Global HotSpots, Rethinking America

The U.S. and the Real Outrage About the Panama Papers

Why isn’t the United States leading the charge to end global tax evasion via secret offshore accounts?

Credit: Stuart Monk Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Republicans cite “privacy” to fight reforms that would end secrecy around untaxed offshore wealth.
  • OECD tax haven reform efforts are on hold because the US has not signed on. Congress blocks it.
  • Why isn’t the US leading the charge to end global tax evasion via secret offshore accounts?

The fact that many of the world’s richest people and most corrupt politicians squirrel away hundreds of billions of dollars in secret offshore accounts has been common knowledge for years.

The two big questions

First, why would governments allow these shadowy networks of trusts and shell companies to remain secret? What is the public benefit of shielding trillions of dollars in investment gains and profits from normal taxation, never mind the ill-gotten riches of criminal and terrorist organizations and crooked politicians?

Reining in these abuses would be a pivotal ingredient in the battle against the dark sides of globalization.

Second, why isn’t the United States taking the leadership role in ending these abuses around the world? The fact that doing so is likely to yield tens of billions of dollars in new annual revenues for the U.S. Treasury should provide an additional incentive.

A key factor why the United States is slowing down global progress is the dogged opposition of Congressional Republicans.

They don’t want reforms that would end much of the secrecy surrounding the untaxed offshore wealth of the very rich and very powerful, reforms that most other countries have embraced.

U.S. the early leader

It is unfortunate, not least because the Republicans’ stance runs counter to the U.S. tradition of opting for transparency in this area – and adding “teeth” to make it count.

The United States has two major laws in this area:

1. The Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 directs that any U.S. citizen, resident or business with financial interests in offshore accounts must report any income earned on those accounts.

2. The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act of 2010 goes further. It directs all American citizens and residents that file U.S. income tax to report all offshore financial assets valued at $50,000 or more.

It also mandates that all foreign financial institutions report to the U.S. Treasury all of their accounts with substantial U.S. owners that also receive payments from the U.S. Both laws carry big financial penalties for violation; but neither law has any enforcement provisions, so the laws have little effect.

OECD steps up to the plate

As financial losses from cross-border tax evasion and corruption have mounted, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stepped in to sponsor new international standards for financial transparency.

Equally important, it developed new protocols for the automatic exchange by governments of the information they collect.

Under these OECD standards and protocols, each government agrees to collect information on all account balances, investment income and other proceeds from financial assets within its jurisdiction.

Governments also agree to automatically share that information with the tax administrators of the nations where the owners of those accounts, investments and assets reside.

The G-20 finance ministers endorsed these standards and protocols in 2014. Since then, 97 countries have signed on, including most tax havens.

Even Panama agreed to the new standards and protocols, although the OECD reports that Panama and 10 other countries have not yet implemented them.
U.S. holds up global progress

But the whole system is on hold, because the United States has not signed on. For its part, the Obama administration endorsed the new transparency system and proposed legislation to require U.S. financial institutions to collect the information on foreign-owned accounts held here and to authorize the automatic exchanges.

However, citing their longtime “respect for privacy rights,” Congressional Republicans flat-out reject both proposals.

Additional standards

On top of the administration’s proposals, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) has offered new legislation to strengthen the proposed transparency regime.

His proposal targets many of the stratagems used by U.S. multinationals to avoid U.S. taxes, including shifting profits to tax haven countries.

His bill also would tighten the OECD’s transparency standards and beef up compliance in several ways.

Any foreign trust or shell company with substantial assets in the U.S. and managed here will be deemed a U.S. taxpayer, U.S. taxpayers who set up entities in tax havens will be considered to control those assets, and funds transferred from the U.S. to those entities will be deemed taxable income not yet taxed.

Most important, the proposal would bar U.S. banks from dealing with any foreign financial institution that fails to disclose offshore accounts opened by Americans and holding non-U.S. investments. Unsurprisingly, the Senate GOP has blocked the bill.

Such a bar is the big stick required to pierce the global secrecy treasured by the very rich and the very corrupt, and ensure that the automatic exchanges of information happen.

2017: Can Democrats do better?

The hopeful scenario is that, in 2017, President Hillary Clinton and a Democratic (or divided but chastened) Congress should pass reforms directing that all U.S. financial institutions comply with the OECD standards and protocols.

This step would not only create real transparency. It also should produce several tens of billions of dollars in new annual revenues for the U.S. Treasury.

These reforms also must bar U.S. financial institutions from conducting business with any foreign financial institution that fails to disclose the ownership and holdings of accounts, trusts and shell companies owned by U.S. citizens, residents and businesses, within their jurisdiction.

That’s a threat that every financial institution in the world will have to take seriously.

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About Robert J. Shapiro

Robert J. Shapiro is co-founder and chairman of Sonecon, LLC.

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