Taxpayers who hide assets abroad to evade taxes present a serious enforcement challenge for the United States. In response, the U.S. has developed a family of initiatives that punish and rehabilitate non-compliant taxpayers, raise revenues, and require widespread reporting of offshore financial information. Yet, while these initiatives help catch willful tax cheats, they have also adversely affected immigrants, Americans living abroad, and “accidental Americans.”
This Article critiques the United States’ offshore tax enforcement initiatives, arguing that the U.S. has prioritized two problematic policy commitments in designing enforcement at the expense of competing considerations: First, the U.S. has attempted to equalize enforcement against taxpayers with solely domestic holdings and those with harder-to-detect offshore holdings by imposing harsher reporting requirements and penalties on the latter. But in doing so, it has failed to appropriately distinguish among differently situated taxpayers with offshore holdings. Second, the U.S. has focused on revenue and enforcement, ignoring the significant compliance costs and social harms that its initiatives create.
The confluence of these two policy commitments risks creating high costs for the wrong taxpayers. While offshore tax enforcement may have been designed to catch high¬-net-worth tax cheats, it may instead impose disproportionate burdens on those immigrants and expatriates who have less ability to complain, comply, or “substitute out” of the law’s grasp. This Article argues that the U.S. should redesign its enforcement approach to minimize these risks and suggests reforms to this end.The paper provides a thorough review of the panoply of offshore enforcement programs and mechanisms and documents the harms of their dragnet approach, especially on the most vulnerable and least likely targets. A significant contribution to the literature.
Arthur Cockfield has posted a paper of interest, entitled How Countries Should Share Tax Information. Here is the abstract:
There are increasing policy concerns that aggressive international tax avoidance and offshore tax evasion significantly reduce government revenues. In particular, for some low income countries the amount of capital flight (where elites move and hide monies offshore in tax havens) exceeds foreign aid. Governments struggle to enforce their tax laws to constrain these actions, but are inhibited by a lack of information concerning international capital flows. The main international policy response to these developments has been to promote global financial transparency through heightened cross-border exchanges of tax information. The paper discusses elements of optimal cross-border tax information exchange laws and policies by focusing on three key challenges: information quality, taxpayer privacy, and enforcement. Relatedly, the paper discusses how the exchange of automatic ‘big tax data’ combined with data analytics can help address the challenges.Cockfield seeks to find a solution that balances the need of the state for extensive information in order to protect the integrity of the income tax system against the need of the individual for protection from abuse by the state. That is no easy balance to strike. From the paper:
All of [the recent information gathering and exchange] efforts seek to provide governments with more and better tax information, and reduce costs through agreement on underlying EOI rules and principles. The reforms, however, largely do not address how financial secrecy laws subvert global financial transparency initiatives. Nor do they address legal technical complexity that raises transaction costs, and makes it even harder for low and middle income countries to implement and enforce EOI. While the EOI reforms are positive steps, given an environment of high transaction costs it may be difficult to make progress in addressing key policy challenges....
Data availability, usefulness and verifiability are three components of high quality information that can help governments pursue their cross-border investigations and audits. In particular, transferred information should be relatable to domestic tax identification measures, and checked against third party reporting, and withholding tax disclosures. Once this is done, governments can conduct analysis to determine audit risk by focusing on issues such as taxpayer segmentation, dealings between the taxpayer and offshore service providers, and cross-indexing tax and financial information against non-tax data (e.g., insurance policy disclosures).
Against this desire for high quality tax information stands (shrugs?) taxpayer privacy concerns. The apprehensions arise from the varied levels of domestic legal protection afforded to privacy rights, along with the risk of abuse or misuse of transferred information. Accordingly, broader multilateral agreement on privacy protections is likely a prerequisite to effective EOI. This hoped-for cooperation is hindered by the fact that many countries refuse to abolish their financial secrecy laws, which stands as one of the main barriers to optimal reform.My view is that maintaining the integrity of the income tax system appears to require building the panopticon, and much more besides. The steady decline of support for coherent corporate income taxation makes greater and greater individual surveillance necessary, while also making personal income taxation harder. I am not sure where the point lies at which the costs and risks attendant to building the necessary compliance and enforcement infrastructure exceed the benefits of maintaining personal taxes based on income.
Tagged as: information institutions rule of law scholarship
MNCs and their advisors have seemingly taken ethics out of the mix when considering the profit-shifting tax structures they have so prolifically and enthusiastically implemented over the past several decades. ... Given the strong motivation to implement such structures, a counterweight is needed to balance the unfettered acceptance and adoption of profit-shifting strategies based solely on the mere possibility that they might pass technical tax scrutiny by the government. Greater thought needs to be given to whether these plans are consistent with and serve the long term objectives of the MNC and its many global stakeholders. Stating this proposition more directly, it is time to ask if all of these stakeholders would accept the efficacy of these structures if they were made fully aware of and understood the technical basis, the strained interpretations, the hidden arrangements, the meaningless intercompany agreements, the inconsistent positions, and the lack of change in the business model for the schemes proposed or already implemented.
This article presents an objective ethical benchmark to test the acceptability of certain profit shifting structures. ... In brief, this ethical benchmark requires an examination of the factual situation for each of an MNC’s low or zero taxed foreign group members regarding three factors, which are:
(a) identification and location of critical value-drivers,(b) location of actual control and decision-making of the foreign group member’s business and operations, and(c) the existence or lack thereof of capable offshore management personnel and a CEO located at an office of the foreign group member ... who has the background and expertise to manage, and does in fact manage, the entity’s business.
Through this examination, it should be possible to determine whether a foreign group member is recording income that is economically earned through business decisions and activities conducted in the jurisdiction in which it claims to be doing business. ... This benchmark should be used by MNCs with the active participation of board and management members. An MNC could also use this approach to proactively respond to critics or to demonstrate its tax bona-fides.The article contributes to an ongoing discourse about how states can tax multinationals effectively, and how tax planning decisions should be assessed, in a world of global capital mobility and flexible commercial structures.
Tagged as: BEPS corporate tax scholarship tax policy
The European commission’s recent ruling against tax breaks for multinational corporations in Belgium strongly suggests that the tech behemoth could be subject to a hefty bill when the open investigation against its activities in Ireland concludes.
...The commission found that Starbucks owed Dutch authorities upwards of $22m, and a ruling from Belgium this week determined that 35 companies across the EU owe the equivalent of $760m in back taxes.
Apple has already said it would appeal against a ruling against the company; CEO Tim Cook called the investigation “political crap” in a recent 60 Minutes interview. “There is no truth behind it,” he said. “Apple pays every tax dollar we owe.”
This is not the first time Apple has been investigated for its accounting practices in Ireland. Executives including Cook appeared before the US Senate in 2013 to testify about whether it had renegotiated Ireland’s 12.5% corporate tax rate down to 2%. The company denied any wrongdoing. Matt Larson, litigation analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, calculates that the company would owe $8.02bn at that rate....$8 billion sounds like a lot of money until considered in the reflection of its $200 Billion cash stash, which is being held offshore pending US international tax reform as openly advocated by Tim Cook.
Still, the figure is not nothing and it is pretty far off what Apple intimated to investors back in April of 2015:
As of March 28, 2015, the Company recorded gross unrecognized tax benefits of $4.6 billion, of which $1.6 billion, if recognized, would affect the Company’s effective tax rate. As of September 27, 2014, the total amount of gross unrecognized tax benefits was $4.0 billion, of which $1.4 billion, if recognized, would have affected the Company’s effective tax rate. The Company’s total gross unrecognized tax benefits are classified as other non-current liabilities in the Condensed Consolidated Balance Sheets. The Company had $844 million and $630 million of gross interest and penalties accrued as of March 28, 2015 and September 27, 2014, respectively, which are classified as other non-current liabilities in the Condensed Consolidated Balance Sheets. Management believes that an adequate provision has been made for any adjustments that may result from tax examinations. However, the outcome of tax audits cannot be predicted with certainty. If any issues addressed in the Company’s tax audits are resolved in a manner not consistent with management’s expectations, the Company could be required to adjust its provision for income taxes in the period such resolution occurs. Although timing of the resolution and/or closure of audits is not certain, the Company does not believe it is reasonably possible that its unrecognized tax benefits would materially change in the next 12 months. On June 11, 2014, the European Commission issued an opening decision initiating a formal investigation against Ireland for alleged state aid to the Company. The opening decision concerns the allocation of profits for taxation purposes of the Irish branches of two subsidiaries of the Company. The Company believes the European Commission’s assertions are without merit. If the European Commission were to conclude against Ireland, the European Commission could require Ireland to recover from the Company past taxes covering a period of up to 10 years reflective of the disallowed state aid. While such amount could be material, as of March 28, 2015 the Company is unable to estimate the impact.That language was new in the April 2015 filing, but the latest Apple filing reverts to the more general message found in prior filings:
The Company could be subject to changes in its tax rates, the adoption of new U.S. or international tax legislation or exposure to additional tax liabilities.
The Company is subject to taxes in the U.S. and numerous foreign jurisdictions, including Ireland, where a number of the Company’s subsidiaries are organized. Due to economic and political conditions, tax rates in various jurisdictions may be subject to significant change. The Company’s effective tax rates could be affected by changes in the mix of earnings in countries with differing statutory tax rates, changes in the valuation of deferred tax assets and liabilities, or changes in tax laws or their interpretation, including in the U.S. and Ireland. For example, in June 2014, the European Commission opened a formal investigation of Ireland to examine whether decisions by the tax authorities with regard to the corporate income tax to be paid by two of the Company’s Irish subsidiaries comply with European Union rules on state aid. If the European Commission were to conclude against Ireland, it could require Ireland to recover from the Company past taxes covering a period of up to 10 years reflective of the disallowed state aid, and such amount could be material.
The Company is also subject to the examination of its tax returns and other tax matters by the Internal Revenue Service and other tax authorities and governmental bodies. The Company regularly assesses the likelihood of an adverse outcome resulting from these examinations to determine the adequacy of its provision for taxes. There can be no assurance as to the outcome of these examinations. If the Company’s effective tax rates were to increase, particularly in the U.S. or Ireland, or if the ultimate determination of the Company’s taxes owed is for an amount in excess of amounts previously accrued, the Company’s financial condition, operating results and cash flows could be adversely affected.I continue to wonder whether there will be shareholder litigation (more than nuisance suits) in the event of a major clawback by the EU.
Art Cockfield has posted a new paper on SSRN, Big Data and Tax Haven Secrecy, forthcoming Florida Tax Review. The article sets out research he did with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and is of interest. Here is the abstract:
While there is now a significant literature in law, politics, economics, and other disciplines that examines tax havens, there is little information on what tax haven intermediaries — so-called offshore service providers — actually do to facilitate offshore evasion, international money laundering and the financing of global terrorism. To provide insight into this secret world of tax havens, this Article relies on the author’s study of big data derived from the financial data leak obtained by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). A hypothetical involving Breaking Bad’s Walter White is used to explain how offshore service providers facilitate global financial crimes. The Article deploys a transaction cost perspective to assist in understanding the information and incentive problems revealed by the ICIJ data leak, including how tax haven secrecy enables elites in non-democratic countries to transfer their monies for ultimate investment in stable democratic countries. The approach also emphasizes how, even in a world of perfect information, political incentives persist that thwart cooperative efforts to inhibit global financial crimes.
Tagged as: evasion information scholarship tax policy
Last year, I participated in a symposium at NYU on the topic of tax and corporate social responsibility, on a panel with the above title. The NYU Journal of Law and Business has published the symposium issue, including a transcript of the discussions. You can view the entire symposium issue here,. Below I excerpt from my contribution but the entire exchange is worth a read.
... I think the story Josh is telling is that using transparency as a means to generate the political will for corporate tax reform poses some risk, real risk, to the tax system administration. I think we'll have some discussion about how genuine that risk is and how it should be measured against other risks, like firm competitiveness and proprietary information and so on. But I'll leave that discussion aside for now to focus on the first part of the proposition, and that is that what we're trying to do with corporate tax transparency is generate the political will for reform.
Now I should preface this by saying that I am by nature and profession a curious type of person, and I would love nothing more than to be able to pore over the 57,000 pages of some corporation's tax return ... I think if you've read some of my prior work on the subject, you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear me say let's raise the curtain and have a look. Let's call it an issue of accountability and governance, and let's keep lawmakers on their toes by letting folks at this data that lawmakers are so jealously gardening for their own reasons. We humans don't seem to have too much privacy from the government, so let's us get to the business of crowdsourcing, the monitoring of the artificial people among us.
But I keep coming back to the problem of what are we trying to solve here. If the goal is to generate political will for change, then I'm actually not so optimistic that corporate tax return disclosures is going to get us there. Instead I think it will lead us to continue having interesting discussions about whether or not we should be taxing corporations at all, or the variation that we had earlier today, which is how to draw the line between avoidance and evasion.
That's to say we've already been taught, even without corporate tax disclosure, to expect that most American companies, especially those with a global footprint, aren't paying much tax anywhere. The jig is already up. This is not a secret. We're not rioting in the streets about it for the most part. Sure, corporate tax disclosure will confirm what we already know, but I'm not sure if getting all the gory details is going to push the political picture that much further. Maybe it will, because we clearly have an "Overton Window" in which really taxing American corporations is not thinkable. And maybe widespread naming and shaming, or just naming, will move that window. I think it's also possible that the sheer enormity of everything that you're going to see laid bare is going to very quickly lead to resignation and more handwringing, and not so quickly to actual reform.
But if we're already at that stage now, we already have the stories - we already know the story. If we're already there, then we don't have to wait for corporate tax disclosure, do we? We can already accept the notion that if we're going to collect more from any taxpayer, corporate or not, what we need is not more public information, but more withholding and more third-party reporting.
So let's see if I can unpack that a bit because I know that's to say a lot. I think it's worth noting that for the vast majority of people, it is not the case that the income tax system is voluntary. And why is that not the case? It is because for that vast majority, every dollar they earn is reported to the IRS by someone else. And most of these dollars are also subject to withholding, and so you have to work some to get any of it back at the end of the year. And if you are an employee, you won't get much opportunity in terms of base erosion at all; you're basically paying a gross receipts tax. We have made wage earners easy to tax with withholding and third-party reporting. And more or less, gross basis taxation with a few exceptions.
But corporations are different. They are really hard to tax, especially when they are crossing borders. We give them lots of opportunities to carve away their gross and get to a very small net. Withholding and third-party reporting and filing for refunds is generally not the way we get corporations to pay tax. For them, as Reuven said earlier today, the income tax system really is voluntary, and lawmakers have given them a lot of discretion. Transfer pricing is just one very prominent example of this.
... maybe disclosure is a way to have more informed public debate about the income tax system. But if we're having that discussion, then it seems not at all clear to me why we would be limiting the conversation to publicly traded corporations at all, when we are as or more interested in Cargill or SC Johnson or your local mom and pop cash flow all-cash business as we are in Google or Apple, who have at least to tell us a few stories about their tax affairs.
And if we have that conversation, you must admit we are limiting ourselves to corporations ... and not looking at other untold billions of dollars that go untaxed because they're not subject to reporting or withholding.
So now we come to the punch line, and that is that it is possible that corporate tax transparency is going to throw back the curtain on one sector of society - publicly traded corporations - but the irony is these are the people, this is the very sector about whom we actually have more information about tax than any other, precisely because they already have disclosure rules. That disclosure is exactly why we already know there's a problem, and yet we have not mustered the will to solve it.
GE has been in the news with its zero corporate tax rate for years. ... I think little is likely to change with more info ... the conclusion, I think, we will be eventually forced to draw is that we, the public, haven't really mustered the political will for reform that would lead to more taxation of American companies. And we really can't help the IRS administer or enforce the tax system. In fact, as Josh suggests, we run the risk of undermining that effort, so disclosure might not get us very far at all.
What we're going to have to do is start figuring out ways to do a lot more withholding and a lot more third-party reporting, and we are going to have to do that for all of our taxpayers, corporate or not, publicly traded or not. Maybe some or most of us already know that. We didn't need to read the corporate tax returns to tell us that, and we won't know anything new about the corporate tax system when we get that opportunity.
Now I hate to end with the topic of FATCA. For those of you who don't know, FATCA is a global third-party reporting and preemptory withholding regime designed to make sure Americans declare and pay their taxes on income and assets held overseas. It is not a workable system, it's a mess, but think about the design. In theory, it says the IRS could eventually, once all the kinks are worked out and everybody gets onboard, track every dollar ever paid to any American anytime, anywhere. If that's true, if that's even partially possible, we can see the problem here is not at all about capacity. It is purely a question of political will and nothing more, and it never has been.
A parade of stories about offshore tax evaders got the U.S. to adopt FATCA. Yet a parade of stories about GE, Google, and Apple avoiding their taxes has not got the U.S. to embrace corporate taxation.
In fact, we seem to be seeing the opposite response in the base erosion and profit shifting initiative, but that's another story altogether. I'm not convinced, therefore, that corporate tax transparency will lead to more corporate tax. However, I would still love to get my hands on GE's tax return. Thank you.
Tagged as: corporate tax disclosure governance politics scholarship
Peter Dietsch, Professor of Philosophy at the Université de Montreal, joins us today as the final speaker in the Spiegel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium at McGill. His presentation will focus on the opening chapters of his forthcoming book, entitled "Catching Capital." Here is the abstract:
When individuals stash away their wealth in offshore bank accounts and multinational corporations shift their profits or their actual production to low-tax jurisdictions, this undermines the fiscal autonomy of political communities and contributes to rising inequalities in income and wealth. These practices are fuelled by tax competition, with countries strategically designing fiscal policy to attract capital from abroad.
Building on a careful analysis of the ethical challenges raised by a world of tax competition, the book puts forward a normative and institutional framework to regulate the practice. In short, individuals and corporations should pay tax in the jurisdictions of which they are members, where this membership can come in degrees. Moreover, the strategic tax setting of states should be limited in important ways. An International Tax Organisation (ITO) should be created to enforce the principles of tax justice.
The author defends this call for reform against two important objections. First, Dietsch refutes the suggestion that regulating tax competition will harm economic efficiency. Second, he argues that regulation of this sort, rather than representing a constraint on national sovereignty, in fact turns out to be a requirement of sovereignty in a global economy. The book closes with a series of reflections on the obligations that the beneficiaries of tax competition have towards the losers both prior to any institutional reform and in its aftermath.The presentation will again take place in the Seminar Room of the Institute for Health and Social Policy, Charles Meredith House, 1130 Pine Ave., Montreal, beginning at 2:35 pm. As always, the colloquium is open to all: students, faculty and the general public are welcome.
Tagged as: colloquium McGill philosophy scholarship tax policy
Thanks to a visit from Savior Mwambwa to Montreal last week in connection with the Symposium on Tax Justice and Human Rights, I finally sat down to look closely at the complaint raised by several NGOs against Glencore International AG, a Swiss company, for their transfer pricing strategies related to the Zambian-based Mopani Copper Mines Plc.
What I found was quite startling news to me (but not to a number of NGOs, and not to Martin Hearson, who is quickly becoming an indispensible go-to for interesting developments in international taxation): the OECD has apparently set up a sort of soft-law dispute resolution regime in which anyone can bring complaints against perceived tax dodging by multinationals, by lodging a request to a designated bureaucrat in the multinational's home states. This is a metaphor for taxpayer standing, an issue I have been curious about in the past but haven't made much progress on despite more than a little help from some of my regular readers.
This soft-law dispute resolution regime is quirky, to say the least. That's, of course, to be expected. So far the regime seems to be toothless or offer little more than a bit of theatre, but it is intriguing to watch the NGOs try to make hay with it, and more power to them if they can gain any traction. If they can, I expect to see the floodgates opened up for taxpayer-standing suits levied against MNCs in OECD member nations for their tax dodging efforts in developing countries, all on the strength of a document that isn't law anywhere.
This is the stuff of global legal pluralism.
The regime emerges from a non-binding set of OECD guidelines that require multinational enterprises to (among other undertakings) adhere to the arm’s length transfer pricing standards (also developed by the OECD) wherever they operate, and to structure transactions consistent with economic principles unless there are specific local laws allowing deviation from this general rule. Again, these guidelines are non-binding standards. But there is a real live process built up in this document. It is sprinkled throughout the Guidelines but the main parts are these:
[from p. 18:] Governments adhering to the Guidelines will implement them and encourage their use. They will establish National Contact Points that promote the Guidelines and act as a forum for discussion ... The adhering Governments will also participate in appropriate review and consultation procedures to address issues concerning interpretation of the Guidelines in a changing world.
[from p. 72:] The National Contact Point will ... Respond to enquiries about the Guidelines from: a) other National Contact Points; b) the business community, worker organisations, other non- governmental organisations and the public; and c) governments of non-adhering countries.
... The National Contact Point will contribute to the resolution of issues that arise relating to implementation of the Guidelines in specific instances in a manner that is impartial, predictable, equitable and compatible with the principles and standards of the Guidelines. The NCP will offer a forum for discussion and assist the business community, worker organisations, other non-governmental organisations, and other interested parties concerned to deal with the issues raised in an efficient and timely manner and in accordance with applicable law.
In providing this assistance, the NCP will: ... Make an initial assessment of whether the issues raised merit further examination and respond to the parties involved. ... consult with these parties ... facilitate access to consensual and non-adversarial means, such as conciliation or mediation ... make the results of the procedures publicly available.From this we can discern the following soft law dispute resolution regime:
- If you think a MNE is engaged in behavior inconsistent with the MNE guidelines, you can make a complaint to the National Contact Point (NCP) in the country(ies) where your target MNE is organized/operates.
- The NCPs "will" respond to enquiries from the public.
- The NCPs "will" assess issues raised, and, if the NCP thinks the issues merit further review, will consult with you and with the MNE about the issue you raised, facilitate mediation, come to a decision and publish their results.
"the complainants are disappointed that the agreement did not go further than an agreement to disagree. They feel that the result shows that there is little value in engaging in a dialogue with the companies on these issues. According to the complainants, the company has not complied with its commitment as part of the agreement to respond to a detailed set of questions regarding its tax payments."So, a dead end and as far as I see, no way to appeal or contest anything that has happened or not happened; on the other hand, there doesn't seem to be anything (other than resource constraints of would-be complainants) preventing reopening the case by simply filing a new complaint.
- CBE vs. National Grid Transco, opened in 2003 in connection with acquisition of Copperbelt Energy Co (CEC), stating that "financial and tax incentives given to CEC are alleged to have resulted in an unstable macroeconomic environment by having increased the tax burden on the poor, having introduced discriminatory treatment and massive externalisation of funds." Case closed by UK NCP in 2005 "for 'want of prosecution'." I am not sure what that means.
- NiZA et al. vs. Chemie Pharmacie Holland (CPH), a conflict minerals complaint opened in 2003 that sought clarification of whether tax payments made by CPH subsidiaries in the DRC were consistent with the Guidelines. Case first accepted but then quickly rejected by the Dutch NCP in 2004, for "lack of an investment nexus."
- War on Want and Change to Wins complaint against Alliance Boots, opened in November 2013 and quickly rejected by the UK NCP for offering only "unsubstantiated" allegations. The NGOs alleged that Alliance Boots violated the Guidelines disclosure and tax provisions, by, among other items, failing to act "in accordance with the spirit of UK taxation laws by shifting profits to offshore tax havens using complex financial instruments, shell financial companies in Luxembourg, and payments from one party to another to finance the purchase of company debt in a circular manner. The complainants sought mediation to bring concrete reforms of the company' governance, tax, and disclosure procedures so they are aligned with the Guidelines." I hope they assemble some documentation and try again: this is an interesting case for observers of the emerging links between tax justice and human rights.
- Global Witness vs Afrimex, regarding tax payments made by Afrimex (a UK co operating in the DRC) to an "armed rebel group with a well-documented record of carrying out grave human rights abuses." The UK NCP agreed with many of GW's charges and concluded "that Afrimex failed to contribute to the sustainable development in the region; to respect human rights; or to influence business partners and suppliers to adhere to the Guidelines." Global Witness later followed up with Afrimex to see how things were going; the company said it had stopped trading in minerals. But GW seems skeptical, and states that "the case illustrates the severe limitations of relying on voluntary guidelines to hold companies to account. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises remain a weak, non-binding mechanism. The NCP does not have the legal powers to enforce decisions arising from its conclusions and there is no in-built mechanism for following up its recommendations. The UK government will have to take further action to ensure that the investigation and conclusions of the NCP are more than just a theoretical exercise."
So far, the process isn't looking too promising for those using the guidelines to resist the status quo of international tax practice. Still, I found one that was re-opened from a prior failed attempt, 15 Belgian NGOs complaint against Nami Gems for tax evasion in the DRC. This is a re-opening of a complaint that was rejected 10 years ago on what look like fairly flimsy grounds, will be interesting if the NGOs are learning from experience and improving their strategy as they go along.
I know that there are those that believe it is frustrating or even pointless watching activists work through international tax rules looking for justice. But activists are a finger on a pulse. They are looking to the rule of law to produce justice. When they feel that it doesn't, they again look to the rule of law for avenues of redress against unjust situations caused or ignored by the law. It is an optimistic and hopeful strategy, that refuses to give up on law. I hope that law can live up to its promise in this respect. It is the case that we perceive international taxation to occur mostly in the anarchy of the post-Westphalian nation-state-based global order. Yet organisations like the OECD transcend this order all the time, often in ways we don't understand and usually with a very little amount of scrutiny from tax law scholars. The activists are watching more closely. We would do well to pay attention.
Bruca Zagaris has a two-part article on U.S. policies on the exchange of information in tax matters, published by Tax Analysts on June 9 and June 17, of great interest (but gated, unfortunately). He provides an overview of the applicable treaties (bilateral and MAATM), TIEAs and IGAs, and discusses the various forms of information exchange. He gives a nice level of detail on how information exchange requests are processed in the US and how the US achieves its information goals vis a vis other countries. He goes through the legal structures and the developments at the OECD and EU. He then provides a series of detailed hypotheticals focusing in on US information exchange policy with respect to Latin America. Bruce is very clear about the lack of reciprocity that characterizes the US position toward information exchange and notes, rightly, I believe, that this position is sure to lead to conflict going forward.
His conclusion is rather bleak but I don't disagree with anything he is saying. Here are a few excerpts:
The U.S. budgetary problems, the pay-as-you-go system, the revenue estimates obtained for the anti-tax-haven bills, and the proclivity of some members of Congress to focus on tax enforcement and compliance directed at U.S. taxpayers concealing money abroad ensures that the anti-tax-haven bills will constantly be appended to appropriations legislation in this session of Congress and in future sessions. There are so many anti-tax-haven initiatives and the lack of actual reciprocity by the U.S. government, as opposed to the rhetoric, may well lead to dispute resolution proceedings soon and to disagreements within the international initiatives of the OECD and FATF, as a result of the perceived lack of a level playing field.
A global trend toward criminalization of tax compliance and enforcement will continue.... Governments will continue to try to privatize tax enforcement by deputizing FIs and service providers regarding reporting, ethics, and a range of other requirements. Criminal investigations and prosecutions of noncompliant institutions and service providers will continue.
... Disagreements are likely to continue among the OECD and developing countries about the proper financial architecture, not only in tax policy, but also financial regulation. If possible, the G-8 countries will try to continue to centralize decision-making in elite informal groups, such as the G-20, the Financial Stability Forum, and the OECD and the groups it controls, such as the Global Forum on Taxation.
... OECD and Latin American governments, including the United States, Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, will continue to impose sanctions through blacklists and countermeasures against small financial center jurisdictions, both unilaterally and through international organizations (for example, the OECD and IMF) and informal groups (for example, G-20, FATF, and Financial Stability Board), even though small-state offshore financial centers do a much better job of enforcing the prohibition on anonymous companies and bank accounts than do large OECD countries, and the United States is the main offender in failing to enforce the international standards prohibiting anonymous companies
The biggest potential impediment to the United States achieving its global tax priorities is the political gridlock, especially regarding the budget, spending, raising taxes, and raising the debt limit. ...
The upshot of globalization and increased penalization of international tax and money movement flows is increased pressure on financial intermediaries, including lawyers, trust companies, banks, accountants, and other wealth management professionals who must advise clients. Increasingly, tax authorities, law enforcement, and regulators will be acting to obtain information and bring administrative and criminal cases for reporting violations, nonpayment, nonfiling, and allegedly fraudulent activities, or conspiracy to do the same.All in all this is a tremendous resource for anyone wanting to understand information exchange from the US perspective. I hope that others will undertake similar analyses for other countries, so that we can start to understand what tax information exchange actually looks like now, and what it will likely look like going forward. The combination of non-reciprocity, a starved administration, and political gridlock in the US with a continued policy jealousy on the part of the US and its close "elite" allies that Bruce describes portends deep trouble ahead for the rest of the world, especially as these countries continue to reserve their own rights to act as tax havens.
Tagged as: FATCA information institutions international law Tax law treaties u.s.
I don't want to spend too much time analyzing what is, in the main, a plea for Congress to give the IRS more money, and secondarily some cheerleading for the hard work put in by the IRS and the financial industry to get FATCA operational. Still, it is worth noting that there is much unstated here, for instance: what is meant by "home" jurisdiction--a question no one seems too keen to ask or answer even as we rush headlong into global automatic information exchange. If we actually care about getting these things right we have got to have a global conversation about who owes what to whom as a matter of justice and as a matter of rights, and most importantly: who is going to make those decisions.
When we don't have those conversations it is all too easy for someone to wax enthusiastically about the project of demanding the bank account numbers and balances of millions of people who don't reside in their country while in the next breath advising caution and restraint when it comes to other countries taxing "their" corporations.
Thank you to the U. S. Council for inviting me to be here today. I’m honored to have the opportunity to participate in this important discussion about international tax issues.
Although I have been IRS Commissioner for only a few months, I have quickly come to appreciate the great importance of focusing on the international tax compliance of both business and individual taxpayers. And I’ve come to understand that it is not possible to overstate the challenge that globalization poses to tax administration for the United States and I’m sure for many other jurisdictions as well. Rapid and extensive globalization of markets, business models, and financial systems has presented taxpayers and tax administrations with challenges and opportunities of all sorts.
As you know, the United States government is attempting to respond to the global challenges -- sometimes aggressively and sometimes cautiously and collaboratively, but hopefully always with thoughtfulness, perspective, and a sense of global responsibility. It seems we are in a critical time in these respects, as all of you know well, and this makes it a very exciting time for global tax administration, a time in which rapid and dramatic changes are afoot. For example, it was only a few years ago that tax administration officials were talking about the need to pierce the veil of bank secrecy, and today it seems that veil is being shredded as we move toward a cooperative environment based on tax transparency.
One of the most exciting aspects of our current times is to see governments working so closely together to ensure that taxpayers comply with the tax obligations of their home jurisdictions. With respect to individual tax compliance, we see this collaboration in the process by which FATCA will soon go into effect, and its younger but already bigger sister, the Common Reporting Standard, or CRS, will soon be adopted globally. The cornerstone of these efforts, of course, is the automatic, multilateral exchange of information, which signals quite clearly that international tax transparency is no longer a distant hope, but rather an immediate reality.
But as far as we have come on this road, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Although the policy issue has been settled and tax transparency is the common goal, tax administrators still must answer the question of how we make automatic information sharing work well as a practical matter. We must devise brand new systems, processes, and protocols that maximize efficiencies, minimize burden on taxpayers and financial intermediaries, and ensure the safety and security of the information being transmitted. But before talking about these, I would like to step back for a moment and look at where the U.S. is today on offshore tax compliance and how we got to this point.
The IRS’ serious efforts to combat offshore tax evasion, which had long been a problem, began in 2008 with our efforts to address specific situations brought to our attention in part by whistleblowers. The most notable example of this was the situation with UBS. The IRS realized that the globalization of investment opportunities, and the marketing of those opportunities, could do serious harm to the integrity of the U.S. tax system if complete tax transparency was not part of the equation. This is especially true because our tax system is built on the notion of voluntary compliance. Allowing wealthy individuals to use overseas accounts without paying taxes not only erodes the home jurisdiction’s tax base, but it also is an affront to the vast majority of taxpayers who play by the rules and expect their neighbors to be doing likewise. So from the outset, the IRS adopted a clear message: International tax evasion was, and would continue to be, a top priority for the agency, and people hiding assets offshore would find themselves increasingly at risk of enforcement actions.
A turning point in our enforcement efforts came in 2009 with the agreement reached with UBS. This agreement represented a major step toward global tax transparency and helped build a foundation for our future enforcement efforts. Importantly, the agreement sent the message that the IRS would pursue tax evasion around the world, wherever it might be based, and would also focus on those facilitating tax evasion practices. The agreement also showed the IRS’ keen interest in working cooperatively with other governments to obtain the information needed to bring evaders to justice.
Since 2009, the IRS has taken a multifaceted approach to the offshore noncompliance problem. This has included working diligently and cooperatively with other governments to obtain information on U.S. owners of offshore accounts, as well as banks and other promoters of tax evasive techniques, and using that information to prosecute those willfully evading the law. We have mined the information we’ve obtained for future leads, and have shared our findings with other governments to help them enforce their own laws.
While maintaining strong enforcement programs, the IRS has also sought to encourage taxpayers to come into compliance voluntarily. In 2009, the agency first made available a special Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program, or OVDP. This program has allowed U.S. citizens with undisclosed offshore accounts to voluntarily disclose those accounts, pay a monetary penalty, and avoid criminal prosecution. Because of this program’s success, modified voluntary programs were made available in 2011 and again in 2012. Since 2009, these programs have resulted in more than 43,000 voluntary disclosures from individuals who paid more than $6 billon in back taxes, interest, and penalties, and the numbers continue to rise. In fact, we have noted a significant uptick in participation since the Department of Justice announced its program for Swiss banks last August. So we have clear evidence that our enforcement efforts are working together with our voluntary programs, and we are hopeful that this dynamic will flourish until the offshore problem is stamped out completely.
Now, while the 2012 OVDP and its predecessors have operated successfully, we are currently considering making further program modifications to accomplish even more. We are considering whether our voluntary programs have been too focused on those willfully evading their tax obligations and are not accommodating enough to others who don’t necessarily need protection from criminal prosecution because their compliance failures have been of the non-willful variety. For example, we are well aware that there are many U.S. citizens who have resided abroad for many years, perhaps even the vast majority of their lives. We have been considering whether these individuals should have an opportunity to come into compliance that doesn’t involve the type of penalties that are appropriate for U.S.-resident taxpayers who were willfully hiding their investments overseas. We are also aware that there may be U.S.-resident taxpayers with unreported offshore accounts whose prior non-compliance clearly did not constitute willful tax evasion but who, to date, have not had a clear way of coming into compliance that doesn’t involve the threat of substantial penalties.
We are close to completing our deliberations on these respects and expect that we will soon put forward modifications to the programs currently in place. Our goal is to ensure we have struck the right balance between emphasis on aggressive enforcement and focus on the law-abiding instincts of most U.S. citizens who, given the proper chance, will voluntarily come into compliance and willingly remedy past mistakes. We believe that re-striking this balance between enforcement and voluntary compliance is particularly important at this point in time, given that we are nearing July 1, the effective date of FATCA. We expect we will have much more to say on these program enhancements in the very near future. So stay tuned.
Now, I’ve mentioned FATCA a couple of times and let me talk about it more directly. With FATCA, Congress took a significant stride towards global tax transparency by calling for automatic information reporting on financial accounts held by U.S. taxpayers, no matter where those accounts are located. And so, as everyone knows, FATCA’s enactment has had a dramatic impact on the global financial system, as financial intermediaries all around the world have had to modify their systems and processes to carry out what FATCA calls for. We know that this implementation has been difficult and costly, to say the least, and I’d like to thank the financial community for working so closely with us to ensure that, in the future, all international investors are also tax-compliant investors. In a truly global economy, this is fundamental, of course, and I believe at some point in the future all of us, in both the private and public sectors, will look back with not only a strong sense of accomplishment, but also with wonder at how it ever could have been otherwise.
I’ll also note that the U.S. government’s preparations for FATCA have not exactly been easy. Since enactment, the IRS and Treasury have been working extremely hard to solidify the legal framework, global relationships, and infrastructure necessary to convert FATCA from a concept into a practical reality, and this has been no small task. For four years now, FATCA implementation has demanded a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication on the part of a relatively small group of public servants, without whom offshore tax evasion might still be considered a viable practice. These folks have diligently worked on issuing guidance that is clear and eases the FATCA compliance burden as much as possible, and they have made a herculean effort to take into account the extensive stakeholder comments we’ve received in order to get there. I know there are still a few more things to do, but I should take the time, midstream, to thank the IRS and Treasury FATCA team for the work they have completed so far, because that work has been monumental.
And beyond the legal and regulatory framework that’s been created, you’ll find a number of other very novel elements of the FATCA implementation effort that are important in their own right.
First, so that we can identify and interact with our stakeholders in the global financial community, we had to create a new Global Intermediary Identification Number, or GIIN, and develop a unique registration system. This system allows financial intermediaries around the world to establish their FATCA-compliant status and obtain a GIIN to prevent FATCA withholding when receiving payments from U.S. sources. The FATCA registration system opened several months ahead of schedule and has performed flawlessly to date. So far, tens of thousands of financial institutions have established FATCA accounts and received their GIINs. And just yesterday in fact, we successfully made available to all potential withholding agents the so-called “IRS FFI List” of Foreign Financial Institutions, so those agents can download the database of IRS-issued GIINs to their own systems and use that data to determine which of their account holders are FATCA-compliant and thus free from FATCA withholding.
Second, we had to be very mindful that FATCA data will be coming to us from a wide variety of sources and in a variety of ways. So we had to reach intergovernmental consensus, with extensive input from the financial sector, on a common data format, or schema, that will allow us to process and interpret all FATCA data, no matter its source, once we receive it. This hard work was guided by the OECD, and for that effort that I would like to extend my special thanks to the OECD representatives here in the room today, as well as to the individual members of the OECD Secretariat staff and the private sector financial community not with us who diligently worked through a tremendous amount of detail to ensure that FATCA information reports can be used efficiently and effectively, not only by the IRS but by our reciprocal FATCA partners as well.
Third, the automatic exchange of bulk information contemplated by FATCA will require a modern mode of data transmission, one that, frankly, is not available at the moment. This too has presented a challenge for IRS like no other faced in the past. So, working again with our partners in tax administration around the world, we have had to design a new system for electronic data exchange that will allow FATCA data to be transmitted quickly and securely. So far, we are pleased with the resulting design of this new “International Data Exchange System,” which we refer to as IDES. We believe it will accomplish our goals, and anticipate it will be available to users by January of the coming year so that FATCA data can flow on time.
In this regard, I also want to emphasize that we take very seriously the need to ensure that the financial data transmitted through IDES will be transmitted securely, kept confidential, and used only for tax purposes. Protecting this information and assuring its intended use must be our number-one goal. Toward that end, we designed IDES to include state-of-the-art encryption protocols, and we developed a set of safeguard standards addressing the security and use of data once it is received by a government.
Lastly and importantly, during the past several months, we have been conducting bilateral meetings with each one of our reciprocal FATCA partners to ensure that our safeguard needs are understood and that we and our partners achieve a high level of comfort that FATCA data will be kept confidential and used only for tax purposes, as our treaty and information exchange agreements contemplate.
Before I leave the subject of FATCA implementation, I want to mention our resource limitations at the IRS. The agency continues to be in a very difficult budget environment. Since Fiscal Year 2010, IRS funding has been reduced by more than $850 million, or about 7 percent, and we have 10,000 fewer employees, even as our responsibilities have continued to expand. In the absence of additional resources, our ongoing funding shortfall has major, negative implications for the agency’s ability to continue to adequately fulfill its dual mission of excellent taxpayer service and robust tax compliance programs.
Having said that, it is also important to point out that Congress has mandated that the IRS implement FATCA. Whatever else we are going to do, the IRS must move forward with our non- discretionary legislative mandates, and FATCA is at the top of that list. So I want to assure those of you dealing with FATCA implementation in other ways and in other realms that the IRS will continue to find the necessary resources for FATCA, and implementation will not be disrupted by our budget constraints.
Let me also offer a few words on FATCA enforcement. First, as I have already said, we realize that FATCA implementation is challenging not only for the IRS, but also for the financial institutions that are covered by it. We understand there is a great deal of complexity in FATCA, and that financial institutions must make substantial modifications to their processes and systems to implement it. And we understand that complying with the letter of these requirements, down to the final dotting of “I”s and crossing of “T”s, will take some time. As we announced publicly in an IRS Notice last month, we intend to view 2014 and 2015 as a so-called “transitional” enforcement period during which we will take into account a financial institution’s good-faith efforts to comply in our evaluation of what constitutes acceptable FATCA compliance.
Second, we’re well aware that our offshore enforcement resources going forward will need to be dedicated not to small-scale issues that those trying to be FATCA compliant may have, but rather to broader-scale problems presented by those who choose to seek new ways to evade their tax obligations. That is, we recognize that compliance with FATCA by those trying to comply, and with the new Common Reporting Standard when it goes into effect, will improve and be fine- tuned over time. Problems in this area will be corrected by the compliance-minded. The IRS and other enforcement agencies around the world will be able to focus on the structures and arrangements that, unfortunately but inevitably, will be devised to stay in the shadows in a new world of tax transparency. And in that new world, governments will need to work closely together to shine light into those shadowy spaces until they no longer exist.
Now, although I’m suggesting here that FATCA will not put a complete end to the offshore problem we face, I am telling a very positive story, not a bleak one. FATCA and CRS clearly will make it much more difficult and costly to hide assets, so that those who still seek to do so will be forced to spend money to devise more complex structures, turn to riskier jurisdictions and riskier forms of investment, and face far greater certainty of prosecution when found. FATCA will also de-stigmatize those holding offshore accounts for legitimate purposes, as those accounts will be both reported and reported upon in the normal course, while tax administrations focus their enforcement efforts against those truly seeking to evade taxation.
Interestingly, we can already begin predicting that governments will be working on these future problems completely in concert. In fact, because our interests are aligned and the new instruments of transparency and enforcement we are developing together will be shared, I believe the melody of our total success will be sweet and come quickly.
Now, before I conclude, I would like to say a few words about the topic that is front and center at this conference – that is, Base Erosion and Profit Shifting, or BEPS.
For some time now, the IRS and the U.S. Treasury have been active participants in the OECD’s project to address BEPS on a global scale. We fully support the goal of developing a coordinated and comprehensive action plan to update our international tax rules to reflect modern business practices. Hopefully, this coordinated work will help prevent, rather than exacerbate, the double taxation disputes that could arise if countries unilaterally attempt to address these issues without consensus-based principles. And of course, consensus-based principles are also critically important to ensuring that businesses have the tax certainty they need to operate efficiently around the globe.
That said, I have one point that I believe needs to be considered in the context of these important discussions. I urge that your policy and legal determinations not be made without thoroughly considering the practical implications of these decisions, not only for businesses, but for tax administrations. Let me provide just one example to illustrate what I mean.
I understand that among the reforms being considered is a process known as “country-by-country reporting,” under which multinational businesses would be required to provide, to the tax authorities in each country in which they do business, certain financial information, broken down by country (hence the term, “country-by-country reporting”). I also understand that one possibility for disseminating this data is for all the information reports to be provided to the tax administration in the business’s headquarters country and then shared by that tax administration with the other jurisdictions through the vehicle of treaty-based information exchange. Lastly, I’ve heard it is contemplated that these reports would be exchanged for general risk assessment purposes, not for purposes of an existing audit, which is the current, well-established information exchange standard.
So, given all this, let’s assume that the IRS receives 2,000 of these reports from U.S.- headquartered businesses (although the number could easily be much higher than that) and let’s assume that an average of just five other countries ask for each of these 2,000 reports in any given year. This would mean 10,000 new annual requests for exchange of information coming into our competent authority’s office. And this is just the initial requests. If the proposed new risk assessment standard would justify follow-on requests for additional specific or clarifying information to further the risk assessment, the demand could grow even greater on our Exchange of Information program, or EOI, which is the conduit used by foreign governments to request tax information from us.
So, I ask that this type of simple impact be taken into account as you go forward on this issue and the others you are working to address. One possible way to exchange “country-by-country” reports would be to require that they be automatically exchanged electronically, perhaps through the IDES system I mentioned earlier. Automatic exchange would eliminate the need for a person to evaluate whether or not a requesting country really has a legitimate interest in the information for risk assessment purposes. Together with this might be an agreement that there would be no follow-on requests unless an audit is begun. If this type of care were not taken, then tax administrations with a significant number of headquarters companies would have to reallocate our already dwindling resources to our EOI programs so that we can deal with just this one aspect of the BEPS project.
So again, I urge you in your policy discussions to carefully consider the administrative impact of your decisions. In order for your policy goals to be achieved, any new regime needs to be workable not only from the perspective of taxpayers but also from a tax administration standpoint.
Let me close now by saying that the IRS looks forward to working with our tax administration partners around the world as we move together toward greater tax transparency and greater coordinated efforts to address common compliance challenges. Thank you for letting me spend this time with you today, and I would be happy to take your questions.