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Book review: Moneyland by Oliver Bullough

Oliver Bullough’s book darkly details the fictional country of ‘Moneyland’ and the very real prevalence of it as a system of corruption and dirty money in our world.

Napier AI
February 15, 2022

Moneyland: why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back

What is 'Moneyland'?

Deep beneath your feet lies Moneyland - a secret country you may never realise existed. A place where crooks can stash their gains, where countries can profit from the super-rich, and where identities can be hidden and protected.

In his fascinating book, Bullough describes Moneyland as ‘a beautiful place, if you’re rich enough to enjoy it. If you’re not, you can only glimpse it through doors you lack the keys for.’ Moneyland is not a geographical location but rather a system which emerges wherever conditions globally allow it to.

Ironically, Moneyland is fiercely protected by many of the powerful structures of society that we trust the most. Bullough opens our eyes to the scandals, scams, and lies that allow the rich and powerful to protect and grow their wealth in an exclusive place which knows no boundaries or limitations.

With his quest to educate us resting heavily on describing the inner financial workings of Moneyland, the disturbing role of shell companies and offshore finance in cascading and concealing wealth quickly becomes clear.

See Oliver Bullough, along with Napier’s Chief Data Scientist Dr Janet Bastiman  in this discussion about financial crime typologies and the role of artificial intelligence in detecting criminal financial behaviour:

How shell companies offer a convenient front for money laundering

Have you ever wondered who owns the building that hosts your favourite central-London café?  

Perhaps not. Bullough jokes that the answer may be crystal clear, or clear as mud. He stresses that London as an example, is a bewildering hive of house-shaped bank accounts that, whilst seemingly physically present, are safely owned offshore and delivering tenfold returns on investment for their owners.  

Bullough goes into great detail how, thanks to the anonymity offered by shell companies, efforts to drill down to Moneyland are doomed to lead to a dizzying tunnel that’s so twisted,it becomes almost impossible to not get tangled when trying to unravel who owns what and where.  

Of course, for those with money and assets to hide, this is their intention.  

Whether you’re making more profits than you could ever spend from your own country, from illegal operations or shady business deals, then you need ‘somewhere safe where the mice can’t get’, to store and conceal all those gains. That way you can dodge taxes, earn even more money (Ian Fraser’s Eurobonds inadvertently enabled the rich to have their cake and eat it) and later spend the cash on the finest luxuries in a seemingly legitimate, normal fashion. Moneyland is somewhat like a sinkhole, a bottomless Aladdin’s Cave, as Bullough helpfully illustrates.  

And this is what’s so captivating about this book. Bullough effortlessly brings the most obscure and disappointing realities to life with graphic metaphors, countless historical examples and personal interview accounts that illustrate and crystalise the dynamics of a world so few of us understand.

How the West shelters and enables financial criminals

Once Bullough sets out the role of shell companies and offshore finance, he’s quick to pinpoint another critical piece of the Moneyland puzzle: the Western money laundering enablers.  

These are the accountants, lawyers, consultants, and others who not only passively observe corruption, but use their positions to move and hide money on their clients’ behalf.  

And it’s not just individuals that are to blame.  

The work of corporates and entire governments, hooked on the revenue from Moneyland, are central to this profitable circus. Bullough describes government procurement shams that sound all too familiar in the present day and serve to benefit only those directly involved.  

And this is the problem. There is big money to be made being part of Moneyland. Drawing on major banking scandals, Bullough reflects on the unfortunate elephant in the room: sometimes the size of the opportunity for profit outweighs the risk of bending the rules. He serves the harsh reality that Moneyland only exists because its stewards can get filthy rich charging fees for laundering dirty money there.

Legislation and loopholes

But what’s allowing these massive loopholes that not only enable money to be ferried off and concealed out of sight, but for eye-watering profits to be made by shifting wealth from here to there? Maybe you’ve already guessed. It’s legislation, and this is ultimately the subject of Moneyland.

Bullough takes great care to remind us that money and assets will always flow to where the laws are more favourable for nurturing that wealth. And this is the problem brought about by globalisation: ‘money flows across frontiers, but laws do not’. This point is crucially important: it’s the backbone of Moneyland.

"Money flows across frontiers, but laws do not." - Oliver Bullough, 'Moneyland'

What all this ultimately means is when regulations stop at a country’s border, but money does not, anyone can outwit any regulator.  

Not only is Moneyland incredibly well-defended (Bullough details how ‘Moneylanders’ have and will murder those that threaten it) but initiatives like loosening regulations, selling passports and even trading diplomatic immunity are guaranteed to turn on the tap to encourage more investment in it.

He says it’s no secret that small jurisdictions like Nevis and Jersey have made a living from carefully crafting their laws and creating loopholes to ensure Moneyland can thrive; its citizens and wealth heavily protected from the rule of the law.  

Bullough maintains this situation explains why Nevis has strong bank secrecy laws, obscures ownership and conveniently charges no taxes on the companies it hosts (and why, unsurprisingly, the island has more corporate structures than people). And it can explain why Companies House, the UK’s company registry, conveniently does not check information provided about shareholders, directors and secretaries.

Bullough’s vivid metaphor perfectly lays out the dangers of concealing origins of assets and the ownership of corporate structures: "The more plastic bags you wrap around a dog turd, the harder it is for outsiders to realise what’s inside. And if the last bag says Tiffany & Co. on it, perhaps no one will ever realise it’s full of s**t." 

"The more plastic bags you wrap around a dog turd, the harder it is for outsiders to realise what’s inside. And if the last bag says Tiffany & Co. on it, perhaps no one will ever realise it’s full of s**t." - Oliver Bullough, 'Moneyland'

The reality is the world is littered with these bags. It’s why those tasked with investigating money laundering spend as much time trying to find the pieces of the puzzle as they do putting it together.

What hope is there for finding stolen money?

As Bullough wraps up his journey into and through Moneyland, he highlights the near impossible task of trying to find stolen money in Moneyland, confiscate it, and return it to its true owners. With a hint of exhaustion, he explains how ‘these lawyers are like fishermen trying to catch eels in a dark tank, without knowing how many eels there are to be caught and if they are fishing in the right tank in the first place.’ It’s a sobering fact that as little as less than a cent for every $1,000 stolen is returned to its original owner.

Bullough opens his confident, extensively researched book by explaining how Moneyland came into existence. He concludes it by explaining how to stop billions upon billions of dollars draining into it. While his solutions are clear-cut and logical, one cannot help but ponder in a shadow of doubt if they may be a little hopeless.  

Moneyland is both fascinating and sickening, providing an insight into a secretive, highly lucrative place that the rich and powerful would rather we not know about. It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in better understanding the dynamics of a hidden world that’s been carefully engineered with the darkest intentions.

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Photo by Adam Nir on Unsplash

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