Opening the vaults: the use of tax havens by Europe’s biggest banks

This report from Oxfam on the EU banking sector provides just a glimpse into the harm that tax abuse is causing across the world.

The findings are stark:

  • The 20 biggest European banks register around one in every four euros of their profits in tax havens, an estimated total of €25bn in 2015. The business conducted by banks in low-tax jurisdictions is clearly disproportionate to the 1 percent of the world population and the 5 percent of the world’s GDP that these tax haven countries account for. 
  • While tax havens account for 26 percent of the total profits made by the top 20 EU banks, these countries account for only 12 percent of the banks’ total turnover and 7 percent of their employees, signalling a clear discrepancy between the profits made by banks in tax havens and the level of real economic activity that they undertake in those countries. 
  • In 2015 the 20 biggest European banks made profits of €4.9bn in Luxembourg – more than they did in the UK, Sweden and Germany combined. 
  • Barclays, the fifth biggest European bank, registered €557m of its profits in Luxembourg and paid €1m in taxes in 2015 – an e¬ffective tax rate of 0.2 percent. 
  • Often banks do not pay any tax at all on profits booked in tax havens. European banks did not pay a single euro of tax on €383m of profit made in tax havens in 2015. 
  • At the same time, a number of these banks are registering losses in countries where they operate. Deutsche Bank, for example, registered a loss in Germany while booking profits of €1,897m in tax havens. 
  • A large proportion of these profits is made despite the banks not employing a single person in the countries concerned. Overall, at least €628m of the European banks’ profits were made in countries where they employ nobody. 
  • Fifty-nine percent of the EU banks’ US subsidiaries were domiciled in Delaware and 42 per cent of those subsidiaries for which an address could be found were located at the exact same address, a building famous for being the legal address of more than 285,000 companies. 
  • Low levels of profit in countries that are not tax havens translate into low tax revenues for those countries’ governments. For instance, Indonesia and Monaco have a similar level of economic activity by European banks, but the banks make 10 times more profit in Monaco than they do in Indonesia. Such gaps, which can hardly be explained on the basis of ‘real’ economic activity, lead to the loss of vital tax revenues to fight inequality and poverty to countries like Indonesia, where 28 million people live in extreme poverty.