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October 30, 2012

The Lagarde List: Publish and Be Damned

By Spear's

Publishing the Lagarde List may backfire, embarrassing honest taxpayers and provoking a hasty response from the Greek government, says Ronnie Ludwig of Saffery Champness

‘Politicians have shrugged off their responsibilities on this issue for almost three years, while the justice system looked the other way,’ said Costas Vaxevanis, editor of the Greek Hot Doc magazine, explaining why his publication of the now-infamous ‘Lagarde List’ of Greeks with Swiss bank accounts was in the public interest.

Some will, doubtless, sympathise with his position against the backdrop of real international momentum gathering for a crackdown on tax evasion. But is Hot Doc’s publication a help or a hindrance in this context? Its ultimate goal of achieving international tax transparency is laudable but could the method prove counter-productive?

Read more on tax evasion at Spear’s

For a start, even Mr Vaxevanis has admitted that the list ‘refers both to legitimate accounts held by businesspeople and individuals and to others’. Is it necessarily right that both are published in the same document, casting an implied shadow on the reputations of honest taxpayers?

News headlines following the publication of the Lagarde List are also a perfect illustration of the potential dangers. Making the information public has pushed the issue right up the political agenda, but it is all too easy to foresee a scenario where governments pressurised into fast action by media furore come up with legislative proposals which are ineffective or impractical. Could Hot Doc’s publication simply force the Greek government to rush into implementing policies which create more problems than they solve?

The bigger danger, however, is losing the international momentum for a crackdown altogether. Clearly, a drive for global tax transparency can only be truly effective if all or most countries sign up to a co-ordinated policy and vision. The result of individual governments reacting to domestic crises with hasty new policy proposals could be erosion of the benefits of a co-ordinated global approach, which might take longer to develop.

Only time will tell what the long-term impact of the publication will be, but the law of unintended consequences may yet come back to haunt Hot Doc magazine.

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Ronnie Ludwig is a partner at top 20 accountancy firm Saffery Champness

Read more on tax evasion at Spear’s

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