Nation & World

Where business titans, pop stars and royals meet: Offshore accounts

James Simons, a mathematician and hedge funder who used offshore strategies to create one of the largest private trusts in the world, and a client of Appleby, considered one of the world’s top offshore law firms, in New York, Dec. 12, 2011. A collection of 6.8 million documents from Appleby obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung has offered an inside look at the firm’s services and customers.
James Simons, a mathematician and hedge funder who used offshore strategies to create one of the largest private trusts in the world, and a client of Appleby, considered one of the world’s top offshore law firms, in New York, Dec. 12, 2011. A collection of 6.8 million documents from Appleby obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung has offered an inside look at the firm’s services and customers. New York Times file

James H. Simons, a reserved mathematician and hedge fund operator from Boston now approaching 80, is a big Democratic donor. Warren A. Stephens, a 60-year-old golf enthusiast once called the king of Little Rock, Arkansas, inherited a family investment bank and became a booster of conservative Republicans.

But Simons and Stephens are both billionaires who have used the services of offshore finance, the trusts and shell companies that the world’s wealthiest people use to park their money beyond the reach of tax collectors and out of the public eye.

Simons was the main beneficiary of a private trust, never previously described, that was one of the largest in the world. In response to recent questions about the trust, Simons said that he had transferred his share to a Bermuda-registered charitable foundation.

Stephens used an opaque holding company to own an approximately 40 percent stake in a loan business accused by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau of cheating working-class and poor Americans. While earning millions from the investment, Stephens helped finance a political onslaught against the bureau, never mentioning his personal connection to the fight.

The details of the two men’s hidden wealth come from the files of Appleby, founded in Bermuda more than a century ago and considered one of the world’s top offshore law firms. A collection of 6.8 million Appleby documents, obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with media organizations through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, offers an inside look at the firm’s services and customers.

Appleby operates in a rarefied universe of UHNWI’s — the industry’s abbreviation for ultra-high-net-worth individuals — where yachts and private jets are preferred transport and mansions sit empty because their owner has several others. Some of Appleby’s customers are also PEP’s — politically exposed persons — for whom avoiding unwanted attention is a crucial goal.

What offshore services offer to a diverse international elite is secrecy and discretion, along with the opportunity to minimize or defer taxes.

Appleby had 31,000 U.S. clients, the most common nationality by far. The firm’s files include a who’s who of the nation’s wealthiest citizens: prominent Democrats like George Soros, the financier and philanthropist, and Penny Pritzker, commerce secretary in the Obama administration; and high-profile Republican supporters of President Donald Trump, including Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, and Carl Icahn, the private equity investor.

Queen Elizabeth II, according to Appleby documents, invested through a Cayman Islands fund in a company that owned a share of a British rent-to-own company widely criticized for financing the sale of household items at interest rates as high as 99.9 percent. The leaked files reveal Madonna’s shares in a medical supplies firm, Bono’s investment in a Lithuanian shopping center and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s yacht and submarines.

Founded in 1898 by a British officer, Maj. Reginald Appleby — an avowed opponent of taxation — Appleby now has offices in nearly all the world’s tax havens: Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Guernsey, Hong Kong, the Isle of Man, Jersey, Mauritius, the Seychelles and Shanghai.

Such locations offer low or zero tax rates, companies consisting only of a postbox, and accountants and lawyers skilled at hiding money.

In a statement, Appleby said the firm had done nothing wrong. “We are an offshore law firm who advises clients on legitimate and lawful ways to conduct their business,” the statement said. “We do not tolerate illegal behaviour.”

Simons, the hedge fund billionaire, was a young math professor in 1974 when a Colombian friend established a trust in Bermuda on his behalf using a gift of $100,000 to him, his parents and his descendants. U.S. tax authorities would consider the Lord Jim Trust, as it was named, a foreign entity, limiting the visibility of the IRS into its holdings and its ability to tax its funds until it made distributions to the Simons family. (Appleby did not create the trust but later provided legal advice.)

In 1982, Simons founded Renaissance Technologies, a New York-based hedge fund whose secret trading algorithms soon generated rates of return that became legendary on Wall Street. Over the next three decades, Renaissance became one of the most lucrative hedge funds on the planet, making Simons a billionaire many times over.

Simons, in response to questions, said that when he and his family received distributions from the Bermuda trust, they were reported to the IRS. But Simons said he and his relatives took out only limited amounts, mainly in the early years of the trust, whose main investments were Renaissance funds that enjoyed spectacular returns.

In 2014, a Senate committee accused Renaissance and another hedge fund of using a complex accounting maneuver to improperly avoid taxes. Renaissance is still fighting the resulting tax bill, estimated at $6.8 billion.

As the tax dispute has proceeded, Simons is now estimated to be the 25th-richest person in the United States, with a net worth estimated at $18.5 billion, according to the Forbes list of richest Americans. But such rankings often rely on incomplete public data.

Simons’ Lord Jim Trust offers one example. Though the trust has been listed in various filings, a 2010 document in Appleby’s files provides details for the first time.If it had been fully accounted for in calculating his net worth, he would have vaulted even higher in the ranks of the superrich.

Yet factoring the trust into his wealth isn’t so straightforward, because Simons says his share is now in an offshore charity, Simons Foundation International. In 2010, he and his wife, Marilyn, signed the “giving pledge” established by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, vowing to give “the great majority” of their wealth to philanthropic purposes.

If Simons’ motive for setting up offshore entities is complex, Stephens’ seems more obvious.

In late 2011, representatives of Stephens and his business partner, James R. Carnes, asked Appleby to incorporate two offshore companies as part of a plan to help American Indian tribes set up lending operations, a common business tactic because such ventures can claim tribal immunity against outside legal challenges.

The new venture’s parent company, Hayfield Investment Partners, was incorporated in Delaware — considered a tax haven like a half-dozen other U.S. states, underscoring that secrecy and tax advantages are not limited to palm-dotted tropical islands. Hayfield already had a separate subsidiary called Integrity Advance, an online payday loan company whose lending practices were coming into the cross hairs of regulators across the United States.

Documents in Appleby’s files show that Stephens and his funds owned 40 percent of Hayfield, which received additional investments from executives of Stephens Inc., the family investment bank, and acquaintances like golf star Phil Mickelson, who contributed $12,000.

It did not take long for Integrity Advance to generate complaints from borrowers and regulators. People short of cash who took out small loans would later see large withdrawals from their bank accounts for interest and services fees that often far exceeded the amount they originally borrowed.

By November 2012, Integrity Advance had received cease-and-desist letters from state regulators in Connecticut, Kentucky, Illinois, Mississippi and South Carolina. In May 2013, a Minnesota district court ordered the company to pay nearly $8 million in civil penalties and victim restitution, saying that the firm had targeted financially vulnerable citizens with interest rates as high as 1,369 percent.

As complaints mounted, Stephens and Carnes sold part of Integrity Advance to a pawnshop-style loan company, Ezcorp. Eventually the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accused Integrity Advance of “false and deceptive” tactics, and last year, an administrative law judge recommended to the head of the CFPB that the company and Carnes, its chief executive, pay more than $51 million in fines and restitution to borrowers. Integrity Advance and Carnes are appealing the ruling.

Stephens has recently used his investment bank, Stephens Inc., to launch an online video series called “This Is Capitalism” to improve millennials’ opinion of free-market economics.

In his introduction, Stephens wrote that he hoped the series would counter the notion that the free market is “a system that enriches a few at the expense of the many.”

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