Time for a new message

| 17/06/2008

By Wendy Ledger – Posted Tuesday, 17 June 2008

George Town (CNS): The Cayman Islands is no stranger to
criticism from the international press and NGOs, or from governments
and law enforcement agencies – the country has always been portrayed
as a safe haven for the world’s less than orthodox financial
transactions. And while the days may be long gone when bags of cash
allegedly fell from departing aircraft and bounced down the runway at
Owen Roberts International, the image is enduring.

US Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s interest is Ugland House, for
example, is perfectly understandable. To those with little knowledge
of what offshore finance is all about, asking how one ordinary and
relatively small office block can house more than 12,000 companies it
is not an unreasonable question. And asking what these companies do is
not an unreasonable question either. However, as a jurisdiction we
have been exceptional poor at answering it.

The mantra for the last decade has simply been: “We are more compliant
thansome onshore financial centres, so leave us alone”.  In
fact, Cayman has done a tremendous job at signing on the dotted line
for everything and before anyone else. We stick to the letter of law
and comply with numerous international regulations. However, in recent
times the criticisms have changed and we are failing to recognize the
new direction they are now taking and failing to see the potential
consequences.

While Cayman has stuck to the same PR message of how the jurisdiction
is more compliant, better regulated and even more insulated against
money laundering than many onshore jurisdictions, the critics have
switched the focus from the way we do business to what business we
actually do. Issues of legitimate tax avoidance, the preservation of
wealth, facilitating the business of Trans-National Corporations
(TNCs) and the secrecy that surrounds it all are now the key issues
for those who promote the idea that what we do is not questionable
from a legal point of view but from a moral one. US and European
politicians, international commentators, global organizations and, of
course, the media are increasingly pointing the finger at us, not for
helping drug barons hide their ill-gotten gains, but for enabling
global business to evade its responsibilities.

Perhaps one of the most critical reports for some time is Death
and Taxes
written by Christian Aid, an international non-
governmental organization that focuses on global poverty. This report
looks at how various tax avoidance schemes, legal and legitimate ones
as well as those that are questionable, keep the world’s lesser-
developed nations in poverty. While it may be easy to dismiss it as
just one insignificant publication penned by a global institution that
has a strong socialist agenda, its message is one that is being
listened to and repeated around the world. The report’s message is
gaining traction on the international stage and, as Obama begins the
race for a presidency that he is very likely to win, he is certainly
not dismissing the points raised in it, and the powers that be in
Cayman’s Financial Services sector would be wise not to dismiss them
either.

Moreover, there is something more disturbing about the criticisms now
being thrown at the offshore world and as noted by Stephen Hall-Jones
in his letter to the Net News editor, it could even spell the
beginning of the end. Support is growing around the world to address
tax equalisation, and should there be a concerted effort by Western
governments to do so, Cayman could find itself up the proverbial creek
without a paddle.

There is no doubt that the ostrich position will not serve this
jurisdiction well, particularly if the world’s leading nations make a
concerted effort to undermine the way OFCs work. What Cayman needs to
do is begin explaining far more eloquently how what it does is
beneficial to the global economy. As the international symbol of ‘tax
havenism’with better regulation than most, Cayman is ideally suited to
lead the charge on the global education campaign about OFCs.

If we wish to preserve our golden goose we need to start justifying
its existence, as well as explaining how it lays those golden eggs
and, above all, why those golden eggs are good for everyone and are
not killing Third World babies.

One person who has consistently tried to remove Cayman’s ostrich-like
head from the sand and justify our position on the global stage is
Chair of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority, Tim Ridley, who says
that while this recent report is unjustified he recognises its damage
potential.

“The figures thrown around in the report are highly speculative and
without factual support. The danger is that the figures then become
accepted,” noted Ridley. He explained, too, that the development of a
successful offshore sector here is what prevented Cayman from being
one of the countriesthe report writes about. “It is ironic that
Cayman and other small financial services centres are now being
vilified for bettering themselves and providing competitive products
and legitimate services. If we are driven out of business and reduced
to poverty again, are the rich countries of the OECD, EU or G7 and
Christian Aid going to support us? I doubt it, and I doubt they have
even thought about this possible outcome.”

Ridley also noted that the historic abuse of financial services by
criminal elements, including tax evaders, has made life difficult for
OFCs and their role is constantly misunderstood. “There are strong
arguments that OFC’s provide a good neutral and tax efficient platform
for routing investment capital in a beneficial way to the Third
World,” he said, adding that corrupt governments and ineffective aid
programmes rather  than the world’s OFCs are the most significant
problems for lesser developed nations.

A staunch advocate of tax liberalization, low taxation and free market
global economics, Ridley notes that it is more important than ever to
make the argument that OFSc are a positive force. He also believes
that the report and the growing global antipathy to tax avoidance,
legitimate or otherwise, all underscores how imperative it is that
both the public and private sectors in Cayman elevate the campaign to
better inform the world as to what we do and how we do it.

“Cayman simply acts as the facilitator for the most efficient and
frictionless use and investment of funds. We are not depriving anyone
of their just tax take,” he said. In a recent presentation at a
specialist conference in Miami, Ridley noted other serious threats
that all OFCs are facing from onshore economies. While addressing a
number of them, he emphasised the pressing need for a more proactive
approach, with both political and media campaigns to educate and
inform people and to counter the constant negative media image, though
he was seeing some signs of progress.

Attorney General Samuel Bulgin, when speaking in the Legislative
Assembly during the budget debate recently, suggested that envy was
the root course of international criticism. “For many years now, this
tiny jurisdiction has been feeling the wrath of the rest of the world,
mainly because of our successes as a financial centre,” Bulgin said.
“It’s all about jealousy; they are deeply jealous about the success of
these islands.”

We can parade our regulatory credentials until the cows come home, but
unless we can convince more of the world’s leading powers that OFCs
offer a benefit to them and their economies they will still find ways
of making things difficult for us. The recent absence of Cayman on the
European Union’s latest AML ‘white list’ (of countries deemed to have
satisfactory controls against money laundering) will make life tougher
than necessary for our financial institutions. If Obama gets his way,
there will be a change to US law to make it extremely difficult for
American citizens and corporations to function offshore, which would
be even more worrying. 

For years Cayman has consistently whinged about its overseas image,
with one government official after another wringing their hands about
the unfairness of it all. Yet each successive political administration
and the private sector have persistently failed to do anything to
alter the situation. Last year’s charm offensive, which involved
members of the Cabinet visiting Capitol Hill in Washington, was hardly
the success the government attempted to say it was. Not one of the
senators that the Cayman delegation visited was willing to offer a
single comment about the visit. The only comment CNS received, despite
badgering every senator that was visited, came to us in error: a
staffer erroneously clicked ‘reply’ instead of ‘send’ and revealed
that one of the senators was in no way convinced that activities in
the Cayman Islands were in the least bit benign.

Somehow, Cayman must find a way to convince the world that the
jurisdiction is fundamental in making the global money go round and
not that we are trying to rob it. While transparency is often
considered a dirty word in Cayman, it may in the end be our salvation.

Category: Special Reports

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