Spotlight Special: Identity Transparency is a Political Question

16 June 2015
Author picture
Alex Cobham
Director of Research at Tax Justice Network
TL: How did you get into your practice field?
AC: I trained as an economist (in Edinburgh and Cardiff), took my first research job at Queen Elizabeth House (Oxford University’s Department of International Development) in 1999, and gradually came to focus on the impact of a lack of financial and tax transparency, internationally, on developing countries. That focus has remained since, across a range of research and NGO roles. More at
What do you consider your greatest professional achievement so far?
In this field, I guess being the co-creator of the Financial Secrecy Index – a biennial ranking of jurisdictions according to the nature and scale of their ‘tax haven’ secrecy. More here:
Beneficial ownership and transparency is a hot topic. Is there anything in particular about this topic that interests you?
We often treat identity transparency as a technical question, but it’s mainly a political one. If you work in development, you see the whole range: from communities fighting to be recognised in national surveys or on the birth register or the electoral register, where the lack of recognition implies a lack of power in important ways; to the construction and use of increasingly complex anonymous ownership structures, often to facilitate crime or market and regulatory abuse, and where the lack of transparency is a form of power for some. And of course, the power of anonymous ownership has caused particular damage to markets and governance in developing countries. 
We’re at an interesting stage in terms of the international politics of the G8 and G20, where policymakers from the most powerful countries have grappled a little with the technical questions (since 2013), but are only really starting to engage with the deeper, political ones that must be addressed if power is to shift. Why should the Caymans or the BVI have public registers of beneficial ownership if Delaware and Wyoming won’t? What can be done if Switzerland will exchange financial information automatically with the US but not with India?
Are there any questions you would like to ask your fellow Beneficial Ownership & Transparency panelists during the live event?
What if any benefits do you see arising, for efficient markets and/or for effective governance, from the use of anonymous companies, trusts and foundations?
What proportion of anonymous (a) companies, and (b) trusts and foundations, do you think has a legitimate purpose?
Do you agree with cost-benefit analyses that suggest there may be large global net benefits to requiring public registers of beneficial ownership in every jurisdiction?
What specific issues regarding beneficial ownership and transparency are you planning on discussing during the live event? Are there any particular aspects you are hoping to analyse further?
I’m interested to understand the range of practitioner perspectives on beneficial ownership transparency, and to get some sense of the balance of views about current policy initiatives and the broader trend towards transparency.
Are there any other hot topics you would like taxlinked to address in a future live event?
In a similar vein: the future for multilateral automatic exchange of financial information: strengths, weaknesses and the business implications.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself – it could be anything you want to share with the community!
I’m a supporter of the #LBBill, a proposal developed by a grassroots UK movement for protection of the rights of people living with learning disabilities: