An offshore bank is a bank located outside the country of residence of the depositor, typically in a low tax jurisdiction (or tax haven) that provides financial and legal advantages. These advantages typically include:
- greater privacy (see also bank secrecy, a principle born with the 1934 Swiss Banking Act)
- low or no taxation (i.e. tax havens)
- easy access to deposits (at least in terms of regulation)
- protection against local political or financial instability
While the term originates from the Channel Islands being "offshore" from the United Kingdom, 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, including Swiss banks and those of other landlocked nations such as Luxembourg and Andorra.
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 many 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 possible 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 cite the fact that offshore banking offers a competitive threat to the banking and taxation systems in developed countries, suggesting that Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries are trying to stamp out competition.
Advantages of offshore banking
- Offshore banks can sometimes provide access to politically and economically stable jurisdictions. This will be an advantage for residents in areas where there is risk of political turmoil,who fear their assets may be frozen, seized or disappear (see the corralito for example, during the 2001 Argentine economic crisis). However it is often argued that developed countries with regulated banking systems offer the same advantages in terms of stability.
- Some offshore banks may operate with a lower cost base and can provide higher interest rates than the legal rate in the home country due to lower overheads and a lack of government intervention. Advocates of offshore banking often characterise government regulation as a form of tax on domestic banks, reducing interest rates on deposits.
- Offshore finance is one of the few industries, along with tourism, in which geographically remote island nations can competitively engage. It can help developing countries source investment and create growth in their economies, and can help redistribute world finance from the developed to the developing world.
- Interest is generally paid by offshore banks without tax being deducted. This is an advantage to individuals who do not pay tax on worldwide income, or who do not pay tax until the tax return is agreed, or who feel that they can illegally evade tax by hiding the interest income.
- Some offshore banks offer banking services that may not be available from domestic banks such as anonymous bank accounts, higher or lower rate loans based on risk and investment opportunities not available elsewhere.
- Offshore banking is often linked to other structures, such as offshore companies, trusts or foundations, which may have specific tax advantages for some individuals.
- Many advocates of offshore banking also assert that the creation of tax and banking competition is an advantage of the industry, arguing with Charles Tiebout that tax competition allows people to choose an appropriate balance of services and taxes. Critics of the industry, however, claim this competition as a disadvantage, arguing that it encourages a "race to the bottom" in which governments in developed countries are pressured to deregulate their own banking systems in an attempt to prevent the offshoring of capital.
Disadvantages of offshore banking
- Offshore bank accounts are less financially secure. In a banking crisis which swept the world in 2008 the only savers who lost money were those who had deposited their funds in offshore branches of Icelandic banks such as Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander. Those who had deposited with the same banks onshore received all of their money back. In 2009 The Isle of Man authorities were keen to point out that 90% of the claimants were paid, although this only referred to the number of people who had received money from their depositor compensation scheme and not the amount of money refunded. In reality only 40% of depositor funds had been repaid 24.8% in September 2009 and 15.2% in December 2009. Both offshore and onshore banking centres often have depositor compensation schemes. For example The Isle of Man compensation scheme guarantees £50,000 of net deposits per individual depositor or £20,000 for most other categories of depositor and point out that potential depositors should be aware that any deposits over that amount are at risk. However only offshore centres such as the Isle of Man have refused to compensate depositors 100% of their funds following Bank collapses. Onshore depositors have been refunded in full regardless of what the compensation limit of that country has stated thus banking offshore is historically riskier than banking onshore.
- Offshore banking has been associated in the past with the underground economy and organized crime, through money laundering. Following September 11, 2001, offshore banks and tax havens, along with clearing houses, have been accused of helping various organized crime gangs, terrorist groups, and other state or non-state actors. However, offshore banking is a legitimate financial exercise undertaken by many expatriate and international workers.
- Offshore jurisdictions are often remote, and therefore costly to visit, so physical access and access to information can be difficult. Yet in a world with global telecommunications this is rarely a problem for customers. Accounts can be set up online, by phone or by mail.
- Offshore private banking is usually more accessible to those on higher incomes, because of the costs of establishing and maintaining offshore accounts. However, simple savings accounts can be opened by anyone and maintained with scale fees equivalent to their onshore counterparts. The tax burden in developed countries thus falls disproportionately on middle-income groups. Historically, tax cuts have tended to result in a higher proportion of the tax take being paid by high-income groups, as previously sheltered income is brought back into the mainstream economy . The Laffer curve demonstrates this tendency.
- Offshore bank accounts are sometimes touted as the solution to every legal, financial and asset protection strategy but this is often much more exaggeration.
European Savings Tax Directive
In their efforts to stamp down on cross border interest payments EU governments agreed to the introduction of the Savings Tax Directive in the form of the European Union withholding tax in July 2005. A complex measure, it forced EU resident savers depositing money in any country other than the one they are resident in to choose between forfeiting tax at the point of payment, or allowing notification by the offshore banks to tax authorities in their country of residence. This tax affects any cross border interest payment to an individual resident in the EU.
Furthermore the rate of tax deducted at source will rise in 2008 and again in 2011, making disclosure increasingly attractive. Savers' choice of action is complex; tax authorities are not prevented from enquiring into accounts previously held by savers which were not then disclosed.
It is possible to obtain the full spectrum of financial services from offshore banks, including:
- deposit taking
- wire- and electronic funds transfers
- foreign exchange
- letters of credit and trade finance
- investment management and investment custody
- fund management
- trustee services
- corporate administration
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 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 has 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 (1.9 trillion US dollars in deposits) are the fifth largest banking centre globally in terms of deposits. However, recent data by the Swiss National Bank show that the assets held by foreign persons in Swiss bank accounts declined by 28.1% between January 2008 and November 2009.
Terrorist Finance Tracking Program
A series of articles published on June 23, 2006, by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times revealed that the United States government, specifically the US Treasury Department and the CIA, had a program to access the SWIFT transaction database after the September 11th attacks (see the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program) rendering offshore banking for privacy severely compromised.
Regulation of offshore banks
In the 21st century, regulation of offshore banking is allegedly increasing, 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 have 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:
- The tightening of anti-money laundering regulations in many countries including most popular offshore banking locations means that bankers are required, by good faith, to report suspicion of money laundering to the local police authority, regardless of banking secrecy rules. There is more international co-operation between police authorities.
- In the US the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) introduced Qualifying Intermediary requirements, which mean that the names of the recipients of US-source investment income are passed to the IRS.
- Following 9/11 the US introduced the USA PATRIOT Act, which authorises the US authorities to seize the assets of a bank, where it is believed that the bank holds assets for a suspected criminal. Similar measures have been introduced in some other countries.
- The European Union has introduced sharing of information between certain jurisdictions, and enforced this in respect of certain controlled centres, such as the UK Offshore Islands, so that tax information is able to be shared in respect of interest.
"You ask why, if there's an important role for a regulated banking system, do you allow a non-regulated banking system to continue? It's in the interest of some of the moneyed interests to allow this to occur. It's not an accident; it could have been shut down at any time. If you said the US, the UK, the major G7 banks will not deal with offshore bank centers that don't comply with G7 banks regulations, these banks could not exist. They only exist because they engage in transactions with standard banks."
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
In terms of offshore banking centres, in terms of total deposits, the global market is dominated by two key jurisdictions: Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, although numerous other offshore jurisdictions also provide offshore banking to a greater or lesser degree. In particular, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are known for their well regulated banking infrastructure. Some offshore jurisdictions have steered their financial sectors away from offshore banking, as difficult to properly regulate and liable to give rise to financial scandal.
Weakened Bank Secrecy
Since starting to survey offshore jurisdictions on April 2, 2009, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ((OECD)) at the forefront of a crackdown on tax evasion, won't object to governments using stolen bank data to track down tax cheats in offshore centers. The recent sharing of confidential UBS bank details about 285 clients suspected of willful tax evasion by the United States Internal Revenue Service was ruled a violation of both Swiss law and the country’s constitution by a Swiss federal administrative court. Nevertheless, OECD has removed 18 countries, including Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, from a so-called "grey list" of nations that did not offer sufficient tax transparency, and has re-categorized them as “white list” nations. Countries that do not comply may face sanctions. A notable exception is Panama, whose canal is currently needed by all Western nations, provides it with a unique type of immunity to international pressure. Given the enlargement of the canal to accommodate larger shipping, it is unlikely in the foreseeable future that Panama would likely succumb to international pressure toward transparency.
List of offshore financial centres
Offshore financial centres include:
- Antigua and Barbuda
- British Virgin Islands
- Cayman Islands
- Channel Islands (Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm)
- Cook Islands
- Gibraltar is no longer an offshore centre since 30 June 2006. No new Exempt Company certificates are being issued from that date.
- Ghana 
- Hong Kong
- Isle of Man
- Labuan, Malaysia
- New Zealand
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Turks and Caicos Islands
- Bank secrecy
- Corporate haven
- List of finance topics
- Private bank
- Banking in Switzerland
- Banking in Singapore
- Tax haven
- ^ Such as perpetual travelers
- ^ For example, the United States, France and Malaysia. In other countries it makes no difference so long as you are resident and domiciled there (for example, the United Kingdom)
- ^ Joseph Stiglitz (2008-10-22). "A crisis of confidence - Letting financial markets run wild was risky business indeed. Transparency, oversight and fair competition are needed now". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2008/oct/22/economy-financial-crisis-regulation. Retrieved 2008-11-24.
- ^ Bank Introduction
- ^  Wealth Management: Industry Analysis, Are Private Foreign Assets Fleeing From Switzerland, August 9th 2011
- ^ A recent letter by the District Attorney of New York, Robert M. Morgenthau, published by the New York Times, states that the Cayman Islands has 1.9 trillion United States dollars on deposit in 281 banks, including 40 of the world’s top 50 banks 
- ^ For example, despite being the largest offshore jurisdiction by some distance in terms of number of incorporated offshore vehicles, the British Virgin Islands has only ever licensed 7 offshore banks. This compares against hundreds in Switzerland, the Cayman Islands and (3rd in number of total banking licences) the Bahamas.
- ^  All previous Exempt Company certificates will be ineffective from 2010
- ^ 
- ^ President Launches Ghana's Landmark Offshore Banking. Ghana government website. Accessed 2008-08-21.
- ^ Ghana's offshore dreams. The Statesman. Accessed 2008-08-21.
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