There was an article in the Guardian yesterday under the headline:
Oligarchs hide billions in shell companies. Here's how we stop them
Written by Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, who are investigative journalists with the German daily SÃ¼ddeutsche Zeitung and initiated the 2016 Panama Papers as well as 2017 Paradise Papers revelations, they argue for:
[P]ublic beneficial ownership registries: Databases in which citizens can easily access and explore the owners of companies. Not the nominee director, not the fake shareholder — the real owner. The person at the center of the matryoshka-like corporate structures, or, as experts refer to them: the ultimate beneficial owner of a company.
A database of actual owners would enable companies to check with whom they are actually doing business. It would enable activists, journalists and skeptical citizens to investigate the individuals running dubious companies which earn millions in alleged “consulting contracts”, which are in many cases nothing more than concealed payments of corruption money. It would also give prosecutors the opportunity to follow dark money without having to rely on nerve-racking, time-consuming legal maneuvers with foreign governments.
I agree. But I have to say that I agree only in part. And that is because such a register is a list of data for the idly curious unless - and I cannot stress that unless enough - it leads to accounts on public record as well.
I confess to bemusement that there are very large numbers of tax justice campaigners who are now engaged in calling for beneficial ownership registries and yet knowing who owns a company when you have no idea what it does is of very little use at all. It's not as if beneficial ownership data even tells half the story. It does not even do that.
The reason should be obvious. I could, for example, own a company in the BVI. The beneficial ownership register would reveal that. If the company was dormant the answer would be 'so what?' If, however, it was turning over £50 million and owned properties in a range of jurisdictions the answer would be very different, indeed. A whole host of questions would follow. Without accounts no one would know the difference. That would mean the beneficial ownership register would rapidly prove to be of little meaning - precisely because people would realise that no answers of consequence could be provided with such data.
Don't get me wrong here: I want beneficial ownership registers. But I also want full accounts on public record which means they must include a summary of the trade and location(s) of the business; details of management; details of all owners of more than 10% of the entity; an income statement, a balance sheet; a cash flow or statement of source and application of funds; notes to explain the accounts; details of related party transactions, in full, plus country-by-country reporting if working on more than one jurisdiction. Then I might know what is really going on. Beneficial ownership registers simply are not enough.