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Paradise Papers — what you need to know

November 6, 2017

The release of the leaked Paradise Papers has uncovered the complex world of global tax avoidance, showing it to be a much bigger business than previously supposed. And this is just the beginning.

Hamilton marina
Image: picture.alliance/dpa/H. Ossinger

Dubbed the Paradise Papers, this trove of 13.4 million leaked documents details the lengths that some of the world's richest and most powerful have gone to in order to avoid paying taxes. The files, some of which date all the way back to 1950, include emails, business agreements and bank statements.

Nearly half of the files — around 6.8 million — are from one "offshore law firm" called Appleby. The company, founded in 1898 in Bermuda, operates today in nine other locations: the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Guernsey, Hong Kong, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Shanghai. The company's website is in English, Russian and Chinese.

Read more: Offshore — The legal and not so legal

The cache of documents also includes company registries from 19 countries and half a million records from Asiaciti Trust, a corporate service provider headquartered in Singapore.

Where did these files come from?

Last month, Appleby admitted that hackers had breached its system in 2016 and that client data may have possibly been compromised.

The Germany daily Süddeutsche Zeitung was the first media outlet to obtain the leaked documents. The newspaper, which was also the first press outlet to get the leaked Panama Papers last year, again turned to the American-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for help with coordination.

This time, the ICIJ led a group of 96 media partners around the world to filter all the data before going public. According to the Guardian, which worked on both cases, in all 381 journalists from 67 countries were involved in the Paradise Papers investigation.

Who's involved?

A lot of names have been tossed around already, but the most prominent to date is Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

Read more: Paradise Papers prompts probe of India's corporates

The ICIJ has said that the names of more than 120 politicians in around 50 countries appear in the documents.

So far, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and a close adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been brought into focus, while away from that sphere, U2 singer Bono and Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton are among those mentioned.

The ICIJ says that "in all, the offshore ties of more than a dozen Trump advisers, Cabinet members and major donors appear in the leaked data."

Infografik Data leaks ENG

Read more: The biggest tax evasion data leaks in history

Multinational corporations like Nike, Apple, Uber and Facebook have also been singled out for consistent use of loopholes to sidestep local tax obligations.

In Apple's case, for example, the company was found to have shifted a major slice of its offshore wealth from Ireland to the British low tax dependency of Jersey. The technology giant defended the move, stating in a post that profits were moved to Jersey while it was making corporate changes to adapt to Ireland's new tax tightening laws in 2015.

What has actually been revealed?

In the queen's case, the documents reveal that around £10 million ($13 million/€11.3 million) of her private money was placed in funds held in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. Though there is no suggestion of illegal activity or a failure to pay any taxes due, the case leaves a bad aftertaste, especially since it involves a head of state.

Read more: Germans among those featured in the Paradise Papers

In the US, the document leak may prove more explosive since close business links have already been shown between the commerce secretary and the inner circle of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Also included in the release are details on how Apple moved its operations from Ireland to an offshore center to avoid tax. The US tech giant says the report contains several "inaccuracies".

The initial wave of revelations are only the start of a coming week full of disclosures, during which more of the world's most powerful politicians and conglomerates, along with the super rich, will be exposed for using trusts, foundations and faceless shell companies to hide money.

What does this all mean?

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross
US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been named in the documentsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Balce Ceneta

Tax havens are legal, even though they help keep funds beyond the reach of tax authorities, regulators and criminal investigations. The Guardian has nevertheless hinted that some of these popular loopholes have been used illegally to get around sanctions and hide relationships.

"While having an offshore entity is often legal, the built-in secrecy attracts money launderers, drug traffickers, kleptocrats and others who want to operate in the shadows," said the ICIJ. "Offshore companies, often 'shells' with no employees or office space, are also used in complex tax-avoidance structures that drain billions from national treasuries."

Read more: Apple shifted billions offshore to avoid tax

Even after the shock of the Panama Papers disclosures last year, the global offshore financial system remains much more complex and larger than anyone has imagined. Creative bookkeeping and secrecy have allowed businesses and individuals to avoid taxes at an astonishing rate, increasing their riches with little thought of the consequences.

For anyone with offshore dealings, the next week will be one full of apprehension. But whether these revelations change anything in the long run is another question altogether. History is usually on the side of the rich.

Timothy A. Rooks
Timothy Rooks One of DW's business reporters, Timothy Rooks is based in Berlin.
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