“What’s the best way to rob a bank? Start one.”
Many people have heard that old saw. But it’s no longer accurate. The best way to rob a bank is to control a government … any old government will do these days.
It wasn’t always like that. You see, for most of modern history, governments knew to keep their hands off banks. Whether led by kings, prime ministers, presidents or dictators, states understood that the first time they raided a private bank for loot would be the last. Bankers would close up shop and go somewhere else, and the next time the rulers needed to borrow some cash, there would be no lenders left in town.
My, how times have changed! Not only do modern governments feel perfectly free to steal from local banks or from offshore banks … they actively compete with each other to do so.
Guilty as Not Charged
It’s more important than ever to be choosy when picking an offshore bank.
A few weeks ago, the government of Honduras seized the property of one of the country’s leading businessmen — including the bank his family owned. The bank was liquidated, leaving over 200,000 local and foreign clients in the lurch.
Seizures and forced liquidations aren’t uncommon, of course. Courts all over the world order such things all the time when individuals or organizations are convicted of crimes. What made the Honduran case unusual is that there was no court, no trial and no crime.
You see, a relative of the Honduran businessman in question had been arrested in the U.S., where extrajudicial asset forfeiture is practiced.
In the Land of the Free, federal, state and local authorities can and do seize all sorts of property on just about any pretext, simply by asserting that the property (a car, a house, a farm, cash, etc.) is somehow associated with a crime. They don’t have to prove this — their own say-so is all they need. The owner of the seized property doesn’t have to be guilty of anything, or even be charged with a crime. Instead, he or she has to prove that the property isn’t “guilty.” Most of these owners never manage to come up with the money, time or other resources needed to do so. So they lose their property, which is usually sold for profit or used by the government.
Get While the Gettin’s Good
Knowing this, the Honduran government reasoned that it was likely that property in the U.S. belonging to the Honduran businessman’s family would be seized by the U.S. authorities. They concluded that if this happened, the businessman’s local bank might not be able to meet its commitments, angering a lot of local depositors who are also voters (or government officials).
So to get a jump on the process, so to speak, the Honduran government seized the bank before the U.S. government could get their hands on related property. It was a preemptive raid, not based on any proven violation of Honduran or U.S. law, but rather on the knowledge that if they didn’t act first, the Yankees would. It’s like a scene in a Western movie where one set of robbers races another to catch up with the stagecoach.
You might think this is a sui generis case, shaped by the U.S.’ peculiar asset forfeiture practices. Maybe so … but the underlying logic behind Honduras’ action has recently been globalized.
One Global Tax System, But Many Governments
Here’s why: The G-20 recently adopted a global financial-information-exchange protocol, inspired by the U.S.’ Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Over the next few years, financial institutions everywhere will be sucked into a web of reporting designed to ensure that nobody can keep money secret from any government. Whether they like it or not, banks will have to hand over client information to their own governments, who will then share it with others.
It’s easy to see how that will make tax enforcement easier. But it may also result in some nasty unintended consequences along the lines of the Honduras case.
If the G-20 data-sharing plan works as planned, government officials everywhere will be able to monitor changes in the offshore financial holdings of local individuals or businesses. This sort of intelligence could trigger precisely the sort of preemptive strikes that took place in Honduras. A big local business is losing money in its overseas operations? Better grab its local assets now, before a foreign court can seize them as part of a bankruptcy proceeding. Ditto for individuals.
The bottom line here is that, as always, government action — the G-20 reporting web — will create a new set of incentives that will have unpredictable consequences. The only thing we can be sure of is that government will look after its interests … not yours.
The world of offshore banks is becoming more complex. That’s why it is absolutely critical that you have an inside guide to the most recent developments … so you can stay one step ahead of the government thieves.
Offshore and Asset Protection Editor