Although they have only 1 percent of the world's inhabitants, they hold a quarter of United States stocks and nearly a third of all the globe's assets.
They're tax havens: 70 mostly tiny nations that offer no-tax or low-tax status to the wealthy so they can stash their money. Usually, the process is so secret that it draws little attention. But the sums - and lost tax revenues - are growing so large that the havens are getting new and unaccustomed scrutiny.
For example: When London's Tax Justice Network (TJN) reported a month ago that rich individuals worldwide had stashed $11.5 trillion of their assets in tax havens, it caused a fuss in Europe. "Super-rich hide trillions offshore," blazed a British newspaper headline.
Although that report received little notice outside Europe, there are rumblings of concern in the United States. That's not surprising. Nations lose an estimated $255 billion in tax revenues a year because of the havens, according to TJN. The US alone probably loses $60 billion a year, a tax expert estimates.
The loss hits not only prosperous industrial countries, but also developing nations. As a result, dozens of church groups* and other nongovernmental organizations concerned with world poverty are joining tax reformers in what will probably become a major political battle. They aim to stem the outflow of money from poor nations into tax havens - an outpouring that may exceed today's global foreign aid of some $60 billion a year.
"If we are serious about reducing poverty, one of the first things we need to tackle is an international financial system run by the rich, for the rich, at the expense of the poor," states David Woodward, director of the New Economics Foundation, a London think tank.
Corrupt officials in poor nations, illegally, and multinational corporations, mostly legally, siphon huge amounts of money into bank accounts and shell companies in 70 tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and Jersey.
"It's going to be the next major issue," forecasts Lucy Komisar, a New York journalist writing a book on offshore banking. She compares the drive against tax havens with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in which she participated, and the feminist and environmental movements of more recent decades.
*Internationally, there still appear to be religious groups that are interested in alleviating poverty. This is in direct contrast to the United States, where many church groups are preoccupied with outlawing consensual adult sex, protecting a clerical class of pedophiles, and creating poverty and disease through a wide variety of political mechanisms.
Meanwhile, can we sic Eliot Spitzer on this tax haven thing?