Is the sun about to set on Britain's empire of tax havens?
It doesn't feel that way in the early evening sun on the patio of a chic cafe in Jersey's capital of St. Helier, where smartly dressed islanders talk business over beer or white wine.
But shadows are gathering over places like Jersey, a 45-square-mile (118-square- kilometer) island in the English Channel with 90,000 people, 33,000 registered companies, 48 banks and 200 billion pounds ($290 billion) in deposits.
As the global recession deepens, Jersey and territories like it have been attracting the attention of cash-strapped governments who believe that the funds flowing into tax havens should be filling their coffers instead. Jersey's financiers say the island is being made a scapegoat.
"To blame offshore centers for the credit crunch is very naive," said Robert Kirkby of Jersey Finance, which promotes the island's financial sector. "We're the cat being kicked on the way home from the office."
For years money has poured into Jersey, drawn by low tax rates and an enticing array of investments that have made this small island off the French coast a highly prosperous financial center. Its per capita gross national income was 41,000 pounds in 2007 ($58,600), among the highest in the world.
Now Britain's Treasury is looking at Jersey and other havens as potential sources of much-needed tax revenue. The Trades Union Congress, a labor federation, estimates that the Treasury is losing 4 billion pounds ($5.8 billion) a year through the rich putting money in offshore tax havens like Jersey.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown is urging a global clampdown on tax havens. Last month he called on leaders of the Group of 20 rich and developing countries to take action against havens when they meet Thursday in London. Brown repeated the message last week, saying that "the old tax havens have no place in this new world." Critics say Brown has been short on details, and note that his criticism of tax havens tends to focus on countries like Switzerland, rather than places with ties to Britain. Many of the world's tax havens have British links, from overseas territories like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands to the "Crown dependencies" of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. As Britain's colonies gained independence after World War II, London encouraged several small Caribbean islands to become tax havens as a means to self-sufficiency.
Jersey and Guernsey, which are possessions of the British Crown but not part of the United Kingdom, have been havens for the British rich and their money since the 1920s.
Tax-reform campaigners say Britain has dragged its feet on closing tax loopholes because the furious flow of money through tax havens _ large amounts of it in offshoots of London-based banks _ helped fuel the decade-long economic boom that made London's business district, the City, the world's leading financial center. "The Treasury felt for many years that the benefit to the City of London of the money flow coming through these places outweighed the loss from tax evasion. Is that trade-off still a good one?" said Richard Murphy of consultants Tax Research.
Jersey levies a flat 20 percent income tax on residents, allows nonresidents a wide range of low-tax or tax-free investments, and levies taxes of no more than 10 percent on corporations that keep offices on the island.
Once known primarily for potatoes, seaside holidays and the rich milk produced by its dairy cows, Jersey is now ringed with marinas full of yachts and dotted with large rural villas with Audis and Range Rovers in the driveway.
Jersey authorities deny the island is a tax haven at all, saying the term should refer only to places that allow illegal tax evasion or money laundering.
Jersey certainly has tougher regulation than some other British tax havens, but it is feeling the pressure. In common with other financial centers such as Switzerland, the island has moved to shed its image of secrecy. Earlier this month it signed an agreement to share information with British tax officials; it has similar agreements with 11 other countries including the United States. Reformers say these agreements don't go far enough because they provide for information to be shared upon request rather than automatically, leaving open the possibility of nonresidents simply not reporting income from Jersey accounts to their home governments. Jersey's Chief minister, Terry Le Sueur, acknowledges the island will have to develop new sectors of its economy as the financial sector shrinks. But he is confident Jersey will ride out the recession.
"In times of uncertainty, there is often a flight to quality," he said. "People are going to be a lot more cautious about where they do business."