Keep us a strong and independent voice for global justice: contribute today!
Swiss bank’s crafty strategy shows how difficult it is to clamp down on tax havens
January 5, 2008
By Lucy Komisar (Evening Standard)
Gordon Brown and Barack Obama are both promising to crack down on the use of offshore tax havens. But putting those tough words into practice is another matter.
In the City, firms have long used secretive foreign or offshore centres almost as a matter of course, channelling funds in their direction that would otherwise stay onshore and could attract tax. They maintain the offshore office fulfils a vitally important investment management function when in reality, it's often little more than a brass plate. However, as Brown and Obama's investigators might find, proving the claim is fiction is not easy.
The Evening Standard has examined how one of the world's biggest private wealth management groups circulates funds via offices in the Cayman Islands, claiming they take major investment decisions — when the main work is apparently carried out in London. It shows the scale of the task facing tax inspectors here and in the US in an offshore purge.
With offices in London and across the globe, Swiss-based Julius Baer banking group invests over $300 billion (£208 billion) in assets on behalf of institutions and wealthy individuals. Profits in 2007 were more than $1.1 billion.
In London, one of its units was known as Julius Baer Investors or Julius Baer Investment Management (JBIM) until a management buyout in 2007. It was renamed Augustus Asset Managers, is based in Bevis Marks in the City, and is still 10% owned by Julius Baer. From London, Augustus controls assets of $12 billion but claims its profits are generated elsewhere, offshore at a Cayman Islands Baer subsidiary called Baer Select Management. Why? Simple, really. “If you would generate all the income in London, you would pay much more taxes,” acknowledged Max Obrist, a Cayman Islands executive of Julius Baer.
A Swiss national, Obrist is a director of Baer Select. Officially, Augustus pays Obrist's operation to “monitor” its investments. But a whistleblower who worked with Obrist said Baer Select's real job for Augustus is to help it reduce tax.
Rudolf Elmer, 53, a German, was chief operating officer of Julius Baer Bank & Trust Company (JBBT), Caymans, earning $212,000 a year, and a Baer Select board member from 1999 to November 2002. He claims the Julius Baer group adopted a plan in 1996 “to utilise Baer Select Management, JBIM New York and JBIM London to benefit from the offshore system” to escape tax. As part of the plan, Obrists's Baer Select in the Caymans was appointed “investment adviser”.
However, Elmer said Baer Select did no investment work. He alleged that Obrist, in the name of Baer Select, simply ratified a few decisions; he really worked for his main employer, JBBT. Baer Select was in fact a shell — Elmer pointed to a Baer Select profit and loss statement for 1999 that showed no expenses for personnel, no rent for office space, and no costs for computers or other infrastructure.
Obrist acknowledged that Augustus in London does the real investment management. He said: “The investment manager is sitting in London; they do the deals out of London.”
Baer Select lists a range of tasks it undertakes on Augustus's behalf. Obrist said: “We have to follow stocks, monitor their investment policies, we monitor the risk reports we receive from the investment adviser and check, if there are performance fee calculations involved, if they are executed properly, all monitoring duties. We are in contact with the external auditors and the regulatory authorities and Cayman Islands monitoring authority.”
Obrist charges Augustus a fee which was “a percentage of profits”. Its size “depends on what type of duties we have to do here from Cayman”.
But according to Elmer, Baer Select as manager was paid management fees by Augustus and then paid advisory fees to JBIM. A clue to what has been occurring was provided by an obscure London Stock Exchange announcement three years ago. It said Baer Select's role had shifted from “investment manager” to “manager”. The Julius Baer Diversified Fixed Income Hedge Fund had been reorganised via the transfer of its assets to the Julius Baer Diversified Fixed Income Master Hedge Fund and Baer Select had been appointed “manager” and JBIM “investment manager” of the Fund and Master Fund. The announcement added that JBIM had the authority to make investment decisions without having them ratified by Baer Select — suggesting Baer Select was a shell.
Similarly, on 1 January 2007, Augustus signed an agreement with Baer Select to manage its funds. That very same day, Baer Select said it was delegating to Augustus responsibility for the management of the funds' assets. This meant that Baer Select was managing funds without assets — a shell in other words.
When challenged, Obrist insisted that Baer Select continues to work for Augustus, which markets Julius Baer funds with $6 billion in assets. He denied that Baer Select is an artificial, empty vehicle. He stated that he and two other staff members manage four funds for Augustus. He said: We are physically here. We do our job as investment manager. If Baer Select would be here just as a post office box company and generate the millions in Cayman as income instead of in the US or the UK or Switzerland, then that would not be a very smart thing.”
Augustus in London and Julius Baer in Zurich would not expand on their roles. Max Hilton, a spokesperson for Augustus, said the arrangement was devised and run by Julius Baer in Zurich. Martin Somogyi from Julius Baer said the company always adhered to applicable regulations and was regularly audited, but that it would not answer questions. Make no mistake. Tax avoidance remains legal and investigators will find it extremely difficult to put into practice the orders of their bosses Obama and Brown.
First appeared in The Evening Standard. Thanks to Lucy Komisar and The Evening Standard for covering this document. Copyright remains with the aforementioned.
Lucy Komisar is an investigative journalist in New York who writes about the offshore bank and corporate secrecy system. Her articles are at thekomisarscoop.com.