"Panama Papers" reveal money trail of the world's wealthiest users of tax havens

I suppose this is going to be treated as some sort of a bombshell in the days and weeks to come, with an international team of journalists spending a year pouring through more than eleven million leaked documents, mostly obtained through Wikileaks or Edward Snowden. They discovered that some of the world’s most wealthy individuals have been (hang on to your hats) gaming the system to disguise their wealth and avoid taxes. I know… you’re shocked. Dubbed “the Panama Papers” by the authors, the treasure trove of treasure-related documents came primarily from one of the world’s largest international tax law firms. (The Guardian)

The hidden wealth of some of the world’s most prominent leaders, politicians and celebrities has been revealed by an unprecedented leak of millions of documents that show the myriad ways in which the rich can exploit secretive offshore tax regimes.

The Guardian, working with global partners, will set out details from the first tranche of what are being called “the Panama Papers”. Journalists from more than 80 countries have been reviewing 11.5m files leaked from the database of Mossack Fonseca, the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm.

The records were obtained from an anonymous source by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with the Guardian and the BBC.

Everyone is being very quick and careful to repeatedly point out that Mossack Fonseca (the tax firm in question) didn’t do anything illegal, of course. (Perish the thought.) They’re simply very good at their jobs, identifying places with “tax friendly” laws and exploiting loopholes in regulations to allow the wealthy to stash away money in vast amounts. The list of names is very large with more to come, but it’s surprising devoid of Americans. Some of our good “friends” are prominently placed, though. Two of the first which should catch your attention are Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan and Ayad Allawi, the American choice for interim Prime Minister of Iraq during the post-invasion transition. We’ve known for ages that literally billions of US dollars simply disappeared in both places because massive corruption was baked into the cake in both nations. Where did we think that money was going?

One of the largest, most well known beneficiaries of this scheme will be familiar to everyone. The trail, unsurprisingly, leads right to the doorstep of Vladimir Putin by way of a … cello player? (The Guardian)

A network of secret offshore deals and vast loans worth $2bn has laid a trail to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. An unprecedented leak of documents shows how this money has made members of Putin’s close circle fabulously wealthy.

Though the president’s name does not appear in any of the records, the data reveals a pattern – his friends have earned millions from deals that seemingly could not have been secured without his patronage. The documents suggest Putin’s family has benefited from this money – his friends’ fortunes appear his to spend…

The Panama Papers shine a particular spotlight on Sergei Roldugin, who is Putin’s best friend. Roldugin introduced Putin to the woman he subsequently married, Lyudmila, and is godfather to Putin’s older daughter, Maria. A professional musician, he has apparently accumulated a fortune – having been placed in ostensible control of a series of assets worth at least $100m, possibly more.

Roldugin (the cello player) is described as Putin’s “best friend” and someone who may have accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars through these machinations. But his cut of the spoils pales in comparison to the boss. Putin has previously been estimated to be worth as much as $70B in just above board holdings involving oil companies and more, but speculation existed in 2012 that he could actually be worth over one trillion dollars when you count all of his hidden funds.

These revelations in the Panama Papers make that astronomical figure seem even more likely. But returning back to one of my original points, why are we not seeing big American names on the list? It must be because wealthy Americans are simply paragons of virtue who wouldn’t be engaged in such tawdry activities, right? (I’ll give you all a moment to stop laughing and catch your breath.) In reality, we probably just have smarter rich people who either didn’t use that firm or were more keenly aware of the potential penalties involved and took better care to keep all their forms filled out correctly. That doesn’t mean that Americans don’t offshore a lot of cash… it’s been known to happen. We just have a lot more oversight and means of discovery.

This is a big enough meal that the authors will be rolling it out for some time to come, so expect updates in the future. But I have a feeling that if there was somebody up on the level of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, George Soros, Michale Bloomberg or Mitt Romney on the list we’d already know about it.