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“Treasure Island Trauma”: Living In A World Whose Leaders Seem Determined Not To Learn From Disaster

A couple of years ago, the journalist Nicholas Shaxson published a fascinating, chilling book titled “Treasure Islands,” which explained how international tax havens — which are also, as the author pointed out, “secrecy jurisdictions” where many rules don’t apply — undermine economies around the world. Not only do they bleed revenues from cash-strapped governments and enable corruption; they distort the flow of capital, helping to feed ever-bigger financial crises.

One question Mr. Shaxson didn’t get into much, however, is what happens when a secrecy jurisdiction itself goes bust. That’s the story of Cyprus right now. And whatever the outcome for Cyprus itself (hint: it’s not likely to be happy), the Cyprus mess shows just how unreformed the world banking system remains, almost five years after the global financial crisis began.

So, about Cyprus: You might wonder why anyone cares about a tiny nation with an economy not much bigger than that of metropolitan Scranton, Pa. Cyprus is, however, a member of the euro zone, so events there could trigger contagion (for example, bank runs) in larger nations. And there’s something else: While the Cypriot economy may be tiny, it’s a surprisingly large financial player, with a banking sector four or five times as big as you might expect given the size of its economy.

Why are Cypriot banks so big? Because the country is a tax haven where corporations and wealthy foreigners stash their money. Officially, 37 percent of the deposits in Cypriot banks come from nonresidents; the true number, once you take into account wealthy expatriates and people who are only nominally resident in Cyprus, is surely much higher. Basically, Cyprus is a place where people, especially but not only Russians, hide their wealth from both the taxmen and the regulators. Whatever gloss you put on it, it’s basically about money-laundering.

And the truth is that much of the wealth never moved at all; it just became invisible. On paper, for example, Cyprus became a huge investor in Russia — much bigger than Germany, whose economy is hundreds of times larger. In reality, of course, this was just “roundtripping” by Russians using the island as a tax shelter.

Unfortunately for the Cypriots, enough real money came in to finance some seriously bad investments, as their banks bought Greek debt and lent into a vast real estate bubble. Sooner or later, things were bound to go wrong. And now they have.

Now what? There are some strong similarities between Cyprus now and Iceland (a similar-size economy) a few years back. Like Cyprus now, Iceland had a huge banking sector, swollen by foreign deposits, that was simply too big to bail out. Iceland’s response was essentially to let its banks go bust, wiping out those foreign investors, while protecting domestic depositors — and the results weren’t too bad. Indeed, Iceland, with a far lower unemployment rate than most of Europe, has weathered the crisis surprisingly well.

Unfortunately, Cyprus’s response to its crisis has been a hopeless muddle. In part, this reflects the fact that it no longer has its own currency, which makes it dependent on decision makers in Brussels and Berlin — decision makers who haven’t been willing to let banks openly fail.

But it also reflects Cyprus’s own reluctance to accept the end of its money-laundering business; its leaders are still trying to limit losses to foreign depositors in the vain hope that business as usual can resume, and they were so anxious to protect the big money that they tried to limit foreigners’ losses by expropriating small domestic depositors. As it turned out, however, ordinary Cypriots were outraged, the plan was rejected, and, at this point, nobody knows what will happen.

My guess is that, in the end, Cyprus will adopt something like the Icelandic solution, but unless it ends up being forced off the euro in the next few days — a real possibility — it may first waste a lot of time and money on half-measures, trying to avoid facing up to reality while running up huge debts to wealthier nations. We’ll see.

But step back for a minute and consider the incredible fact that tax havens like Cyprus, the Cayman Islands, and many more are still operating pretty much the same way that they did before the global financial crisis. Everyone has seen the damage that runaway bankers can inflict, yet much of the world’s financial business is still routed through jurisdictions that let bankers sidestep even the mild regulations we’ve put in place. Everyone is crying about budget deficits, yet corporations and the wealthy are still freely using tax havens to avoid paying taxes like the little people.

So don’t cry for Cyprus; cry for all of us, living in a world whose leaders seem determined not to learn from disaster.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 21, 2013

March 25, 2013 Posted by | Global Economy | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Tale Of Presidential Surrogates”: Bill Clinton Stumps For Obama, While George W. Bush Heads To Cayman Islands

On Thursday, Bill Clinton will be campaigning for President Barack Obama while George W. Bush will be spreading a message that Mitt Romney would rather voters forget, in a stark example of the differing roles that the two former presidents have played in the 2012 campaign.

Clinton will spend Thursday on the campaign trail in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Throughout the 2012 campaign — but especially since giving a universally praised nominating speech on Obama’s behalf at the 2012 Democratic convention — Clinton has been Obama’s most effective surrogate, forcefully endorsing the president’s agenda and gleefully attacking Romney and the Republican Party. Forced off the campaign trail by Hurricane Sandy with just six days until the election, Obama has become more reliant on Clinton than ever. In the past several days, the Obama campaign has dispatched Clinton to Ohio, Iowa, and Minnesota — where the former president blasted Romney for the faulty tax plan at the heart of his economic agenda.

Bush, on the other hand, will spend Thursday in the Cayman Islands, delivering the keynote address at the Cayman Alternative Investment Summit. As Romney struggles to convince voters that he understands their economic struggles, having the previous Republican president reminding them of the questions surrounding Romney’s financial dealings in the Caymans is beyond unhelpful.

Of course, that shouldn’t be much of a surprise; after all, Bush has not helped Romney at all throughout the campaign. From Bush’s tepid endorsement of the Republican nominee — telling reporters “I’m for Mitt Romney” as a set of elevator doors closed on him — to his almost complete absence from the Republican convention and campaign trail, Bush and Romney seem to have come to a mutual understanding: the less mention of the years 2000-2008, the better.

There’s a simple reason that Clinton is seemingly omnipresent in this campaign, while Bush can’t even be found in this country: Clinton is one of the most popular political figures in America, while Bush is one of the most reviled. Romney has steadfastly avoided Bush — and will continue to do so in the campaign’s final days — because if the campaign is framed as a choice between eight more years of Clinton or eight more years of Bush, it would be a landslide.

 

By: Henry Decker, The National Memo, October 31, 2012

November 1, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“You’re Not Just A Chump”: Mitt Romney Thinks You’re A Sucker

You don’t have accounts in the Caymans? What a chump.

Back in January, when he was asked during a primary debate about the taxes he pays, Mitt Romney made the somewhat odd assertion that “I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more. I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.” As I’ve written before, this would seem to indicate that Romney believes that if you don’t have a team of accountants who can ferret out every last loophole to minimize your tax bill then you’re just a sucker, so pathetic that you are unworthy of occupying the highest office in the land. But maybe I was being unfair. After all, I’ve been critical of the campaign habit of reading too much into any particular statement a candidate makes. We all say things that upon reflection we’d like to put another way or take back completely, so maybe Romney didn’t quite mean it the way it sounded.

But once you repeat a statement like that more than once, we can be pretty sure you do in fact mean it. And based on what he said in an interview yesterday with ABC News, we can be pretty sure Mitt Romney genuinely believes that if you paid an extra dollar to the federal government, then you’re not just a chump, you’re such a chump we wouldn’t want you to be president:

From time to time I’ve been audited as happens I think to other citizens as well and the accounting firm which prepares my taxes has done a very thorough and complete job pay taxes as legally due. I don’t pay more than are legally due and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don’t think I’d be qualified to become president. I’d think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires.

Think about this for a moment. Romney thinks that paying more than you owed, or even failing to take advantage of every last loophole and tax shelter you could, is so despicable it’s disqualifying, as though it were a moral transgression on par with, I don’t know, stealing a car or abusing your wife or something.

Not only that, both times he has said this he projects the belief onto other people as well. “I don’t think you want someone” the first time, “I’d think people would want me” this time. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say this has its roots in Romney’s time in the private equity world. If you’re investing with a private equity firm, you want the leader of that firm to be smart, thorough, and ruthless. You want him to squeeze every last penny he can from every available source, and of course minimize the taxes he and you will pay. If he says, “I could have set up an elaborate network of shell companies in the Caribbean, but I decided not to,” you might think he had failed you, since the only goal in the endeavor is to make as much money as possible and keep the government’s hands off it.

But the presidency isn’t the chairmanship of a private equity firm, and maybe, just maybe, the qualities that make one effective at the latter aren’t precisely the qualities we want in the former.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the real issue is that we have a tax system that allows people like Mitt Romney, who takes in about $20 million a year despite the fact that he hasn’t actually held a job in five years other than running for president, to pay a laughably low tax rate, while people who actually work for a living pay a far higher proportion of their income in taxes. Weirdly, Romney thinks that system is just peachy, and he would actually like to tilt it even farther in favor of the wealthy.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, July 30, 2012

July 31, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mitt’s Tax Calculation”: The Swiss Bank Guy Or The Swiss Bank Guy Hiding Something

His opponents and the press are turning up the heat and even one of his big-name supporters has publicly called on him to give in, but Mitt Romney is adamantly refusing to release new information about his taxes.

If this story line sounds familiar, it should: Romney was in a very similar spot six months ago, and it didn’t take him long to fold.

It was back in January that Romney tried to duck calls to release tax records, believing he could run out the clock at least until he’d secured the Republican nomination. But his personal finances were becoming an issue, with Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry depicting him as a “vulture capitalist” and stoking resentment among working-class Republicans, and his opponents suggested that Romney might be concealing embarrassing and politically damaging information.

“Listen,” Perry said in a debate just before the South Carolina primary, “here’s the real issue for us as Republicans: We cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now.”

Perry didn’t survive South Carolina, but when Romney was trounced by Gingrich, the pressure to release his taxes grew. In a debate, Romney was confronted with the example of his own father, who had released 12 years of returns in the run-up to his own 1968 presidential bid, explaining at the time that “one year could be a fluke.” Asked if he’d follow his father’s lead, Romney was evasive, prompting loud jeers and taunts from the live audience. The tax story was taking on a life of its own; even Chris Christie, one of Romney’s top primary season supporters, piped up to say that the candidate should produce his returns.

Finally, a week before Florida’s Jan. 31 primary, Romney gave in, releasing his 2010 returns and an estimate for 2011. It wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as what his father did, but it was something – and it became readily apparent why he’d been so reluctant. Among other things, the records showed that Romney had made $45 million in income over the past two years, even though he wasn’t actually working, and that his effective tax rate for 2010 had been just 13.9 percent. Investments in Swiss bank accounts and offshore holdings in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda were also revealed.

There was also the matter of speaking fees. Before releasing his returns, Romney had hinted that he paid a low effective tax rate, explaining that most of his income over the last 10 years had come from investments (which are subject to a 15 percent tax rate) and noting that “I get speakers fees from time to time, but not very much.” But it turned out he’d actually taken in $347,327.62 in speaking money from February 2010 to February 2011 alone, making the episode another “wealth gaffe” for Romney.

This wasn’t enough to stop Romney from winning his party’s nomination. His main competition came from Gingrich and Rick Santorum, so it would have taken a lot more to sink him. But it suggests a similar cave-in may be just around the corner now, with Romney’s taxes once again becoming a major issue.

The impetus this time is a series of media reports examining Romney’s complicated personal finances and raising questions about how much money he has parked offshore, and why. The Obama campaign has taken the new reporting and run with it, demanding that Romney release multiple years of tax records (and taunting him with the example of his own father). The official Romney line, of course, is that there’s nothing to see here and that he’s already provided ample disclosure, but not every Republican is reading from the same script. On Sunday, for instance, Haley Barbour said he’d release more information if he were in Romney’s shoes.

It’s hard to believe there’s anything in Romney’s tax history as sinister as some Democrats are suggesting. But it’s also hard to believe that if Romney were to release records for more years they wouldn’t feature the same sort of embarrassing revelations found in his 2010 return. Obviously, this is something his campaign would like to avoid. But as the story of Romney’s refusal gains traction, the Romney team may be faced with a new calculation: Is there more harm in looking like you’re hiding something than in just putting the information out there, suffering through a news cycle or two, and moving on?

Actually, in a way, there may be no harm at all for Romney in releasing more tax records. The Obama team already has all the material it needs to paint him as the Swiss bank account guy. At least this way, they won’t be able to say he’s the Swiss bank account guy who’s hiding something.

 

By: Steve Kornacki, Salon, July 11, 2012

July 12, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mitt’s Gray Areas”: We Can Only Assume He’s Hiding Something Seriously Damaging

Once upon a time a rich man named Romney ran for president. He could claim, with considerable justice, that his wealth was well-earned, that he had in fact done a lot to create good jobs for American workers. Nonetheless, the public understandably wanted to know both how he had grown so rich and what he had done with his wealth; he obliged by releasing extensive information about his financial history.

But that was 44 years ago. And the contrast between George Romney and his son Mitt — a contrast both in their business careers and in their willingness to come clean about their financial affairs — dramatically illustrates how America has changed.

Right now there’s a lot of buzz about an investigative report in the magazine Vanity Fair highlighting the “gray areas” in the younger Romney’s finances. More about that in a minute. First, however, let’s talk about what it meant to get rich in George Romney’s America, and how it compares with the situation today.

What did George Romney do for a living? The answer was straightforward: he ran an auto company, American Motors. And he ran it very well indeed: at a time when the Big Three were still fixated on big cars and ignoring the rising tide of imports, Romney shifted to a highly successful focus on compacts that restored the company’s fortunes, not to mention that it saved the jobs of many American workers.

It also made him personally rich. We know this because during his run for president, he released not one, not two, but 12 years’ worth of tax returns, explaining that any one year might just be a fluke. From those returns we learn that in his best year, 1960, he made more than $660,000 — the equivalent, adjusted for inflation, of around $5 million today.

Those returns also reveal that he paid a lot of taxes — 36 percent of his income in 1960, 37 percent over the whole period. This was in part because, as one report at the time put it, he “seldom took advantage of loopholes to escape his tax obligations.” But it was also because taxes on the rich were much higher in the ’50s and ’60s than they are now. In fact, once you include the indirect effects of taxes on corporate profits, taxes on the very rich were about twice current levels.

Now fast-forward to Romney the Younger, who made even more money during his business career at Bain Capital. Unlike his father, however, Mr. Romney didn’t get rich by producing things people wanted to buy; he made his fortune through financial engineering that seems in many cases to have left workers worse off, and in some cases driven companies into bankruptcy.

And there’s another contrast: George Romney was open and forthcoming about what he did with his wealth, but Mitt Romney has largely kept his finances secret. He did, grudgingly, release one year’s tax return plus an estimate for the next year, showing that he paid a startlingly low tax rate. But as the Vanity Fair report points out, we’re still very much in the dark about his investments, some of which seem very mysterious.

Put it this way: Has there ever before been a major presidential candidate who had a multimillion-dollar Swiss bank account, plus tens of millions invested in the Cayman Islands, famed as a tax haven?

And then there’s his Individual Retirement Account. I.R.A.’s are supposed to be a tax-advantaged vehicle for middle-class savers, with annual contributions limited to a few thousand dollars a year. Yet somehow Mr. Romney ended up with an account worth between $20 million and $101 million.

There are legitimate ways that could have happened, just as there are potentially legitimate reasons for parking large sums of money in overseas tax havens. But we don’t know which if any of those legitimate reasons apply in Mr. Romney’s case — because he has refused to release any details about his finances. This refusal to come clean suggests that he and his advisers believe that voters would be less likely to support him if they knew the truth about his investments.

And that is precisely why voters have a right to know that truth. Elections are, after all, in part about the perceived character of the candidates — and what a man does with his money is surely a major clue to his character.

One more thing: To the extent that Mr. Romney has a coherent policy agenda, it involves cutting tax rates on the very rich — which are already, as I said, down by about half since his father’s time. Surely a man advocating such policies has a special obligation to level with voters about the extent to which he would personally benefit from the policies he advocates.

Yet obviously that’s something Mr. Romney doesn’t want to do. And unless he does reveal the truth about his investments, we can only assume that he’s hiding something seriously damaging.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, July 8, 2012

July 11, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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