Bullough, O. (2018). Moneyland: why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back. Profile Books.
At the heart of this book lies a simple dichotomy:
- Laws are confined by national boundaries.
- Money passes through national boundaries.
In an often jaw-dropping tour of the murky world of big money – Oliver Bullough shows how this relationship between law and money is systematically exploited by oligarchs and kleptocrats the world over, enabled by our own governments, to the detriment of the vast majority of us. Big money, regardless of where, how and by whom it was made, can afford to move to the country where the rules are most favourable for hiding it and for spending it. Welcome to Moneyland.
It is difficult to do this book justice in a short review. The Moneylander’s toolbox is so diverse and so fiercely guarded that it defies a generalised systematic description. Bullough approaches it by illustrating many of the features of Moneyland with detailed descriptions of case studies that he has painstakingly investigated in forensic detail. This review can give no more than the briefest overview.
In a useful summary of how we got here, Bullough points out the similarity between how money moves around the world now and in the period between the 1st and 2nd world wars. That kind of unregulated movement between the wars created great wealth for a few individuals at the expense of destabilising the currencies and economies of the countries caught up in the game and, he posits, ultimately led to WWII. After the war the Allies were determined to stop it happening again and the result was the Bretton Woods Agreement.
Under the terms of this agreement, the dollar was pegged to gold and all the other currencies of participating nations were pegged to the dollar. Moneyland evolved from financiers and bankers looking for loopholes to circumvent these restrictions. For example, unlike dollars in the USA, those used outside the USA were not subject to restrictions such as interest rate caps and, in London, banks did not have to keep dollars in reserve to cover bad loans as they did in the USA. So London banks began making dollar loans with high interest rates (which were termed eurodollars). This was the start of the expansion of London as one of the worlds major financial centres. In another early example, banker Siegmund Warburg struck a deal with Swiss banks so that their customers were issued with eurobonds in return for dollars deposited in their accounts. By exploiting loopholes like those described above, Warburg invested those dollars to make tax-free income for the eurobond holders (earning himself a decent commission of course).
As the exploitation of these loopholes mushroomed, offshore dollars multiplied and the USA found that it could not purchase enough gold to guarantee their value. Pegging dollars to gold was abandoned – leaving the Bretton Woods Agreement broken and Moneyland wide open for big money all over the world.
Although Moneyland can be used to the advantage of all oligarchs, including those that obtain their fortunes within the letter of the law – Bullough identifies a toxic pattern of steal-hide-spend played out in Moneyland by international kleptocrats.
No one can fail to be aware that many countries in the world today are run by kleptocracies – elites that systematically plunder the country’s wealth for their own personal gain. Bullough describes how Russian oligarchs, led by Vladimir Putin, used Moneyland to plunder the Russian state. How far kleptocracies are willing to go to defend the secrets of Moneyland is evidenced by his account of how the Russian state will kill anyone – at home or abroad – that comes close to exposing them. But most people are not like the kleptocrats at the top of the Russian state and it was more of a mystery to me how corruption can seem to penetrate whole countries from top to bottom. For that reason I found Boullough’s account of the kleptocracy headed by former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych particularly interesting. Yanukovych was president from 2010 to 2014 when he was ousted after a revolution. In his account, corruption was imposed on Ukraine from the top down – all the state positions were underpaid and all officials had to take bribes simply in order to live. In this way, even doctors were coerced by the system into taking bribes to administer to their patients. It’s a simple but effective way to sustain a kleptocracy – corruption is outsourced from the top of the pyramid down.
Hiding money is right at the heart of Moneyland – Bullough calls it Moneyland’s core industry – and much of the book is given over to describing the various ways that Moneyland enables the hiding and laundering of money as well as obfuscating its ownership. Among the topics discussed, with many detailed examples, are:
- Offshoring – described by Bullough as the concept of being legally absent whist physically present – for example land in Ukraine that is legally owned in Britian.
- Shell companies – an inactive company used to hide or obfuscate ownership of assets. Often used in long chains of companies owned by companies, owned by companies in different legal jusistictions.
- Company formation agents – businesses that enable rapid incorporation (i.e. creation) of companies (often used by clients as shell companies), usually without asking too many questions.
- Countries that act as tax havens or otherwise offer legal juristictions designed attract big money.
- Libel tourism – the practice of big money pursuing libel actions in whichever country gives the best chance of an outcome in their favour and which will accept legal jurisdiction over the case. This is frequently used to silence people threatening to unmask their dealings. The mere threat of legal action can be enough to silence people since the money thrown into these actions by Moneylanders dwarfs the resources of publishers and journalists and defending a case – even one with a high probablility of a positive outcome – can be ruinous. This is sometimes referred to as self-censorship.
Many Moneylanders, including kleptocrats, invest their money in foreign property, especially in London and New York. The properties are expensive – so large sums of money can be easily laundered – and their values keep rising. This is an example of the kind of Moneyland activity which is facilitated by lack of oversight by the host country despite the adverse social and economic distortions which it can bring to an area. There are also macro economic benefits to the host country of course and some this, at least in part, may explain the lack of oversight.
Its a harder for countries to hide their motivation when they offer citizenship and everything that goes with that – education, healthcare, influence etc – to almost anyone that will pay enough money, but that is exactly what many do, some more blatantly that others. Kleptocrats often buy new nationalities for their families, especially their children, to distance them from the source of their wealth. But just as you are thinking that it couldn’t get much worse, Bullough describes a case where diplomatic immunity was purchased. A Saudi billionaire, wishing to avoid paying his soon-to-be ex-wife (a resident of Surrey in England) a divorce settlement, purchased a position from the government of St Lucia as their ambassador to the International Maritime Organization and was officially included on the London Diplomatic list. It seemed that his diplomatic immunity would render him immune to his ex-wife’s attempts to gain a divorce settlement in a British court. You couldn’t make it up. In the end his immunity was overturned on the slimmest of technicalities – but he almost pulled it off. Bullough believes that diplomatic immunity has been purchased more than once and that it will be again.
Like many books that describe intractable problems and potential solutions Moneyland is much stronger at describing the problems than on providing solutions. However the final part of the book does go to some length to explain exactly how intractable the problems are and just how difficult they are to fix. One reason is that actors in many key countries, including the USA, which Bullough describes as the world’s biggest tax haven, have a lot to lose if Moneyland is dismantled. These actors are often powerful lobbyists and the power of lobbyists in western ‘democracies’, particularly in the USA, is immense. It is clear that most countries, and certainly the world community, would be better off without Moneyland and the kleptocrats enabled by it. Like so many other intractable problems we face nowadays, it is clear that the only way we will overcome it is by acting determinedly as an international community and prepare to make short-term sacrifices for the longer-term good.