Illicit financial flows and its resulting impacts have undermined developing and undeveloped economies in the world, creating poverty and giving rise to distrust in governments, hence breeding civil conflicts mainly in Africa.
As a financial transparency expert from the Global Financial Integrity put it, the flow of water is a persistent thing – just put a rock in a stream and see what happens. Water always seems to find its way around a new obstacle. Illicit financial flows are no different.
Global Financial Integrity (GFI) is a Washington DC-based research and advocacy organization seeking transparency and accountability in not only financial flows by companies, but ensuring that companies are duly registered and their shareholders named and known by all stakeholders.
Last weekend, G20 finance ministers met in the waterfront city of Cairns to prepare for November's Leaders Summit and they were expected to weigh in on a number of international financial rules.
That's good news. As recent data shows, updates to this broken system are drastically needed.
Global Financial Integrity estimates that roughly a trillion dollars leaves developing countries annually by way of illicit financial flows – money that's illegally earned, transferred, or utilized. Most of this is money that should be generating economic growth, upping tax revenues, and funding new roads, schools, and hospitals. Instead, this capital is finding its way into bank accounts in tax havens, often inside G20 countries.
One agenda point that should feature prominently when finance ministers sit down this weekend is the creation of public registers of beneficial ownership. These registers, which should be open and freely accessible, would hold information on who is ultimately profiting from or controlling a company.
In many places, it's easier to open an anonymous company than it is to get a driver's license; often, you don't even need to provide your name. This secrecy fuels the very illicit flows that are hindering growth in developed and developing countries, alike. Even countries enjoying economic growth are simultaneously losing billions of dollars every year. And some of the most egregious cases are found in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Nigeria, for example, lost an average of US$20 billion every year between 2005 and 2010 in illicit financial flows. That's seven times the government's 2014 education budget. Across the Atlantic, Brazil has hemorrhaged US$33 billion on average between 2010 and 2012.
Anonymous companies allow corrupt politicians, multinational corporations, and criminals to move money around the world undetected. Earlier this year, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych allegedly used anonymous shell companies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to move tens of billions of dollars out of the country.
Thankfully, we've begun to see some leadership on this issue.
Earlier this year, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the creation of a public register of beneficial ownership for all companies registered in the United Kingdom. And in March, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to support creating public registers throughout the European Union. With this momentum, it's now time for the G20 to step up to the plate, and it all starts with leadership from Australia.
The G20 needs to tackle all aspects of financial transparency, because there's more to illicit flows than the anonymity provided by shell companies. Just as water will find other routes if you only plug one hole, targeting one aspect of financial transparency without addressing others will give the corrupt an easy and alternate means of escape.
Treasurer Joe Hockey has spoken out time and again on showing leadership on issues of financial transparency. But to really show leadership at the Brisbane summit, G20 leaders need to actually build the dam that's necessary to halt the flow of illicit money. That means the G20 must do more than address beneficial ownership – it must create an automatic information exchange system that benefits all countries and embrace public country-by-country reporting for multi-national corporations.
At a first glance, public country-by-country reporting shouldn't even be controversial. After all, a recent survey carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that 59 per cent of CEOs around the world actually support making that information public. Public reporting would help authorities, journalists, and civil society target corporations that are unfairly shifting profits into tax haven subsidiaries to evade taxes. Hockey has already used bold words to describe such arrangements, but now it's time for bold action to match.
A final point on the meeting's agenda will be the G20's work on developing a global standard for the automatic exchange of financial information, which would help authorities catch tax evaders hiding their money abroad. If Australia truly wishes to lead, it can start by signing on to the new exchange system; despite talk of transparency, Australia has delayed joining the exchange until 2018.
While the G20's efforts to date are laudable, the proposed system of information exchange can't keep developing countries looking in from the outside. The way it's written now, the cross-border exchange may keep some developing countries locked out, simply because they don't currently have the technology or know-how to share their own tax data in a reciprocal manner – a requirement of the new standard.
We need a strategy that enables developing countries to integrate into the new system gradually; the current approach of insisting that developing countries bear all the costs before they can realize the benefits will only increase exclusion. And it's to no one's benefit to keep developing countries out; estimates from the Tax Justice Network put the amount of developing country assets stashed offshore at roughly US$9.3 trillion.
So when G20 finance ministers sit down in their next meeting in November, they need to make sure they're building a dam to stop illicit flows around the globe, and not just tossing some rocks into the river.