Black money has been a hot topic among us Indians over the past few years, especially Indian black money that has been stashed abroad, over the years. Possibilities of getting this money back to India have been raised and extensively discussed and can lead to flaring up of tempers on the University of WhatsApp.
In this scenario, any news item on the Indian black money stashed abroad tends to fly off the charts. The University of WhatsApp has been buzzing over the last few days on the news of Indian black money in Swiss Banks having gone up in 2020. This has led to surprise among the supporters of the present dispensation and happiness among those against it.
As the Press Trust of India reported: “Funds parked by Indian individuals and firms in Swiss banks, including through India-based branches and other financial institutions, jumped to 2.55 billion Swiss francs (over Rs 20,700 crore) in 2020.” This is a jump from 899 million Swiss francs (Rs 6,625 crore) at the end of 2019.
The Press Trust of India rightly doesn’t use the term ‘black money’ in reporting the funds that Indian firms and individuals have parked with Swiss Banks. Some amount of money can be taken out of the country legally every year and be deposited in Swiss banks (or other foreign banks for that matter).
This is not to say that all the funds that Indians have placed with Swiss banks will be kosher. But the fact of the matter is there is no way of specifically knowing that how much of it is black money. Black money is basically money on which taxes have not been paid.
Of course, after the Press Trust of India reported on it, other news media latched on to this story. In their reports, the phrase funds parked in Swiss banks was replaced with the term black money.
And soon headlines which said that Indian black money in Swiss bank jumps, were all over the place. Politicians from other parties also reacted to this piece of news and said that this was because of increased corruption under the Bhartiya Janata Party. This shows us clearly why nuance is neither a strength in politics or on the University of WhatsApp, for that matter.
The government immediately issued a press release, in which it said: “Media reports allude to the fact that the figures reported are official figures reported by banks to Swiss National Bank (SNB) and do not indicate the quantum of much debated alleged black money held by Indians in Switzerland.”
In all this noise, the more important points on Indian black money which goes abroad or doesn’t come back in the first place, were never made.
Let’s look at them here.
1) The money that Indians had parked in Swiss banks in 2020 has been estimated to be at Rs 20,700 crore. One dollar was worth around Rs 74 on an average in 2020. This works out to $2.96 billion. For the ease of discussion, let’s round this to $3 billion.
Even if all this was black money (which it isn’t), no media house bothered to ask a very basic question. How come the Indian black money in Swiss banks was just $3 billion? $3 billion on its own is a large number. But in the context of a nation which has had a history of a huge black money, this isn’t even small change.
2) A lot of black money is generated through trade misinvoicing. As Global Financial Integrity (GFI), an organisation which specialises in this area, defines this as “a method for moving money illicitly across borders which involves the deliberate falsification of the value, volume, and/or type of commodity in an international commercial transaction of goods or services by at least one party to the transaction.”
Imports coming into the country can be over invoiced. In that process, money can go out of the country without the required taxes being paid on it. Further, imports can be under invoiced to not pay customs duty.
In a similar way, exports going out of the country can be under invoiced and money that should have come back to the country, and taxes should have been paid on it, continues to stay outside its borders.
A number is put to this misinvoicing through the value gap analysis. As GFI explains in a report: “For example, if Ecuador reported exporting US$20 million in bananas to the United States in 2016, but the US reported having imported only US$15 million in bananas from Ecuador that year, this would reflect a mismatch, or value gap, of US$5 million in the reported trade of this product between the two partners for that year.”
While data on imports and exports is never perfect, a significant portion of any value gap is a result of misinvoicing, in order to not pay tax on money earned and ensure that it continues to stay abroad, or to simply move money out of a country. This is the largest component of illicit financial flows globally. In India, we call this international black money.
3) As per GFI, the average value gap of India from 2008 to 2017, a period of 10 years, stood at $78 billion per year, which in total amounts to $780 billion. This means that a significant portion of $780 billion would have left India during these years or should have come back to India, but never did. Of course, this is just one period of ten years that we are talking about. All this didn’t just start happening in 2008. Now compare this with the $3 billion lying in Swiss banks. That’s not even small change.
Also, it is worth remembering that we are talking about black money through just the misinvoicing route. As GFI points out: “Many illicit transactions occur in cash to prevent an incriminating paper trail. For these many reasons, our estimates are likely very conservative.”
Of course, this problem is not specific to India. China, Russia and Mexico were ahead of India, on this front, with an yearly average of $482.4 billion, $92.6 billion and $82.5 billion, respectively, during the period.
4) Take the case of 2016. The value gap of the misinvoiced imports and exports stood at $74 billion. As GFI points out: “The analysis shows that the estimated potential loss of revenue to the government is $13.0 billion for 2016. To put this figure in context, this amount represents 5.5 percent of the value of India’s total government revenue collections in 2016.” Given this, the government loses out on a significant amount of taxes because of international black money.
5) The question is, if so much money on which adequate amount of tax has not been paid, is going abroad every year or simply staying there, why doesn’t it reflect in the Swiss bank numbers. This is where things get interesting.
As the government press release referred to earlier points out: “These statistics do not include the money that Indians, NRIs or others might have in Swiss banks in the names of third–country entities.” This could be one possible reason.
6) The common perception in India is that all the black money that leaves India (or simply doesn’t come back) is in Swiss banks. This is totally wrong. There are around 70 tax havens all over the world. An estimate made by The Economist in 2013 suggested that: “Nobody really knows how much money is stashed away: estimates vary from way below to way above $20 trillion.”
And this money is spread all across the world and isn’t just held in banks in Switzerland. As Gabriel Zucman writes in The Hidden Wealth of Nations – The Scourge of Tax Havens, points out:
“In the past, Swiss bankers provided all services: carrying out the investment strategy, keeping securities under custody, hiding the true identity of owners by the way of famous numbered accounts. Today, only securities custody really remains in their purview. The rest has been moved offsite to other tax havens—Luxembourg, the Virgin Islands, or Panama—all of which function in symbiosis. This is the great organisation of international wealth management.”
Given this, India’s international black money could possibly be anywhere in the world. Also, a lot of this money is held “through intermediaries of shell companies headquartered in the British Virgin Islands, or foundations domiciled in Liechtenstein.” This ensures that the money is not easily traceable to those who took it out of the country or decided not to bring it back.
7) It is worth remembering here that all the focus on black money in India should have made people who stash their black money abroad, smarter. Clearly, when everyone and their grandmother knows about Swiss banks, the black money wallahs are bound to be cautious and ensure that they spread their money around across the world.
8) So, the question is how good are India’s chances of getting this money back? The money that has left Indian shores or should have come to India but never did, could be anywhere. Tax havens maintain secrecy to ensure that they remain attractive options for those who are looking to hide their black money. Hence, recovery will continue to remain difficult. If even a small part of this money is to be recovered, a massive amount of international cooperation will be needed.
9) While it might be difficult to recover black money from outside India’s shores, some of it does keep coming back to India through the foreign direct investment route. A lot of this money comes in through countries like Mauritius, Singapore, Netherlands and Cyprus. In 2020-21, 44% of the total foreign direct investment coming into India, came from these countries. This was a low figure in comparison each of the five years before that, when the proportion had stood at more than 60%. Of course, not all this money is India’s international black money, but a significant portion might be.
As the finance ministry white paper on black money published in May 2012 had pointed out:
“It is apparent that the investments are routed through these jurisdictions for [the] avoidance of taxes and/or for concealing the identities from the revenue authorities of the ultimate investors, many of whom could actually be Indian residents, who have invested in their own companies, though a process known as round-tripping.”
India’s international black money is also round-tripped to be invested in stocks.
To conclude, instead of trying to chase this black money and get it back, it makes more sense for us to create economic conditions where this black money comes back to India and is invested in different projects. We should also try and simplify our tax system to ensure that the incentives to generate black money in the first place, come down.
But then that hardly makes for great rhetoric and management of narrative, which is what Indian politics seems to be all about these days. As Thomas Sowell writes in Knowledge and Decisions: “Sober analysis seldom has the appeal of a ringing rhetoric.”
And that’s something worth thinking about.