Revelations from nearly 12 million leaked confidential financial records have thrown light on the concealed wealth of powerful public figures around the world. How do they hide their money, and why is this information important?
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The headlines thundered: Jordan’s king amassed $100 million in concealed property including homes in Malibu, London and Washington. An alleged mistress of Russia’s leader managed to covertly buy a luxury residence in Monaco. The Czech Republic’s prime minister, an anticorruption crusader, secretly acquired a French Riviera estate.
Revelations from the Pandora Papers report, a collaboration by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and media partners that include The Washington Post and The Guardian, began reverberating through and beyond the financial world of the rich and powerful almost immediately after the authors started releasing them on Sunday.
The report (the name Pandora comes from the Greek myth about a sealed jar containing the world’s evils) was based on what its authors described as 11.9 million records leaked from 14 firms in the offshore financial services industry, depicting how the wealthy hide their assets. More than 600 journalists in 117 countries worked on it.
The Pandora Papers established links of offshore activity to more than twice as many politicians and public officials as did the Panama Papers, an incriminating report about the offshore banking industry released by the journalism consortium five years ago. The Pandora Papers include information on more than 330 politicians and public officials from over 90 countries and territories, including 35 current and former country leaders.
A thriving sector of the financial services industry specializes in helping affluent clients obscure their assets and legally minimize the taxes they would otherwise owe. These advantages are achieved through a couple of basic methods, built around the principles of disguised ownership and low regulation. Hiding wealth is a specialty offered by tax havens such as Panama, Dubai, Monaco, Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, as well as some American states like South Dakota and Delaware.
Secret ownership of homes and other assets can be cloaked by anonymous companies — companies that are not required to identify their owners. In some countries, there are no regulatory requirements to identify and register the so-called beneficial owners of property — the people who directly benefit from a property even if someone else’s name is listed as the owner. The use of this beneficial ownership loophole enables the true owners to hide behind layers of legal records that can be difficult or impossible to disentangle: The owner of company A can be identified as company B, and the owner of company B can be identified as company C, and so on.
Many wealthy individuals may have valid reasons to legally protect disclosures about their assets — to shield them from unscrupulous associates or extortion attempts, for example, or to ensure inheritance for their descendants. But advocates of greater financial transparency say the system is abused, vulnerable to corruption and built for greed. Much of the offshore financial services industry is unregulated or self-regulated. Some of the bankers, auditors and accountants who work in the industry are former officials who know the gaps in the system.
“The Pandora Papers reveal the inner workings of what is a shadow financial world, providing a window into the hidden operations of a global offshore economy,” said the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation, a Paris-based advocacy group that welcomed the report. It said the system “enables some of the world’s richest people and multinationals to hide their wealth and in some cases pay little or no tax.”
The report was published against the backdrop of an ever sharpening rich-poor divide in the world, made worse by the pandemic, which has heightened emotional resentments about wealthy privilege in many countries.
The revelations can also carry a political sting, even in countries where leaders have limited accountability to the public such as Russia, which has an authoritarian leader, and Jordan, which is a monarchy. This kind of report gives the public information and insight into its leaders that the political structure denies it, and can be politically damaging.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is not directly named in the Pandora report but was linked by associates to assets in Monaco, including a home acquired by a Russian woman who was reported to have had a child with him. Mr. Putin’s spokesman called the findings unsubstantiated.
King Abdullah of Jordan was accused of using shell companies registered in the Caribbean to acquire 15 properties in the United States, Britain and elsewhere. His office said the king had used his own personal wealth to buy them.
“I don’t think this is the end of Vladimir Putin — let’s not get carried away,” said Gary Kalman, director of the U.S. office of Transparency International, an organization that monitors financial corruption around the world. “But I do think the leaders of these countries, King Abdullah and others, do worry about their reputations,” Mr. Kalman said in a telephone interview.
For King Abdullah especially, he said, Jordanians now know “he has spent money on properties in Malibu and Georgetown, while in Jordan they don’t have enough money to provide basic services. That looks really bad.”
For leaders who campaigned on pledges to curtail corruption — like those in Pakistan, the Czech Republic and Kenya, for example — to be included in the Pandora report is acutely embarrassing.
“In any country, there is a tipping point, at which point people are angry and upset,” said Lakshmi Kumar, policy director at Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based research group on illicit financial flows and other corruption. “We are already there, in a lot of these countries.”
Ms. Kumar and others said they hoped the Pandora report would accelerate action to strengthen international financial regulations, curb tax avoidance and severely restrict the ways that the wealthy can hide assets. One of her main takeaways from the report, she said, was the complicity of bankers in helping their most affluent clients.
“When you are that rich, and you are looking for a creative way to hide money, you cannot do it alone,” she said. “You need a network of professionals to help you. These people are often people who are meant to safeguard the financial system.”