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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

What are the Panama Papers?

The Panama Papers are an unprecedented leak of 11.5m files from the database of the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca.
The records were obtained from an anonymous source by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). 

What do they reveal?
The documents show the myriad ways in which the rich can exploit secretive offshore tax regimes. Twelve national leaders are among 143 politicians, their families and close associates from around the world known to have been using offshore tax havens.

Among national leaders with offshore wealth are Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister; Ayad Allawi, ex-interim prime minister and former vice-president of Iraq; Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine; Alaa Mubarak, son of Egypt’s former president; and the prime minister of Iceland, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson.

An offshore investment fund run by the father of British prime minister David Cameron avoided ever having to pay tax in Britain by hiring a small army of Bahamas residents to sign its paperwork. The fund has been registered with HM Revenue and Customs since its inception and has filed detailed tax returns every year.

What is Mossack Fonseca?
It is a Panama-based law firm whose services include incorporating companies in offshore jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands. It administers offshore firms for a yearly fee. Other services include wealth management.

Where is it based?
The firm is Panamanian but runs a worldwide operation. Its website boasts of a global network with 600 people working in 42 countries. It has franchises around the world, where separately owned affiliates sign up new customers and have exclusive rights to use its brand. Mossack Fonseca operates in tax havens including Switzerland, Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands, and in the British crown dependencies Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man.

The transfer of wealth
The hiding places
Mossack Fonseca data seen by the Guardian relates to more than 200,000 companies for which the firm acted as registered agent. Often used lawfully to anonymously hold property and bank accounts, these companies were registered in a range of tax havens and this map shows the most popular locations among its clients. The British Virgin Islands held more than 100,000 companies.

The intermediaries
Rather than dealing directly with company owners, Mossack Fonseca mostly acted on instructions from intermediaries, usually accountants, lawyers, banks and trust companies. In Europe, these offshore facilitators are concentrated in Switzerland, Jersey, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom.

The hidden owners
Where does the money flowing offshore come from? The information is hard to discover because real owners usually hide behind nominees, people with no real control and no assets in the company who simply lend their signature. A small sample of about 13,000 owners from all over the world, recently compiled by Mossack Fonseca, gives some indication. China and Russia top the list.

How big is it?
Mossack Fonseca is the world’s fourth biggest provider of offshore services. It has acted for more than 300,000 companies. There is a strong UK connection. More than half of the companies are registered in British-administered tax havens, as well as in the UK itself.

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