As the saying goes, you are judged by the company you keep — and, in the case of public figures being named in “The Panama Papers” exposé, by the companies you tried to hide.
It’s being billed as the largest leak in the history of whistleblowing, comprising 2.6 terabytes of data and containing nearly 40 years of records from major Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca. It includes 4.8 million emails, 3 million database files and 2.1 million PDFs concerning more than 210,000 offshore companies in 21 jurisdictions.
Figuring prominently are places such as Hong Kong, the U.K., Switzerland, the U.S., Panama (of course), British Virgin Islands, Seychelles and Luxembourg. Sitting here in the Cayman Islands, perhaps the most conspicuous aspect of the immense trove of data is the practical absence of the Cayman Islands.
It hardly matters.
For readers in the U.S., the U.K., Europe and most places across the globe, “the Caymans” is synonymous with BVI, Panama, Switzerland and, in general, “tax haven.” Indeed, several news stories on The Panama Papers are already referencing Cayman as a prime example of a secretive offshore center, even though our territory plays no or little part in the substance of those stories.
The Panama Papers and similar investigations are engendered and directed by those who have the following in their sights:
- Individuals who have offshore companies (and who, in their view, should not be using them);
- The international financial system as a whole (which facilitates, enables or fails to remedy unpopular or even unsavory behavior); and,
- The class of small jurisdictions, such as Cayman (which, in the minds of many people, including regulators, “shouldn’t” be domiciling sophisticated financial sectors).
Nevertheless, Cayman cannot lay claim to being the “world’s fifth-largest financial center” without being prepared to embrace all that that mantle entails, including criticisms that are valid or otherwise.
In regard to The Panama Papers, it appears that this is a hugely important story, with significant revelations of wrongdoing and compelling key points, including that the worldwide system of offshore finance is prone to real, widespread abuse from unethical actors.
That being said, as we happen to make our home in an offshore financial jurisdiction (and use commercial banks that are “local” to us but “offshore” to foreigners), we can’t help but be sensitive to the thought that the “bad guys” in The Panama Papers story — the law firm Mossack Fonseca and its clients — can also be seen as victims of a colossal breach of confidential information. One man’s “whistleblowing” is another man’s “theft.”
Regardless, the whistle has been blown and the headlines have hit the fan. Keeping in mind that the most massive acts of fraud, corruption and wrongdoing occur in the largest jurisdictions, such as New York and London — the onus is on Cayman (and other small offshore territories) to undertake a calculated, sustained and orchestrated response. There are times when silence will not do.
A key question: Who is in charge of our response?
Cayman will be heavily impacted by fallout from The Panama Papers and any future bombshells. They provide the fuel that powers the engines of anti–tax haven activists, politicians and organizations.
If Cayman, as an international finance center, truly is among the squeakiest of clean, then we cannot cower or take cover while the entire financial sector is under fire. We in Cayman know, for example, that Panama and Seychelles may be comparatively “dirty” — but most people see no difference, and as an upstanding member of the financial community, Cayman has an obligation to speak up, loudly, in favor of best practices and against the worst.
However, before we hold ourselves up as a model of immaculacy, a degree of self-assessment may be required. Think of our active, starring role in the FIFA scandal, which continues to unfold and which incidentally has resurfaced in The Panama Papers.
Also think, what if, when the next leak occurs, it doesn’t come from a Panamanian law firm that has few direct connections to Cayman … What if it springs from one of our own?