April 19, 2013 11:32 pm

Finance ministers step up war on tax evasion

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Finance ministers meeting in Washington have thrown their weight behind the automatic exchange of tax information, in a sign of the intensifying crackdown on evasion and secrecy.

The call on Friday by the Group of 20 leading economies for an ambitious expansion of information-sharing came as Switzerland and 13 other countries were named as lagging behind on reforms to meet existing transparency standards.

The pressure for international action against evasion has recently grown after a massive leak of offshore data, a scandal involving a French minister’s secret Swiss bank account and a decision by Luxembourg to bow to pressure over bank secrecy in the wake of the Cyprus bailout.

Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said up to 70 countries were likely to have signed up to automatic information exchange by May 2014.

He said the move to such exchange could happen even faster than the agreements to share information on request – a change that took three years to put in place after the G20 declared the end of bank secrecy in 2009.

He said: “Every country in the G20 has an interest in moving in this direction.”

The drive for automatic information exchange was unleashed by the US, which threatened a 30 per cent withholding tax on foreign banks that did not divulge US client information under its 2010 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA).

European governments have agreed to adopt an EU version of FATCA, and the UK has secured similar agreements with its crown dependencies and overseas territories.

Mr Gurría said the move towards automatic exchange of information was logical, but “not everyone will be enthused or delighted” by the higher standards. He said tax havens that refused to comply would face mounting pressure, although it was too soon to discuss sanctions.

In a report issued on Friday, the OECD said Switzerland still permitted bearer shares, which allow for the anonymity of shareholders, and had signed information exchange agreements that were too restrictive. But the criticism of Switzerland was more muted than for 13 jurisdictions, including Panama and the United Arab Emirates, which have been told to make legal and regulatory changes.

The OECD reviews have expressed reservations about the transparency of many other countries, including the US and UK, although they were deemed compliant overall. UK companies can still issue bearer shares, and the US does not collect information about the ownership of millions of companies.

The organisation said the 800 tax information exchange agreements struck since 2009 had led to “greatly improved transparency”, but many jurisdictions were taking too long to respond to requests for information.

The effectiveness of these agreements was criticised by academics at the University of Copenhagen and the Paris School of Economics in a recent paper, which found that rather than repatriating funds, tax evaders were shifting deposits to havens not covered by a treaty with their home country.

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