Business Advantages and Tax Minimization Attract U.S. Persons and Enforcement Challenges Exist
GAO-08-779T: Published: Jul 24, 2008. Publicly Released: Jul 24, 2008.
The Cayman Islands is a major offshore financial center and the registered home of thousands of corporations and financial entities. Financial activity there is in the trillions of dollars annually. One Cayman building--Ugland House--has been the subject of public attention as the listed address of thousands of companies. To help Congress better understand the nature of U.S. persons' business activities in the Cayman Islands, GAO was asked to study (1) the nature and extent of U.S. persons' involvement with Ugland House registered entities and the nature of such business; (2) the reasons why U.S. persons conduct business in the Cayman Islands; (3) information available to the U.S. government regarding U.S. persons' Cayman activities; and (4) the U.S. government's compliance and enforcement efforts. GAO interviewed U.S. and Cayman government officials and representatives of the law firm housed in Ugland House, and reviewed relevant documents. The full report on GAO's review is GAO-08-778, being released at the same time as this testimony.
The sole occupant of Ugland House is Maples and Calder, a law firm and company-services provider that serves as registered office for the 18,857 entities it created as of March 2008, on behalf of a largely international clientele. According to Maples partners, about 5 percent of these entities were wholly U.S.-owned and 40 to 50 percent had a U.S. billing address. Ugland House registered entities are often participants in investment and structured-finance activities, including those related to hedge funds and securitization. Gaining business advantages, such as facilitating U.S.-foreign transactions or minimizing taxes, are key reasons for U.S. persons' financial activity in the Cayman Islands. The Cayman Islands' reputation as a stable, business-friendly regulatory environment also attracts business. This activity is typically legal, such as when pension funds and other U.S. tax-exempt entities invest in Cayman hedge funds to maximize their investment return by minimizing U.S. taxes. Nevertheless, as with other offshore jurisdictions, some U.S. persons may use Cayman Island entities to illegally evade income taxes or hide illegal activity. Information about U.S. persons' Cayman activities comes from self-reporting, international agreements, and less formal sharing with the Cayman government. Because there is often no third-party reporting, self-reported information may be vulnerable to being inaccurate or incomplete. U.S. officials said the Cayman government has been responsive to taxpayer-specific information requests. The Internal Revenue Service has several initiatives that target offshore tax evasion, including cases involving Cayman entities, but oversight and enforcement challenges related to offshore financial activity exist. U.S. officials said that cooperation with the Cayman Islands government has been good. Also, Maples partners said that ultimate responsibility for compliance with U.S. tax laws lies with U.S. taxpayers.