One does forget that Offshore Banking was created very recently. But created it was.
Hitler hid his money in Switzerland. So I suppose he was an Offshore type of guy.
Offshore, the very name conjure up Dodgy Politicians, Banana Republic Dictators, criminals and of course Bankers.
The story of how it all started is enlightening.
Read On:The true story of how the City of London invented offshore banking – and set the rich free
by Oliver Bullough
Every January, to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Oxfam tells us how much richer the world’s richest people have got. In 2016, their report showed that the wealthiest 62 individuals owned the same amount as the bottom half of the world’s population. This year, that number had dropped to 42: three-and-half-dozen people with as much stuff as three-and-a-half billion.
This yearly ritual has become part of the news cycle, and the inequality it exposes has ceased to shock us. The very rich getting very much richer is now part of life, like the procession of the seasons. But we should be extremely concerned: their increased wealth gives them ever-greater control of our politics and of our media. Countries that were once democracies are becoming plutocracies; plutocracies are becoming oligarchies; oligarchies are becoming kleptocracies.
Things were not always this way. In the years after the second world war, the trend was in the opposite direction: the poor were getting richer; we were all getting more equal. To understand how and why that changed, we need to go back to the dying days of the conflict, to a resort in New Hampshire, where a group of economists set out to secure humanity’s future.
This is the story of how their dream failed and how a London banker’s bright idea broke the world.
In the years after the first world war, money flowed between countries pretty much however its owners wished, destabilising currencies and economies in pursuit of profit. Many of the wealthy grew wealthier even while economies fell apart. The chaos led to the election of extremist governments in Germany and elsewhere, to competitive devaluations and beggar-my-neighbour tariffs, to trade wars and, ultimately, to the horrors of the second world war.
The allies wanted to prevent this ever happening again. So, at a meeting at the Bretton Woods resort in New Hampshire in 1944, they negotiated the details of an economic architecture that would – in perpetuity – stop uncontrolled money flows. This, they hoped, would keep governments from using trade as a weapon with which to bully neighbours, and create a stable system that would help secure peace and prosperity.
Under the new system, all currencies would be pegged to the dollar, which would in turn be pegged to gold. An ounce of gold cost $35 (that’s about $500/£394 today). In other words, the US Treasury pledged that, if a foreign government turned up with $35, it could always buy an ounce of gold. The United States was promising to keep everyone supplied with enough dollars to fund international trade, as well as to maintain sufficient gold reserves for those dollars to be inherently valuable.
To prevent speculators trying to attack these fixed currencies, cross-border money flows were severely constrained. Money could move overseas, but only in the form of long-term investments, not to speculate short term against currencies or bonds.
To understand how this system worked, imagine an oil tanker. If it has just one huge tank, then the oil can slosh backwards and forwards in ever greater waves, until it destabilises the vessel, which overturns and sinks. At the Bretton Woods conference, the oil was divided between smaller tanks, one for each country. The liquid could slosh back and forth within its little compartments, but would be unable to achieve enough momentum to damage the integrity of the vessel.
Strangely, one of the best evocations of this long-gone system is Goldfinger, the James Bond book. The film of the same name has a slightly different plot, but they both feature an attempt to undermine the west’s financial system by interfering with its gold reserves. “Gold and currencies backed by gold are the foundations of our international credit,” a Bank of England official named Colonel Smithers explains to 007.
The trouble is, the colonel continues, that the Bank is only prepared to pay £1,000 for a gold bar, which is the equivalent of the $35 per ounce price paid in America, whereas the same gold is worth 70% more in India, where there is a high demand for gold jewellery. It is thus highly profitable to smuggle gold out of the country and sell it overseas.
The villain Auric Goldfinger’s cunning scheme is to own pawnbrokers all over Britain, buy up gold jewellery and trinkets from ordinary Brits in need of a bit of cash, then melt them down into plates, attach the plates to his Rolls-Royce, drive them to Switzerland, reprocess them and fly them to India. By doing so, Goldfinger will not only undermine the British currency and economy, but also earn profits he could use to fund communists and other miscreants. Hundreds of Bank of England employees are engaged in trying to stop this kind of scam from happening, Smithers tells 007, but Goldfinger is too clever for them. He has secretly become Britain’s richest man, and has £5m-worth of gold bars sitting in the vaults of a bank in the Bahamas.
“We are asking you to bring Mr Goldfinger to book, Mr Bond, and get that gold back,” says Smithers. “You know about the currency crisis and the high Bank rate? Of course. Well, England needs that gold, badly – and the quicker the better.”
By modern standards, Goldfinger wasn’t doing anything wrong, apart perhaps from dodging some taxes. He was buying up gold at a price people were prepared to pay for it, then selling it in another market, where people were prepared to pay more. It was his money. It was his gold. So what was the problem? He was oiling the wheels of commerce, efficiently allocating capital where it could best be used, no?
No, because that wasn’t how Bretton Woods worked. Colonel Smithers considered the gold to belong not only to Goldfinger, but also to Great Britain. The system didn’t consider the owner of money to be the only person with a say in what happened to it. According to the carefully crafted rules, the nations that created and guaranteed the value of money had rights to that money, too. They restricted the rights of money-owners in the interests of everybody else. At Bretton Woods, the allies – desperate to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the inter-war depression and the second world war – decided that, when it came to international trade, society’s rights trumped those of money-owners.
All this is hard to imagine for anyone who has only experienced the world since the 1980s, because the system now is so different. Money flows ceaselessly between countries, nosing out investment opportunities in China, Brazil, Russia or wherever. If a currency is overvalued, investors sense the weakness and gang up on it like sharks around a sickly whale. In times of global crisis, the money retreats into the safety of gold or US government bonds. In boom times, it pumps up share prices elsewhere in its restless quest for a good return. These waves of liquid capital have such power that they can wash away all but the strongest governments. The prolonged speculative attacks on the euro, the rouble or the pound, which have been such a feature of the past few decades, would have been impossible under the Bretton Woods system, which was specifically designed to stop them happening.
And the system was remarkably successful: economic growth in most western countries was almost uninterrupted throughout the 1950s and 1960s, societies became more equal, while governments made massive improvements in public health and infrastructure. All of this did not come cheap, however. Taxes had to be high to pay for it, and rich people struggled to move their money out of the taxman’s reach – thanks to the separate compartments in the oil tanker. Fans of the Beatles will remember George Harrison singing on Taxman about the government taking 19 shillings for every one he could keep; that was an accurate reflection of the amount of his earnings that was going to the Treasury, a 95% marginal tax rate.
It wasn’t only the Beatles who hated this system. So did the Rolling Stones, who relocated to France to record Exile on Main St. And so, too, did Rowland Baring, scion of the Barings bank dynasty, third earl of Cromer and – between 1961 and 1966 – the governor of the Bank of England. “Exchange control is an infringement on the rights of the citizen,” he wrote in a note to the government in 1963. “I therefore regard [it] ethically as wrong.”