A funny thing's happened in Finland. Scores of its monied elite have filed requests to correct their tax data this summer—suddenly recollecting that they'd stashed earnings away in Swiss banks. Truly, this is the end of an era, thanks entirely to a U.S.-led crackdown on tax evasion. It's also a strange new beginning.
Late last May, following a yearlong criminal investigation, Swiss bank Credit Suisse AG plead guilty to aiding wealthy U.S. citizens in hiding taxable income, agreeing to pay roughly $2.6 billion in penalties for the crime (to be divvied up between the Justice Department, the Federal Reserve, and the New York State Department of Financial Services, for some reason). Credit Suisse was charged with a pattern of misconduct that included actively recruiting clients, courting them at airports, golf courses, family weddings, and elsewhere with the promise of shielding their earnings from the IRS, and then also destroying documents pertaining to these concealed accounts, which numbered somewhere around 22,000 and held around $13 billion in total. Credit Suisse is Switzerland's second-largest bank: a fact that allowed Attorney General Eric Holder to trot out "Too Big to Jail" in a press conference, a joke that should have, but did not, end with him putting on a pair of sunglasses.
It was only the most recent high-profile victory in the Obama administration's longstanding battle against offshore tax havens, which has included thus far a $780 million deferred prosecution deal back in 2009 with UBS, Switzerland's largest bank, and a $57.8 million penalty this past January against Wegelin & Co.—a guilty verdict that has effectively shut that bank down for good. Founded in 1741 under the name Leinentuchhandel und Speditionshandlung, it was the oldest bank in Switzerland, and the 13th oldest in the world.
Both Credit Suisse and UBS have subsequently sent letters to their clients requesting that they either declare their secret assets to Swiss tax officials or alternately have their assets liquidated and transferred as cash to a new bank of their choice. The new policy is giving them a running start on next January, when Swiss banks will begin handing over customer financial data to tax officials for the first time, in compliance with the U.S. Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). FATCA requires that foreign financial institutions ("FFIs") identify their American clients to the IRS, or face a 30 percent gross tax on a variety payments from U.S. sources.
Hence the wave of tax form corrections this summer in Finland.
"We will have to critically examine these claims since it will determine whether or not we impose a higher tax rate. Keeping wealth offshore usually involves a deliberate choice and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with forgetfulness."
Criminal proceedings are not entirely off the table, either, but the Nordic country's Ministry of Finance is reportedly weighing their options, eager to have this taxable wealth repatriated, afraid of losing it in another capital flight to someplace else, and (as usual in financial stories) bargaining from a position of almost total powerlessness.
According to a study released in August by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, "350 billion Swiss francs in net assets under management from foreign-domiciled private clients have left Switzerland in the last six years," due to this international crackdown on Switzerland as a tax shelter. France, India, and Britain have all entered the fray as well, hoping to reclaim untold riches in lost government revenue.
When the British tax authorities struck a landmark deal with the Swiss to crack down on tax evasion, they sat back and waited for the cash to flow in. Almost three years later, they are still waiting.
For those who wanted to evade the British tax authorities, the agreement gave ample warning—16 months—to shift money to other offshore havens or put it into gold, bearer funds, artwork, insurance or safe deposit boxes.
The 16-month warning was "almost absurd," said Ian Swales, a Liberal Democrat and member of Britain's parliamentary Public Accounts Committee. "If you had 100 pounds in your pocket and I told you that in a few weeks I would take a portion of it, then you wouldn't really keep 100 pounds in your pocket, would you?" he said.
No. Probably not.
So, where's all this money been off to, exactly?
In the near term, as mentioned above, just other tax havens, like Singapore and Luxembourg, but in two weeks political leaders and central bankers from the G-20 nations will meet to discuss even further coordinated efforts to eradicate offshore tax shelters, globally.
Presuming they're as successful as they've been thus far, the next year might very likely see a flood of capital into cryptocurrency markets, like Bitcoin, for sure, but also some of its hundreds upon hundreds of ludicrous competitors: e.g. DogeParty, CannibisCoin, Titcoin, FedoraCoin, HoboNickels, RipoffCoin, Viacoin, Hint-O-Mint, and TrustPlus—only one of which I've made up.
The benefits of cryptocurrencies—virtual units of monetary value unmoored from central banks, financial institutions or "foreign financial institutions"—if it's isn't already obvious, is that they place this wealth completely outside of the new FATCA-based regulatory regime. Omri Marian, an assistant professor of law at the University of Florida, drew attention to this last year in an article for the Michigan Law Review.
"Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies) offer one additional major advantage to tax-evaders that traditional tax havens do not: the operation of Bitcoin is not dependent on the existence of financial intermediaries such as banks. Bitcoin is exchangeable peer-to-peer by definition. Bitcoin thus seems immune to the developing international anti-evasion regime," Marian writes.
"In cyberspace, financial institutions—the emerging agents of tax collection—are taken out of the picture. Thus, cryptocurrencies have the potential to become super tax havens."
Actually, in many of the most important ways, this had already been the case for years before Marian's paper was published. In 2006, a Paypal-esque virtual currency and banking platform called Liberty Reserve had been incorporated in Costa Rica by a disgraced former businessman named Arthur Budovsky who was already wanted on felony charges by the U.S. government for his previous venture. Demanding ultimately nothing more than an email address from its customers, Liberty Reserve grew into a $6 billion online money-laundering operation by 2013 when Budovsky and six others were finally charged with criminal conspiracy by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara.
The prosecution stretched across continents, with law enforcement officials in 17 countries participating, and 45 bank accounts ultimately being seized. (Budovsky is currently in Spain awaiting extradition.) In terms of scope and number of illegal financial transactions performed, it was, "the largest online money-laundering case in history," according to the New York Times.
It was also one of the more novel money-laundering cases in terms of legal precedent. Because Liberty Reserve was not a U.S. company, it was charged under a provision of the Patriot Act: the first case of its kind to do so. How this will muddle any attempt to ratchet down the executive and legislative overreach from America's Global War on Terror, is anyone's guess until the case concludes.
Worse still, this brave new world of virtual tax havens is going to make many of the standard regulatory mechanisms woefully inadequate in the near future.
"For private investigators, due diligence specialists, and compliance professionals who still think that a Swiss account is the toughest nut to crack," the private investigator trade magazine Pursuit said, "it's time to acknowledge that comprehensive asset searches and financial investigations just got a whole lot harder."
To add insult to injury, there are exactly two people who are very likely to benefit from all this: Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, those Harvard crew team jocks who unsuccessfully sued Mark Zuckerberg for successfully running with their social networking idea back in college. The Winklevii are currently 14 months into an SEC review of their first-of-its-kind Bitcoin exchange-traded fund, the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust, according to the Wall Street Journal.
So—in addition to all the ominous, unknowable, murky things—this is also the story of how Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss will finally surpass their arch-rival Mark Zuckerberg in net worth and never have to feel jealous or angry over Facebook ever again.
[an actual photo of the remnants of Liberty Reserve's Costa Rican offices by Costa Rica's FBI-equivalent, la Organismo de Investigación Judicial, manipulated to deal with the original photo's small size.]