Saudi and Russian residents have among the most offshore assets

Alina Dizik | Nov 17, 2017

Sections Economics

Thanks to the Paradise Papers, and the earlier Panama Papers, the world of offshore tax havens is getting international attention. With leaked documents in hand, an international consortium of journalists is spilling the tax secrets of Prince Charles and Apple, among others.

But research independent of the leaks is also shedding light on how companies and high-net-worth individuals avoid taxes. For example, the equivalent of as much as 60 percent of GDP in Russia is held abroad, according to research by Annette Alstadsæter of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Niels Johannesen of the University of Copenhagen, and University of California at Berkeley’s Gabriel Zucman.

The amount of global wealth being kept offshore has risen in the past four decades, but residents of some countries are putting more money abroad than others, the research finds. Wealthy residents of Gulf and Latin American countries, along with Russia, have stocks of offshore wealth that exceed 50 percent of GDP, while those of some European countries send a lower proportion of their wealth to tax havens.

“Among countries with a large stock of offshore assets, one finds autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Russia) and countries with a recent history of autocratic rule (Argentina, Greece) alongside old democracies (United Kingdom, France). Among those with the lowest stock of offshore assets, one finds relatively low-tax countries (Korea, Japan) alongside the world’s highest tax countries (Denmark, Norway),” the researchers write.

In 2013, Zucman estimated that 8 percent of the world’s household financial wealth—equivalent to 10 percent of global GDP—was held offshore globally. This time the researchers estimate how much each country owns offshore. They used data from the Swiss National Bank and a relatively new Bank for International Settlements database, which includes information about how much money from each country has been in bank deposits in offshore financial centers such as Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Channel Islands, going back in many cases to the early 2000s. Nonfinancial assets including art and real estate were not part of the estimates.

These new estimates are even more significant when taking into account how concentrated offshore wealth is at the top. The researchers analyzed hacked files on more than 30,000 clients of HSBC’s Swiss subsidiary, as well as data from tax amnesties, to estimate how offshore assets are distributed. The top 0.01 percent of households hold 50 percent of all offshore wealth, and the top 0.1 percent of households own 80 percent of all offshore wealth, the researchers find.

Switzerland was home to nearly half of all offshore wealth in 2007.

“Accounting for offshore assets increases the top 0.01 percent wealth share substantially, even in countries—such as Scandinavian economies—that do not use tax havens extensively,” write Alstadsæter, Johannesen, and Zucman. And in the United Kingdom, Spain, and France, 30 to 40 percent of the wealth of the top 0.01 percent of households is held abroad. When this offshore wealth is discounted, France appears to have less inequality than Scandinavia. But accounting for that wealth, it becomes more unequal.

Switzerland was home to nearly half of all offshore wealth in 2007. A country’s proximity to Switzerland, the extent of its natural resources, and its political or economic instability after World War II contribute to it having more offshore wealth, according to the research. In total, offshore money totaled an estimated $5.6 trillion in 2007. (The study focused on financial wealth for 2006–07, when there were fewer shell companies to obscure data, according to the researchers.)

These estimates of offshore financial wealth have tax revenue implications. The majority of offshore wealth is undeclared, and even when it is declared, it is often not taxed, because of the way the wealth is structured, the researchers say.

Even as data indicate that tax havens mask vast inequality, these havens have few incentives to play along with countries that are trying to clamp down on offshore assets. The industry of private-wealth advisers specializing in offshore business is expanding, with much of the wealth still concentrated in Switzerland as well as Hong Kong.

The result is a need to continue to revise estimates of offshore wealth in order to better understand its global impact. “If you want to have a good picture of inequality,” the researchers write, “you need to have a broader view.”