Vanuatu pushes citizenship-by-investment as costs of living rise
A friendly source in the citizenship-by-investment business is very rude about Vanuatu’s passport-for-scale scheme because it offers honorary, rather than full, citizenship. (“Honorary citizenship? What’s that? It’s like being honorarily pregnant,” he says.)
However, there do seem to be folks out there taking advantage of what the Pacific archipelago has to offer, according to Robin Kapapa, who runs the country’s citizenship-by-investment program — including the controversial Gupta brothers.
- “Kapapa said that Atul and Rajesh became Vanuatu citizens under the country’s Economic Citizenship Programme in 2019 upon declaring their innocence.”
They continue to declare their innocence. The Gupta brothers are accused of corruption and state capture in South Africa and are currently (successfully) resisting extradition from the United Arab Emirates. But this is the kind of thing that gives a golden passport program a bad name. From February 2023, the European Union suspended its visa waiver program with Vanuatu, citing the risks posed by the nation’s laissez-faire approach to welcoming wealthy people into its warm embrace.
So why would someone want a Vanuatu passport? Here’s a heart-warming (if, possibly, fictional) story from a passport broker’s website about an elderly Indian gentleman who bought one so he could get heart surgery in the U.K. and who got it in just one and a half months for a very reasonable $130,000. In fact, because so many of the broker’s clients were getting citizenship at the same time, the gentleman paid just $5,000 for the final ceremony, two-thirds off the normal price! I confess that I’m puzzled by the notion of getting a group discount on a pledge of allegiance but, no matter, on with the show.
- “In early January, Samar’s application for citizenship was approved. He was able to celebrate this with his children and grandchildren, who had come to visit him in London.”
I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that most people applying for Vanuatuan citizenship are not kindly Indian grandpas seeking life-saving medical intervention but rather shadier characters. The British government has said that it’s looking at whether countries selling passports should lose their visa waivers. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Vanuatu’s citizens start finding it harder to visit the U.K. before too long. Until recently, the program, which was launched in 2017, was the single biggest source of income for Vanuatu’s government but — without its best visa waivers — the passports are becoming significantly less attractive.
So, how to market them? Well, according to a bizarre press release from Astons that I have just received, you do it by alerting Americans to how much money they could save if they took up Vanuatuan citizenship and moved to Vanuatu. An American’s monthly bills will, apparently, come to about $1,142 a month in the Pacific archipelago — and that’s 24.6% less than the average monthly spending in the United States.
- “This is one reason why so many US high-net-worths are opting to emigrate by securing alternative citizenship via investment. You can get an equally good, if not vastly superior lifestyle, without the massive price tags associated with a luxury lifestyle in the United States,” the press release says, quoting Aston’s “immigration expert” Alena Lesina.
By my calculation, it would take them almost three decades to earn back the cost of the passport, which doesn’t sound all that great. In fact, I am bewildered by the thought processes of whoever thought it was a good idea to market alternative citizenships as a solution to the cost of living crisis, but — to their credit — they did provide data for all the countries that sell passports, allowing you to calculate quite how ridiculous the whole idea is for yourself.
Egypt is the cheapest option, with the average monthly spending of only $127.13. This means that — in the unlikely event that an American with $250,000 to invest in an Egyptian passport was willing to live like an average Egyptian after relocation — it would take them a mere 15 years to earn back the cost of their new passport, via reduced bills. But Dominica is the bargain. A Dominican passport costs just $100,000, which means that, thanks to a cost of living averaging about $206.23 a month, you could earn back the cost of citizenship in not much more than six years. It’s true that Dominica is utterly lovely, but hmmmmmm.
OFFSHORE SHELL PEOPLE AGAIN
Attentive readers of this newsletter (which is to say, I’m sure, all of you) may remember that last October I wrote about some findings from the U.K.’s Centre for Public Data, a think tank that wants public officials to share better statistics about what they’re up to.
Their report revealed, for the first time, that while the U.K. had been gradually cracking down on the misuse of offshore shell companies to obscure property ownership and dodge taxes, enterprising investors had learned to hide their actions behind “offshore shell people” — individuals in tax havens who appear to be putting their names on the deeds so as to hide the real owners’ identities, presumably in some kind of trust.
This meant that, while politicians and the media had been obsessing about oligarchs using shell companies, those same oligarchs had effectively bypassed the government’s restrictions, in very large numbers, without anyone noticing.
Anyway, the Centre’s Anna Powell-Smith has emailed me to say that there were errors in the information provided to her by His Majesty’s Land Registry after the Freedom of Information requests she sent them — which she then shared with everyone else. That is ironic and appropriate, considering the task she has set out to do, but her response has been classy and proactive (and an example of best practice). Thanks Anna.
So, there are in fact 181,701 properties in England and Wales owned by offshore-based individuals, rather than the previously reported 247,016. That’s fewer than we thought but still more than anyone previously realized and far more than there are properties owned by companies.
- “We still believe that HMLR should publish official statistics on this topic – if anything, this error only makes that more pressing,” Powell-Smith’s blog post states.
I agree. Any information that is not secret should be public, and information should be provided in the most accessible way possible, so that companies and people can use it for research, business, education or anything else they choose. A government’s information belongs to the country’s citizens after all, and it’s up to those citizens what they do with it.
Transparency also helps to keep that information accurate. The flaw in this data was discovered by Anna, not by HMLR, and it was her questions that led to officials discovering that they were misrepresenting the situation. This is significant, since Anna’s original report led to questions being raised in the British Parliament, and legislators need the most accurate information if they’re to make the best decisions. Fortunately, the flaws didn’t change the overall picture in her report, but it’s quite scary to think that laws could be passed based on incorrect official data.
Interestingly, Scotland already provides this dataset in an easily accessible form. Out of the 2.5 million properties in the country, 26,953 are owned outside the U.K., and the largest number of owners are American (including a certain Donald Trump, who owns Scottish golf courses), followed by residents of Hong Kong and Australians. Other popular locations include the usual tax havens — Singapore, the UAE, Jersey, the British Virgin Islands — which suggests that investors in Scotland have deployed offshore shell people, too.
One issue in Scotland is that huge estates own much of the countryside, where rich people like to shoot grouse or deer and generally pretend to be noble hunters. So, a single property title can actually cover a significant chunk of the country. And that appears to be the case here, with four of the top five most popular offshore-owned areas located in remote and rural areas along the west coast of Scotland, one of the beautiful (and sparsely-populated) parts of Britain.
Anyway, I’ve gone further down this rabbit hole than probably anyone but me wishes, but I think this is an interesting demonstration of the fluidity and flexibility of the offshore world. When governments attempt to outlaw tricks used to hide ownership or avoid taxes, another trick is invented. It is the reason why politicians need to be as entrepreneurial in their response to oligarchs as those oligarchs are in their response to the laws that politicians pass. And it’s also why accurate information should always be freely available to citizens so they can spot those tricks as Anna did or as Graham Barrow does with shell companies, in real time.
If any of my readers know of countries that publish equivalent information, please send it over! I’d love to take a look and see if the same patterns occur elsewhere.
CASH IS (STILL) KING
Question: How does a modern money launderer hide the provenance of his clients’ profits? Answer: The same way he always did, by using cash.
Authorities in Spain and Italy, both of which have a good reputation when it comes to tackling financial crime, have busted a big money laundering ring and published pictures of wads of cash that they’ve seized. The methodology is exactly the same as in recent busts in the U.K., the U.S. and elsewhere: Drug gangs earn cash, then hand it to money launderers, who pass the cash onto people who want it, paying the gangsters with drugs shipped from overseas. Crucially, the cash circulates only within countries, and value is transferred internationally in the form of stuff — whether phones, drugs, luxury handbags or any other good, legal or illegal. Our defenses are set up to catch electronic money crossing borders, but the international trade system is wide open to abuse.
Inevitably, therefore, criminals are moving illicit wealth around the world via wrongly-priced exports/imports or via smuggling and bypassing the well-monitored financial system in the process. They’d be stupid if they did anything else, and they’re not stupid.
Thank you to a reader in Latvia (you know who you are) for sending over this new and fascinating report from the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, covering exactly this point. Its analysis shows that criminals are becoming increasingly specialized. Logistics, cyber and money laundering are now separate operations run by gangs that sell their services to each other in exactly the same way as outsourcing firms do in the legitimate economy. The report sees this as a revolution in organized crime, comparable to the development of transnational cartels in the 1970s.
- “Organised crime in today’s interconnected world consists of increasingly fluid, decentralised, technologically savvy and resilient trading networks. These networks leverage a wide range of professional service providers and systemic enablers as part of their operations,” the report states.
- “In real terms, this has arguably led to a net amplification of the relative (political) power, economic clout and, correspondingly, overall threat posed by organised crime, most significantly seen in the suffocation and distortion of licit economies and the erosion of formal governance systems and the ‘rules-based international system’ – which is already in rapid retreat at the state level.”
It seems to me that the global money laundering system can best be analyzed by comparing it to the formal financial system. Both are restless, energetic and constantly shrugging off governments’ attempts to control them. I haven’t yet seen a revolving door between government and organized crime analogous to the one between politics and finance, but perhaps that’s something Anna Powell-Smith could look into.
WHAT I’VE BEEN READING
This past week, my younger son and I have been racing each other through Leigh Bardugo’s “Shadow and Bone” trilogy. I like reading the same thing as the kids and am — perhaps unrealistically — quite looking forward to the day when they have an equal interest in financial skulduggery as I do, so we can chat about offshore structures with the kind of intensity with which we currently discuss wizardry. Perhaps I’ll wave “Treasure Islands” in front of them next and see if either is prepared to pick it up.