You need only imagine the sound of two dozen silver forks hitting fine China as the world’s business, financial and world leaders were whispered the news. Some 11.5 million files released by Panama’s off-shore firm Mossack Fonseca show how the wealthiest use shell companies to hide their money from taxes, governments and in many cases their future ex-wives. It’s a scandal larger than Enron, Wikileaks and Lehman Brothers combined. In fact, it’s so huge that it might be hard to wrap your head around all at once. So here are the salient points for looking super-smart at your next cocktail party.

Out with it. If this involves kings then I wanna know who’s royally screwed.
OK, so no surprise that Vladimir Putin is connected to $2 billion. We’ll get back to that. It’s worth it. But also family members of David Cameron, Egypt’s convicted criminal leader Hosni Mubarak and future Bond-villain Muammar Gaddafi pop up. Oh and while the blood of his people ran in the streets and the world gave him their support, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko set up an account in the British Virgin Islands using a firm in Cyprus. This one’s cute because while the Russians invaded he still used the Ukraine capital in Kiev as his home address. We will probably hear the most about Iceland’s Prime Minister, who faces a “Snap Election” if convicted. He is supposed to be the strength that got them out of their banking meltdown. He didn’t.

Wait, so it’s all dudes?
This goes back to the crash in 2008. Would a group called “Lehman Sisters” have gone bust so fast? Investing well involves a combination of prudence and luck, and what guy on Earth doesn’t just pretend that dumb luck was a matter of skill? Iceland in particular had an all-male economic crash (their bankers are in the most remote jails on Earth, by the way) and their solution was to include more women. Iceland PM Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson owns 50 percent of his shell company with his lovely wife Anna Sigurlaug Pálsdóttir. So now they are equally fucked. Yay for equality!

panama papersJust a few of the lovely people involved: Vlad, Hosni, Petro, Sigmundur and Anna.

Is this thing just too big to comprehend?
It’s actually the opposite and that’s why this leak is great. Think of every trade as a person, and every shell company as one family. Whether you’re Qaddafi or Cameron, everyone has to use and transfer money in the global economy in the same system. When Donald Rumsfeld said of Iraq in 2002, “There are known unknowns,” he could have been talking about this leak. We always knew that money does not move around the world in any other way. But we didn’t previously have proof that jolly Icelandic leaders and cruel dictators had to use the same ATM.

So it’s pretty bad?
In terms of crime perpetrated by the very same people who are supposed to police our system, the Panama Papers are like the Rodney King tape. It’s a crime everyone knew happened, but we didn’t have the proof. Now it’s our job to work backwards and uncover the rest of these sketchy shell companies.

Just WTF is a shell company?
Any inactive business is a shell company. When raising money for a startup or taking over a failing company, the shell is in operation without transacting much business. They often handle complex and expensive legal and accounting fees associated with international finance. Or for crime. An email from a Mossack executive to a US millionaire life coach said of how to hide her funds: “We may use a natural person who will act as the beneficial owner… and therefore his name will be disclosed to the bank. Since this is a very sensitive matter, fees are quite high.”

This scandal is essentially a market correction—capitalism’s immune system attacking one of the greatest threats to its lifeblood. Why? Because there is nothing you need to know about investing that your parents didn’t teach you when you were 12. If it looks like it’s too good to be true it probably is. Even when it comes to hiding your money in offshore tax havens.

So, umm, how hard would it be to actually start a shell company?
For $292 you can start a corporation in the state of Delaware and list an attorney as company representative. Then you can go ahead and funnel your money away from local taxes like Qaddafi and David Cameron’s dad did—and everything you do is protected by attorney client privilege.

Then wouldn’t only a criminal have a shell company?
Most are totally legit. Many successful men use shell accounts to keep money from wifey in a divorce (your wife has to know about the account to get half of it). But a Times survey discovered over 200 shell companies made real estate transactions by buying apartments in the corrupt AF Time Warner Building in Manhattan. Some are criminals, some are oligarchs, all are people with money who don’t want their home addresses to be public record. If that sounds like kind of a wimpy move, just keep in mind that none other than Tom Brady bought an apartment on the 74th floor via a shell company called Courage Under Fire.

There’s nothing illegal about what Tom Brady did. But how’s this for shady sounding? The most successful legal tax avoidance arrangement is called the Double Irish arrangement, which has a component called the Dutch sandwich.

Is the world going to crumble because of this?
Mossack Fonseca is only the 4th largest firm. If every single person there (who works legally doing legal work) got arrested it would still be only 600 people. The rest of the world’s criminals are still out there and probably planning a late trip to the Virgin Islands this April with lots of empty briefcases. This is big, but still only 11.5 million files.


Only 11.5 million?
At 2.6 terrabytes it is the largest of the major leaks (Wikileaks was 1.7 gigabytes and could fit on even the cheapest burner phone). There are 11.5 million files but—like a lot of overstuffed hard drives—the bulk of them are photos. For comparison, ?estlove’s average DJ set involves 8 terrabytes of hard drive space.

So what’s the takeaway for the rest of us?
This scandal is essentially a market correction—capitalism’s immune system attacking one of the greatest threats to its lifeblood. Why? Because there is nothing you need to know about investing that your parents didn’t teach you when you were 12. If it looks like it’s too good to be true it probably is. Even when it comes to hiding your money in offshore tax havens.

Let’s get back to Putin. I mean, isn’t this just like the world’s tiniest violin playing the saddest song for the world’s wealthiest?
Let’s make it a cello! Because Vladimir Putin isn’t actually connected to the $2 billion that is clearly his. It all runs through a musician: “Concert cellist Sergei Roldugin has known Vladimir Putin since they were teenagers and is godfather to the president’s daughter Maria.” Hmm, wonder how his hard drive compares to ?estlove’s…