The recent “Panama Papers” exposé brought to light by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has focused global attention on tax avoidance schemes that the well-connected use to hide illicitly-gained wealth and to avoid taxes. But people unfamiliar with the shadowy world of offshore finance shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that that hidden bank accounts are all located in tiny Caribbean Islands or small Latin American countries.
Panama, for example, home to the Mossack Fonseca law firm whose leaked files form the basis of the ICIJ report, doesn’t even crack the top 10 list of the world’s largest tax havens. (It comes in at number 13.)
According to the Tax Justice Network, which ranks tax haven countries using a number of criteria, including level of secrecy and sheer bulk of funds, these were the top 10 tax havens in 2015:
The Swiss bank account is in many ways the gold standard of secrecy when it comes to finance. Despite recent agreements with the U.S. to share some information on tax evaders, Switzerland still earns a 73 on the Tax Justice Network’s 100-point secrecy score. It is also holds nearly six percent share of the global market for offshore financial services.
2. Hong Kong
When the Chinese allowed the British lease on Hong Kong to expire after nearly a century, Beijing took back a province that had been transformed into a global financial hub where government regulation of financial services was distinctly hands-off. The banking industry there gets a secrecy score just below Switzerland’s, at 72, and holds a just-under 4 percent market share in offshore financial services.
3. United States
While it may surprise many Americans, the U.S. is actually the world’s largest provider of offshore banking and other services, with one-fifth of the global market. The services are generally provided in states with lax banking and incorporation laws, including Delaware, Nevada, and Wyoming. What keeps the U.S. from being at the top of the Tax Justice Network ranking is its relatively low secrecy score of 60.
The island nation of Singapore, famous for its extremely strict punishment of infractions like spitting on the sidewalk and selling chewing gum, does not take a similar stance toward financial services. With a secrecy score of 69 and a market share of 4 percent, its offshore financial industry is growing quickly.
5. Cayman Islands
While the Caribbean is, second only to Switzerland, what people generally think of when offshore accounts are mentioned, the Caymans are the only country in the region to crack the top 10. The British territory, which has developed a huge international banking sector that puts it among the top six worldwide, also holds just under 5 percent of the international offshore accounts market. Its secrecy score is 65.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a tiny country that borders Germany, Belgium and France, has a disproportionately large hold on the global offshore market, with nearly 12 percent. It would likely rank higher in the list except for recent efforts to be more transparent, which have dropped its secrecy score to 55.
Lebanon started to become a major financial services hub for the Middle East in the years between the World Wars, as many Lebanese emigrated to Africa and the West and began to create trading networks back to their home country. The established financial services infrastructure was in place to benefit from the growing wealth of oil-producing nations in the Middle East in the latter half of the 20th century. Recent unrest has taken its toll, dropping the Lebanon’s market share to only one-third of one percent. However, its high secrecy rating of 79 keeps it on the Tax Justice Network list.
A country whose presence on the list might surprise many, Germany holds more than 6 percent market share of the global offshore market, much of it representing foreign holding of tax-exempt interest bearing investments. The country’s overall secrecy score is 56, but the Tax Justice Network notes that various loopholes still make it an attractive destination for people seeking to avoid taxes.
The island Kingdom of Bahrain does not have the oil wealth of its Persian Gulf neighbors but makes up for it in part with a thriving financial services sector that dominates the local economy. It carries a modest 0.16 percent share of the global market, but has a high secrecy score of 74.
10. Dubai (UAE)
The wealthy city of Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, is smaller than even Bahrain in market share, with only 0.08 percent. However, its high secrecy score of 77 earns it the final slot in the top 10.