For the past few days I’ve been working with The International Consortium for Investigative Journalism offshore finance database. ICIJ is a global network of reporters devoted to in-depth investigation of issues ranging from finance and politics to health and environment.
Offshore finance is a practice of transferring financial assets abroad and locating them in jurisdictions that offer preferential tax treatment or secrecy. People might transfer money abroad for legitimate purposes, like doing business or investing in other countries. They may do it in order to protect their assets from seizure by their government. They may also stash their money away in order to avoid paying taxes in their home country. This may or may not be legal, depending on the country and on cleverness of lawyers finding loop-holes in tax laws.
The most notorious use of offshore finance is the safeguarding of money that may have been gained through illegal means. Transferring it abroad hides it from authorities and makes it easier to “launder” – to incorporate it back into the financial system as legitimate funds. Players of this game often go to elaborate lengths to build hard-to-track networks of companies, their subsidiaries, officers and agents dispersed through many jurisdictions that make their assets practically untraceable.
ICIJ has obtained a large database of information on offshore financial entities and people connected to them, either as beneficial owners or acting officers. The database contains only names of the financial corporations and agents, including their location and addresses, but it does not include financial transactions. It is possible therefore to find out who has assets offshore and how they are connected to other people and organisations in the database, but not how much money they have or what assets are involved.
ICIJ has been analysing the database in partnership with several news organisations in order to uncover stories of possible illegal financial activity. The database provides clues which journalists use to conduct in-depth investigations into financial dealings of people whose names appear in it. Not all entries lead to a big discovery, but ICIJ has published several stories about corporations, business tycoons or politicians who kept their money offshore.
ICIJ has made parts of the database available for search and download. I have been working with the tools ICIJ provides and with good old Excel trying to understand the data and find ways to manipulate and visualise the information.
Originally published on December 13, 2013