A brief history of shell companies: must read for company data wonks

Here at OpenCorporates, we really care about official company data – and getting this data right means we need to know a lot about the nature of legal entities, what a company is, and what its legal personality actually means, particularly in a world where companies are ever increasing in number, speed and complexity.

Every new staff member – from developer to data analyst to office manager – gets a copy of Nick Shaxson’s excellent Treasure Islands on joining, to help them understand that complexity, particularly how the laws of the different jurisdictions interface with each other, to provide loopholes that are exploited for criminal purposes (we can also highly recommend Oliver Bullough’s Moneyland).

We’re also big fans of first-principle thinking – the idea that rather than just accepting the received wisdom we go back to the foundational concepts – particularly in something like company law, where people treat companies as if they were something that had always been around, that were as intrinsic and natural as humans are.

Therefore it’s a bit of a treat when we come across long-form articles or academic papers that combine company law together with first principle thinking. When they are well-written, provocative, and tell us some things we didn’t know, then that’s even better.

So – for company law and history geeks – we can highly recommend Delphine Nougayrède’s paper, After the Panama Papers: A Private Law Critique of Shell Companies. Those very few of you with a subscription to the closed-access journal The International Lawyer can read an updated version of the paper, but even this earlier version should give anyone who’s interested in an overview of how we got to the current situation where shell companies provide the ability for companies to bypass laws, liability or scrutiny.

Photo: psyberartist

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