The Financial Services Sector Still Under Siege

By Rattan Khushiram

Sudhir Sesungkur, Minister of Financial Services and Good Governance attended the 19th meeting of the Eastern and Southern African Anti-Money Laundering Group (ESAAMLG) Council of Ministers, which took place from 4 to 6 September in Eswatini, the former kingdom of Swaziland. The minister said he was very pleased with the outcome. “We have worked hard so that today Mauritius will be recognized by ESAAMLG as a safe, reliable and clean jurisdiction, a jurisdiction that will not tolerate cases of money laundering or financing of terrorist-related activities.” He was at the head of a strong administrative and technical delegation, whose mission was to defend and support this second reassessment exercise against the other members of the group. The country was playing big, because it was likely to be on the blacklist of tax havens.

The assertion that Mauritius has passed the critical test of its re-evaluation, which has been positively validated by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on a series of recommendations related to money laundering and financing of terrorism-related activities is quite misleading. The reality is that Mauritius has enhanced its ratings only to a limited extent, by revising its legislation to comply with the required international FATF money laundering standards. Even then, Mauritius is still rated non or partly compliant on 17 out 40 international FATF standards, which is barely below the critical threshold of 20 non or partly compliant ratings for blacklisting as a money laundering jurisdiction. Mauritius should do more to address the shortcomings in its anti-money laundering legislation.

More importantly, Mauritius has not been re-rated on the effectiveness of its legislation in combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism, which is increasingly the focus of global standard-setting organizations like the FATF. Mauritius is rated as low or moderate on all of the 11 effectiveness measures, while the critical threshold for blacklisting is 9 low or moderate ratings. Mauritius fares dismally in the implementation of anti-money laundering laws. Passing legislation and ensuring enforcement are known to be poles apart. Soprano, Bastos, Chidambaram’s Global Communication Services Holdings Ltd, and numerous others with shady money have managed, despite all our existing legislation, to give our financial services jurisdiction a bad name.

The unfavourable FATF ratings compelled Mauritius to conduct a risk assessment exercise on money laundering and terrorism financing risks. Instead of pointlessly trumpeting about its limited progress, Government should use this recently-completed report to implement an action plan to overhaul policies, institutions and manpower for the proper effectiveness of anti-money laundering legislation.

Mauritius’ financial services continue to be on the radar screen of international institutions but for the wrong reasons. The claim that we are a reputed, diversified global business sector of substance has come under attack from the International Monetary Fund as evidenced by a forthcoming study by Damgaard, Jannick, Thomas Elkjaer, and Niels Johannesen titled “What Is Real and What Is Not in the Global FDI Network?” which investigates why $40 trillion in FDI is being channeled around the world.

Combining the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s detailed FDI data with the global coverage of the IMF’s Coordinated Direct Investment Survey, the study creates a global network that maps all bilateral investment relationships — disentangling phantom FDI from genuine FDI. The phantom FDI are investments that pass through empty corporate shells. These shells, also called special purpose entities, have no real business activities. Rather, they carry out holding activities, conduct intrafirm financing, or manage intangible assets — often to minimize multinationals’ global tax bill.

The study found that some 10 well-known tax havens – Luxembourg, Netherlands, Hong Kong SAR, British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Singapore, Cayman Islands, Switzerland, Ireland, and Mauritius- host more than 85 percent of all phantom investments. A large proportion of the world’s stock of foreign direct investment is “phantom” capital, designed to minimise companies’ tax liabilities rather than financing productive activity, according to the research. Nearly 40 per cent of worldwide FDI — worth a total of $15tn — “passes through empty corporate shells” with “no real business activities”.

Those who are still stuck with the legal as opposed to the moral argument and do see tax minimisation and avoidance (not evasion) as all perfectly legal will be surprised how more and more people are finding serious objections to “legal” tax avoidance stance. For example, these two comments that accompanied the review article “More than third of foreign investment is multinationals dodging tax” in Financial Times are quite revealing:

First: “This is not about maximizing tax on companies. But tax policy should be about how best to tax economic activity for the benefit of everyone in society – and that means efficient capital allocation. Whenever rewards are not commensurate with risk, productivity and innovation, capital allocation is inefficient. Shell games for tax purposes do not lead to the most efficient capital allocation. So preventing them is good for society and good for capitalism.”

And the second is even more damning: “It is truly disgusting to read about this tax avoidance. An extremely unfair and unsavoury business practice that penalizes smaller domestic companies, and the individuals who end up paying for the uncollected but necessary funds through higher income tax, higher VAT, and by funding government borrowing, which is a tax on the future. A severe crackdown is in order. By the look of the figures, Ireland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Mauritius are not countries, they are tax dodges. Perhaps they should be so renamed. The Tax Dodge of Ireland. The Royal Tax Haven of the Netherlands. The Mountainous Tax Haven of Luxembourg. The idyllic tax haven of the Indian Ocean. I am surprised that more and more citizens are not up in arms about this.”

* Published in print edition on 13 September 2019

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