An important area of focus of the Narendra Modi government has been trying to get the black money which has left the shores of the country, back to India. Black money is essentially money which has been earned, but which has not been declared for tax purposes.
As the finance minister Arun Jaitley said in his budget speech in February 2016: “Our Government is fully committed to remove black money from the economy.”
The focus of the government has largely been on black money which has left the shores of the country. Promises have been made that this black money will be got back to India. In fact, estimates made by Global Financial Integrity in a December 2015 report suggest that the total amount of black money leaving India between 2004 and 2013 stood at $510.3 billion.
The outflow peaked in 2012 when it reached $92.9 billion. In 2013, the number had stood at $83 billion, which was around 9.7% lower than the previous year.
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India is not the only country facing this problem. In fact, when it comes to the total amount of black money leaving a country, India is fourth in the list, behind China, the Russian Federation and Mexico. On this front, India has rapidly caught up with Mexico over the years. The outflow of black money from Mexico between 2004 and 2013 stood at $528.4 billion, just a little more than that from India.
This money has found its way into tax havens all across the world, including Switzerland. As Gabriel Zucman writes in The Hidden Wealth of Nations—The Scourge of Tax Havens: “There has, in fact, never been as much wealth in tax havens as today. On a global scale, 8% of the financial wealth of households is held in tax havens. According to the latest available information, in the spring of 2015 foreign wealth held in Switzerland reached $2.3 trillion.”
The money held in Swiss banks is more than India’s gross domestic product(GDP). In fact, since April 2009, the money held in Swiss banks has increase by 18%. The increase across all tax havens all over the world has been 25%.
In September 2015, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. The Goal 16.4 points out that countries will “by 2030, significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets and combat all forms of organized crime.”
The term illicit financial flows essentially refers to what we call black money in India. The Modi government has also on and off talked about getting back the black money that has left India. The question to ask is how feasible is this?
One argument made against this has been that there are way too many tax havens all around the world. There are around 70 tax havens all over the world and the black money that has left the shores of this country could be stashed almost anywhere.
An estimate made by the International Monetary Fund suggests that around $18 trillion of wealth lies in international tax havens other than Switzerland, beyond the reach of any tax authorities. A 2013 estimate in The Economist pointed out: “Nobody really knows how much money is stashed away: estimates vary from way below to way above $20 trillion.”
Zucman whose book I have quoted earlier in the column, estimates that around 8% of the global financial wealth or $7.6 trillion is held in tax havens. His estimate is a little lower than other estimates. But each of these estimates is a big number, and that is what matters the most.
Getting back to the point I was discussing. How good are the chances of India and other countries getting this money back? In the past I have written that given that there are so many tax havens it is next to impossible to get this money back. But after reading Zucman’s book I have revised my opinion, a little.
While Switzerland was the original tax haven where people who did not want to pay tax in their home countries, took their money to, things have changed since the 1980s. New tax havens like Singapore, the Bahamas, Luxembourg, Hong Kong etc., have emerged over the years.
As Zucman writes: “In all these tax havens, private bankers do the same things as in Geneva: they hold stock and bond portfolios for their foreign customers, collect dividends and interest, provide investment advice as well as other services, such as the possibility of having a current account that earns little or nothing. And, thanks to the limited forms of cooperation with foreign tax authorities, they all offer the same service that is in high demand: the possibility of not paying any taxes on dividends, interest, capital gains, wealth, or inheritances.”
As mentioned earlier the Swiss banks as of spring of 2015, had foreign wealth worth $2.3 trillion. Of this around $1.3 trillion belonged to Europeans. A lot of black money emanating from all over the world has found its way into tax havens other than Switzerland.
How different are these tax havens from Switzerland? As Zucman writes: “To view Swiss banks in opposition to the new banking centers [i.e. tax havens] in Asia and the Caribbean doesn’t make much sense. A large number of the banks domiciled in Singapore or in the Cayman Islands are nothing but branches of Swiss establishments that have opened there to attract new customers.”
And this is one of the well kept secrets of international tax havens—Switzerland is still at the heart of it all. As Zucman writes: “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 organization of international wealth management.”
Given this, India alone cannot deal with the issue. Combined international pressure needs to be applied on Switzerland in order to get anywhere with the idea of bringing black money that has left the shores of the country, back.
The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul Diary on April 26, 2016