This week marks the anniversary of the Panama Papers, a leak of more than 11 million documents exposing widespread corruption and illicit financing involving 140 public officials in more than 50 countries around the globe. The leak, large as it was, included documents from just one law firm and had reverberations worldwide. The impact was profound, but was it enough? And what did we learn?
For those not steeped in money laundering practices and illicit financial flows, the Panama Papers showed the world how it all works. If you want to finance terror; steal from taxpayers; traffic in humans, weapons, or drugs; or evade taxes, anonymous shell companies are the vehicle of choice. The Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca showed that these entities were easy to set up, inexpensive to maintain, and able to provide legal secrecy even if covering up underlying illegal activity.
Strengthen Measures against Offshore Tax Evasion — Don’t Repeal Them
The offshore tax haven lobby is out in force this month — kicking off a media and lobbying blitz against the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), a sensible transparency measure to ferret out offshore tax evaders.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board completely misconstrues FATCA as government overreach in its March 2nd editorial, “My Big Fatca IRS”. The Journal writes:
“Almost since the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (Fatca) became law in 2010 to go after fat cats stashing money abroad, these pages have reported that it has led the IRS to treat law-abiding Americans as criminals…
“With the GOP controlling Congress and White House, the time is ripe for Republicans to make good on their pledge and give Fatca the heave-ho.”
The Journal’s editorial was echoed last week by several pro-tax haven groups in a letter to lawmakers. The editorial and the letter are off-base.
Financial Accounting Standards Board Considers Shining a Light on Corporate Tax Practices
On March 17, Richard Phillips of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) and I traveled to Norwalk, Connecticut to participate in a roundtable discussion at the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). This is a little-known, but highly influential body that sets the accounting standards for U.S. companies. The morning discussion focused on a proposal to increase disclosures on corporate financial statements, including new disclosures on revenues and taxes on a country-by-country level. This information is critically important if we are to tackle the problem of offshoring profits in tax havens.
We heard several participants assert that, before any new disclosures are required, board members must ensure they know why it is being required and for what the users of the information will use it. Fair questions.
Unfortunately, I am not sure the discussion on tax disclosures adequately answered them. The focus was more theoretical and principle-based with a heavy reliance on accountant-speak. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to participate, but I confess that I did not fully take the opportunity to offer an alternative perspective. Since hindsight is 20/20, here is what I should have said.
For years, the number one tax policy talking point from corporate lobbyists has been the claim that the United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the world. The story then goes that this high tax rate is driving away business and Congress should move to dramatically lower it.
A new study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) reveals the reality that while corporations face a statutory tax rate of 35 percent, the tax code is so packed full of tax breaks that over eight years our nation’s largest and most profitable corporations paid an average effective tax rate of just 21.2 percent.
The U.S. government goes to great lengths to protect our national security. And yet, our failure to manage company ownership in this country leaves us exposed to all sorts of risk. Put simply, it is way too easy for the criminal or corrupt to hide their ownership of U.S. property behind a fake company, or a series of companies in order to stash or move their dirty money without detection.
Let me give you an example. In 2013, a Global Witness undercover investigation exposed how the former Chief Minister of Sarawak in Malaysia, Abdul Taib Mahmud, and his family used their political status to buy land and forest concessions for way less than their commercial value. Swathes of the Sarawak rainforest were destroyed as a result of these schemes, as well as various abuses committed against the rightful land owners. The Chief Minister’s brother used his secretly owned Singaporean company to hide profits from those corrupt forest and land deals and so that he could avoid paying around $10 million in taxes.
In recent weeks, the Republican congressional leadership’s effort to introduce a comprehensive tax reform bill has increasingly faced opposition from major business groups and skeptical lawmakers from across the aisle. The primary source of dissent thus far is that the most prominent tax framework, the House GOP’s “Better Way” tax blueprint, contains a radical provision to apply a border adjustment to pay for a cut in the rate from 35 to 20 percent.
A new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) released today finds that this border adjustment tax would be regressive and loophole-ridden and would likely violate international trade agreements.
“Partnership to Build America Act” and the “Infrastructure 2.0 Act” Would Exacerbate Offshore Tax Haven Abuse
The FACT Coalition sent two letters up to House lawmakers this week opposing a couple of egregious tax giveaways that are expected to be re-introduced by Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) in the near future.
Titled the “Partnership to Build America Act” and the “Infrastructure 2.0 Act”, both measures seek to offer multinational tax avoiders a reward under the premise that the measures might raise some revenue for infrastructure funding. The question is: at what cost?
Ending Anonymously-Owned Companies Would Be Widely Seen as an Effective Strategy in Crippling Those Who Pose a Real Danger to the U.S.
The President’s executive order banning refugees and legal immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations has led to large protests in the U.S. In a conversation yesterday with anti-corruption advocates based in Canada and Belgium, I listened as they discussed the outrage this order has generated around the globe. The action, it appears, only reinforces the worst fears they held about the new administration.
The order is unconscionable, likely unlawful and—according to a growing list of security experts— unhelpful in protecting the nation against acts of terror. Just a few days in and the stories of harm and disruption are piling up.
Rolling Back Extractives Transparency Measure Could Hamper National Security
Lawmakers in the House of Representatives are expected to introduce a controversial resolution to repeal a bipartisan anti-corruption safeguard, in a move panned by non-partisan anti-corruption experts.
Former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) sponsored the Energy Security Through Transparency Act, as an amendment to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. The provision protects U.S. national security and combats corruption in developing countries (particularly those plagued by extremist violence and conflict) by requiring oil, gas, and mining companies which report to the Securities and Exchange Commission to publicly report all payments made to host-governments.
On Tax Reform, Congressional Leaders Propose Widening Loopholes for Multinationals at Expense of Domestic Businesses and Middle Class Taxpayers
Much of the analysis of the 2016 election reflects on a middle class that feels overburdened. While the economy has certainly improved since the recession, one thing has gotten worse that may be partially to blame—offshore tax haven abuse. A new report from U.S. PIRG Education Fund finds that multinational companies dodge an estimated $147 billion in federal and state taxes annually through offshore tax haven loopholes, shifting that burden instead onto small businesses and individual taxpayers. Titled “Picking Up the Tab 2016: Small Businesses Bear the Burden for Offshore Tax Havens,” the study estimates that each small business, on average, owes $5,186 more on its annual tax bill to collectively make up for the federal and state corporate tax revenue lost to offshore tax havens.