10 March 2009

Perspective on Banking Secrecy

During the recent past politicians and lobbies of all persuasions seen to have found a new 'Enemy Number One' - Banking Secrecy and linked to this Tax Havens large and small.
Politicians and their paid servants the regulators have failed miserably to prepare for the current global financial crisis. Despite the fact that institutions like the Bank of International Settlements has spent roughly 10 years and produced a report of 1000 pages the Bale 2 rules did nothing to prevent the debacle that has afflicted major banks around the world.
So it appears to be nothing more than a desperate search for scapegoats when politicians attack banking secrecy and tax havens. They are not the cause of the current crisis!
Not so long ago there was a time when anyone could walk into a Bank in Austria and open a bank account without presenting any form of documentation. No one asked what their name or address was. You paid in your money and you received a bearer passbook that was the only document you needed to claim back your money. In his teenage years the author even opened a number of passbooks on the same day. That way he pocketed a small amount of money that the banks put into new passbooks as a reward for opening the account.
Was crime any higher as a consequence of lax banking regulation? Was corruption rampant? Not at all. Since the (US inspired) crusade against banking secrecy gathered speed both crime and corruption have - if anything - increased. The world certainly does not seem to be a safer place.
Ironically, much crime and corruption can be traced back to ill-conceived legislation: the war on drugs, arbitrary taxes (tobacco, alcohol), questionable regulations and subsidies (agriculture, trade tariffs), limits on prostitution. All these laws and regulations may be well-intentioned but they provide a fertile field for criminal activity and usually are counterproductive as well as costly to the taxpayer and citizen (who most of the time get no say on respective laws.
If countries want to close down tax loopholes they can avail themselves of a solution that is easy to administer and leaves the precious privacy of all citizens untouched: Legislators can decide to impose taxes at source. If politicians are really only interested in reducing the amount of tax that in unpaid this solution should be suffice. Anything more intrusive indicates that the authorities are really interested in invading the private sphere of the individual and increase the control that the state already has over the citizen's lives.