Explaining the Pandora Papers

Just a few years after the Panama and the Paradise Papers of 2016 and 2017, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published the Pandora Papers beginning Oct. 3, 2021. It is, by the volume of information uncovered, the biggest investigative piece by ICIJ yet, exposing many offshore accounts and shell companies of influential people around the world. Here is what we know about the investigation and its impacts.

What are the Pandora Papers?

Pandora Papers consists of over 12 million documents and 2.64 terabytes of information collected from 14 different service providers that uncover the shell companies and over 3,000 offshore bank accounts of influential and wealthy clients. The ICIJ, along with other partners including the Washington Post, BBC, and the Guardian, has uncovered confidential economic dealings of 35 world leaders, 330+ politicians and public officials in 91 states, and global terrorists and criminals. These people include the King of Jordan, the presidents of Ukraine and Ecuador, Shakira, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

What are “Offshore” Accounts?

The wealthy have many ways of evading taxes and otherwise increasing their wealth, and offshore accounts and shell companies are tactics to do so. Offshore countries are places in which it’s easy to set up shell companies to hide the owner’s identities and have low or no corporation tax. Shell companies are established in name only to facilitate these offshore accounts. This, while not illegal, is a privileged method to accumulate wealth as to set up all these accounts the client needs to be already wealthy. And as of now, even with widespread knowledge of these accounts, most cases remain unregulated or self-regulated.

Shift of Traditional Tax Havens

The Pandora Papers identify problems within the United States for the first time, unlike the previous Panama and Paradise Papers. For example, they identified new countries, such as the United States, as a tax haven. In recent years, states such as South Dakota, Florida, Delaware, Texas, and Nevada have been a burgeoning hub for offshore (or onshore now for some cases) accounts, while the policies have remained focused on traditional offshore havens such as the Bahamas. The United States, specifically, has been pressured to increase transparency due to the secretive nature of American bank accounts, companies, and trusts. And the U.S. refused to join the 2014 agreement supported by more than 100 jurisdictions that would require American financial institutions to share information they have about foreigners’ assets. This created a blindspot inside this already largely shadowed issue.

What impact does this have?

Other than the possible legal and governmental ramifications of the investigation, the Pandora Papers will play a crucial role in understanding how accumulation of wealth operates in the hands of the super rich. This showed that financial loopholes are present in every corner of the world, not just in far off countries but also in the world’s largest democracies. Afterall, the key players in the investigation included multinational banks, law firms, and accounting practices all headquartered in the U.S. and Europe.

The Pandora Papers have spurred countries to launch investigations into these revelations. While some countries defend their leaders and influencers, eight countries – Pakistan, Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Australia, Cezch Republic, and Panama – so far have launched their own investigations. And in Chile, President Sebastián Piñera was impeached on November 9th by the lower house of congress. The Pandora Papers are just the newest in the constant line up of papers that expose the convoluted wealth and power system of the privileged around the world, promoting transparency in the faults of tax systems around the world.

Jina Lim is a freshman majoring in International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She is originally from Portland, Oregon and is part of the editorial team of the Hopkins Podcast of Foreign Affairs.

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