The Panama Papers reveal the ugliest parts of a bigger transparency problem

The fascinating phrase ‘ultimate beneficial owner’ kept popping up in the coverage after the release of the so-called ‘Panama Papers’ this week. It referred to the masking of the true owners of assets under layers and layers of shell companies and nominee directors.

Tax agencies, legal authorities and fraud investigators have all decried how the web of shell companies camouflaged the ‘ultimate beneficial owners’ making it extremely difficult for these owners to be held accountable for how the assets were acquired, to pay the appropriate tax in the jurisdiction in which their money was earned or to understand their level of influence in the halls of power.

In the outrage at these unidentifiable ‘ultimate beneficial owners’ and the lawyers who help them to set up the structures , the importance of transparency of knowing who owns what, and who has influence was raised again and again.

But before we all get swept up in the outrage of it all, it is worth reflecting that the lack of transparency regarding ‘ultimate beneficial owners’ of any large company is rife throughout the financial system, so much so that it can be argued that it is accepted as the norm.

For example, as part of their commitment to transparency of ownership, Australia’s biggest companies list their top shareholders in their annual reports but a quick flick through these lists shows the laughable nature of this proposition. Most of the names on the list are nominee companies. The biggest ones are HSBC Custody Nominees (Australia) Ltd, JP Morgan Nominees Australia Ltd and National Nominees Ltd.

Australia is not alone; the nominee company system is widespread in the Western financial services sector. Nominee companies are custodian services that allow investments from a number of investors to be aggregated into one entity. According to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) they typically hold securities, arrange the banking of dividends and some form of consolidated reporting. They don’t engage with senior management or boards about how companies are run on behalf of their clients.

In fact, in submissions to a 2008 parliamentary committee inquiry on corporate governance, large listed companies raised the use of nominee companies as a key barrier to the effective engagement with its shareholders. The companies said the use of nominee entities also made finding the ultimate owners of shares difficult. This makes it very hard to align the long-term investment goals of superannuation funds and the short-term remuneration and performance goals of senior management and professional investors.

It makes it easier, however, for those investing to lose the connection between how and where their money is invested and the impact that has on the values reflected in our society.

If it is fair and reasonable that people hiding money in offshore companies should come clean about how they earned it, why they should minimise their tax to avoid funding the infrastructure of a civil society such as education, health and transport systems and what influence they wield, then it is also fair and reasonable that those of us who have a retirement fund know where that money is invested and its ultimate use.

The fund management industry’s use of nominee companies makes this incredibly difficult.

Creating barriers between ownership from investing helps us to disassociate ‘making a return on our investment’ from ‘how we are making a return on our investment’ and the impact that has on the values and culture underpinning our society.

Surely greater transparency across the whole of the financial system, not just the ugly, dark corners will benefit us as a society.

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