been uncovered as the settlor and beneficiary of two large trusts based in the tiny Cook Islands. The ICIJ found that Denise Rich gave up her American citizenship in 2012. Her citizenship was convenient enough when President Clinton had the authority to pardon her ex-husband.
- French President Francois Hollande, ardent socialist and tireless champion of the 75% marginal tax rate, appears in these documents, mostly by association. His campaign co-treasurer, Jean-Jacques Augier, has been forced to reveal the name of his Chinese business partner in a Caymans-based distribution company. Augier says he used his offshore company to make a large investment in China.
- Australian actor Paul Hogan, of "Crocodile Dundee" fame, has lost about $35.3 million from an account that he used to offshore his "bonza" film royalties. His once-trusted tax adviser Philip Egglishaw ran off with Hogan's sizeable hidden offshore stash.
- French banking scion Elie de Rothschild, of the famous banking family, has been named in the leaks. He was instrumental in setting up some 20 trusts and 10 holding companies in the Cook Islands, all extremely opaque in nature. His heirs have, not surprisingly, refused comment.
- Brigitte Bardot's third ex-husband, Gunter Sachs, a millionaire industrialist, has been revealed as the owner of a huge, obscure wealth-masking machine: trust upon shell company upon holding company, almost ad infinitum, mostly based in the Cook Islands. The ICIJ has constructed an interactive map of Sachs' extensive offshore holdings and business networks. The network is fairly representative of the steps that many on this list have taken to hide their wealth away. You can marvel at its imponderable complexity here.
And these names are barely the tip of the iceberg. The shockwaves have already begun to spread through the corridors of wealth and power all over the world.
How Much is $32 Trillion?
It bears repeating: $32 trillion has been stashed away, off the books, by corporations and wealthy individuals.
Let that sink in for a moment. The implications are stupefying. The real effects of this are far more subtle, and pernicious, but this makes for a fun thought exercise - even setting aside the fact that only some percentage of this huge sum would be fair game for the tax man.
In the extremely unlikely event that all $32 trillion was added to government coffers, that would be enough to give every man, woman and child alive on Earth today a roughly $4,600 "stimulus" check.
Maybe we could all enjoy a two-week vacation in the British Virgin Islands. After all, it seems to be the destination of choice for monied types...
A Bright, Sunny Hub for Dark Business
The British Virgin Islands appear to be at the epicenter of this huge offshore stash.
The small Caribbean islands specialize in tourism and financial services. Along with far-flung places like Liechtenstein, Sark in the English Channel, the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, the Caymans and others, the British Virgin Islands are home to thousands of shadowy front companies, trusts and funds that host the bulk of this $32 trillion stash.
As of 2000, the last year verifiable data was available, roughly 400,000 companies were listed in the BVI offshore registry. The number certainly has increased. Some of these countries remain underdeveloped, their citizens impoverished, even though they have high per-capita GDPs, and trillions flow to and from their shores.
Tax havens like these tend to have in common secretive banking laws and loose residency requirements, which make them appealing to those with money to hide. In once extreme case, The Guardianlocated an erstwhile British subject, Sarah Petre-Mears, who was the "nominal director" of nearly 1,200 companies across the world.
Less a captain of industry and more a shill for dodgy investors, Petre-Mears ran companies fronting everything from porn sites to time-share vacation properties. She used dozens of different addresses across the globe, with most turning out to be post office boxes and mail drops.
The consequences of this enormous tax dodge are hard to calculate. How does one reckon who's entitled to what? Which country's tax rate do you use - Canada? Azerbaijan? Slovenia?
There's almost certainly an impact to national budgets, from highway construction to military spending to social programs.
It's safe to say that whenever anyone anywhere feels the sting of budget cutbacks, whether a brigadier-general in South Africa or a primary school teacher in England, they'll have a world-class selection of tax cheats in part to blame.
Journalists are still sifting through the data contained in this massive leak, but as they go along, there're no telling who will appear in the data - and those people are running out of time and places to hide.
Leaks reveal secrets of the rich who hide cash offshore
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists:
Who Uses the Offshore World
The Tax Justice Network:
The Price of Offshore Revisited
Central Intelligence Agency:
The CIA World Factbook
Sham Directors: the woman running 1,200 companies from a Caribbean rock