Adam Somerset revisits an award-winning book from one of Wales’s most important writers, Oliver Bullough’s Moneyland, a book that has grown in stature as the world hurtles toward global catastrophe.
Good books, like fine wines, mature with age. Moneyland won the Wales Book of the Year award for non-fiction in 2019. At the time of the ceremony in Aberystwyth last June few readers might have paused at page 195. Oliver Bullough, writing about Ukraine, notes: “Hunter Biden failed to answer questions I sent him”. With no response from his subject he cites instead the view that the Washington Post took a few years ago: “the appointment of the Vice-President’s son to a Ukrainian oil board looks nepotistic at best, nefarious at worst. You wonder how big the salary had to be to put US soft power at risk like this. Pretty big, we’d imagine.” A half-year on and Biden Junior in Kiev has ignited the imminent impeachment of a President. Moneyland is a sharp book about big things that matter.
Moneyland is also a testament to the profession of journalism, a sector that the Internet is supposed to have diminished. Bullough featured in Wales Arts Review last spring. He was in conversation with Carole Cadwallader at the Hay Festival. It was a good meeting of equals. Both are practitioners of the virtues of journalism, resolution and purpose allied to a questing fearlessness and a lot of dogged leg-work.
Bullough is an author from Radnorshire and thus a regular at nearby Hay. Wales Arts Review has been on hand to follow the writing career to his fine book on the swamp of dodgy money. In 2014 I was there to report on Bullough at Hay, the day after an election in Ukraine. Ukraine, he said, had Europe’s second highest rate of HIV infection. The necessary drugs were subject to state larceny, incurring private levies of twenty to twenty-five percent on arrival in the country.
During his years as a correspondent in Russia Bullough travelled exhaustively. The USSR operated a unique kind of economics, value-subtraction whereby the aggregated inputs had a lower value than the output. Bullough reported the numbers after the withdrawal of subsidies, particularly in the north. The Soviet Union had one hundred and fifty thousand villages in 1989. Since then twenty thousand have been abandoned and a further thirty-five thousand have fewer than ten inhabitants. The population is in freefall, the UN forecasting by mid-century a drop of thirty-two million.
From Russia to Ukraine to the subject of money is an obvious route. Offshore finance features in my own book and includes a mention of Russia. It holds number one position in the world for flight capital held offshore. My own travels took me no further than London. Bullough’s travels are the real thing. He goes to Nevis and is stonewalled in trying to meet the tiny country’s financial regulator. He is interested in the question of acquiring citizenship. He is passed from one person to another before finally being told that the government does not want its work “derailed by gutter journalists”.
The global networks are critical for the merry-go-round of theft and evasion. Russia’s Central Bank is remarkable in an economy around a quarter smaller than the United Kingdom. In 1999, it had a staff of 86,000. By contrast, the Fed had 23,000 and the Bank of England just 3,000. When creditors threatened, a hundred trillion dollars of the Central Bank’s assets joined a new financial vehicle and a found new home. The inflow helped Jersey to maintain the lifestyle its intermediaries enjoy.
Viktor Yanukovych, President of Ukraine 2010 to 2014, ratcheted up a remarkable portfolio: “his coal mining companies… owned in the Caribbean; a medicine racket…run out of Cyprus…an illegal arms trade traced back to Scotland, a market selling knock-off designer goods…legally owned in the Seychelles”. Investigating an array of such complexity Bullough writes that it “makes me dizzy, like a maths problem too complicated to understand, a sinkhole opening at my feet”.
Bullough should be read in conjunction with Gabriel Zucman, a leading academic on the subject. Moneyland provides the detail, and the colour, that complements the scholarly work. Eaton Square, always a desirable address, was once a home for the likes of Sean Connery. Now, Bullough tells us, 86 properties are in the ownership of opaque offshore companies.
Bullough goes straight to the leading kleptocrats: “Officials in Nigeria, Russia, Malaysia, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Brazil, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and dozen other countries have stashed their wealth beyond the reach and oversight of their fellow citizens. Estimates for the total amount stolen each year range from a massive $20bn to an unimaginable trillion dollars.”
He recounts the history of untethered money. The Vietnam war played its part in skewing the US bond market. The Eurobond emerged and with it the arrival on the financial scene of the Dutch Antillean islands. In Britain a banker exploited differing jurisdictions to his firm’s advantage. Bonds for an Italian project were listed in London but issued at Schipol to escape a 4% tax. But the interest on the bonds was paid in Luxembourg. The borrower too created a front company that passed on paying tax. The scheme danced its way around four central banks, all of whom had policies on currency controls.
Bullough’s quest in Moneyland takes some unexpected turnings. The kleptocrats can use secrecy jurisdictions and Britain’s appalling libel laws to see off the inquisitive. But their children are a surprising leak of wealth. They are addicted to showing off online their fun with socialites, celebrities and royal family members. Bullough’s leg-work takes him in search of a remarkable company director. At one time or another she has been a director of 1560 companies. When he knocks on the door of her home she holds just one directorship. He is sadly too late, being told that the prolific corporate player has deceased 5 years previously.
As for the future there are remedies. The economist Gabriel Zucman has a slew of proposals. Weakened judiciaries can regain vigour. In January 2020, Angola’s richest woman is indignant that her country has frozen her assets. But for the moment the situation is as Bollough gets it in just eight words: “Money flows across frontiers, but laws do not.”
Oliver Bullough, Eaton Square and flight capital feature in Adam Somerset’s Between the Boundaries (Parthian Books)
Photo credit: Paul Musso
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Adam Somerset is an essayist and a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.