FOREIGN TAX HAVENS: G-20 CRACKING DOWN ON OFFSHORE BANK ACCOUNTS USED FOR TAX EVASION

CRACKING DOWN ON FOREIGN BANK ACCOUNTS

Last month, the world’s largest nations took a potentially historic step by launching a system to detect secret offshore bank accounts.

At an April 19 meeting in Washington, D.C., the G-20 group of nations announced an agreement to start an “automatic exchange” of information on bank accounts of people who may be evading taxes or trying to hide money abroad.

At the same time, the G-20 agreed to put new pressure on tax havens to lift their bank secrecy laws. The G-20 cited 14 nations, including Switzerland, Panama, Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago, as countries that don’t meet international standards of tax information exchange.

The G-20 agreement has a good chance of succeeding because the United States and European governments, which make up the core of the G-20, are in desperate need of increasing their tax collections, and the agreement could be the beginning of the end of bank secrecy havens.

A similar European agreement follows the steps of a 2012 U.S. law — the Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Act — that requires foreign banks to report accounts of U.S. residents starting on Jan. 1, 2014.

The G-20 countries will urge countries to automatically exchange tax information with their treaty partners “as appropriate” and “taking into account country-specific characteristics.” That leaves a lot of room for maneuvering.

Still, the G-20 move starts a new process that will eventually make it harder for people to hide money offshore.

RESPONSE TO THE FATCA

Last Tuesday, on the home front, libertarian-leaning Senator Rand Paul introduced a bill to repeal parts of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Although unlikely to have any success in Congress, Sen. Paul’s bill has been praised by anti-tax conservatives.

FATCA, which is meant to go into effect next year, requires foreign financial institutions (i.e. banks, credit unions, investment firms, etc.) to submit financial informational to the Internal Revenue Service for all “U.S. persons” with overseas accounts worth more than $50,000, or face a fine and possible exclusion from the U.S. market.

FATCA supporter Heather Lowe, director at the tax-policy watchdog Global Financial Integrity has claimed that FATCA is “crucial to cleaning up the worldwide shadow financial system. Foreign financial institutions should not harbor the illicit assets of U.S. tax evaders.” A recent study from the Tax Justice Network found that some of the world’s wealthiest individuals are hiding a staggering $21 trillion in offshore tax havens, with 100,000 individuals accounting for $9.4 trillion. These havens cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $150 billion per year in lost tax revenue.

OFFSHORE VOLUNTARY DISCLOSURE

A year ago, the IRS revived an open-ended program called the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program (OVDP), but the Service “may end the 2012 program at any time in the future,” according to the IRS website, so those with offshore accounts and corresponding tax liabilities should act now. While the current program has a higher penalty rate than similar programs in the past, it offers clear benefits to encourage taxpayers to disclose foreign accounts now rather than risk detection by the IRS and possible criminal prosecution later.

Disclosing foreign accounts enables U.S. taxpayers to become compliant, avoid substantial civil penalties, and essentially eliminate the risk of criminal prosecution. Those who fail to disclose such accounts run the risk of even higher penalties, including the fraud penalty and foreign information return penalties, not to mention criminal prosecution.