Tag: offshores

Paradise Leaked: An Analysis of Offshore Data Leaks

20220131 Paradise Leaked Image 01

In recent years, there have been several high-profile leaks of documents related to the offshore financial industry, such as the Pandora Papers released last year. Some of the data contained in the leaked documents have now been made public. In this brief, we discuss the advantages and pitfalls of using these data for economic analysis. We show that despite some caveats, there are patterns in these data that can shed light on a secretive industry. For instance, the number of offshore entities linked to a country increases significantly when that country experiences a change in political leadership. By contrast, financial sanctions on a given country result in a reduction in the number of established offshore entities. In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, many countries signed bilateral treaties with tax havens in order to promote transparency. Our analysis of the leaked data shows that the overwhelming majority of offshore entities are not governed by these treaties.

“… that I may see and tell of things invisible to mortal sight.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Offshore Tax Haven Leaks

Zucman (2013) estimates that household wealth held in offshore tax havens is equivalent to 10% of world GDP. While there are many legitimate reasons for wealthy individuals to use offshore financial services, the secrecy surrounding offshore holdings has also enabled tax evasion and money laundering. The international community has launched several initiatives trying to increase the transparency of offshore wealth holdings. Over the past decade, several large collections of documents from offshore financial service providers have been leaked to the media: Pandora Papers (2021), Paradise Papers (2017/2018), Bahamas Leaks (2016), Panama Papers (2016), and Offshore Leaks (2013). Investigative journalists have used information from the leaks to expose many instances of secretive financial dealings linked to political leaders. Examples from FREE network countries include: the connections between a close ally of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and a gold mining venture in Zimbabwe, the offshore business holdings of past and present Ukrainian presidents and their respective allies, and the wealth of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close associates and childhood friends (see, for instance, Cosic 2021, Mylovanov and Mylovanova 2016).

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has made public information on more than 800,000 offshore entities that are part of the offshore data leaks (see ICIJ Offshore Leaks database). The data contain information on the names of companies or people who set up offshore entities, their country of origin, the offshore jurisdiction, and the dates of incorporation and deactivation for offshore entities.

What Can We Learn from the Data?

Despite the wealth of information that this database contains, there has been relatively little academic research using the offshore leaks data. Two notable exceptions are Alstadsæter, Johannesen and Zucman (2019), and Londoño-Vélez and Ávila-Mahecha (2021), who link information from the Panama Papers to administrative records from Scandinavia and Columbia, respectively. They find that tax evasion is concentrated among the richest households. Guriev, Melnikov and Zhuravskaya (2021) use the revelation of the Panama Papers to study its effect on perceptions of corruption.

There are several challenges to using the offshore leaks data for systematic data analyses. First, there are both legitimate and illegal uses of offshore financial services, and without further information, it is not possible to distinguish between them. Second, as this information is obtained through leaks at specific offshore services providers, the data are unlikely to be representative of overall offshore financial activity. Third, there is no information on financial transactions, and we do not know the amounts of money involved in the offshore entities. Finally, more sophisticated offshore structures may make it impossible to deduce the ultimate owner of each entity and its country of origin. Especially for the second and third reasons, economists have tended to focus on balance of payments statistics and cross-border bank deposit data when estimating flows to offshore accounts. For example, Andersen, Johannesen, Lassen and Paltseva (2017) show how the oil wealth of countries with weak institutions is diverted into secret offshore accounts. Becker (2019) investigates recent trends in Russian capital flows and shows that a significant share of Russian money flows to Western European banks. See also Nyreröd and Spagnolo (2018, 2021) for discussions of the role of European banks in recent money laundering scandals.

With these caveats in mind, Figure 1 shows the correlation between the number of offshore entities in the data (on the y-axis) and the offshore wealth holdings of each country’s households (on the x-axis) as estimated by Alstadsæter, Johannesen and Zucman (2018). While the chart shows a positive correlation of 0.56 between these two measures, it also illustrates that the number of leaked entities may be a poor proxy for the stock of offshore wealth. Countries with a significant fraction of offshore wealth in European tax havens are underrepresented in the leaks (e.g., France, Germany, and Italy) while the UK, Russia, and Latvia account for a disproportionate share of leaked offshore entities.

Figure 1. Number of offshore entities and estimated offshore wealth

Source: ICIJ Offshore Leaks database, Alstadsæter, Johannesen and Zucman (2018) and authors’ calculations.

Timing of Offshore Entity Creation

While the number of overall leaked entities per country might not be a perfect measure of the amount of offshore wealth, we find that there are systematic patterns in the timing of the creation of offshore entities. In particular, more offshore entities are created when individuals face political uncertainty in their own countries and fewer offshore entities are created by individuals from countries under financial sanctions.

Elections and Change of Leadership

Figure 2 shows the average number of newly incorporated offshore entities linked to a given country (on the y-axis), depending on that country’s political situation. Panel A shows no clear pattern of offshore entities being created by companies or individuals around the time of elections. Elections are often predictable and frequently result in the reelection of the incumbent government. In contrast, Panel B shows a clear increase in the number of offshore entities linked to a country around the time when that country experiences a change in the de facto political leader. Around four months before there is a change in political leadership, the average number of entities created per country per month almost doubles. Offshore entity creation falls back to normal levels typically around half a year following the transition of power. This pattern suggests that wealth leaves countries at times of political uncertainty and is consistent with the findings of Andersen, Johannesen, Lassen and Paltseva (2017) and Earle, Shpak, Shirikov and Gehlbach (2021).

Figure 2. Offshore entity creation and national political situation

Panel a. Elections

Panel b. Change of political power

Source: ICIJ Offshore Leaks database, The Rulers, Elections, and Irregular Governance (REIGN) Dataset and authors’ calculations. A change of power is defined as a change in the de-facto political leader (e.g., due to the incumbent losing an election or the collapse of a coalition government).

International Sanctions

Figure 3 shows the impact of sanctions from the United Nations, European Union, and the United States on the average number of offshore entities linked to a given country (on the y-axis). Panel A shows that when a country is subject to financial sanctions, the number of linked offshore entities created falls to around 10 per year from an average of 25 before the introduction of sanctions. The impact of sanctions can already be seen in the year before the start of the sanctions, which could reflect measurement and reporting errors or anticipation of the sanctions. In contrast, Panel B shows that trade sanctions that are not accompanied by financial sanctions have no significant impact on offshore activities. These charts suggest that financial sanctions may have some impact on how much capital can be moved from countries under sanctions to offshore accounts.

Figure 3. Offshore entity creation and international sanctions

Panel a. Financial sanctions

Panel b. Trade (without financial) sanctions

Source: ICIJ Offshore Leaks database, Global Sanctions Data Base and authors’ calculations.

Promoting Transparency

After the Financial Crisis in 2009, G20 countries compelled offshore tax havens to sign bilateral treaties to allow for the exchange of banking information under the threat of economic sanctions. More than 300 treaties were signed by tax havens that year. The effectiveness of this policy has been debated. For instance, Johannesen and Zucman (2014) show that the treaties lead to a relocation of bank deposits from compliant to less compliant offshore tax havens.

The G20 crackdown required each tax haven to sign at least 12 bilateral treaties. Relative to a comprehensive multilateral agreement, this policy had two limitations. Firstly, it leaves room for the diversion of funds identified by Johannesen and Zucman (2014). Secondly, tax havens were able to choose freely among potential partner countries – regardless of the underlying financial flows. Figure 4 shows that only a small fraction of the entities in the offshore leak database have a country of origin that signed a treaty with the tax haven in which they were incorporated. In addition, the small share of entities that will be subject to treaties suggests that havens did not always sign treaties with the most important counterparts. While the leaked entities may not be representative of offshore finance as a whole, this picture appears inconsistent with the OECD’s claim that “the era of bank secrecy is over” (OECD 2011)

Figure 4. Entity creation by treaty status

Source: ICIJ Offshore Leaks database, treaty events from Johannesen and Zucman (2014) and authors’ calculations.


A series of leaks over the past decade have exposed over 40 million documents related to the secretive offshore financial industry. Information related to over 800,000 offshore financial entities has been made public by the ICIJ. While a few high-profile cases received significant media coverage and gave rise to further investigations, the vast majority of references to networks of individuals, trusts, and shell corporations are difficult to decipher. This brief argues that, collectively, these leaked documents can be informative. They can be used to analyze the reasons for moving money offshore (such as domestic political uncertainty) as well as the constraints individuals face when doing so (such as international sanctions or bilateral treaties on bank secrecy).

In an effort to further increase transparency, 102 jurisdictions committed to a new standard for the automatic exchange of certain financial account information between tax authorities from 2019. Until such reforms are successful, leaks by whistleblowers are likely to remain a valuable source of information on the offshore financial industry.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

Governance Quality as a Determinant of FDI: the Case of Russian Regions

20140626 Governance Quality as a Determinant of FDI Image 01

This brief highlights the results of a study of the effect of poor governance quality on foreign direct investment in Russia. Using a survey of businesses across forty administrative districts, we find that a higher frequency of using illegal payments and a higher pressure from regulatory agencies, enforcement authorities, and criminals, negatively affect foreign direct investment (FDI). We find that moving from average to top governance quality across Russian regions more than doubles the FDI stock.

What are the reasons for the large heterogeneity in investment across cities, regions, and countries? Why do some of them prosper while others struggle in attracting investors and developing in the long term? This brief summarizes a study (Kuzmina et al, 2014) where we explore how quality of governance affects a specific type of investment – foreign direct investment (FDI). FDI is a very important source of economic growth, especially for developing countries. It allows them to overcome the local deficiencies in capital, technologies, and expertise, and has strong and long-lasting effects on growth – through both direct and spillover channels. Analysis of the determinants of FDI is popular among academic researchers, however, the existing empirical research, especially the one based on cross-country variation in governance quality, is not entirely convincing.

FDI Inflows in Russian Regions

During the first decade of transition in 1990s, the inflow of FDI to Russia was low compared to the Eastern European countries and other emerging economies. However, this changed dramatically around 2003. As oil prices surged FDI flows into Russia increased ten-fold within just a few years. As Figure 1 shows, a maximum of $74.8 billion was achieved in 2008 (corresponding to 4.5% of the country’s GDP), and Russia became one of the top countries in the world for inward FDI. By 2006, FDI inflows to Russia in per capita terms had surpassed FDI into China.

Figure 1. Foreign Direct Investment in Russia 1992-2012
Notes: This figure plots the evolution of FDI in Russia in 1992-2012. The blue line measures net inflows in current US$ billions (the scale corresponds to the left axis), and the red line measures net inflows as the percentage of GDP (the scale corresponds to the right axis). The data come from the World Bank(http://databank.worldbank.org/).

Nevertheless, the stock of FDI in Russia has remained substantially lower than in some comparable middle-income countries. The accumulated stock of FDI as a share of GDP (PPP) in Russia was 21% in 2013. This is only slightly more than in Ukraine (18%), and significantly less than the 28% in Brazil and the 30% in Poland. The stock of FDI in 2012 was distributed mainly between manufacturing (32%), real estate (15%), mining and quarrying (15%), and financial services (13%). Given the diversity of Russian regions in terms of natural, economic and institutional conditions, we also observe a substantial heterogeneity of FDI across Russian regions. The accumulated stock of FDI per capita is only $0.32 in the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, while it reaches a substantial $30,371 in the Sakhalin region. The average regional accumulated stock is just above $1,000 per capita. In terms of total stock, Moscow City is the leader with more than $39 billion of accumulated FDI.

An important feature of FDI in Russia is a significant share of so-called round-tripping investments. In 2012, $7.5 billion out of $18.5 billion of inward FDI in Russia came from offshore financial centers, with the most important OFC being Cyprus that delivered around 80% of total offshore investments. On overall, about half of total inward FDI stock in Russia comes from offshore countries.

There are several reasons behind the significant role of offshores in external Russian transactions. The traditional cause for using offshore financial centers (OFC) in developed countries is tax avoidance. While profit concerns are relevant for Russian law-abiding entrepreneurs, there are also other important reasons that force them to use offshore shells for their Russian-based enterprises. The possibility to get cheaper international financing and some other financial services for large Russian companies is important for large companies. On the other hand, underdeveloped institutions and poor property right protection are often referred to as the main driving forces for small and medium sized companies to go offshore (Ledyaeva et al., 2013; Kheyfets, 2013).

Given the importance of round-tripping investments in the Russian economy and the differences in incentives behind regular FDI and the one from offshores, we need to distinguish between these two types of investments when studying their determinants. On the one hand, poor regulatory governance might be a reason for the higher volumes of round tripping investments, but on the other hand, they might be a reason for the low attractiveness for true foreign investments.

Diversity of Quality of Governance across Russian Regions

The stable macroeconomic environment in Russia over the last decade has benefited Russian regions in attracting FDI. The diversity of Russian regions in various institutional aspects is, however, recognized in many studies. Yakovlev and Zhuravskaya (2007) report substantial differences in the speed of regulatory reform in twenty Russian regions over 2002-2005. A recent subnational survey of firms in 37 Russian regions by the World Bank indicates significant differences in the list of the most severe obstacles for firms’ performance across regions (World Bank, 2013).

The governance quality data in our study come from the Index of Support (“Index Opory”) survey conducted in 2011. This is a survey of directors of small and medium Russian firms that was collected by the Eurasia Competitiveness Institute (a not-for-profit think tank) and Opora Rossii (a non-for-profit organization that supports small business). It includes about 6000 firms and is designed to be a random sample of small businesses, stratified by size, location (urban or rural), and industry (with about two thirds from agriculture and manufacturing industries, and the rest from infrastructure and services).

Our data cover 40 regions. The surveyed regions are the most developed ones and their economic weight corresponds to 84% of total FDI stock and 83% of GDP in 2011.

All respondents of the survey were asked to answer a set of questions related to regional infrastructure, availability of labor, capital, and intermediate goods, and the absence of administrative pressures. Their answers were then aggregated within regions and all regions were ranked according to each criterion. We use the data coming from the administrative pressure section of the survey. The surveyed regions are ranked according to the average answers on questions reagrding the frequency of firms in the region using illegal payments to officials (Bribes to Officials), the frequency of firms facing abuse on the side of inspection authorities (Inspection Agencies Pressure), the side of enforcement authorities (Police Pressure), and the criminal community (Criminal Pressure).

To give a few examples, the top regions in terms of governance quality are Belgorod and Astrakhan Regions, as well as Stavropol and Krasnodar Territories. For example, the Belgorod region is ranked first in terms of police pressure, second in terms of bribes to officials and criminal pressure, and sixth in terms of inspection agencies pressure. This makes it the top region overall. The Kaluga region, which is commonly viewed as one of the best regions to invest in, in Russia, is ranked fifth overall, achieving some of the best positions in all indicators except for bribes to officials where it is somewhere in the middle (ranked 16th). To give a comparison, Moscow City ranks 27th overall. Leningrad, Irkutsk, Voronezh, Ryazan, and Rostov Regions take the bottom five places.

Worker Strikes in 1895-1914 and Why They Matter for Today

The common problem in this type of research is the reverse causality between the main variable of interest – quality of governance – and FDI. The effect of foreign investors might go through the better practices they bring to the host country or through the legal restrictions imposed on their business by the domestic jurisdiction in any country in which they decide to invest. To deal with the reversed causality problem in our study, we rely on an instrumental variable approach. As an instrument for governance quality in Russian regions, we choose the intensity of worker strikes in Russian provinces 1895-1914. We assume that the intensity of strikes in this period can be used as a proxy for the trust between the local businesses and the political elites, on the one hand, and ordinary people, on the other.

The choice of this period is not accidental. First, this was a period of unprecedentedly high growth of Russian industries. In 1887-1900, the production of many industrial goods and fuels in Russia increased by factor 3 to 5 in real terms; around five thousand kilometers of railroads were put in operations annually. Not surprisingly, the conflicts between workers, on the one hand, and management and owners, on the other, intensified in the 1890s. The police was an important instrument that managers and owners relied upon to keep control over the workers. The important link between local authorities and industrialists was formed to ensure the alignment between the interests of police and business owners. The formation of enforcement agencies was strongly influenced by this alignment, and this alignment in turn defines the level of trust between the elites and enforcement agencies, and the population.

Second, before 1897 no law regulated the duration of working hours in Russia. It was in discretion of the factory owners to establish the norms. On June 2, 1897 the first law governing working hours at a level well below the pre-existing level in Russian factories was signed into force. This law was an important first step towards improving the living conditions of Russian workers. With this law, workers could now claim their rights against the factory management. The factory inspections that were launched earlier, around 1882, were supposed to control the enforcement of labor regulation in general and the new labor law in particular. However, as conflicts between workers and capital owners and management dramatically intensified, these regulatory agencies were used to control workers and their organizations (Kupriyanova, 2000).

We interpret the intensity of strikes at the regional level as a measure of the revealed conflict between the state and the owners of existing businesses, or the local elite, on one hand, and the population on the other. In these conflicts, the enforcement and first regulatory agencies were used to secure the interests of small groups of local elites against interests of the broad population. In this way, we may rely on the intensity of strikes as an inverse proxy for the trust between population and local elites.

Modern research recognizes the importance of history for economic development. Nunn (2009) indicates several mechanisms that justify the projection of history onto modern life. For our study, two of these mechanisms are especially relevant. One is the historical root of modern formal institutions. The second is the effect of history on social and cultural norms. Aghion et al. (2010) suggest a mechanism of possible coevolution of trust and regulation: people in low-trust environments want more government interventions even though they are aware of the low quality of governance. For our study, the prediction of the study by Ahgion et al. (2010) – about the link between the trust and the quality of governance and their coevolution – is especially relevant.

One important issue about using our instrument is whether we can reasonably assume the preservation of some institutions or social norms through the two later dramatic changes in the Russian political regime. While there is evidence of institutional persistency, some aspects of institutions do change often. Acemoglu and Robinson (2006) address this question of whether changes in certain dimensions of institutions are consistent with overall institutional persistence. One of the results of their study is the possible persistence of the institutions that are essential for the allocation of resources in the economy despite the changes in the political regime. The essential condition for institutional persistence is the persistence of the incentives of those in power to distort the economic system for their own benefit. Therefore, as long as the incentives are preserved, the institutions may survive changes in the regime.

A number of empirical studies support this conclusion. To cite just one relevant study in the Russian context, Dower and Markevich (2014) show that the measure of conflict brought by the Stolypin land reform in Russian farmer’s communities about a hundred years ago explains current attitudes toward the privatization outcomes of the 1990s.

Results: Good Governance Matters for Non-Offshore FDI

Putting together data on the FDI stock in Russian regions, the level of governance quality in regions as of 2011, and some other controls, our results indicate that a higher administrative burden, a higher pressure of enforcement and regulatory agencies, a poor criminal situation and a higher level of corruption reported by the businesses in Russian regions contribute to a lower level of investments of foreign residents. Using the instrumental variable, which proxies the conflict between elites and people at the time when the regulatory agencies were formed a century ago, we can find the causal effect of governance quality on foreign investment. As an additional test, we study the effect of governance on offshore-related direct investments. We show that the sensitivity of offshore investments on governance quality is positive and non-significant. These results confirm our assumption that poor quality of governance decreases the reward of investments and is an important determinant of economic activity.

There is a straightforward policy application of our result. The improvement of governance quality alone, better compliance of regulatory agencies with existing legislation, is an important source of increases in the attractiveness of the regions for foreign investors. In particular, moving from average governance quality to the top increases FDI by 158%. This suggests that there are large returns to improving the quality of governance at the regional level, and this policy does not require a lot of budget spending which is especially important in modern Russia.


  • Acemoglu, D., and Robinson, J. (2006) “De Facto Political Power and Institutional Persistence”. American Economic Association Papers and Proceedings 96(2), pp. 325-330.
  • Aghion, P., Y. Algan, P. Cahuc and A. Shleifer (2010) “Regulation and Distrust,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. 125(3), pp. 1015-1049
  • Becker, S., Boeckh, K., Hainz, Ch. And L. Woessmann, (2011) “The Empire Is Dead, Long Live the Empire! Long-Run Persistence of Trust and Corruption in the Bureaucracy”, IZA Discussion Paper No. 5584
  • Dower, P., and A. Markevich, (2014) “On the Historical Origins of Resistance to Privatization in the Former Soviet Union”, Journal of Comparative Economics, forthcoming
  • Kheyfets, B. (2013) “De-offshorization of Economy: International Experience and Russian Specifics”, Voprosy Economiki, Issue 7 (in Russian)
  • Kupriyanova, L., (2000) The “labor problem” in Russia in the second half of XIX – early XX century. History of entrepreneurship in Russia. Book 2. Moscow (in Russian)
  • Ledyaeva, S., Karhunen, P., And J. Whalley. (2013) “Offshore Jurisdictions, (Including Cyprus), Corruption Money Laundering and Russian Round-Trip Investment”, NBER WP 19019
  • Nunn, N., (2009) “The Importance of History for Economic Development.” Annual Review of Economics, 1(1), pp. 65-92
  • Yakovlev, E., and E. Zhuravskaya, (2013). “The Unequal Enforcement of Liberalization: Evidence from Russia’s Reform of Business Regulation,” Journal of European Economic Association, 11(4), pp. 808–838.