An offshore bank is a bank located outside the country of residence of the depositor, typically in a low tax jurisdiction (aka "tax haven") that provides financial and legal advantages. These advantages typically include some or all of
While the term originates from the Channel Islands "offshore" from Britain, and most offshore banks are located in island nations to this day, the term is used figuratively to refer to such banks regardless of location (Switzerland, Luxembourg and Andorra in particular are landlocked).
Offshore banking has often been associated with the underground economy and organized crime, via tax evasion and money laundering; however, legally, offshore banking does not prevent assets from being subject to personal income tax on interest. Except for certain persons who meet fairly complex requirements , the personal income tax of most countries makes no distinction between interest earned in local banks and those earned abroad. Persons subject to US income tax, for example, are required to declare on penalty of perjury, any offshore bank accounts—which may or may not be numbered bank accounts—they may have.
Although offshore banks may decide not to report income to other tax authorities, and have no legal obligation to do so as they are protected by bank secrecy, this does not make the non-declaration of the income by the tax-payer or the evasion of the tax on that income legal. Following September 11, 2001, there have been many calls for more regulation on international finance, in particular concerning offshore banks, tax havens and clearing houses such as Clearstream, based in Luxembourg, being accused of being a crossroads for major illegal money flows.
Defenders of offshore banking have criticised these attempts at regulation. They claim the process is prompted, not by security and financial concerns, but by the desire of domestic banks and tax agencies to access the money held in offshore accounts. They argue that offshore banking offers a competitive threat to the banking and taxation systems in developed countries, and that OECD countries are trying to stamp out competition.
Advantages of offshore banking
Disadvantages of offshore banking
It is possible to obtain the full spectrum of financial services from offshore banks, including:
Not every bank provides each service. Banks tend to polarise between retail services and private banking services. Retail services tend to be low cost and undifferentiated, whereas private banking services tend to bring a personalised suite of services to the client.
Statistics concerning offshore banking
Offshore banking, which has a historic association with tax evasion or organized crime, is an important part of the international financial system. Experts believe that as much as half the world's capital flows through offshore centers. Tax havens have 1.2% of the world's population and hold 26% of the world's wealth, including 31% of the net profits of United States multinationals. According to Merrill Lynch and Gemini Consulting's “World Wealth Report” for 2000, one third of the wealth of the world's “high net-worth individuals”—nearly $6 trillion out of $17.5 trillion—may now be held offshore. Some $3 trillion is in deposits in tax haven banks and the rest is in securities held by international business companies (IBCs) and trusts.
The IMF said that between $600 billion and $1.5 trillion of illicit money is laundered annually, equal to 2% to 5% of global economic output. Today, offshore is where most of the world's drug money is allegedly laundered, estimated at up to $500 billion a year, more than the total income of the world's poorest 20%. Add the proceeds of tax evasion and the figure skyrockets to $1 trillion. Another few hundred billion come from fraud and corruption. "These offshore centers awash in money are the hub of a colossal, underground network of crime, fraud, and corruption" commented Lucy Komisar quoting these statistics. Among offshore banks, Swiss banks hold an estimated 35% of the world's private and institutional funds (or 3 trillion Swiss francs), and the Cayman Islands are the fifth largest banking centre globally in terms of deposits.
Regulation of offshore banks
In the 21st century, regulation of offshore banking is allegedly improving, although critics maintain it remains largely insufficient. The quality of the regulation is monitored by supra-national bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Banks are generally required to maintain capital adequacy in accordance with international standards. They must report at least quarterly to the regulator on the current state of the business.
Since the late 1990s, especially following September 11, 2001, there has been a number of initiatives to increase the transparency of offshore banking, although critics such as the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (ATTAC) non-governmental organization (NGO) maintain that they have been insufficient. A few examples of these are:
Joseph Stiglitz, 2001 Nobel laureate for economics and former World Bank Chief Economist, told to reporter Lucy Komisar, investigating on the Clearstream scandal:
In the 1970s through the 1990s it was possible to own your own personal offshore bank; mobster Meyer Lansky had done this to launder his casino money. Changes in offshore banking regulation in the 1990s in the form of "due diligence" (a legal construct) make offshore bank creation really only possible for medium to large multinational corporations that may be family owned or run.
Offshore financial centres
Offshore financial centres include:
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