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A view of Road Town, in the British Virgin Islands, on June 27, 2019.

A view of Road Town, in the British Virgin Islands, on June 27, 2019.

Photographer: Philip Montgomery for Bloomberg Businessweek

Sun, Sand, and the $1.5 Trillion Offshore Economy

The British Virgin Islands is nominally home to 400,000 companies, and desperate to fend off the transparency movement.

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The British Virgin Islands is home to more than 400,000 companies that hold $1.5 trillion in assets. You wouldn’t know it if you walked through Road Town, the capital of this Caribbean archipelago. Hens and roosters compete brazenly with cars on the single narrow lane of Main Street. Law firms that set up and serve thousands of offshore companies occupy modest buildings next to brightly painted wooden houses that host cheap beauty salons and clothing shops with names like Goodfellas.

Besides a few mangled green street signs on Main Street, few roads are marked. The BVI doesn’t have mail delivery; its businesses and 32,000 residents use post office boxes as their addresses, which is why one P.O. box in Road Town can be the nominal home to thousands of companies from around the world. Hundreds of lawyers, accountants, and company agents work from buildings dotted around the main island of Tortola. In some tax havens—Luxembourg, Monaco, or even parts of the Cayman Islands—money is dripping off every corner. In the BVI, the wealth passes through almost without a trace.