In this exclusive interview, we speak to Raymond Baker (Director of the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development). We discuss the true
scale of the global illicit economy and understand how issues such as government theft, drug trafficking, global wealth, money laundering and the shadow financial system contribute to some of our most intractable issues ranging from poverty to hunger, terrorism and even economic crises.
It is an astonishing testament to our society’s economic development that the decade from 1999-2009 saw OECDcountries giving over US$1.07 trillion (around 1.7% of world GDP) in overseas development aid, predominantly to developing economies. It is even more astonishing when you realise that in the same period, over US$8 trillion (an amount larger than the combined size of the economies of China and India) was illicitly transferred from these developing economies into the western world, in most cases- permanently. This amount, combined with the developing world’s estimated US$4 Trillion in external debt, means that 80% of our world population (some 5.15 billion people) live in poverty.
Some may argue that even against the backdrop of debt and outflows, it should still be applauded that these economies have received such a significant amount of aid. Surely, they may add, it must be helping? EconomistLoretta Napoleoni notes that, “what turns a developing into a developed nation is not the amount of foreign aid it attracts, but how the money is spent.” Using the example of Africa she continues to describe how, “most of the half-trillion dollars received by Africa since the 1960s has funded military coups and civil wars, not economic development. Between 1982 and 1985, Zimbabwe spent $1.3 out of $1.5 billion of foreign assistance on arms and ammunition. In war-torn countries such as Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, foreign asset transfers have provided the most lucrative source of revenue for local armed groups. During the civil war in Sudan, the bulk of food aid intended for famine-stricken regions was spent by local armed groups and warlords, who bought Iraqi weapons to use against the Sudanese army and the population… in fact, 70% of the loans given to developing economies go to purchasing goods and services from Western corporation.” She also refers to the Swedish Economist Fredrik Erixon who has shown that since the 1970s, the volume of aid received by African countries has proven inversely proportional to economic growth. Far from being the cure he says, foreign aid has caused the disease. The more a country receives, the more it sinks into poverty.
The existence of a ‘market’ has been a core feature of human society since the Stone Age. At the heart of this market exists the exchange medium of ‘money’, governed by the ideological science of the ‘economy’. Napoleoni notes, “…The birth of new outlets for exchange has triggered economic progress. Human discoveries and innovations gain new meaning when they are shared with others and this happens when they are traded…” (Rogue Economics, 2008). In this regard, one can observe that a properly functioning economy, in which participants have confidence, is essential to the fundamental operation of society. It is clear to even the most casual observer however, that our global economy is faulty. This system, designed to support human progress, is inaccessible or inequitable for the vast majority of humanity. So what is the true scale of the faults in our economy?
In this exclusive interview, we speak to Raymond Baker (Director of the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development). We discuss the true scale of the global illicit economy and understand how issues such as government theft, drug trafficking, global wealth, money laundering and the shadow banking system contribute to some of our most intractable issues ranging from poverty to hunger, terrorism and even economic crises.
Raymond Baker is the Director of the Task Force on Financial Integrity and Economic Development and the author of Capitalism’s Achilles Heel: Dirty Money and How to Renew the Free-Market System, published by John Wiley & Sons and cited by the Financial Times as one of the “best business books of 2005.” He has for many years been an internationally respected authority on corruption, money laundering, growth, and foreign policy issues, particularly as they concern developing and transitional economies and impact upon western economic and foreign interests. He has written and spoken extensively, testified often before legislative committees in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, been quoted worldwide, and has commented frequently on television and radio in the United States, Europe, and Asia on legislative matters and policy questions, including appearances on Nightline, CNN, BBC, NPR, Four Corners, and GloboNews, among others.
Mr. Baker is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., researching and writing on the linkages between corruption, money laundering, and poverty. He is also Director of Global Financial Integrityand a member of the High Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa, chaired by former President of South Africa,Thabo Mbeki. In 1996 Mr. Baker received a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for a project entitled, “Flight Capital, Poverty and Free-Market Economics.” He traveled to 23 countries to interview 335 central bankers, commercial bankers, government officials, economists, lawyers, tax collectors, security officers, and sociologists on the relationships between bribery, commercial tax evasion, money laundering, and economic growth. From 1985 to 1996 Mr. Baker provided confidential economic advisory services at the presidential level for developing country governments. Activities focused principally on issues surrounding anti-corruption strategies, international terms of trade, and developing country debt. Research was conducted with 550 business owners and managers in eleven countries, concerning import and export mispricing and movement of tax-evading capital.
From 1976 to 1985 Mr. Baker conducted extensive trading activities throughout Latin America and in ten Asian countries including the People’s Republic of China. An affiliated company in London handled transactions in Europe. From 1961 to 1976 he lived in Nigeria and established and managed an investment company which set up and acquired manufacturing and financing ventures, the subject of two Harvard Business School case studies. Educated at Harvard Business School and Georgia Institute of Technology, Mr. Baker is the author of “The Biggest Loophole in the Free-Market System,” “Illegal Flight Capital; Dangers for Global Stability,” “How Dirty Money Binds the Poor,” and other works published in the United States and Europe.
Q: What is the methodology you use to measure illicit financial flows?
[Raymond Baker] We measure these flows entirely based on data filed by governments at the World Bank and the IMF. We apply two very established economic models. One is the World Bank’s residual method, and the other is the IMF Direction of Trade statistical approach. These models have been used by economists for decades but we were the first group to apply these models to all developing countries.
These models depend entirely on government statistics. They automatically leave out many forms of illicit money such as drug trading, human trafficking, some forms of trade mispricing and so forth. That is why we feel our estimates are very conservative.
Q: What is the true scale of the illicit flows of money out of developing economies into the west?
[Raymond Baker] If you look at the decade which ended in 2009, our estimate is around US$8 trillion. As previously mentioned, we believe this is a very conservative estimate because there are major parts of illicit flows that are not included in that figure. To put this in context of specific countries, China has been by far the biggest exporter of illicit capital. Interestingly, China is also the biggest exporter of licit capital. We estimate the amount of illicit money to have left China in the 10 years ending 2009 to be around US$2.7 trillion. Other countries also have significant outflows. Mexico lost US$504 billion over the period, Russia US$501 billion, Saudi Arabia US$380 billion and Malaysia US$350 billion.. If you measure these losses as a proportion of GDP, outflows from China, Russia and India barely register 2% of GDP while outflows from Mexico and smaller countries can amount to 6-8% of their GDP.
We’re talking about massive amounts of money that have been shifted from poorer countries to richer ones. Almost all of this constitutes a permanent outward transfer. In our estimate, only about 10-20% of global illicit money ever finds its way back into the country of origin.. China may be an exception to that with 20-30% of money ‘round tripping‘ back into the country. One of the important things to recognise about that return is that it’s not via citizen’s return of flight capital, but through foreign direct investment. That illicit money has gone abroad, acquired a foreign nationality (more often than not in a tax-haven) and comes back.
Q: What is the scale and impact of bribery and theft of funds by governments in developing and developed economies?
[Raymond Baker] We estimate that in talking about the cross-border flows of illicit money (not financial activity within one country) the component that is due to corruption- i.e. bribery and theft by government officials, is around 3-5% of the global total. It is very much the smaller part of the equation and takes place when corrupt politicians, high net worth individuals, and officials act in a private capacity- often using a network of secrecy jurisdictions and expert accounting, tax lawyers and other professionals to hide these transactions and resultant funds in complete anonymity. This is especially significant when you consider the amount of effort we, in the West, put into pointing out the corruption that takes place in those countries. We tend to paint the picture that corruption is the problem. The fact is, when you look at the cross-border flows of illicit money- it’s only the smallest part of the problem.
For the societies themselves, this activity drains hard currency reserves, heightens inflation, reduces tax collection, curtails government service and undermines investment.. There is no good accomplished by this massive outflow of resources. Much of our work at the Task Force is aimed at maximising resources for development- thismeans curtailing outflows so that nations are able to keep their capital and spend it internally. When you put these outflows in the context of globalisation you see how trade mispricing is used to rob governments of much needed capital, which could otherwise be used to alleviate poverty and stimulate economic growth.
Finally let me add that these outflows weaken national security by providing a source of capital for terrorist groups and criminal organisations.
[Raymond Baker] Our studies show that the proceeds from drug trafficking and other illegal criminal activities amount to between 30-35% of all illicit flows. Drug trafficking is the biggest single component, but it is not large enough to constitute a majority. Almost the same size is counterfeiting and contraband and then, of course, you have human trafficking and a gamut of other criminal activity. The proceeds of crime are the second ranking source of all illicit funds. This is the main platform by which cross-border criminal activity is conducted. Criminals did not invent any new ways of shifting illicit money across borders, they simply stepped into mechanisms that we- as a society- had already created to move flight capital, and capital that was avoiding tax across borders.
There is no doubt that by curtailing such capital flows we will be able to bring criminal organisations under control and reduce their power.
Q: To what extent do illicit financial markets contribute to the threat of terrorism?
[Raymond Baker] Illicit financial markets facilitate the movement of terrorist money. After 9/11, the United States moved very aggressively to address terrorist financing to the extent that there are now fifty departments in the US Government that have some focus on some aspect of terrorist financing. As a result of that, I think that terrorist organisations have been forced to resort to the movement of bulk-cash or gold, drugs, commodities and so forth. We’ve made it difficult- not impossible- for terrorists to use the legitimate financial system. The European Community has criticised Americans as having been heavy-handed but if I was a US Government official after 2001, I would have been heavy-handed also.
A recent edict from Saudi Arabian clerics published in the Washington Post a few years back recommended that if governments wished to deal with international terrorism, they curtail the generation and cross-border transmission of illicit capital. Let us not forget that the recent failed attempt to detonate a bomb in the middle of a crowded locality of Manhattan was financed through a “hawala” transaction. This is a transaction that occurs outside the normal banking and remittance system using a huge international network of money brokers located in the Middle East, North Africa, Horn of Africa and South Asia.
Q: What is the scale and impact of tax evasion and secrecy jurisdictions in developed and developing economies? And what does ‘offshore’ really mean in this context?
[Raymond Baker] Tax evasion is the biggest part of the movement of illicit money internationally and is a problem for both developed and developing economies. The principal mechanism for tax evasion is the mispricing of trade; that is to say you deliberately misprice an export or import in order to shift capital to a different tax jurisdiction. This practice occurs with great frequency and operates using much the same structures used by organised crime (arms dealers, drug smugglers and the like).
The deals themselves are not transparent, but it would be a stretch to say they take place contrary to international agreements. The effort to curtail trade mispricing is called ‘the arms-length principle’ that is to say all parties- whether they are corporations dealing between subsidiaries or domestic business people- should deal as though they had no relationship to one another. Price should therefore be based on normal market forces. Unfortunately that is not the way it works in reality. A very large proportion of the pricing of trade is done in tax-planning departments of multinational corporations where they are quite specifically making decisions to evade or avoid VAT, customs duties, income taxes and so on.
Prominent US and other advanced country commercial banks have been involved in money laundering and have had to pay fines for breaking anti-money laundering (AML) laws (unfortunately the fines are often not great enough to pose any series disincentive when compared to the money that can potentially be made). In a study, we found that between 24-44% of total economic outflows are absorbed in offshore centres, while commercial banks absorb the rest… up to 76%. The specific range depends on how one defines offshore centres (OFCs). If Switzerland and Ireland are counted as OFCs, then we get the higher end of the amount absorbed. Our findings indicate that both banks and offshore centres absorb illicit funds from developing countries and both of these parties are quite opaque regarding such transactions.
In terms of the effect on society… If you look at somewhere like the Cayman Islands where a lot of money flows in and out… no, it has very little impact. If the entire shadow financial system based in the Cayman Islands picked up and moved elsewhere the Cayman citizens would be left in a very similar condition to their world before the structures arrived. The shadow financial system does very little for the tax-haven economies themselves. If you look at the economies from where the income has been lost- they are left in an impoverished state. Firstly, the governments do not have the tax revenues to spend on health, education, social services, infrastructure and so on… but far larger than the tax loss is the capital loss. That capital has moved out of the country and is unavailable to the economy.
Q: What is the scale and impact of trade mispricing in developed and developing economies?
[Raymond Baker] Our studies have mainly focused on developing countries and only, to a limited extent, on advanced economies such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Trade mispricing accounts for up to 55% of total illicit capital outflows from developing countries. Trade mispricing offers an excellent channel for the cross-border transfer of illicit capital because mispricing is comparatively difficult for overburdened customs administrations to monitor and punish.
Q: What is the shadow financial system?
[Raymond Baker] The global shadow financial system comprises a number of elements. Tax havens, most of which also function as secrecy jurisdictions, facilitate the establishment of disguised corporations in the millions where nobody knows who the real owner of the entity is. Anonymous trusts are part of these structures as are fake foundations and instruments used to misprice trade and launder money. There are also key holes left in western legal systems which facilitate the movement of money through this shadow financial system and into our economies.
If you go back several decades to the 1960s, this- you will find- was the period where the development of the shadow banking system took off in earnest. This period was significant for two reasons…,to begin with it was the decade of independence. Between the late 1950s and the end of the 1960s, 48 countries around the world gained their independence from colonial powers. The reality is that some of the economic and political elite in those countries wanted to get their money out by any means necessary. We in the West- through our political and banking systems- were very accommodating to these outflows of flight capital from poorer countries. The second reason this period was significant can be attributed to the spread of multinational corporations (MNCs). There were a handful of international businesses before then, but the thrust to plant your corporate flag all across the planet really started in the 60s and has continued to the present day. Lots of multinational corporations utilise the shadow financial system to move their money.
Q: What are your views about the concentrations in global wealth in regards to illicit financial flows?
[Raymond Baker] The driving force behind the global shadow financial system is the accumulation of wealth in a hidden or secret manner. This business is about getting rich secretly and not having to account for it elsewhere. It drives global inequality.
People talk about how we’ve begun to reduce the burden of global poverty. That is true… the statistics are reasonably good and the number of people living on US$1-2 a day is beginning to reduce with some modest degrees of success. Having said that… global inequality is rising and that is because the rich are getting richer far faster than the poor are working themselves out of poverty. All global statistics on income equality are short of the mark because none of them measure the earnings on foreign accounts. A citizen in one country who may have a great deal of money in another country… that money and the earnings on it rarely appear as income in the country where he is a citizen. When we’re measuring global income disparities, until we factor in money within the shadow financial system, all our measures are off the mark.
Q: Are there concerns about money flows to charities and NGOs?
[Raymond Baker] I don’t have any specific concerns as I believe that most NGOs and charities are doing a good job. We often make a comparison of illicit outflows to official development assistance that flows into these countries as foreign aid. Our estimate is that the amount of money coming out of developing economies is 8-10 times the amount of foreign aid flowing in. That’s a situation that doesn’t work for anyone- rich or poor.
Fortunately there are charities, religious organisations and NGOs who work hard to shift resources into developing economies but these flows are small by comparison.
Q: To what extent do illicit financial markets contribute to global issues such as hunger and poverty?
[Raymond Baker] It’s a huge contributor. I lived in Nigeria for over 15 years and watched that country’s oil revenues disappear. I know people in Nigeria who are living at a lower standard today than when I met them in 1961. This is inexcusable in an oil rich economy. About 70% of Nigeria’s population live on US$1-2 a day, meanwhile hundreds of billions of dollars have shifted out of Nigeria into foreign bank accounts, impoverishing over a hundred million people in the country. There’s no excuse for Nigeria still having people living on just US$1-2 a day. It’s an oil rich country and had those revenues stayed within the country, it would be a whole different economy…
There are a lot of people who think the cost-benefit analysis is favourable to the western world when this money streams out of poor countries into our economies. I challenge anybody to make the case that their country is stronger as a result of being the recipient of this money. Hundreds of billions of dollars come into the United States. Look what happens on the other hand, we are forced by choice and necessity to spend magnitudes of this on defence, on curtailing crime in other countries, on foreign aid, on the lack of markets for our products internationally and more.
Q: To what extent did the global financial crisis expose illicit operations within the western financial markets? and how do illicit financial flows affect developed economies
[Raymond Baker] There is no doubt that many such practices have been exposed, but that is very different to stating that anything is being done about it. The premise that markets know best and should be left to themselves is deeply flawed and the global economic crisis has further affirmed this fallacy.
The last financial crisis had significant roots in the shadow financial system. One of the great unknowns as the crisis got underway was its size. What was the total number of credit default swaps? What was the total value of sub-prime mortgages? How big were the derivatives in the marketplace? Because we didn’t know, we were paralysed in dealing effectively with the crisis in its earliest stages. It took four subventions of money to Citibank before it was finally bailed out, it took three subventions of money to AIG before it was finally bailed out… we kept pouring money into these institutions because we didn’t know what they really needed and that was in part due to the shadow financial system, which shields information and makes it very difficult for us to deal with these kinds of crises.
To you, me and others this crisis showed that the financial system does not work in the best interests of the wider world. I don’t think this view was shared by the financial community or global political leadership. Basically… the bankers have won! They have won the points they were making in this financial crisis insofar as they had been pushing to ensure that we don’t over-regulate or intervene too much in banker’s activities. Bankers were left alone with the opportunity to leverage, make money and operate behind walls of secrecy on the premise that our global economy would be better off. They won that argument, but we saw that it wasn’t good for the rest of us!
Q: How important is it for countries like India, Tunisia and others to recuperate lost assets?
[Raymond Baker] I’m all in favour of efforts to try and recuperate lost assets but to be totally honest, the global structures needed to facilitate such recoveries are extremely cumbersome and western financial systems will- all too frequently- erect barriers to stop this recovery. These barriers take the form of a lack of information exchange and a lack of co-operation- requiring the other country to prove that the source of the money was corrupt or criminal. We’ve made it very difficult for any such recoveries to take place.
Let us take India as just one example. Task Force member Global Financial Integrity recently published a study on illicit outflows which created a huge amount of comment within the nation. There is a focus on recovering ‘black money‘ (as it is known in India). We’ve made ourselves clear many times that we must work toward that end but in the meantime you have to close the avenues that allow for the continued export of illicit money. It doesn’t do anyone any good if you recover assets only to have them flow straight back out again!
Q: Can you give us examples of key [actual or potential] policy solutions to the problem of illicit financial flows?
[Raymond Baker] We advocate greater transparency in the global financial system. There is a key point there… When we talk about the global financial system, we’re making it very clear that this is a two-way street. It’s not just the remit of developing countries to have strong anti-corruption policies and better tax administration, but equally it is up-to us to curtail our receptivity to such money.
In this sense, we advocate some quite specific measures.
First, let’s get rid of disguised corporations. There is no excuse for any financial institution in the world to do business with an entity where it does not know who the natural owners are. Yet there are millions of accounts around the world where that is exactly the case and financial institutions simply do not know who the natural, or real, owners are!
Secondly, we advocate automatic exchange of tax information across borders. Partly due to our work, the Prime Minister of India, at the last G20 meeting in France, called for automatic exchange of tax information between countries. Some of the richer countries have argued that their developing counterparts do not have the capacity to deal with this sort of exchange. That’s not correct. Any country can deal with the first hundred names on the list! A country like India can deal with the whole of the exchange process.
Thirdly, we advocate country by country reporting. That is to say that corporations should be required to report their sales, profits and taxes paid for every jurisdiction where they are in business. That is not the case at the present time. If you were to require country by country reporting right now, you would find that many multinational corporations would report great losses in countries where they have heavy investment and huge profits in tax haven entities where they have no facilities or assets other than a bank account. How do you lose money where you’re in business and make money where you’re not? Unfortunately… our international accounting system permits that.
Q: Are any economic or other innovations needed in the fight against illicit financial flows?
[Raymond Baker] You may be familiar with SWIFT. It is not, in fact, a money transfer system but rather an information exchange platform based in Belgium. On most wire transfers, the information as to who is the remitter, the recipient, which banks are being utilised and so forth all goes through the SWIFT system. The information is available but very difficult to access.
The US government did succeed in accessing SWIFT information concerning terrorist financing. The way this was done was that they forced SWIFT to agree to a process by which questions about terrorist financing had to be answered. The process involved the establishment of a committee which had SWIFT on the one hand, the United States on the other and an accounting firm for oversight. The requests for information pertaining to terrorist activity had to be approved by this group. This process has curtailed the use of wire transfers in the financing of terrorism. Exactly the same process could be used for drugs trafficking, human trafficking and even tax evasion…. should we choose to do so. We have not gone that far yet, but the capability is there.
Q: Will technology help to curtail illicit flows?
[Raymond Baker] I’m not altogether convinced. When illicitly generated money moves from one place to another, it has to move out of one account and into another.. It doesn’t matter whether the movement is by cash, cheque, wire transfer, telephone payment or what have you. The important thing is to know who the account holders are on either side of the transaction.
Technology alone will not force anyone to provide information they want to keep it secret.
Without the right rules and regulations in place to oblige disclosure of information even the best technology will be unable to curtail illicit financial flows.
Mr. Baker notes that the Task Force’s research is only able to scratch the surface of this problem. There is little doubt that illicit economies, in truth, are many magnitudes larger than even the above numbers would suggest. Against these facts, one could be forgiven for losing faith in the market itself along with the diverse stakeholders and participants within it. The market is unique in human endeavour where there is no real incentive to prevent immoral behaviour. In fact, those behaving (economically) in a manner counter to the good of civilisation (be they political, corporate or individual actors) are often rewarded much more handsomely for their actions than if they had acted in a manner which may have been seen as democratic; and herein lies the paradox of the market economy as being the critical tool to develop, and the easiest method by which to destroy.
Raghuram G. Rajan in his seminal work “Fault Lines” wrote that, “…Financial markets and democracy are not incompatible. The role of financial markets is to allocate resources to those most capable of using them, while spreading the risks to those most capable of bearing them. The role of democratic government is to create a legal, regulatory, and supervisory framework within which financial markets can operate. However, democratic government has other roles, including limiting the most inequitable consequences of the market economy through taxes, subsidies and safety nets… The past three decades have brought immense improvements to countries around the world, as they have harnessed the power of global markets and finance while obtaining economic freedom. Unfortunately, we have allowed political imbalances to develop within countries and economic imbalances to grow between countries. In many rich countries, insecurity and despair have replaced hope. We should not let what has gone wrong obscure all that can go right, or reverse the progress we have made. But to preserve and rebuild trust in the market system, we have to make fundamental changes. Governments have to do more to help their citizens build capabilities that will allow the market to function effectively.”
To frame this differently, let us consider the fact that we observe humanity requiring three commodities for its basic survival: food, water and air. If any of these were removed for any length of time, we would die. To this end, billions are spent each year in securing food and water supplies throughout the developed and developing world to ensure continued confidence in availability. It is also fortunate in this regard that governments and corporations have not (yet) found a way to charge for air. It would be a moral abhorrence to conceive a time where, should someone not be able to afford air they would choke to death. I would argue that money should be considered as the fourth of these critical commodities, exhibiting the basic pre-requisite for being classified as such; i.e. the consequences of its removal would be fatal.
For humanity to progress, we don’t just require an advanced economy. We require an economy which functions as it should, bringing equity and opportunity to all of its participants. It is essential in this regard that we disconnect politics and economics. Political instruments are the only tools we have to deal with illicit mechanisms, and until politics ceases to be incentivised by economics, the will for action will not exist.
The market does not exist separate from humanity. It is the result of human will and endeavour. Whether we like it or not therefore, we must admit responsibility and accountability for the illicit economy. It did not spontaneously emerge from nowhere… we made it.
Addressing these economic challenges would require fundamental changes in how our world works. Many of these changes would come at a massive perceived cost, but the outcomes- over a number of generations- would exceed even the most utopian vision of a peaceful and equitable world.