The cum-ex scam is essentially a financial sleight of hand. Picture: ISTOCK
The cum-ex scam is essentially a financial sleight of hand. Picture: ISTOCK

Frankfurt am Main — A gigantic, years-long tax scam saw banks drain €55bn from national treasuries in Europe, a far larger sum than previously thought, media from across the continent reported on Thursday.

The so-called “cum-ex” deals relied on complex tax trickery that allowed owners of shares to claim several times over refunds for tax paid only once on dividend pay-outs — effectively siphoning off taxpayers’ money into investors’ pockets.

So far estimates of the damage had ranged from €5.3bn  according to the German finance ministry to £30bn, according to press reports. But a joint investigation by European media outlets has concluded that at least €55.2bn were stolen from 11 countries: Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Austria, Finland, Norway and Switzerland.

Reportedly conceived by well-known German lawyer Hanno Berger, the cum-ex method relies on several investors buying and reselling shares in a company among themselves around the day when the firm pays out its dividend. The stock changes hands so quickly that the tax authorities are unable to identify who the true owner is.

Working together, the investors can claim multiple rebates for tax paid on the dividend and share out the profits among themselves — with the treasury footing the bill.

The cum-ex scandal first exploded in Germany in 2012, with six criminal investigations opened and a trial against Berger and several stock market traders.

Thursday’s investigation, led by investigative journalism website Correctiv and drawing in big-name outlets such as German public broadcaster ARD and French newspaper Le Monde, calculates the damage to each country involved.

In Germany, investors spirited away €31.8bn, according to calculations by University of Mannheim tax specialist prof Christoph Spengel.

Meanwhile, French taxpayers lost out to the tune of “at least €17bn”, Italians €4.5bn, Danes €1.7bn and Belgians €201m.