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.