Financial transparency: The biggest loophole of all

Having launched and led the battle against offshore tax evasion, America is now part of the problem

DEVIN NUNES raised eyebrows in 2013 when, as chairman of a congressional working group on tax, he urged reforms that would make America “the largest tax haven in human history”. Though he was thinking of America’s competitiveness rather than turning his country into a haven for dirty money, the words were surprising: America is better known for walloping tax-dodgers than welcoming them. Its assault on Swiss banks that aided tax evasion, launched in 2007, sparked a global revolution in financial transparency. Next year dozens of governments will start to exchange information on their banks’ clients automatically, rather than only when asked to. The tax-shy are being chased to the world’s farthest corners.

And yet something odd is happening: Mr Nunes’s wish may be coming true. America seems not to feel bound by the global rules being crafted as a result of its own war on tax-dodging. It is also failing to tackle the anonymous shell companies often used to hide money. The Tax Justice Network, a lobby group, calls the United States one of the world’s top three “secrecy jurisdictions”, behind Switzerland and Hong Kong. All this adds up to “another example of how the US has elevated exceptionalism to a constitutional principle,” says Richard Hay of Stikeman Elliott, a law firm. “Europe has been outfoxed.”

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), passed in 2010, is the main shackle that America puts on other countries. It requires financial institutions abroad to report details of their American clients’ accounts or face punishing withholding taxes on American-sourced payments. America’s central role in global finance means most comply.

FATCA has spawned the Common Reporting Standard (CRS), a transparency initiative overseen by the OECD club of 34 countries that is emerging as a standard for the exchange of data for tax purposes. So far 96 countries, including Switzerland, once favoured by rich taxophobes, have signed up and will soon start swapping information. The OECD is also leading efforts to force multinationals to reveal more about where and how profits are made, and the deals they cut with individual governments, in order to curb aggressive tax-planning.

Because it has signed a host of bilateral data-sharing deals, America sees no need to join the CRS. But its reciprocation is patchy. It passes on names and interest earned, but not account balances; it does not look through the corporate structures that own many bank accounts to reveal the true “beneficial” owner; and data are only shared with countries that meet a host of privacy and technical standards. That excludes many non-European countries.

All this leads some to brand America a hypocrite. But a fairer diagnosis would be that it has a split personality. The Treasury wants more data-swapping and corporate transparency, and has made several proposals to bring America up to the level of the CRS. But most need congressional approval, and politicians are in no rush to enact them. Some suspect that their reluctance, ostensibly due to concerns about red tape, has more to do with giving America’s financial centres an edge.

Meanwhile business lobbyists and states with lots of registered firms, led by Delaware, have long stymied proposed federal legislation that would require more openness in corporate ownership. (Incorporation is a state matter, not a federal one.) America will often investigate a shell company if asked to by a foreign government that suspects wrongdoing. But incorporation agents do not have to collect ownership information. This is in contrast to Britain, which will soon have a public register of companies’ beneficial owners.

America the booty-full

No one knows how much undeclared money is stashed offshore. Estimates range from a couple of trillion dollars to $30 trillion. What is clear is that America’s share is growing. Already the largest location for managing foreign wealth, it has picked up business as regulators have increased information-exchange and scrutiny of banks and trust companies in Europe and the Caribbean. Money is said to be flowing in from the Bahamas and Bermuda, as well as from Switzerland.

A recent investigation by Bloomberg, a news provider, found several wealth managers whose American arms have benefited, including Rothschild, a British firm, and Trident Trust, a provider of offshore services. New business has been booked through subsidiaries in states with strong secrecy laws and weak oversight, such as South Dakota and Nevada. Another investigation, by Die Zeit, a German newspaper, concluded that for the tax cheat looking to pull money out of Switzerland, America was now the safest bet. “It’s going nuts. Everyone is doing it or looking into it,” says a tax consultant, speaking of the American loophole. Some transfers are being requested for legitimate reasons of confidentiality—for instance, by Venezuelans who fear extortion or kidnap if their wealth is known. But much is of dubious legality.

America is much safer for legally earned wealth that is evading taxes than for lucre that was filthy from the start. It has shown little appetite for helping enforce foreign tax laws and, unlike some other countries, does not count the banking of undeclared money as money-laundering. “Foreigners looking to evade tax in America are usually safe because of its secrecy,” says Jason Sharman of Griffith University in Australia. “But for those with dirtier money there is a small though real risk the US will investigate and apply the full force of the law, which is a scary prospect.”

Dividing the spoils

Foreign banks losing business to America can sometimes share in the profits, explains one tax consultant. A Swiss bank, say—generally a smaller one, as big ones are too scared—tells its client to close an account and open one with an American custodian bank. The client then appoints the Swiss bank as investment manager on the custodian account, and that bank instructs the custodian which funds to buy, often the Swiss bank’s own products. The Swiss bank earns fees for advice and fund-management; the custodian picks up business; and the account is deemed for regulatory purposes to be American, meaning it avoids the disclosure rules that apply only to countries signed up to the CRS.

Only a few other financial centres have declined to commit themselves to the CRS, among them Bahrain and Nauru. Hong Kong has signed but will implement it one tax-treaty partner at a time rather than using a multilateral shortcut; some regard this as a delaying tactic. Undeclared Asian and Middle Eastern money is moving to Taiwan and Lebanon, respectively, both of which are outside the club. Panama, which vies with Miami for Latin American money, looks set to back out of its tentative commitment to the CRS, using America’s double standards as an excuse (see article).

Frustration with America has grown in Europe, which forms the core of the CRS. A group in the European Parliament argues that, if America refuses to reciprocate fully, it should be hit with a reverse FATCA: a levy on payments originating in the EU that flow through American banks. “We don’t want a tax war, but nor can the US have it all its own way,” says Molly Scott Cato, one of the MEPs. One obstacle is that tax measures must be approved unanimously by the EU’s 28 member states.

Others point out that the CRS itself has flaws. It was drafted in a rush, and one expert thinks it would fail to catch 80% of tax-dodging. Financial firms have been calling to report loopholes that could benefit less scrupulous rivals, most of which will be closed before it comes into force or soon after, promises the OECD. (Keeping banks’ compliance costs within reasonable limits means that some will inevitably remain.)

America deserves great credit for taking on Switzerland and other long-standing tax havens. And a Treasury official insists that stashing undeclared loot there will not remain possible for long: “This is something that will be fixed.” Until it is, America will be the biggest tax loophole of all.

published by: The Economist

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