Sometimes a news story is almost too complicated to wrap your head around; other times it's just too big. Late Wednesday, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists unveiled a massive trove of data and analysis on how the world's super-rich hide their wealth through secret companies and trusts located in the British Virgin Islands and other offshore tax havens. They name names, and put those names to numbers.
But here are some other numbers that explain the challenge of tackling the massive leak of confidential financial data: Somebody gave the consortium a flash drive with about 260 gigabytes of data — 160 times larger than the 2010 WikiLeaks diplomatic cable dump. The drive included 2.5 million files containing 30 years' worth of records of 120,000 offshore companies and trusts and their connection to individuals and firms in more than 170 countries and territories. It took 86 journalists from 46 countries and 38 media partners to sift through the records and try to make sense of what the ICIJ calls "the biggest stockpile of inside information about the offshore system ever obtained by a media organization."
ICIJ had dedicated a whole section of its website to the story — "Secrecy for Sale: Inside the Global Offshore Money Maze" — replete with articles focused on specific countries and individuals, as well as maps, video, and interactive features. Newspapers and other media partners are rolling out their analyses over the rest of the week. To get started, here are four key takeaways from this rare look inside the financial secrets of the world's financial elite:
1. Collectively, the money involved is enormous
First of all, not all offshore financial holdings are illegal. But "studies have estimated that cross-border flows of global proceeds of financial crimes total between $1 trillion and $1.6 trillion a year," the ICIJ says. And in a 15-month investigation, the Washington organization has found that, "alongside perfectly legal transactions, the secrecy and lax oversight offered by the offshore world allows fraud, tax dodging, and political corruption to thrive."
How much money are we talking about? The ICIJ points to a June 2012 study by former McKinsey & Co. chief economist James S. Henry that estimated the total private financial wealth stashed in offshore havens at between $21 trillion and $32 trillion — an amount, the ICIJ notes, "roughly equivalent to the size of the U.S. and Japanese economies combined."
The Huffington Post's Ryan Grim offers an overview of the leak, plus why it matters:
2. The leak has landed some prominent people in hot water
The leaked documents feature a lot of names — the ICIJ says the ranks of the offshoring elite "include American doctors and dentists and middle-class Greek villagers as well as families and associates of long-time despots, Wall Street swindlers, Eastern European and Indonesian billionaires, Russian corporate executives, international arms dealers, and a sham-director-fronted company that the European Union has labeled as a cog in Iran's nuclear-development program."
But the ICIJ researchers single out a couple of prominent politicians and their families, heirs and heiresses, and other boldface names. Among the nearly 4,000 U.S. individuals fingered in the files are James S. Mellon, an heir to the Mellon oil and banking fortune, and Denise Rich, a onetime Democratic fundraiser married to infamous Clinton-pardoned, tax-evading oil trader Marc Rich; in 2006, Mrs. Rich had $144 million stashed in trust in the tiny Cook Islands. (Both have given up their U.S. citizenships; Mellon is now a British national, Rich an Austrian.)
Politicians who are now facing uncomfortable scrutiny include Canadian Sen. Pana Merchant, whose husband Tony Merchant went to great lengths to hide the $1.7 million he put in a Cook Island trust; the deputy speaker of Mongolia's parliament, Bayartsogt Sangajav, who says he might resign amid the disclosure of his secret accounts; two top executives of Russian state-owned oil company Gazprom and the wife of Russia's deputy prime minister, Igor Shuvalov; Indonesian international trade representative Nalinee "Joy" Taveesin, listed as a crony of Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe; and most prominently, Maria "Imee" Imelda Marcos Manotoc, a Filipino provincial governor and the eldest daughter of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Imee reportedly failed to list her position and stake in a secret trust in the British Virgin Islands.
Most of the wealthy people refused to comment to the ICIJ team, but James Mellon said he has liquidated all his offshore holdings, has "never broken the tax law," and then played the Mitt Romney card: "I just heard of a presidential candidate who had a lot of money in the Cayman Islands," he told the ICIJ. "Not everyone who owns offshores is a crook."
3. But a lot of people are earning money from shady tax-sheltering
The 2.5 million emails and other documents don't just lay out the fiscal machinations of the elites, but also the "well-paid industry of middlemen, accountants, lawyers, and banks that provide cover, set up financial structures, and shuffle assets on their clients' behalf," says the ICIJ. A lot of the middlemen work from London.
But the ICIJ, Britain's The Guardian, and the BBC also identified 28 "sham directors," or "nominee" company directors or shareholders — typically "Britons giving far-flung addresses on Nevis in the Caribbean, Dubai, or the Seychelles" who are essentially "renting out their names for the real owners to hide behind," says The Guardian's David Leigh. These 28 people represent, at least on paper, more than 21,000 companies, with some nominee directors representing 4,000 companies each. The ICIJ's James Ball profiles one such nominee, Sarah Petre-Mears — the "Queen of Nevis" — a British national who officially controls 1,200 companies around the world from the "goat-tramped Caribbean outcropping" she calls home now.
The BBC and ICIJ offer this primer on how the wealthy "dodge" taxes:
4. Governments can now crack down harder on tax evaders
Legal or not, these offshore banking schemes have real-life consequences for the countries that never see the tax revenue. The never-ending European financial crisis, for example, is bookended by tax-avoidance debacles: In Greece, rampant tax evasion is a big contributor to its financial woes, and the latest crisis, Cyprus, has a lot to do with both Greece's collapse and the Russian oligarchs who flooded the tiny island nation with offshore cash.
Now governments who want to crack down on tax evasion have a large pool of targets and tools to do so, if they so choose. That would be popular with the 99 percent–plus who don't have the means or opportunity to shelter their money in the Caymans or Nevis, says Canadian Sen. Percy Downe. If the wealthy hide their money, he tells the CBC, regular taxpayers "have to pay more."