Few tasks are more exasperating than trying to assemble flat-pack furniture from IKEA. But even that is simple compared with piecing together the accounts of the world's largest home-furnishing retailer. Much has been written about IKEA's remarkably effective retail formula. The Economist has investigated the group's no less astonishing finances.
What emerges is an outfit that ingeniously exploits the quirks of different jurisdictions to create a charity, dedicated to a somewhat banal cause, that is not only the world's richest foundation, but is at the moment also one of its least generous. The overall set-up of IKEA minimises tax and disclosure, handsomely rewards the founding Kamprad family and makes IKEA immune to a takeover. And if that seems too good to be true, it is: these arrangements are extremely hard to undo. The benefits from all this ingenuity come at the price of a huge constraint on the successors to Ingvar Kamprad, the store's founder, to do with IKEA as they see fit. ...
The parent for all IKEA companies—the operator of 207 of the 235 worldwide IKEA stores—is Ingka Holding, a private Dutch-registered company. Ingka Holding, in turn, belongs entirely to Stichting Ingka Foundation. This is a Dutch-registered, tax-exempt, non-profit-making legal entity, which was given the shares of Mr Kamprad in 1982. Stichtingen, or foundations, are the most common form of not-for-profit organisation in the Netherlands; tens of thousands of them are registered. ...
If Stichting Ingka Foundation has net worth of at least $36 billion it would be the world's wealthiest charity. Its value easily exceeds the $26.9 billion shown in the latest published accounts of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is commonly awarded that accolade.
Measured by good works, however, the Gates Foundation wins hands down. It devotes most of its resources to curing the diseases of the world's poor. By contrast the Kamprad billions are dedicated to “innovation in the field of architectural and interior design”. The articles of association of Stichting Ingka Foundation, a public record in the Netherlands, state that this object cannot be amended. Even a Dutch court can make only minor changes to the stichting's aims.
The Kamprad foundations compare poorly with the Gates Foundation in other ways, too. The American charity operates transparently, publishing, for instance, details of every grant it makes. But Dutch foundations are very loosely regulated and are subject to little or no third-party oversight. They are not, for instance, legally obliged to publish their accounts.
Under its articles, Stichting Ingka Foundation channels its funds to Stichting IKEA Foundation, another Dutch-registered foundation with identical aims, and which actually doles out money for worthy interior-design ideas. But the second foundation does not publish any information either. So just how—or whether—Stichting Ingka Foundation has spent the €1.6 billion that it collected in dividends from Ingka Holding in 1998-2003 remains hidden from view.
IKEA says only that this money is used for charitable purposes and “for investing long-term in order to build a reserve for securing the IKEA group, in case of any future capital requirements.” IKEA adds that in the past two years donations have been concentrated on the Lund Institute of Technology in Sweden. The Lund Institute says it has recently received SKr12.5m ($1.7m) a year from Stichting Ikea (which also gave the institute a lump sum of SKr55m in the late 1990s). That is barely a rounding error in the foundation's assets. Clearly, the world of interior design is being tragically deprived, as the foundation devotes itself to building its own reserves in case IKEA needs capital.