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Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World

May 31, 2019


Oliver Bullough's investigation into the dark side of globalization and "the crooks and kleptocrats who rule the world" is both terrifying and eye-opening.

Moneyland: The Inside Story of the Crooks and Kleptocrats Who Rule the World by Oliver Bullough, St. Martin’s Press, Hardcover, 304 pages, May 2019, ISBN 9781250208705

Late last month, Ukraine elected a comedian to be president, which seems appropriate because, if it weren’t such a tragedy, the political situation there might best be described as a farce. It was a farce aided for a time by Donald Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who went to jail, in part, for conspiring to hide more than $60 million he earned while lobbying for Russia-aligned politicians and business interests in Ukraine. It is here, and specifically the way Viktor Yanukovych, for whom “Manafort perfected the campaign style he would later use for Trump,” looted the country he was supposed to lead, that Oliver Bullough opens his investigation to a place he calls Moneyland:


It is as if the very wealthiest people in countries like China, Nigeria, Ukraine or Russia have tunnelled into this new land that lies beneath all our nation states, where borders have vanished. They move their money, their children, their assets and themselves wherever they wish, picking and choosing which countries’ laws they want to live by. The result is that strict regulations and restrictions do not apply to them, but still constrain the rest of us.


But it isn’t just the nations of the so-called “developing world” that are a part of this invisible nation. Bullough questions why it is that anti-corruption groups like Transparency Institute rate most of Africa, South America, and Asia as the most corrupt regions in the world, while North America, Australia, and Western Europe get a clean bill of health. It is, after all, on those latter continents that the money stolen from the citizens ultimately lands. Bullough is part of a group that aims to prove that point on London Kleptocracy Tours, which acts as a guide to the (often ill-begotten) international wealth stashed in London:


As our bus driver guides us through West London, our guides point out properties owned by ex-Soviet oligarchs, the scions of Middle Eastern political dynasties, Nigerian regional governors and all the other people who have made fortunes in countries that score low on TI’s list, and hidden it in countries that rank high.


Of course, “These are not houses for living in, but house-shaped bank accounts.” They are often hard to trace the ownership of (similar to Paul Manafort’s Brooklyn brownstone, which neighbors found out was owned by Paul Manafort only when it broke on the news), and they are not confined to West London. Most of Manafort’s shell companies were housed in less glamorous ends of London, and the number of properties across England and Wales that are owned by offshore entities numbers over 100,000.

Bullough traces the creation of Moneyland to the creation of the “EuroBond” market—created at the behest of Siegmund Warburg (the fascinating subject of Niall Ferguson’s High Financier if you want to read more) by Ian Fraser—which allowed money to flow without scrutiny across international borders, and was the first step in unravelling the post World War II economic order established at Bretton Woods. He explains how the development borrowed philosophically from the popular radio stations that “moored their vessels outside Britain's territorial waters, set up radio equipment, and broadcast pop music back into the UK” to get around the BBC’s control of the British airwaves and their reluctance to play the popular rock and roll music of the day. Those pirate radio operators were also known, Bullough explains, as offshore radio stations, and their ability to operate inside the UK and yet outside the the UK’s legal jurisdiction became a model bankers would replicate:


The concept of “offshore”—of being legally absent while physically present—was a useful one, and the term started to be employed to describe financial transactions as well. … And this concept, the idea of offshore, the idea of an asset being legally outside the jurisdiction that it is physically present in, is absolutely central to our story. Without it, Moneyland could not exist.


There was always one sure way to hide money—most (in)famously in a Swiss bank account—but the postwar system of Bretton Woods made it hard to move money across borders. If you wanted to access your money in Switzerland, you had to go to Switzerland to get it. The development of Eurobonds allowed you to not only hide your money, but to access it as well. And once the pattern was established, it propagated itself.


Taxes have fallen, regulations have relaxed, politicians have become friendlier, all in an effort to entice the restless money to settle in one jurisdiction rather than another. The reason for this is simple. Once one jurisdiction lets you do what you want, the business flows there and other jurisdictions have to rush to change, too. It is the Moneyland ratchet, always loosening regulations for the benefit of those with money to move around, and never tightening them.


One of the problems of such a system is that countries are relatively good at documenting capital inflows coming in, but terrible at understanding and documenting the money leaving or being hidden. Some really bizarre things begin to happen as a result. Bullough quotes French economist Gabriel Zucman who has found that “Our planet as a whole has a net debt, a net financial debt, which of course is not possible on a global level” on which accounts should at some point, somewhere, balance out. He believes there is about $7.6 trillion, around eight percent of the world’s wealth, hidden in tax havens. American economist James Henry put the number at $21 to $32 trillion in 2010.


“The subterranean system we are trying to measure is the economic equivalent of an astrophysical black hole. Like those black holes, this one is virtually invisible and can be somewhat perilous to observers who venture too close,” he wrote in a 2012 paper on the subject. “We are up against one of society’s most well entrenched interest groups. After all, there’s no interest group more rich and powerful than the rich and powerful.”


Moneyland is a worldwide tour that explains how money is stolen, hidden, and spent in Moneyland. For instance, since it gained independence in the 1980s, St. Kitts and Nevis, with the aid of American lawyers writing laws, have turned their country into “an everything haven” of tax avoidance, money laundering, and other financial crimes being perpetrated—often by heads of state like the former ruling family of Taiwan and former president of Ukraine—across the globe. Much of that is due to how easy the laws there have made it to register a corporate entity and the secrecy they allow them. The island of Nevis now has more registered corporate entities based on it than human beings. St. Kitts pioneered the selling of passports that wealthy individuals use to skirt their own nation’s laws.

Speaking of the way companies are nested within one another in ownership chains that can be nearly impossible to unravel, Bullough writes:


The more plastic bags you wrap around a dog turd, the harder it is for outsiders to realize what’s inside. And if the last bag says Tiffany & Co. on it, perhaps no one will realize it’s full of shit.


One prominent address in London, at 29 Harley Street, officially houses over 2,159 companies—many of which have been tied to financial frauds perpetrated across the globe.

But it is not just the easy creation of shell companies and regular passports to obscure the source of money and squirrel it away that Moneyland has to offer. Poorer nations are increasingly offering diplomatic posts, along with the diplomatic passport and diplomatic immunity they confer to the super rich. Once they have effectively purchased a way to put them beyond the reach of the law, it is left to journalists to expose their crimes. But that, too, can be increasingly difficult—because of the law, particularly English libel law.

Bullough himself has had an article he worked on and sourced for over two years (about an oligarch who had been able to avoid the 2014 sanctions that resulted from Russian’s annexation of Crimea) that has never been read by the public, and a documentary film (about repairing Ukraine after the systematic looting that took place there) that has never been shown—both killed due to the threat of legal action in the UK. A book about the links between Vladimir Putin and organized crime written by Professor Karen Dawisha was turned down by Cambridge University Press, who had published seven previous book by her, because they feared they didn’t have the resources to weather the inevitable libel lawsuits. Many of the individuals exposed in her manuscript were the very same named in the U.S. Sanctions — the subject of Bullough’s unpublished article had skirted. And while Dawisha eventually found a willing publisher for Putin’s Kleptocracy, in America (thank you, Simon & Schuster!) it shows the ultra wealthy can use “libel tourism” and London law firms to bully organizations that dare expose them, by threatening to sue them out of existence, so that they are left unexposed. Even a nonprofit organization like Transparency International—dedicated to tracking such corruption—was forced to settle after it had “published ground-breaking reports into the penetration of dirty money into British property, British visas and more.” The executive director of the British Chapter explained to Bulloughs how, “Even if we’d won, we couldn’t have afforded it.”

It has created an essentially lawless situation in which national security is undermined by dark money with connections to dictators, oligarchs, and even terrorism and is filtered into the financial institutions of the West. The usual feedback loop between the police and the press that helps investigate, uncover, and expose crime is hindered by threats of legal action, and then the reputation laundering industry of “PR agencies, law firms, and consultancies” gets to work to promote these international billionaires as a boon to society by promoting philanthropic causes and opens the door to elite society and government officials.

It is a Kleptocracy premised on the ability to stash the money they steal in the West, and it is another chapter in the history of Western colonialism itself.


Inherent in this process … is the very nature of colonies. They were created and run to enrich the colonial power.


The dictatorships and kleptocracies that exist today are simply perpetuating a system set up before them, and the money still flows in the same direction. And it plays out at the very highest levels.


In the early hysteria over Donald Trump’s Russia ties, a Reuters investigation into Russian investment in the Trump Organization found sixty-three Russians among the owners of 2,044 units in seven different Trump-branded developments in Florida. Far more remarkable was the fact that fully 703 the units were owned via corporate vehicles, meaning there were no real people attached to their title deeds at all, and their ownership was completely obscure.


Bullough is careful to say that none of this is a conspiracy, but the natural result of the laws and incentives on the books.

We are told that there is a crisis at America’s southern border, as too many workers and families flee Central America in search of a better life and end up on our doorstep. There is such a brutal competition for jobs between cities and states that companies can enact a bidding war between them on who is willing to lavish them with “incentives” and tax breaks that drain the public coffer. This after decades of arguing that the supply-side economics regimes we’ve been living under since the early 1980s have resulted in massive income inequality. But, as Bullough sees it:


The real threat to the liberal order in not the poor immigrants, but unaccountable money. Offshore bandits are looting the world, and this looting is undermining democracy, driving inequality and sucking ever-greater volumes of wealth into Moneyland, where we can’t follow it.


The crumbling of international institutions is not helping. “The EU was helping countries work together against unaccountable wealth,” noted Bullough,” thus stopping crooks and thieves from keeping their fortunes.” As Britain leaves and sets up its own laws, it will inevitably leave more loopholes to exploit.


Money flows across frontiers, but laws do not. The rich live globally; the rest of us have borders. … These wealthy nomads are taking advantage of the way money moves across borders but laws stay put, in order to pick and choose which laws to obey. 


When it comes to investigating international financial crimes, it can be nearly impossible for prosecutors to get the evidence they need from foreign jurisdictions, which leaves those that perpetrated such crimes—and the money they moved—largely untouchable and unrecoverable. The reality is that, if Paul Manafort had never lobbied for and taken the job of running the Trump campaign, he would have likely escaped the scrutiny for the crimes he perpetrated and abetted in Ukraine, and would still be a free man today.

As Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Oliver Bullough’s Moneyland is sunlight.

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