I have served as a flag-man among the pirates of offshore banking. I know Cyprus well and have sailed into Larnaca in the dead of night, in small boats, on business. But in this story, the good guys and bad guys are not who you think they are.
Let me show you why the plunder of Cyprus is probably one of the most brilliant acts of wholesale theft the world has ever known, why the stolen treasure may be thousands of times greater than has been suggested, and why the names of the victims, and the full value of the loot, will remain a mystery forever.
In the days of wooden ships and iron men, colonial empires pillaged entire populations. At sea, independent traders, merchantmen, privateers and pirates (broadly, those who operated without paying tribute to to one crown or another) were masters at avoiding the powerful warships of unfriendly nations. Of great importance in this effort was knowing which flag to fly, when, in order to avoid capture.
Things are not so different today. Powerful governments seize and confiscate assets, sometimes justly or “legally,” sometimes not. At sea, still, owners select men like me to analyze a host of variables and carefully select the flags and attendant legal and financial structures that will best protect their vessels and other assets. The stakes are high. The company is good. It is nice to know John Galt.
In order to understand what has happened in Cyprus, you must first conjure, in your mind, images representing a truly colossal amount of money.
Briefcases full of cash? Think shipping containers. Bafflingly intricate networks of corporate and private wealth, shell companies, holding companies and staggering transfers between these entities and others. Think private planes and mega-yachts, too – the works – and multiply this kaleidoscope by thousands of beneficial owners, major shareholders and top executives all over the world.
Now you have a glimpse of the dynamic, multilayered, nebulous network – almost completely opaque by design – whose few points of convergence included Cyprus.
As in a sea battle, exposure is dangerous. When envisioning riches, Hollywood might draw our imaginations to Swiss vaults, mahogany corridors and bars of gold, but much of that stuff – the places, the mechanisms, the glitter – is old news. As for the toys, practically speaking, they are merely exposed, and therefore dangerous, assets. But seizing boats is a time-consuming, complicated business for government raiders, unless they lead to greater treasure. (The boats are almost always left to rot, which is why, when appropriate, they are “rescued.”) From a business perspective, the attention-getting trappings of a producer’s affluence only matter if they draw the wrong kind of attention. What is critical is the money. The target wants to keep as much of it as he can, legally or otherwise. The empires want to take it, and they determine what is legal.
It is impossible for the media to convey, in pictures, the extent of the wealth harbored in Cyprus. Quiet, dusty Nicosia and Limassol aren’t remotely glamorous. Here, Greek efficiency meets British hospitality. Leyland cars putter along the Larnaca waterfront. Middle-class Holiday makers ponder the remains of the Empire over warm beer and kleftiko. Every once in a while, a tourist plunges to his death in a rented motorbike. Cyprus would make a dreary set for a movie about such an astonishing robbery. It was a place to avoid that kind of attention. This isn’t where the world’s elite spent their money; it’s where they kept it. Like a pirate’s cove, it was ideal for hiding treasure, and stealing it.
Though it may be easy to think of offshore depositors as foreign outlaws, pirates or simply “Russians,” this is not nearly the case. Cyprus was a leader – in some circles and for some applications, the leader – in quiet storage, management and structuring of exceptionally large sums for private individuals and corporations all over the world. Cypriots were fast learners in the fields of global asset protection and “tax optimization.” (I do cringe to say these words.) Cyprus’ 2004 entrance into the EU gave financial operations a deeper veneer of legitimacy and security. All of this meant almost a decade of rapidly expanding business. This was surely from Europeans and Russians wary of unpredictable tax laws and indiscriminate, extralegal confiscations, but also from entities in North America and elsewhere.
The score itself is bigger than we can imagine and will be impossible to determine. The breadth of the depositor base and very nature of the business, the holding of particularly large deposits, gives us an inkling as to the size of the heist, but so does the brazen nature of the action. What we know is that it is government theft of a kind not seen since wartime Germany or revolutionary Russia. Accounts have simply been seized; portions of their untold contents, as we like to say in America, “redistributed.” And though the event has provided distracting local human-interest fodder for the world media, personal savings and such things as the operating accounts of small businesses represent a negligible portion of the dollar amounts involved. Some of the largest businesses and the richest, most powerful people and trusts in the world had money in Cyprus. And that is why nobody is talking.
Expect major instability and enduring shock waves. The implications of the heist, ominously called “precedent setting” by its own architects, are staggering. Of course, many will lose their savings, businesses will fail and the move will draw even more blood from the flaccid economy we have been enjoying since the last great stick-up. (I refer, of course, to the moment our politicians convinced us Wall Street needed $800,000,000,000.00 “by Tuesday.”) More important, depositors and investors worldwide will lose faith in their banks, in their governments and in the EU. The final result may please anarcho-capitalists and others who see this as irrefutable proof of the elemental wickedness of compound governments and central banking systems, but it will not be pretty. When power is over-extended and blatantly abused, people revolt, money moves off the books and producers turn to cleverer and more audacious means of piracy.
How much was stolen, after all? How many accounts were seized? Nobody likes to know a secret without getting all the details, but I don’t know all the details. Nobody does. That’s the point. All we know is that immeasurable sums have vanished, and the victims are quiet. It is a perfect crime.
You will never see a complete and verifiable list of beneficial account holders.
You will never see a complete and verifiable tally of the loot.
The best way to pull off a heist is to make it so nobody blows the whistle or calls the authorities. Better yet is to arrange things so the authorities are in on the job. Best of all, of course, is when the authorities do the job.
And that is exactly what has happened in Cyprus.