The secret world of private companies

You’d think that getting the names of the shareholders of a company would be fairly easy. Such information should be routinely available.

In fact in many parts of the world, it isn’t. Not if you’re talking about private companies, which have managed to elude public scrutiny even in an era of increasing transparency. To be sure, there’s a wealth of information on listed companies. But good luck researching a private firm. A recent World Bank study looked at the information stored by corporate registries in 40 jurisdictions. Its findings were pretty pathetic: Only a third of the registers required companies to release the names of their shareholders. Only one registry, Jersey, collected information on the beneficial or real ownership of a company. Everywhere else, the real owners can hide behind nominees.

Beyond ownership, registries generally collect only scant information on the finances and actual operations of private companies. Some registries don’t even require companies to give an address or physical location. Such secrecy allows them to evade government regulation and public scrutiny. It facilitates corruption, tax evasion and other crimes.

Those who want to dig into company information can only get so far by getting into corporate registers. They’d need to triangulate information from other public records (including those from other government regulatory bodies or the courts) as well as from well-informed human sources. There are also subscription databases (see list below) that aggregate information from a variety of sources worldwide. In addition, there are some helpful guides on investigating private firms (see below).

One of my favorite sites for researching private companies is Open Corporates, which has scraped company registers in some 60 jurisdictions worldwide and put the information on some 47 million companies in a single, easily searchable database. One can type in any name in the search box and get a list of all the companies on the database that have the name listed as a director or shareholder. It’s amazing.

But the problem is that Open Corporates can only scrape the data that company registers collect. As this presentation shows, that data is scant and much of what happens in the corporate world is invisible to citizens and even to regulators. There are limits to what scraping technology can do if the information does not exist.

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