Where would Vladimir Putin be without the Russian oligarchy? Without Russia’s oligarchs, political leaders of the Western world have concluded, Putin would be tottering. Western leaders have made squeezing Russia’s richest a central piece of their strategy to end Putin’s Ukraine cross-border assault.
These same Western leaders, unfortunately, have failed to take seriously what ought to be an equally pressing question: Where would Russia’s oligarchs be without the West, without the Wall Streeters, wealth managers, and assorted other high-finance riff-raff “paid millions,” as Institute for Policy Studies analyst Chuck Collins puts it, “to help billionaires sequester trillions”?
Western leaders have essentially been ignoring this question almost ever since the old Soviet Union collapsed. And now we’re paying the price. Those Ukraine sanctions against Russia’s oligarchs? They come with a huge loophole. The Western world’s opaque web of tax havens and anonymous corporations is essentially rendering much of those sanctions ineffective.
Sanctioned Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for instance, has used the West’s “wealth defense industry” to shift formal ownership of major chunks of his $18.4-billion personal fortune beyond the reach of sanction orders. Tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, notes Transparency International UK’s Steve Goodrich, “have long been a destination of choice for Kremlin cronies and kleptocrats.”
“Complex networks of secretive shell companies in these jurisdictions,” Goodrich adds, “means the UK government is attempting to enforce these sanctions with one arm tied behind its back.”
Minimal U.S. disclosure requirements, Global Financial Integrity policy director Lakshmi Kumar points out, are also easing the way for sanction-skirting Russian oligarchs. Billionaire-friendly legal fine print, she told Bloomberg earlier this week, is letting tainted money “rebrand itself, essentially.”
The United States, agrees Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey, “has become one of the easiest places in the world for corrupt kleptocrats around the world to hide money.”
“The difficulties of applying sanctions in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” sums up the Tax Justice Network’s Alex Cobham, “have highlighted the abject failure of current standards of financial transparency.”
The U.S. wealth defense industry, we need to remember, hasn’t just been helping Russian oligarchs hide their fortunes. America’s money-handlers have for years been helping them pile up ever grander fortunes. They’ve steered the illicit funds of Russian oligarchs into U.S. real estate, investment funds, and “even factories,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jake Bernstein, a senior reporter on the 2016 bombshell “Panama Papers” tax avoidance exposé.
The Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich has used “a network of banks, law firms and advisers in multiple countries,” the New York Times just reported, to invest “billions in American hedge funds.” Along the way, he tapped the expertise and contacts of U.S. high-finance giants ranging from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to BlackRock and the Carlyle Group.
But the damage the wealth defense industry has wreaked upon the Western world — indeed the whole planet — goes beyond undermining the sanction squeeze on Russia’s oligarchs. These defenders of grand private fortune appear to have placed somewhere between $5 trillion and $8 trillion worldwide beyond the reach of tax collectors. Tax havens, as Annette Alstadsaeter of Norway’s Centre for Tax Research told the Washington Post last fall, have become “a contagion.”
And no nation has done more to spread this contagion than the United States. Anonymous American companies, one World Bank survey has found, played key roles in 85 percent of the over 150 cases of grand corruption that World Bank analysts examined.
New variants of this contagion typically originate in the United States as well. South Dakota has had a particularly consequential impact. At the end of the 20th century, the state’s political high command worked hand-in-glove with wealth defense industry lawyers and lobbyists to turned the “trust” from a tool for circumventing inheritance rules into a global “go-to vehicle for tax avoidance.” By 2010, deep pockets had amassed $57 billion in South Dakota trusts. By 2020, that total had hit $367 billion.
The evolution of the trust instrument, notes Columbia Law School’s Katharina Pistor, illustrates how today’s national legal systems “have become items on an international menu of options.” The super rich choose from this menu “the laws by which they wish to be governed.”
“The privileged few can decide how much to pay in taxes and which regulations to endure,” she continues. “And if legal obstacles cannot be overcome quite that easily, lawyers from leading global law firms will draft legislation to make a country compliant with the ‘best practices’ of global finance.”
We can’t literally see our wealth defenders at work. But we can feel their impact. Average-income people in rich countries, note inequality researchers Joseph Stiglitz, Todd Tucker, and Gabriel Zucman, “now pay far higher taxes than major corporations.” These corporations and the rich who run them are basically enjoying a “free-ride on the rest of society,” and their tax avoidance “means less investment in infrastructure, education, and research.”
What can we do? We can fight back, and, at the global level, some reformers — like the University of Virginia Law School’s Ruth Mason — are even feeling optimistic about the struggles ahead.
For much of the last century, Mason notes, a small club of rich nations working through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, set international tax policy. The system they created rested on bilateral tax treaties designed to make sure that corporations doing business outside their home nation wouldn’t be taxed twice on the same income, once by their home country and once by their host.
In the resulting global tax order, nations “set their tax rates independently from each other,” and Mason’s research details how major corporations like Apple became adept at gaming the system. They moved “valuable intellectual property to low-tax jurisdictions,” then charged their related corporate entities in high-tax jurisdictions “artificially high licensing fees,” a maneuver that gained their entities in high-tax jurisdictions large tax deductions and their fee-charging entities a bargain-basement tax rate on their fee income.
In tax dork circles, tax-avoidance games like these go by the acronym of BEPS, short for “domestic tax base erosion and profit shifting.” The tricks of the BEPS trade, the OECD now estimates, cost governments worldwide as much as a quarter-trillion dollars annually in lost revenue.
Policymakers in the 20th century, Mason notes, either saw corporate tax avoidance as “unproblematic” or “regarded the costs of curbing it as too high.” But that hands-off mindset, Mason argues, “ended abruptly with the 2008 financial crisis.” The resulting job losses and budget shortfalls led to a “new intolerance of corporate tax dodging” as one legislative hearing after another made widely public astounding examples of corporate tax arrogance. One hearing in the UK disclosed that Amazon, source of the one of the world’s largest personal fortunes, had paid a miniscule £1 million in tax the previous year on £4 billion in sales. A U.S. Senate hearing revealed that Apple had subsidiaries that “filed full tax returns nowhere on earth.”
Amid the resulting furor, the major nations that make up the G20 realized they “needed to do something — or at least appear to do something — about corporate tax avoidance.” They delegated that task to the OECD, and that led to a “BEPS Project” that has had, Mason believes, a “profound effect” on international tax norms and institutions. The BEPS effort, she explains, has shifted the global tax discourse from preventing “double taxation” to ensuring “full taxation,” a phrasing that encompasses closing tax loopholes and preventing abusive tax planning.
Other tax reformers have a distinctly less sanguine take on evolving international tax norms. Yes, note tax scholars Stiglitz, Tucker, and Zucman, the global tax deal that emerged from the BEPS negotiations does move a fair-tax agenda forward, by, for instance, making it harder for multinationals “to exploit tax havens by establishing a global minimum tax of at least 15 percent on corporate profits.” But this tax rate remains “much lower than what working-class and middle-class people typically pay in high-income countries” — and “far lower” than the 40 to 50 percent rate that U.S. corporations faced “for all but four years from 1942 to 1987.”
Other critics see in the G20-backed effort an absence of the political will necessary to truly take on global oligarchic power. Many of these critics are pushing for a United Nations convention on tax issues, an idea the Tax Justice Network feels “is developing what may prove to be an unstoppable momentum.” Earlier this month, the Global Alliance for Tax Justice and Eurodad, a network of 60 civil society organizations from 29 European countries, released a draft of what a UN tax convention could be.
“Repeated efforts to stop international tax dodging,” notes the draft author Tove Maria Ryding, “have resulted in only sticky plaster solutions, additional complexities, and rules that continue to be biased in favor of the rich.”
The groups behind the new UN convention draft, she adds, hope the proposals in it “will help to kickstart a discussion about the fundamental reforms that we really need.”
That discussion has also begun within the United States. Early last year, before the Biden inauguration, Congress overturned a Trump veto and enacted legislation that, the American Prospect applauds, “requires the owners of all financial assets to disclose their true identity to regulatory agencies and the IRS.” The Biden Justice Department, meanwhile, has launched a new kleptocracy task force, focused on Russian oligarchs, that could serve as a model for broader anti-oligarch offensives.
But much more remans to be done. One example: The ENABLERS Act now pending before Congress targets a hole in the already existing Bank Secrecy Act that lets agents for oligarchs park their ill-gotten gains almost wherever in the United States they please.
“If we make banks report dirty money but allow law, real estate, and accounting firms to look the other way,” says Rep. Tom Malinowski, the bill’s lead sponsor, “that creates a loophole that crooks and kleptocrats can sail a yacht through.”
Advocates for a bold pushback against the wealth defense industry are calling for much more ambitious steps as well, from outlawing abusive trusts to investing big-time in tax enforcement — and substantially hiking overall tax rates on our most awesomely affluent.
State and local governments are also getting involved. In Vermont, New Jersey, and other states — and in cities like Los Angeles and San Jose — activists are pushing beyond new disclosure rules and demanding extra taxes on mansions and penalties on the secretive deep pockets who spend mega-millions buying up condos as investments and then let them sit vacant, moves that distort the housing market at the expense of ordinary households.
The Ukraine war could end up activating still more advocacy against oligarchy. But the conventional political wisdom is already fixating on the notion that the defense industry will prove to be the war’s biggest long-term winner. Mainstream pundits are predicting big increases in military spending throughout the Western world.
If that outcome turns out to be the Ukraine war’s most lasting legacy, oligarchy — worldwide — will have triumphed.