The release of the Panama Papers has rocked the finance world as wealthy citizens from dozens of countries were named as allegedly being serious tax evaders. Tax evasion has been a hot topic for years, although previously major global corporations were the target of the scrutiny and allegations. This could change, however, thanks to the Panama Papers.
Interestingly enough though, while India, Pakistan and other countries were well-represented on the list of alleged evaders, the U.S. was not. So why have Americans managed to largely avoid having their names end up in the papers?
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Some U.S. addresses included
The Panama Papers was a huge documents leak from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm located in Panama. The papers indicate that more than 100 public figures used the firm to open accounts in known tax havens around the world, probably for the purpose of dodging higher taxes in their home countries. Some of the world’s top government officials, golfer Nick Faldo, and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s father are just some of the big names on the list.
According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, there were 211 people with addresses in the U.S. who own companies that were included in the Panama Papers data. According to Fusion, it’s unclear whether any or all of those 211 people are U.S. citizens, and that number only includes information from the most recent years rather than all of the 11.5 million documents leaked as part of the Panama Papers scandal. In other words, that number of 211 is only scratching the surface, so it will grow.
But still, the high representation of other countries in the documents makes it seem like Americans are underrepresented—particularly since a Senate subcommittee estimated in 2014 that about $150 billion in tax revenue that should be going into U.S. coffers is going overseas.
So where are all the Americans in the Panama Papers?
Offshore finance experts who spoke with Fusion floated numerous ideas, with the most interesting being that Americans may simply be better at hiding their tracks. For one thing, the U.S. Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act was in the works for more than five years, so Americans probably had lots of motivation and ample time to make it more difficult to track their offshore money.
Tax Justice Network Economist and Senior Advisor James Henry suggested to Fusion that Americans no longer need to go to Panama to evade taxes because there is “an onshore tax haven industry in the US that is as secretive as anywhere.” He mentioned LLCs, which can be created in 49 states, although I hardly see how they qualify as a tax haven since they’re a way for average individuals to avoid being double-taxed. Unfortunately though any assistance provided to average people to help them pay taxes only once can be exploited by others. He also mentioned trusts, but again, what they allow people to do could hardly save Americans as much money as going offshore.
Other experts also mentioned that Americans can easily set up shell companies to avoid taxes, which is a good point, however. And then there’s the fact that Nevada doesn’t require the people forming a company to give their identities, said another expert, which he argued makes the state more secret than the British Virgin Islands.
Not as big of a problem in the U.S.?
In a post on Yahoo Finance, Rick Newman reports that so far the only American mentioned in the Panama Papers is author and financier Marianna Olszewski, which clearly must be based on different analysis than what the Fusion post is based on. He argues that rich Americans simply don’t need tax havens as much as wealthy individuals in other countries. Counter to that point though, just because someone doesn’t need something doesn’t mean they won’t take advantage.
Tax Analysts Contributing Editor Lee Sheppard told Newman that the problem of individual tax evasion isn’t as big of a problem in the U.S. and that “nearly every rich person” in other countries has a bank account somewhere else to use as a tax haven. Newman noted that the highest individual income rate in the U.S. is 39.6% with the high threshold at $415,000 for someone filing single, but while the top rate is only a few points higher, it affects people with much lower income levels. Further, he reports that the U.S. is very generous with tax deductions compared to other countries.
And then there’s the fact that it’s expensive and time-consuming to open tax haven bank accounts, so Americans may be less willing to do it.
More analysis of the Panama Papers needed
The Panama Papers were only just dumped into the media this week, so major news outlets have only begun to dig through the data. With 11.5 million documents to go through, it’s anyone’s guess just how many Americans will end up being named in them. And then there’s the fact that this is only one firm in a single country, so it’s quite possible that they just don’t have a lot of American clients because Americans go somewhere else.
The bottom line though is that it will be months, if not years before we even begin to fathom just how much information is in the Panama Papers. But we can bet that if there are any high-profile Americans mentioned in them that we’ll find out about it.