Traditional methods for identifying tax havens analyse tax and legal structures for base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) tools. However, this approach follows a purely quantitative approach, ignoring any taxation or legal concepts, to instead follow a big data analysis of the ownership chains of 98 million global companies. The technique gives both a method of classification and a method of understanding the relative scale – but not absolute scale – of havens/OFCs.
24 global sink OFCs: jurisdictions in which a "disproportional amount of value disappears from the economic system" (i.e. the traditional tax havens).[a]
Five global conduit OFCs: jurisdictions "through which a disproportional amount of value moves toward sink OFCs" (i.e. modern corporate tax havens).[b]
Our findings debunk the myth of tax havens[c] as exotic far-flung islands that are difficult, if not impossible, to regulate. Many offshore financial centers[c] are highly developed countries with strong regulatory environments.
OECD lists: Started with 35 locations in 2000 (none of which were OECD members), but by 2017, only listed Trinidad & Tobago as a tax haven.
IMF OFC lists: Started with 46 OFCs in June 2000 using qualitative methods; refined to 22 OFCs in April 2007 using purely quantitive methods; listed the eight major OFCs in 2018 who handle 85% of all flows; by 2010, the tax academics considered OFCs as synonymous with tax havens.
Oxfam lists: Focus on legal corporate tax avoidance, and ranked OECD members Netherlands, Ireland and Luxembourg in their top 10.
ITEP lists: Focus on offshore structures of US S&P500 firms, and list the Netherlands, Ireland, the Caribbean, and Luxembourg in their top five.
There are "traditional" tax havens common on all these lists (e.g. some Caribbean and Channel Islands locations), which some global regulators have either blacklisted, or have issued formal warnings/threat of sanctions against, unless transparency is increased.
However, a key difference between the lists regards the major OECD and EU tax havens (or offshore financial centres), such as Switzerland, Ireland the Netherlands and Luxembourg (amongst others). Major regulators like the EU and the OECD don't regard OECD or EU countries as tax havens, and point to their transparency and compliance with international regulations.
"Uncovering Offshore Financial Centers": Example of a corporate global ownership chain.
A report published in Nature in 2017 on the analysis of offshore financial centres called: "Uncovering Offshore Financial Centers: Conduits and Sinks in the Global Corporate Ownership Network", provided a quantitative and scientific approach to the classification of tax havens.
The report was the result of a multi-year investigation by political economists and computer scientists in the CORPNET research group at the University of Amsterdam. CORPNET is a European Research Council funded group at the University of Amsterdam investigating networks of corporate control.
The report used the Moody's Orbis corporate database, to examine 98 million global companies and their 71 million ownership connections (using big data computer modelling) to identify 5 global Conduit OFCs (Netherlands, United Kingdom, Ireland, Singapore and Switzerland). These are countries of high financial reputation (i.e. not formally labelled "tax havens" by OECD/EU), but who have "advanced" legal and tax structuring vehicles (and SPVs) that help legally route funds to the 24 tax havens (called Sink OFCs), without incurring tax in the Conduit OFC (or even tax in the source of funds location, where royalty payment schemes can be used).
The work built on methods established in the "Offshore–Intensity Ratio", and in particular the understanding "activity" relative to the "scale" of the domestic economy in a country. At its crudest level, the Offshore-Intensity Ratio explains why the countries at the top of global GDP per capita lists are mostly tax havens.
The EU Parliament's Policy Department on Economic and Scientific Policies included the research in its findings for the EU Committee on Money laundering, tax avoidance and tax evasion (PANA), and by tabulating against existing EU–IMF–FSI list of tax havens, showed material gaps in EU understanding of conduits.
CORPNET's top 5 Conduits and top 5 Sinks are 9 of the 10 largest tax havens identified in 2010 by one of the academic founders of tax haven research, James R. Hines Jr. Hines' 2010 list of 10 major tax havens only differs in its omission of the U.K., which in 2010, had only just reformed its corporate tax system. CORPNET's top 5 Conduits and top 5 Sinks closely reconcile with the top 10 major corporate tax havens of other major academic and non–governmental organisation tax haven lists. Other tax academics have incorporated the research into their understanding of tax havens.
Conduit OFCs are described as having advanced legal and tax systems designed to enable corporations to route funds from high tax locations (e.g. Germany) to the sink OFCs (e.g. Bermuda). They tend to have attractive "holding company" regimes (e.g. no withholding taxes, foreign dividends exempt from taxes, capital gains reliefs, full double–tax relief), advanced tax treatment of intellectual property regimes, and large global networks of bilateral tax treaties.
For example, CORPNET's five major conduit OFCs, all have a top–ten ranking in the 2018 Global Innovation Property Centre (GIPC) IP Index. IP has been described as the "raw materials of corporate tax avoidance", and "the leading corporate tax avoidance vehicle".
Conduit OFCs are shown to be dominated by major law firms and global accounting firms, who create the lawfully constructed special purpose vehicles (SPVs) and BEPS tools that make the connections with the sink OFCs, by exploiting legislative loopholes such as the Double Irish and Dutch Sandwich. They advise clients on anticipating future changes (e.g. from OECD BEPS processes), that may need new loopholes (e.g. the single malt arrangement).
Other researchers into tax havens have written that professional service firms in the major OECD and EU tax havens write most of their state's relevant taxation and SPV-related legislation, so that they can create and protect loopholes, and refer to such jurisdictions as being a "captured" by their financial services industry. The legal and tax structuring undertaken by conduit OFCs is considered beyond the trust–structuring type work of the traditional tax haven "offshore magic circle" law firms. Conduit OFCs need structures that can integrate with bilateral tax treaties involving G20 countries, as well as meeting U.S. GAAP / SEC Regulations that U.S. multinationals, one of the largest users of conduit OFCs, need to adhere to.
CORPNET's top five global conduit OFCs channel 47% of corporate offshore connections and include the following:
Netherlands – the largest global conduit OFC (by total connections), with dense links from the EU–28 (via the "Dutch Sandwich"), to the EU sink OFC of Luxembourg, and the Caribbean sink OFC "triad" of Bermuda/BVI/Cayman.
United Kingdom – second-largest conduit OFC (by total connections), with dense links from Europe to Asia; 18 of the 24 sink OFCs are current, or past, dependencies of the UK (see table on sink OFCs).
Switzerland – a major conduit OFC with a very dense network of connections with Jersey, the fourth-largest sink OFC.
Singapore – the main conduit OFC for Asia, and densely connected to the two major Asian sink OFCs of Hong Kong and Taiwan.
"Uncovering Offshore Financial Centers": List of Sink OFCs ordered by value (showing U.K. dependencies).
Sink OFCs cover a broad range of locations from very small countries (e.g. the Marshall Islands), to major global financial centres (e.g. Hong Kong).
Just because funds reach a Sink OFC, does not mean that they remain dormant. Quite the contrary, the funds can be invested in assets all over the world, but their legal ownership and future gains remain in the Sink OFC. For example, the circa US$1 trillion of US company offshore cash is held in Sink OFCs (esp. the Caribbean).
The report highlighted some interesting aspects of the 24 Sink OFCs:
British Virgin Islands – in terms of connections, the BVI was the "Netherlands of sink OFCs" and heavily linked with the conduit OFC United Kingdom.
Luxembourg and Hong Kong – could have been considered conduit OFCs, but CORPNET's research showed they are even bigger sink OFCs (e.g. long-term homes for funds), Luxembourg (for routing funds from high-tax EU countries), and Hong Kong (for routing funds out of China).
Jersey – remains a unique link with major conduit OFC, Switzerland (because the study could not capture individual "Jersey trusts", it noted that the scale of Jersey could still be understated).
Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Triad – these three traditional tax havens are heavily interlinked and starting to present as one large Sink OFC.
Taiwan – has been a controversial entrant on several tax haven lists (the Tax Justice Network calls Taiwan the "Switzerland of Asia", however, Taiwan is not on any EU/OECD/IMF tax-haven list), and is identified as the 2nd largest Asian Sink OFC.
Cayman Islands – the Cayman Islands are becoming the biggest financial centre for Central and Latin America.
Malta – the report highlights the rise of sink OFC Malta as an emerging tax haven "inside" the EU, which has been a source of wider media scrutiny.
Mauritius – has become a major Sink OFC for both SE Asia (especially India), and African economies, and now ranking 8th overall.
Of the wider tax environment, O'Rourke thinks the OECD base–erosion and profit–shifting (BEPS) process is "very good" for Ireland. "If BEPS sees itself to a conclusion, it will be good for Ireland".
The Isle of Man (the "IOM") was absent from the list of top sink OFCs. The IOM appears on tax–haven lists and ranks 42 on the 2018 Financial Secrecy Index.
The Chief Minister of the IOM, Howard Quayle, announced that the CORPNET report proved that the IOM is not a tax haven. However, CORPNET researchers from the University of Amsterdam directly replied to Howard Quayle's article clarifying that while the IOM does not appear as a leading sink OFC for corporate tax avoidance, it does not mean that individuals (personal bank accounts and trusts) do not use the IOM to avoid taxes, and particularly United Kingdom VAT.
Other commentators have added that the IOM is "failing as a tax haven", and is now too small to appear in major studies like the CORPNET research.
The CORPNET report used legal corporate connections on the Orbis database, rather than the actual "quantum" of money, as its primary metric of analysis. In theory, the authors felt that this does not impede the goal of classification, and of making relative rankings. However, it does mean the "monetary amount" of potential tax avoidance was not calculated.
The tax haven academic and author of The Hidden Wealth of Nations, Gabriel Zucman, used a different quantitative approach. Zucman focused on macro–data of national statistical accounts. In theory, the total assets in a system should equal the total liabilities. By aggregating national account data, Zucman identified an excess of liabilities over assets, implying that the missing assets (to balance the equation), are hidden in tax–havens. On this basis, in 2015, he estimated that 8% of the world's wealth (or US$7.6 trillion) was "missing" in offshore tax–havens.
Zucman's analysis highlighted the special case of Ireland and why the Orbis database underestimates Ireland's scale as one of the world's largest corporate tax avoidance, or BEPS, hubs. In 2018, Zucman (et alia) showed that many of Ireland's U.S. multinationals don't appear on Orbis (e.g. Facebook), or only have a small fraction of their data on Orbis (e.g. Google and Apple). Analysed using "quantum of funds" (not "Orbis connections"), Zucman showed Ireland is one of the largest corporate tax shelters in the world, and a route for Zucman's estimated loss of 20% in EU corporate tax revenues annually.
^James R. Hines Jr. (2007). "Tax Havens"(PDF). University of Michigan. Archived(PDF) from the original on 24 September 2016. Retrieved 15 August 2018. There are roughly 45 major tax havens in the world today. Examples include Andorra, Ireland, Luxembourg and Monaco in Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore in Asia, and the Cayman Islands, the Netherlands Antilles, and Panama in the Americas.
^James R. Hines Jr.; Eric M. Rice (February 1994). "FISCAL PARADISE: FOREIGN TAX HAVENS AND AMERICAN BUSINESS"(PDF). Quarterly Journal of Economics (Harvard/MIT). 9 (1). Archived from the original(PDF) on 25 August 2017. Retrieved 15 August 2018. We identify 41 countries and regions as tax havens for the purposes of U. S. businesses. Together the seven tax havens with populations greater than one million (Hong Kong, Ireland, Liberia, Lebanon, Panama, Singapore, and Switzerland) account for 80 percent of total tax haven population and 89 percent of tax haven GDP.
^"Towards Global Tax Co-operation"(PDF). OECD. April 2000. p. 17. Archived(PDF) from the original on 31 March 2018. Retrieved 2 April 2018. TAX HAVENS: 1.Andorra 2.Anguilla 3.Antigua and Barbuda 4.Aruba 5.Bahamas 6.Bahrain 7.Barbados 8.Belize 9.British Virgin Islands 10.Cook Islands 11.Dominica 12.Gibraltar 13.Grenada 14.Guernsey 15.Isle of Man 16.Jersey 17.Liberia 18.Liechtenstein 19.Maldives 20.Marshall Islands 21.Monaco 22.Montserrat 23.Nauru 24.Net Antilles 25.Niue 26.Panama 27.Samoa 28.Seychelles 29.St. Lucia 30.St. Kitts & Nevis 31.St. Vincent and the Grenadines 32.Tonga 33.Turks & Caicos 34.U.S. Virgin Islands 35.Vanuatu
^Damgaard, Jannick; Elkjaer, Thomas; Johannesen, Niels (June 2018). "Piercing the Veil of Tax Havens". International Monetary Fund: Finance & Development Quarterly. 55 (2). Archived from the original on 12 June 2018. Retrieved 27 April 2019. The eight major pass-through economies—the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Hong Kong SAR, the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Ireland, and Singapore—host more than 85 percent of the world's investment in special purpose entities, which are often set up for tax reasons.
^Ken Silva (1 August 2017). "New study offers more nuanced look at offshore finance". Cayman Compass. Archived from the original on 2 April 2018. Retrieved 2 April 2018. When offshore financial centers receive criticism for being "tax havens", they often counter by pointing to larger countries in Europe and elsewhere that practice many of the same policies decried by the international community. A new study compiled by researchers at the University of Amsterdam buttresses that counter-argument, naming the U.K., Ireland, the Netherlands and other developed countries as places that facilitate tax avoidance
^Jan Fichtner (November 2017). "The Cayman conundrum: why is one tiny archipelago the largest financial centre in Latin America and the Caribbean?". London School of Economics. Archived from the original on 25 August 2018. Retrieved 27 April 2019. In a recent research paper, the CORPNET project analysed how millions of multinational corporations structure their global ownership chains. We found that Cayman acts as a 'sink' offshore financial centre that attracts and 'retains' foreign capital and/or where data trails often end. Large multinational agriculture commodity companies such as Bunge or Cargill that are active in the Amazon basin (e.g. in soy production) use the Cayman Islands in their global corporate ownership chains, thus most likely undermining the sustainability of a key global environmental commons
^Gabriel Zucman (8 November 2017). "The desperate inequality behind global tax dodging". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 8 March 2019. Retrieved 6 March 2019. The equivalent of 10% of global GDP is held offshore by rich individuals in the form of bank deposits, equities, bonds and mutual fund shares, most of the time in the name of faceless shell corporations, foundations and trusts.