How today’s despots and kleptocrats hide their stolen wealth

Alex Cooley and Jason Sharman write: On Oct. 27, the vice president and heir apparent to the tiny oil-rich West African state of Equatorial Guinea was convicted in a Paris court of money laundering and embezzlement. At stake is Vice President Teodorin Obaing’s $200 million Paris mansion, a 220-foot yacht and a fleet of luxury cars, which according to the French authorities represent the proceeds of corruption from his country’s oil wealth. A week later, a massive data-dump from the offshore firm Appleby, the “Paradise Papers,” exposed the financial dealings of thousands of firms and individuals in small island tax havens from the Caribbean to the South Pacific.

Together, the Obiang case and the Paradise Papers seem to give us a new version of two standard stories. In the first, a strongman from an endemically corrupt Third World state steals from his already impoverished citizens to fund conspicuous consumption, while in the second, secretive tax havens hide the dubious funds of the rich and (in)famous. Developing countries like Equatorial Guinea are stigmatized by their poor performance in international rankings such as Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index, while the tax havens are increasingly taking flak from richer countries and international organizations. The international watchdogs and scholarly writings on the subject tend to suggest that corruption is a national, bordered phenomenon best assessed and countered on a state-by-state basis.

This is wrong. In our article “Transition Corruption and the Globalized Individual,” we argue that the conventional understanding of grand corruption is badly flawed and complacent. The real fight is against cross-border flows of tainted money and Western financial centers, which launder corrupt money and help people spend it. Instead of drawing a dichotomy between corrupt and clean countries, we should look at the role of transnational networks, which create a symbiotic relationship between the source countries of grand corruption and the destination host or haven countries that receive the loot. Kleptocracy is not just an initial act of theft, but also the subsequent ability of these corrupt leaders to legally reside in other countries where their wealth and property will be protected, and where they can enjoy their mansions and conspicuous consumption in cities such as London, Paris, New York and Geneva. [Continue reading…]

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After a tax crackdown, Apple found a new shelter for its profits

The New York Times reports: Tim Cook was angry.

It was May 2013, and Mr. Cook, the chief executive of Apple, appeared before a United States Senate investigative subcommittee. After a lengthy inquiry, it found that the company had avoided tens of billions of dollars in taxes by shifting profits into Irish subsidiaries that the panel’s chairman called “ghost companies.”

“We pay all the taxes we owe, every single dollar,” Mr. Cook declared at the hearing. “We don’t depend on tax gimmicks,” he went on. “We don’t stash money on some Caribbean island.”

True enough. The island Apple would soon rely on was in the English Channel.

Five months after Mr. Cook’s testimony, Irish officials began to crack down on the tax structure Apple had exploited. So the iPhone maker went hunting for another place to park its profits, newly leaked records show. With help from law firms that specialize in offshore tax shelters, the company canvassed multiple jurisdictions before settling on the small island of Jersey, which typically does not tax corporate income.

Apple has accumulated more than $128 billion in profits offshore, and probably much more, that is untaxed by the United States and hardly touched by any other country. Nearly all of that was generated over the past decade.

The previously undisclosed story of Apple’s search for a new island tax haven and its use of Jersey is among the revelations emerging from a cache of secret corporate records from Appleby, a Bermuda-based law firm that caters to businesses and the wealthy elite. [Continue reading…]

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Paradise Papers leak reveals secrets of the world elite’s hidden wealth

The Guardian reports: The world’s biggest businesses, heads of state and global figures in politics, entertainment and sport who have sheltered their wealth in secretive tax havens are being revealed this week in a major new investigation into Britain’s offshore empires.

The details come from a leak of 13.4m files that expose the global environments in which tax abuses can thrive – and the complex and seemingly artificial ways the wealthiest corporations can legally protect their wealth.

The material, which has come from two offshore service providers and the company registries of 19 tax havens, was obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with partners including the Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times.

The project has been called the Paradise Papers. It reveals:

[Continue reading…]

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Carl Icahn’s failed raid on Washington

Patrick Radden Keefe writes: Several weeks after Trump’s victory, [financier Carl] Icahn tweeted, “I’ve agreed to serve as a special advisor to the president on issues relating to regulatory reform.” In a press release, Trump said, “Carl was with me from the beginning and with his being one of the world’s great businessmen, that was something I truly appreciated. He is not only a brilliant negotiator, but also someone who is innately able to predict the future, especially having to do with finances and economies.” He added that Icahn would help him address regulations that were “strangling” American business.

Icahn’s role was novel. He would be an adviser with a formal title, but he would not receive a salary, and he would not be required to divest himself of any of his holdings, or to make any disclosures about potential conflicts of interest. “Carl Icahn will be advising the President in his individual capacity,” Trump’s transition team asserted.

In the months after the election, the stock price of CVR, Icahn’s refiner, nearly doubled—a surge that is difficult to explain without acknowledging the appointment of the company’s lead shareholder to a White House position. The rally meant a personal benefit for Icahn, at least on paper, of half a billion dollars. There was an expectation in the market—an expectation created, in part, by Icahn’s own remarks—that, with Trump in the White House and Icahn playing consigliere, the rules were about to change, and not just at the E.P.A. Icahn’s empire ranges across many economic sectors, from energy to pharmaceuticals to auto supplies to mining, and all of them are governed by the types of regulations about which he would now potentially be advising Trump.

Janet McCabe, who left the E.P.A. in January, and now works at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, told me, “I’m not naïve. People in business try to influence the government. But the job of the government is to serve the American people, not the specific business interests of the President’s friends. To think that you have somebody with that kind of agenda bending the President’s ear is troubling.”

Conflicts of interest have been a defining trait of the Trump Administration. The President has not only refused to release his tax returns; he has declined to divest from his companies, instead putting them in a trust managed by his children. Questions have emerged about the ongoing business ties of his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who, since Trump took office, have reaped nearly two hundred million dollars from the Trump hotel in Washington, D.C., and from other investments. Although Trump promised to “drain the swamp,” he has assembled a Cabinet of ultra-rich Americans, including two billionaires: Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, and Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce.

But Icahn is worth more than the Trump family and all the members of the Cabinet combined—and, with no constraint on his license to counsel the President on regulations that might help his businesses, he was poised to become much richer. Robert Weissman, who runs the watchdog group Public Citizen, told me, “This kind of self-enrichment and influence over decision-making by an individual mogul who is simultaneously inside and outside the Administration is unprecedented. In terms of corruption, there’s nothing like it. Maybe ever.” In conversations with me, financiers who have worked with Icahn described his appointment as a kind of corporate raid on Washington. One said, “It’s the cheapest takeover Carl’s ever done.” [Continue reading…]

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Deutsche Bank, key to Trump’s finances, faces new scrutiny

The New York Times reports: During the presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump pointed to his relationship with Deutsche Bank to counter reports that big banks were skeptical of doing business with him.

After a string of bankruptcies in his casino and hotel businesses in the 1990s, Mr. Trump became somewhat of an outsider on Wall Street, leaving the giant German bank among the few major financial institutions willing to lend him money.

Now that two-decades-long relationship is coming under scrutiny.

Banking regulators are reviewing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans made to Mr. Trump’s businesses through Deutsche Bank’s private wealth management unit, which caters to an ultrarich clientele, according to three people briefed on the review who were not authorized to speak publicly. The regulators want to know if the loans might expose the bank to heightened risks.

Separately, Deutsche Bank has been in contact with federal investigators about the Trump accounts, according to two people briefed on the matter. And the bank is expecting to eventually have to provide information to Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

It was not clear what information the bank might ultimately provide. Generally, the bank is seen as central to understanding Mr. Trump’s finances since it is the only major financial institution that continues to conduct sizable business with him. Deutsche Bank has also lent money to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and to his family real estate business.

Although Deutsche Bank recently landed in legal trouble for laundering money for Russian entities — paying more than $600 million in penalties to New York and British regulators — there is no indication of a Russian connection to Mr. Trump’s loans or accounts at Deutsche Bank, people briefed on the matter said. The bank, which declined to comment, scrutinizes its accounts for problematic ties as part of so-called “know your customer” banking rules and other requirements.

And with one of its most famous clients headed to the White House, the bank designed a plan for overseeing the accounts of Mr. Trump and Mr. Kushner and presented it to regulators at the New York State Department of Financial Services early this year. The plan essentially called for monitoring the accounts for red flags such as exceptionally favorable loan terms or unusual partners. [Continue reading…]

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America’s CEOs fall out of love with Trump

Politico reports: The relationship between corporate America and Donald Trump’s White House has chilled.

The regular parades of business titans into the West Wing are gone. A gathering of executives led by Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman initially planned for next week fell apart amid scheduling conflicts.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Disney CEO Bob Iger quit as outside advisers to President Donald Trump following his rejection of the Paris climate accords. Dozens of other executives also publicly rebuked the White House over the decision, including Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein—a former colleague of many top administration officials—used his first-ever tweet to criticize the Paris decision, calling it a “setback for the environment and for the U.S.’s leadership position in the world.” [Continue reading…]

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Jared Kushner tempted by Russia’s bank of spies

Michael Weiss writes: Not every bank lists a convicted spy serving 30 months in an Ohio prison as its active deputy representative in New York. But then, not every bank is headed by a former spy, much less one found to have spent time with Jared Kushner during a “roadshow” last year, when Donald Trump’s son-in-law was then just a top campaign advisor and not a likely witness about to testify before a Senate committee on Russia’s meddling in U.S. democracy.

In those charmed days before the director of the FBI raised in an open session of Congress the very real possibility that some of the president’s men might be working on behalf of a hostile foreign power, there was the curious case of a Wall Street analyst who was handcuffed in his Bronx neighborhood in late Jan. 2015 after going out for groceries. His crime wasn’t peddling junk sub-primes to trusting pensioners but working for Moscow Center.

Evgeny Buryakov, a former tax inspector turned officer of the Sluzhba vneshney razvedki, or SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, had arrived in the U.S. just weeks after the feds executed Operation Ghost Stories and brought down ten out of an 11-person spy ring of Russian “illegals,” without whom Anna Chapman’s clothing line and The Americans would now be impossible. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea said to be target of inquiry over $81 million cyberheist

The New York Times reports: Federal prosecutors are investigating North Korea’s possible role in the theft of $81 million from the central bank of Bangladesh in what security officials fear could be a new front in cyberwarfare.

The United States attorney’s office in Los Angeles has been examining the extent to which the North Korea government aided and abetted the bold heist in February 2016, according to a person briefed on the investigation who was not authorized to speak publicly.

In the theft, the attackers, using a global payment messaging system known as Swift, were able to persuade the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to move money from the Bangladesh bank to accounts in the Philippines. The Swift system is used by some 11,000 banks and companies to transfer money from one country to another.

In the months that followed the Bangladesh heist, it was disclosed that cyberthieves had also attacked banks in Vietnam and Ecuador using Swift. [Continue reading…]

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Bank that lent $300m to Trump linked to Russian money laundering scam

The Guardian reports: The German bank that loaned $300m (£260m) to Donald Trump played a prominent role in a money laundering scandal run by Russian criminals with ties to the Kremlin, the Guardian can reveal.

Deutsche Bank is one of dozens of western financial institutions that processed at least $20bn – and possibly more – in money of “criminal origin” from Russia.

The scheme, dubbed “the Global Laundromat”, ran from 2010 to 2014.

Law enforcement agencies are investigating how a group of politically well-connected Russians were able to use UK-registered companies to launder billions of dollars in cash. The companies made fictitious loans to each other, underwritten by Russian businesses. [Continue reading…]

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The Russian ‘Global Laundromat’ laundering operation exposed

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reports: Three years after the “Laundromat” was exposed as a criminal financial vehicle to move vast sums of money out of Russia, journalists now know how the complex scheme worked – including who ended up with the $20.8 billion and how, despite warnings, banks failed for years to shut it down.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) broke the story of the Laundromat in 2014, but recently the reporters from OCCRP and Novaya Gazeta in Moscow obtained a wealth of bank records which they then opened to investigative reporters in 32 countries.

Their combined research for the first time paints a fuller picture of how billions moved from Russia, into and through the 112 bank accounts that comprised the system in eastern Europe, then into banks around the world. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Britain’s high street banks processed nearly $740m from a vast money-laundering operation run by Russian criminals with links to the Russian government and the KGB, the Guardian can reveal.

HSBC, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, Barclays and Coutts are among 17 banks based in the UK, or with branches here, that are facing questions over what they knew about the international scheme and why they did not turn away suspicious money transfers.

Documents seen by the Guardian show that at least $20bn appears to have been moved out of Russia during a four-year period between 2010 and 2014. The true figure could be $80bn, detectives believe.

One senior figure involved in the inquiry said the money from Russia was “obviously either stolen or with criminal origin”.

Investigators are still trying to identify some of the wealthy and politically influential Russians behind the operation, known as “the Global Laundromat”.

They estimate a group of about 500 people were involved. These include oligarchs, Moscow bankers, and figures working for or connected to the FSB, the successor spy agency to the KGB.

Igor Putin, the cousin of Russia’s president, Vladimir, sat on the board of a Moscow bank which held accounts involved in the fraud. [Continue reading…]

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Bernie Sanders: Trump is ‘working for Wall Street’

 

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Trump’s debts are widely held on Wall Street, creating new potential conflicts

The Wall Street Journal reports: The debts of President-elect Donald Trump and his businesses are scattered across Wall Street banks, mutual funds and other financial institutions, broadening the tangle of interests that pose potential conflicts for the incoming president’s administration.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of debt attached to Mr. Trump’s properties, some of them backed by Mr. Trump’s personal guarantee, were packaged into securities and sold to investors over the past five years, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of legal and property documents.

Mr. Trump has previously disclosed that his businesses owe at least $315 million to 10 companies. According to the Journal’s analysis, Trump businesses’ debts are held by more than 150 institutions. They bought the debt after it was sliced up and repackaged into bonds — a process known as securitization, which has been used for more than $1 billion of debt connected to Mr. Trump’s companies.

As a result, a broader array of financial institutions now are in a potentially powerful position over the incoming president. If the Trump businesses were to default on their debts, the giant financial institutions that serve as so-called special servicers of these loan pools would have the power to foreclose on some of Mr. Trump’s marquee properties or seek the tens of millions of dollars that Mr. Trump personally guaranteed on the loans.

“The problem with any of this debt is if something goes wrong, and if there is a situation where the president is suddenly personally beholden or vulnerable to threats from the lenders,” said Trevor Potter, who served as a general counsel to the presidential campaigns of Republicans George H.W. Bush and John McCain. [Continue reading…]

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Goldman Sachs poised for return to power in Trump White House

Politico reports: Government Sachs is returning to Washington.

After a decade in the wilderness, Wall Street’s most powerful firm, Goldman Sachs, is dominating the early days of the incoming Trump administration. The newly picked Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, spent 17 years at Goldman. Trump’s top incoming White House adviser, Steve Bannon, spent his early career at the bank. So did Anthony Scaramucci, one of Trump’s top transition advisers.

Goldman’s president, Gary Cohn, spent an hour schmoozing with President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday and could be up for an administration job, possibly as director of the Office of Management and Budget, people close to Cohn and the transition said. Cohn, a long-time commodities trader, is friendly with Trump’s powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

It’s a stunning reversal of fortune for Goldman, a long-time Washington power that fell out of favor following the financial crisis. CEO Lloyd Blankfein got hauled before Congress along with other Wall Street executives to account for their behavior. And Trump, who ran as a populist and bashed Wall Street on the campaign trail, featured Blankfein as a shady and dangerous character in his final campaign ad.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi famously labeled Goldman the “great Vampire Squid” on the face of America.

Had Hillary Clinton won the White House, Goldman faced a virtual lock-out from Washington with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders poised to block and major picks from the bank or any other firm on Wall Street. [Continue reading…]

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Brexit: Leading banks set to pull out of UK early next year

The Guardian reports: Britain’s biggest banks are preparing to relocate out of the UK in the first few months of 2017 amid growing fears over the impending Brexit negotiations, while smaller banks are making plans to get out before Christmas.

The dramatic claim is made in the Observer by the chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association, Anthony Browne, who warns “the public and political debate at the moment is taking us in the wrong direction”.

A source close to Brexit secretary David Davis said he and the chancellor Philip Hammond had last week sought to offer reassurance that they were determined to secure the status of the City of London.

However, the government’s stated intention to take control of the freedom of movement into the UK is widely recognised among officials to be a hammer blow to any chance of retaining the present terms of trade for banks, particularly given the bellicose rhetoric of major politicians on the continent. [Continue reading…]

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Panama: The hidden trillions

Alan Rusbridger writes: In a seminar room in Oxford, one of the reporters who worked on the Panama Papers is describing the main conclusion he drew from his months of delving into millions of leaked documents about tax evasion. “Basically, we’re the dupes in this story,” he says. “Previously, we thought that the offshore world was a shadowy, but minor, part of our economic system. What we learned from the Panama Papers is that it is the economic system.”

Luke Harding, a former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, was in Oxford to talk about his work as one of four hundred–odd journalists around the world who had access to the 2.6 terabytes of information about tax havens — the so-called Panama Papers — that were revealed to the world in simultaneous publication in eighty countries this spring. “The economic system is, basically, that the rich and the powerful exited long ago from the messy business of paying tax,” Harding told an audience of academics and research students. “They don’t pay tax anymore, and they haven’t paid tax for quite a long time. We pay tax, but they don’t pay tax. The burden of taxation has moved inexorably away from multinational companies and rich people to ordinary people.”

The extraordinary material in the documents drew the curtain back on a world of secretive tax planning, just as WikiLeaks had revealed the backroom chatter of diplomats and Edward Snowden had shown how intelligence agencies could routinely scoop up vast server farms of data on entire populations. The Panama Papers — a name chosen for its echoes of Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers — unveiled how a great many rich individuals used one Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca (“Mossfon” for short), to shield their money from prying eyes, whether it was tax authorities, law enforcement agencies, or vengeful former spouses. [Continue reading…]

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When you dial 911 and Wall Street answers

The New York Times reports: A Tennessee woman slipped into a coma and died after an ambulance company took so long to assemble a crew that one worker had time for a cigarette break.

Paramedics in New York had to covertly swipe medical supplies from a hospital to restock their depleted ambulances after emergency runs.

A man in the suburban South watched a chimney fire burn his house to the ground as he waited for the fire department, which billed him anyway and then sued him for $15,000 when he did not pay.

In each of these cases, someone dialed 911 and Wall Street answered.

The business of driving ambulances and operating fire brigades represents just one facet of a profound shift on Wall Street and Main Street alike, a New York Times investigation has found. Since the 2008 financial crisis, private equity firms, the “corporate raiders” of an earlier era, have increasingly taken over a wide array of civic and financial services that are central to American life. [Continue reading…]

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Post-Brexit global equity loss of over $2 trillion — worst ever

Reuters reports: The $2.08 trillion wiped off global equity markets on Friday after Britain voted to leave the European Union was the biggest daily loss ever, trumping the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy during the 2008 financial crisis and the Black Monday stock market crash of 1987, according to Standard & Poor’s Dow Jones Indices.

Global markets skidded following the unexpected result from the June 23 referendum, in which Britons voted to withdraw from the EU by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.

Markets in mainland Europe were hit the worst, with Milan .FTMIB and Madrid .IBEX each down more than 12 percent for their biggest losses ever. Britain’s benchmark FTSE 100 .FTSE was down nearly 9 percent at one point on Friday, but rallied to close down 3.15 percent.

The route started in Asia, with the Nikkei .N225 down 7.9 percent, and carried over into Wall Street as the S&P 500 fell 3.6 percent.

Mohit Bajaj, director of ETF trading solutions at WallachBeth Capital LLC in New York, said the severity of the sell-off was partly due to investors misreading the outcome and betting the wrong way. [Continue reading…]

Before Thursday’s vote, George Soros wrote: avid Cameron, along with the Treasury, the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund and others have been attacked by the leave campaign for exaggerating the economic risks of Brexit. This criticism has been widely accepted by the British media and many financial analysts. As a result, British voters are now grossly underestimating the true costs of leaving.

Too many believe that a vote to leave the EU will have no effect on their personal financial position. This is wishful thinking. It would have at least one very clear and immediate effect that will touch every household: the value of the pound would decline precipitously. It would also have an immediate and dramatic impact on financial markets, investment, prices and jobs.

As opinion polls on the referendum result fluctuate, I want to offer a clear set of facts, based on my six decades of experience in financial markets, to help voters understand the very real consequences of a vote to leave the EU.

The Bank of England, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the IMF have assessed the long-term economic consequences of Brexit. They suggest an income loss of £3,000 to £5,000 annually per household – once the British economy settles down to its new steady-state five years or so after Brexit. But there are some more immediate financial consequences that have hardly been mentioned in the referendum debate. [Continue reading…]

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