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Offshore Bank

An offshore bank is a bank located outside the country of residence of the depositor, typically in a low tax jurisdiction (or tax haven) that provides financial and legal advantages. These advantages typically include:

  • greater privacy

  • low or no taxation (i.e. tax havens)

  • easy access to deposits (at least in terms of regulation)

  • protection against local, political, or financial instability


While the term originates from the Channel Islands being "offshore" from the United Kingdom, and most offshore banks are located in island nations to this day, the term is used figuratively to refer to such banks regardless of location, including Swiss banks and those of other landlocked nations such as Luxembourg and Andorra.

Offshore banking has often been associated with the underground economy and organized crime, via tax evasion and money laundering; however, legally, offshore banking does not prevent assets from being subject to personal income tax on interest. Except for certain persons who meet fairly complex requirements,the personal income tax of many countriesmakes no distinction between interest earned in local banks and those earned abroad. Persons subject to US income tax, for example, are required to declare on penalty of perjury, any offshore bank accounts—which may or may not be numbered bank accounts—they may have.

Although offshore banks may decide not to report income to other tax authorities, and have no legal obligation to do so as they are protected by bank secrecy, this does not make the non-declaration of the income by the tax-payer or the evasion of the tax on that income legal. Following September 11, 2001, there have been many calls for more regulation on international finance, in particular concerning offshore banks, tax havens, and clearing houses such as Clearstream, based in Luxembourg, being possible crossroads for major illegal money flows.

Defenders of offshore banking have criticised these attempts at regulation. They claim the process is prompted not by security and financial concerns but by the desire of domestic banks and tax agencies to access the money held in offshore accounts. They cite the fact that offshore banking offers a competitive threat to the banking and taxation systems in developed countries, suggesting that Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries are trying to stamp out competition.

Legal issues
If you’re a U.S. citizen, it’s not illegal per se to open an offshore account. If the underlying reason, however, for setting up the account is an illegal act, you might be keeping your money safe, but you could still be in hot water. For example, if you’re accused of tax evasion and you’ve sent the funds abroad, you could still face criminal charges here. The offshore bank account, however, may remain free from the long arm of the law.

Offshore banks can sometimes provide access to politically and economically stable jurisdictions. This will be an advantage for residents in areas where there is risk of political turmoil, who fear their assets may be frozen, seized or disappear (see the corralito for example, during the 2001 Argentine economic crisis). However it is often argued that developed countries with regulated banking systems offer the same advantages in terms of stability.

Some offshore banks may operate with a lower cost base and can provide higher interest rates than the legal rate in the home country due to lower overheads and a lack of government intervention. Advocates of offshore banking often characterise government regulation as a form of tax on domestic banks, reducing interest rates on deposits.

Offshore finance is one of the few industries, along with tourism, in which geographically remote island nations can competitively engage. It can help developing countries source investment and create growth in their economies, and can help redistribute world finance from the developed to the developing world. But equally, well resourced and developed countries such as New Zealand offer a safe and well administered background for these financial services.

Interest is generally paid by offshore banks without tax being deducted. This is an advantage to individuals who do not pay tax on worldwide income, or who do not pay tax until the tax return is agreed, or who feel that they can illegally evade tax by hiding the interest income.

Some offshore banks offer banking services that may not be available from domestic banks such as anonymous bank accounts, higher or lower rate loans based on risk and investment opportunities not available elsewhere.

Offshore banking is often linked to other structures, such as offshore companies, trusts or foundations, which may have specific tax advantages for some individuals.

Many advocates of offshore banking also assert that the creation of tax and banking competition is an advantage of the industry, arguing with Charles Tiebout that tax competition allows people to choose an appropriate balance of services and taxes. Critics of the industry, however, claim this competition as a disadvantage, arguing that it encourages a "race to the bottom" in which governments in developed countries are pressured to deregulate their own banking systems in an attempt to prevent the offshoring of capital.


Risk

When you bank in the U.S., you can be secure in the knowledge that your money is insured by the government. No such guarantees exist with offshore banks. In other words, a country could have a coup or a natural disaster or an accounting scandal one day and all the money could be gone the next. Furthermore, you could find yourself scammed; it does happen. Remember, this is a business built on skirting the law, so you won’t always deal with the most honest people (but that varies by country).

Offshore bank accounts are sometimes less financially secure. In a banking crisis which swept the world in 2008, some savers lost funds that were not insured by the country in which they were deposited. Those who had deposited with the same banks onshore received all of their money back. In 2009 The Isle of Man authorities were keen to point out that 90% of the claimants were paid, although this only referred to the number of people who had received money from their depositor compensation scheme and not the amount of money refunded. In reality, only 40% of depositor funds had been repaid: 24.8% in September 2009 and 15.2% in December 2009. Both offshore and onshore banking centres often have depositor compensation schemes. For example: The Isle of Man compensation scheme guarantees £50,000 of net deposits per individual depositor, or £20,000 for most other categories of depositor. Potential depositors should be aware that any deposits over the guaranteed amount are at risk.

However, only offshore centres such as the Isle of Man have refused to compensate depositors 100% of their funds following Bank collapses. Onshore depositors have been refunded in full, regardless of what the compensation limit of that country has stated.[6] Thus, banking offshore is historically riskier than banking onshore.

Offshore banking has been associated in the past with the underground economy and organized crime, through money laundering. Following September 11, 2001, offshore banks and tax havens, along with clearing houses, have been accused of helping various organized crime gangs, terrorist groups, and other state or non-state actors. However, offshore banking is a legitimate financial exercise undertaken by many expatriate and international workers.

Offshore jurisdictions are often remote, and therefore costly to visit, so physical access and access to information can be difficult. Yet in a world with global telecommunications this is rarely a problem for customers. Accounts can be set up online, by phone or by mail.

Offshore private banking is usually more accessible to those on higher incomes, because of the costs of establishing and maintaining offshore accounts. However, simple savings accounts can be opened by anyone and maintained with scale fees equivalent to their onshore counterparts. The tax burden in developed countries thus falls disproportionately on middle-income groups. Historically, tax cuts have tended to result in a higher proportion of the tax take being paid by high-income groups, as previously sheltered income is brought back into the mainstream economy The Laffer curve demonstrates this tendency.

 
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