Argument

Will the Panama Papers Be a Catalyst for Change?

Will the Panama Papers Be a Catalyst for Change?

If it were not for the sheer enormity of the data dump, the “Panama Papers” scandal might have been met with the global equivalent of Captain Louis Renault’s “shocked” realization that there was gambling in Rick’s Café Américain. After all, the revelation that there is rampant corruption in weakly governed countries or in places run by strongman dictators isn’t much of a revelation. One need not delve too deeply into the history books to find similar activities; the billions found to be held offshore by Hosni Mubarak, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali easily make the point. Indeed, so well-known was Mubarak’s penchant for corruption that the Swiss bank that held some of his assets reported them to the new Egyptian government — before they were even requested.

But sometimes more actually is more, and the Panama Papers certainly provide more of everything — documents, shell companies, clients, countries affected, government officials involved — than has ever been made public previously. The volume of information makes WikiLeaks look like amateur hour. Add some bold-faced names like Putin, Xi Jinping, and Nawaz Sharif, as well as relatives of bold-faced names (e.g., David Cameron’s dad and Ilham Aliyev’s wife and kids), and a blockbuster of a scandal is born. With so many different facets of the story beyond the obvious charge of corruption, such as the potential political fallout and tax evasion by celebrities, the media will be feeding off this for weeks.

Fusion puts the number of current or former government leaders tied to Mossack Fonseca — the Panamanian law firm at the heart of the matter — at an even dozen. But more than 10 times as many current and former politicians and government officials also took advantage of the benefits anonymity provides. Some 29 Forbes-level billionaires are among those outed by the person or persons who provided the data to Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. Data related to Americans who might have been involved have not yet been released.

While this story is still in the early days of its timeline, it is not too early to debate whether the Panama Papers are likely to be a catalyst for change. Whereas 9/11 was the impetus for the elimination of shell banks, and the 2008 global financial crisis created the political will to initiate the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) plan, it is unclear if what has gushed out of Panama will be perceived as a crisis. If it is perceived as such, then real change, in the form of the elimination of anonymous shell corporations, may be achieved. However, if the illegal activities of the politically ensconced and financial elite are seen as terrible but, alas, just business as usual, little reform is likely to occur. Put another way, after enduring the seemingly endless whorl of bank scandals, Lux Leaks, corporate tax evasion, sweetheart deals, and kickbacks, is the world suffering from corruption fatigue?

The answers to two questions may indicate which way this will play out. The first question is, who are the people among the 14,000 clients who are not well-known political, business, or entertainment figures? How much money do they have, how did they make it, and why do they hide it? The second is, how will society react to the scandal? Will they grumble for a while but ultimately shuffle back to their Sisyphean struggle against inequity? Or, perhaps, will another Mohamed Bouazizi emerge? Bouazizi, the street vendor who self-immolated in protest over the impenetrable miasma of corruption, bureaucracy, and maltreatment by the Tunisian government, ultimately spurred a revolution.

Iceland’s government has already fallen as a result of the Panama Papers leak, but a strong, simultaneous, coordinated protest by civil society across many countries is a much harder ask. If there is no demonstrated will to demand transparency from government, the Panama Papers will ultimately be another in a list of whistleblower actions that cause a stir but not much more than a handful of prosecutions. Ironically, the test of this leak’s impact may not be driven solely by revelations about world leaders implicated in the Mossack Fonseca scandal that are currently driving the headlines. It will be about the relatively well-off, but otherwise unknown, individuals who use opaque companies to shield their wealth. If it is determined that the bulk of those hiding money offshore are not the ultra-wealthy but include the local restaurateur hiding money from the tax man or the neighborhood dentist hiding money from his ex-wife, then that may be the impetus political leaders need to act. The common assumption is that only the extremely wealthy can avail themselves of the benefits of the murky world of international finance. But with an internet browser and a few hundred dollars, anyone can gain access to what was once an exclusive club. If those now hiding funds offshore are among the upper-middle class, severe corrosion of the tax base will have begun and the tipping point will have been reached.

The steps to attack the problem are not difficult to conceive but need significant political will to implement. The crux of the problem is not tax havens themselves or even offshore bank accounts. It is the secret, anonymous ownership of companies that allows tax evaders, money launderers, and corrupt government officials to act with impunity. Take away the ability to create companies anonymously, and many other challenges become easier to address. If civil society perceives the Panama Papers as a crisis and reacts assertively, and it is determined that the merely wealthy are using the offshore financial system in significant numbers, the political will to effect change may instinctively follow.

This would, of course, require global cooperation, which could begin with the G-8 or the G-20 leading the way while coordinating with other rule-making bodies. Given that the G-20 was the catalyst for the BEPS project in 2013, this approach has proved very useful in the past. Plus, individual nations can and should demonstrate leadership as well. The U.S. government, which was so effective in pushing for more transparency in global banking with its passage of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act in 2010, could similarly spearhead the effort to require transparent ownership of all newly incorporated entities. There will always be outliers — countries that refuse to adopt the new requirements. But, over time, those will become increasingly rare as their pariah status is readily apparent.

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