By Chris Vellacott and Sinead Cruise
LONDON - A global campaign to tax trillions of dollars hidden in offshore tax havens has made revolutionary progress, an official leading the drive said, rejecting suggestions that the super rich are running rings around Western authorities.
Pascal Saint-Amans, director of a unit at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, also cast doubt on estimates that the havens are illicitly sheltering wealth equivalent to several hundred times the fortune of Bill Gates.
Leaders of the G20 group of leading Western and developing nations launched the campaign three years ago, aiming to claw back billions in lost tax revenue at a time when many governments are trying to cut huge budget deficits.
Saint-Amans said his gut feeling was that before the G20's initiative at its 2009 London summit, people could hide their wealth in offshore havens without any risk of legal reprisals.
“Now you are at risk and that's a major change. That's a revolution,” Paris-based Saint-Amans told Reuters in a telephone interview. Even if money is transferred abroad, rules improving transparency have made it easier for the taxman to find it, said Saint-Amans, whose unit is tasked with leading the Western efforts to fight tax evasion.
The Tax Justice Network, a campaign group, estimated last weekend that as much as $21 to $32 trillion of financial assets are sheltered in offshore tax havens, representing up to $280 billion in lost income tax.
That total wealth would dwarf the fortune of Microsoft Corp cofounder and philanthropist Bill Gates. In March Forbes magazine ranked Gates second on its global rich list with total wealth of a mere $61 billion.
Saint-Amans suggested the TJN estimates might be overstated. “I was wondering where the equivalent of 450 Bill Gates are hiding from everyone. It looks like the equivalent 20,000 unknown billionaires in the world or 200,000 people with net worth of 100 million,” he said.
The Scorpio Partnership, a consultancy that analyses the global private wealth management industry, estimates the amount of money held offshore by people worth at least $1 million at a more modest $8-$9 trillion. - Reuters