It was the day after the Panama Papers came out — you know, all those leaked documents about the money that Putin, Cameron, that guy in Iceland, and a few hundred others of the world’s richest and most tax-evasive have squirreled away in offshore accounts — when my phone rang.
It was the Washington Post, asking if I had any comment about my name showing up as a holder of one of the offshore accounts listed in the Papers.
Offshore account, ha ha ha — who is this really? I cackled, but they cited name, date of birth, SSN, significant birthmark, and a few other details that spelled ME.
It’s on page 4,238,766 of the Papers, they said, and shows an account in the Cayman Islands, in your name, with $14.89 in it.
I’ve never had an account anywhere outside the U.S., I protested, and, anyway, whatever mistake has attached it to me, why in the world would you bother with such a tiny amount?
That’s just the point. We had to find out why anyone would bother to hide $14.89 in the Cayman Islands. It’s Human Interest, not the Financial Page.
I argued my point, but got nowhere, and they didn’t have any more details that would help me figure it out, so I ended the call and didn’t answer when they re-dialed.
But, of course, I had to find out what was going on. Fortunately, I have an accountant friend who once sleuthed for the I.R.S. He said he’d try to help, and, sure enough, within a week, he called:
I confirmed that you’re the owner of the account and that it’s been in the Caymans for about two years. It had been held in a Russian bank, which, you won’t be surprised to hear, got the account in a hostile takeover of a Ukrainian bank, which, in turn, had assumed it from a Dutch conglomerate that dumped U.S. holdings in 2008.
Before 2008, it’s a little murky, but it seems to have got to the Netherlands through a string of American bank mergers that were so common from the ‘70s to the end of the century. I lost trace of it sometime in the late ‘70s. Does that help?
The late ‘70s didn’t ring a bell, but I told him I’d try to figure it out. Giving it some serious thought, I realized I could probably get close to the year it was opened, assuming it must have started tiny, by reverse-calculating what $14.89 would have been, at a reasonable average of 3%/annum, back in time. Maybe the year would jog my memory.
I did the calculation, and there it was — $2.00 in 1948, shining like the eight brand-new quarters I took to the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank to set up my first savings account!
Let me explain: In the summer of ’48, my parents and I spent eight weeks on Martha’s Vineyard. It was mostly play, but my parents wanted at least a little responsibility out of me — bed neat, clothes hung, trash out — and gave me my first allowance: 25 cents/week.
To underline the responsibility angle, they insisted I save what I earned, so we went to the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank and set up an account. Mom and Dad jokingly called it my Offshore Account, explaining that the Vineyard was, after all, offshore, if only a little.
When we returned home at the end of summer, planning to go back next year, we left the account open. But other things intervened and we didn’t go back, then or ever. Maybe it wasn’t worth the effort to close it, but, for whatever reason, the account stayed open and soon was completely forgotten.
This doesn’t explain how my little account got started on its globe-hopping. I can only speculate that the late ‘70s, where my friend lost the trail, might have been significant. That was when Martha’s Vineyard went through one of America’s weirder spasms of political rebellion, Vineyarders threatening to secede, either from Massachusetts or from the entire U.S.A. (you can look it up).
Nothing came of it, but I’d guess that, before it ended, someone may have seen, in that turmoil, the chance to manipulate, possibly hide and protect, vast amounts in an otherwise insignificant, long-forgotten account.
Whatever the case, three things are clear: (1) no money went into the account after the first deposit of eight quarters (lesson: don’t make vast plans with half-vast notions); (2) the account island-hopped from Massachusetts to the Caribbean; (3) I am stuck, right at tax time, with checking that little box saying I do own a foreign account and seeing my long-lost allowance gobbled up by back-taxes.