Liechtenstein: The Big 4 are there and are ashamed to admit it

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Liechtenstein is tiny: it is 15 miles long, has a population of under 35,000 and one main town. It's existence is effectively the consequence of a bad real estate deal by the Holy Roman Empire in the 18th century; it became a sovereign state in the 19th century. But that's a joke. Even its so-called royal family took 120 years to first go there after ascending to the throne. If evidence is needed that this is a place set up for the convenience of those located elsewhere, that's a good first sign. The fact that half its work force don't live in the country is another.

There's another curious fact about Liechtenstein though. All four of the Big 4 accountants are there. And three of them seek to hide it on their web sites. KPMG has a brochure on its offices in the place. It's not on their site selector on their main web site though.

I can prove PWC are there from this publication. But again, search their main web site and look at their office locater and mysteriously there is no mention.

I know Ernst & Young are there from local directories. But, again, you won't find a mention on the global office locater.

Deloittes meanwhile hide it under Switzerland. But they're there all right.

Why this marked coyness on the part of these publicity crazed organisations? Could it be that they know there is no reason for them to be there for the local economy? If there was then they'd all be in King's Lynn in Norfolk - a place that happens to have an almost identical population and no office of the Big 4 for many a mile around. Incidentally, it's main business activity is agricultural and light business, much like Liechtenstein, bar one thing, and one thing only. And that's Liechtenstein's financial services sector. This is the only reason that the Big 4 are in Liechtenstein. Nothing else can explain it.

So why are they so embarrassed about their involvement in the place? Could it be that they're too painfully aware of the fact that it has, as the CIA Factbook puts it:

strengthened money laundering controls, but money laundering remains a concern due to Liechtenstein's sophisticated offshore financial services sector?

Or is it that they know that Liechtenstein's financial services industry is based on the foundation, about which I wrote earlier today, and that the sole purpose of these foundations is to operate outside its domain to undermine the imposition of regulation in another sovereign state? Tax is, of course, one regulation that is evaded. It may not be the only one.

Or could it be that they know that Liechtenstein is now just one of three places in the world refusing to cooperate in any way at all on tax haven information exchange?

Or is it just that they know that even if they really can prove that not one of their clients evades a penny in tax, their presence in a location where it is clear that tax evasion is rampant provides credibility to a place whose business model appears to be built on this activity?

Or could it be that in the case of KPMG where the partners in the UK, Germany and Switzerland have approved a proposal to merge, that this means that KPMG's German partners are actually responsible for the Liechtenstein operation, which has 'close cooperation' with the KPMG Swiss firm, as its own brochure puts it? Is that just a little too uncomfortable for them right now?

Whichever way you look at it though, why are these firms allowed to continue to work for any government whilst they continue to operate in this most abusive of places? Can anyone, anywhere justify them having that right when they support a state whose raison d'etre appears to be to undermine the law of other places? If so, please let me know.

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