Where will money launderers turn after Cyprus?

Milos Bicanski/Getty Images A man sits in front of empty ATMs outside the National Bank of Cyprus, which has been closed for two weeks on March 26, 2013 in Nicosia, Cyprus.
By Stephen Beard
Marketplace, March 27, 2013

Cyprus is famous for “The Sandwich.” It’s not a gastronomic delicacy, but a device for hiding money. A Cypriot company stuffed with Russian cash is acquired by another corporation in Belize, and then covered by many other layers of ownership in places like Switzerland, Luxembourg and Andorra. At the end of the process, it is very difficult for investigators to find out who was behind the money or where it came from.

John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network, which campaigns against tax evasion, says there’s little doubt Cyprus has been heavily engaged in the “sandwich” business.

“My own investigations have told me that for many decades Cyprus has been principally a money laundering center. I have no doubt whatsoever about that,” says Christensen.

But Cyprus’ money laundering days must be numbered since many of its biggest depositors face a substantial tax under the terms of the bailout.

So where can those shady Russian investors turn to now that the “Cyprus Sandwich” is off the menu?

“Switzerland would be probably number one on my list if I were in that criminal community,” says economist and lawyer James S. Henry. He has investigated the best places for tax evaders and money launderers to stash their cash.

“You can invest in gold and put it in Swiss vaults and no-one would be the wiser,” he says “That’s a traditional store of wealth for folks who just want a secure safe haven for their ill-gotten gains.”

In reality, there are dozens of countries more than happy to accept suspect cash from tiny Nauru in the South Pacific to the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. And oiling the wheels of this vast money laundering machine is an army of lawyers and accountants — based in some surprising places.

“The World Bank studied 200 cases of grand corruption,” says Amy Barry of the campaign group Global Witness. “And they discovered that over 70 percent of those cases had used shell companies to disguise the identity of the owners and the majority of them were registered in the United States.”

Montana, Wyoming and Nevada are reported to be centers for setting up these shell companies. The City of London is another major conduit for dirty cash. And — here’s the ultimate irony — Cyprus’ sternest critic, Germany, is also implicated.

“Frankfurt for a long time has been attracting illicit financial flows from across the world,” says John Christensen. “So Germany is not squeaky clean.”

Germany’s unspoken message to Cyprus seems to be: We don’t mind bailing out our own money launderers, but we’re not bailing out yours!


In 2011, the Tax Justice Network compiled the Financial Secrecy Index, ranking the 73 countries that, according to both their secrecy and the scale of their activities, would best provide safe haven for money launderers or tax evaders. Here are the top 20 countries:

RANK Secrecy Jurisdiction FSI – Value Secrecy Score Global Scale Weight
1 Switzerland 1879.2 78 0.061
2 Cayman Islands 1646.7 77 0.046
3 Luxembourg 1621.2 68 0.131
4 Hong Kong 1370.7 73 0.042
5 USA 1160.1 58 0.208
6 Singapore 1118.0 71 0.031
7 Jersey 750.1 78 0.004
8 Japan 693.6 64 0.018
9 Germany 669.8 57 0.046
10 Bahrain 660.3 78 0.003
11 British Virgin Islands 617.9 81 0.002
12 Bermuda 539.9 85 0.001
13 United Kingdom 516.5 45 0.200
14 Panama 471.5 77 0.001
15 Belgium 467.2 59 0.012
16 Marshall Islands 457.0 90 0.000
17 Austria 453.5 66 0.004
18 United Arab Emirates (Dubai) 439.6 79 0.001
19 Bahamas 431.1 83 0.000
20 Cyprus 406.5 58 0.010

See the entire list from the Tax Justice Network here.

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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