Mitt Romney has been criticized for parking some of his fortune in Cayman Islands accounts, but he and other wealthy people arenâ€™t really trying to duck taxes there.
One thingâ€™s for sure. Mitt Romney didnâ€™t send his money down to the Cayman Islands to work on its tan.
The former Massachusetts governor has been criticized by some for factor of five in the last 10 having some of his vast fortune in the Caribbean offshore banking center. Yes, it was politically clumsy. But it was not uncommon, and — assuming he has filed all the right disclosures — it was perfectly legal.
But if youâ€™re not running for president, and donâ€™t have to worry about public relations, what are the legitimate reasons for moving money offshore?
I spoke to Jim Duggan, a partner at Chicago law firm Duggan Bertsch, to get the skinny. Heâ€™s a tax and estate planning attorney who specializes in wealth management issues for the very rich, and heâ€™s been practicing in this area for nearly 20 years.
Taxing the rich
He says a growing number of wealthy people are looking into moving some of their money offshore. â€œThe interest in offshore planning has increased basically by a factor of five in the last ten years,â€ he says. Clients want to talk to him about it all the time.
Contrary to popular opinion, itâ€™s not really to save on taxes.
Thatâ€™s because American taxpayers are taxed on their worldwide income
— so if youâ€™re making $10,000 (or $10 million) in interest on a bank account in, say, the Caymans or Switzerland, youâ€™re getting taxed by Uncle Sam as if youâ€™re making it in a bank account here.
Itâ€™s easy to scoff and assume the rich are hiding their money and cheating. Doubtless some are. But enforcement is tight, and the penalties arenâ€™t so much draconian as medieval. They are far more severe than for tax evasion onshore.
And there are plenty of tax shelters available here in the U.S. anyway
— such as trusts in low-tax states, life insurance and variable annuities.
So what are the real reasons the rich are casing the Caymans with their cash?
There are two, says Duggan: Litigation risk and political risk.
Yes: Political risk. Or, as he puts in a nice legal euphemism, â€œjurisdictional diversification.â€
Litigation risk is the old reason. You could get hit by a crazy lawsuit here in the U.S. The wealthy are an easy mark, and anything onshore is vulnerable. But the U.S. courts donâ€™t have jurisdiction overseas and if you plan things right you have at least some chance of protecting money held offshore, Duggan says. â€œIt keeps you away from our court system and the caprices of our courts,â€ he says.
The new reason, though, is political risk: â€œDiversification from our government, policies and banking systems,â€ says Duggan. The last few years have shaken faith in our system. Duggan says growing numbers of his clients are worried about the financial system, confiscation — the whole shebang. â€œTheyâ€™re concerned about our government and where our society is headed. Thereâ€™s a lot of socialistic tendencies, capital controls, the redistribution of wealth.â€
Once again itâ€™s easy to scoff. Financially, the very wealthy have probably never had it so good in this country. Corporate profits and financial assets are booming. Tax rates on dividends and long-term capital gains are very, very low. But Duggan says the wealthy feel under attack, and government rhetoric is making them nervous.
But thereâ€™s a problem here. Imagine a future government did decide to confiscate assets. Theyâ€™d go after the money you held in Switzerland just as much as the money you held in New York, and the penalties for tax evasion would be as medieval as they are now.
The only way to save your money would presumably be to renounce your citizenship and move into exile. Even then the IRS might come after you. Do you want to spend the rest of your life living next to Roman Polanski in France?
Once again, all this makes you see the appeal of holding some gold within a portfolio.
Personally, I donâ€™t see any reason to think this administration is going to go after the so-called 1%. Too many policymakers are members of that elite group already — or they have high hopes of joining after they retire.