Offshore companies created in Panama, the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere can be impenetrable to authorities—and anyone else poking around. That has made them legitimate vehicles for wealth protection and tax planning, but also hideaways for tax dodgers, frauds and worse.

Some of the world’s biggest banks, whose clients seek discretion, operate next to the offshore specialists that create and register companies, find “nominee” directors and shareholders to take the true owners’ place on forms, and assemble complex, bespoke structures.

According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, HSBC Holdings PLC, UBS Group AG and Credit Suisse AG were some of the heaviest users of company-incorporation services provided by Mossack Fonseca, thePanamanian firm whose massive trove of internal documents the investigative-reporting group says it has seen. HSBC and its affiliates ordered up more than 2,300 companies of the 15,600 companies that Mossack Fonseca helped form for banking clients over 40 years, the ICIJ said.

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