Tax evasion, bank secrecy: G8 talks tough, seeks teeth
Britain aiming to clamp down on evasion and bank secrecy
Associated Press, Agence France Press in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland and Paris
An Tax evasion and banking secrecy, hot topics and top targets because of the financial crises and austerity, could be the focus of strong statements at the G8 meeting this week.
The British government, organising the meeting in Northern Ireland, has promised big developments on the basis of substantial progress recently in clamping down on evasion and bursting bank secrecy.
But many observers from civic bodies are pessimistic and say that the summit on Monday and Tuesday will amount to a lost opportunity despite the public outrage over recent brazen cases at a time of tax rises and budget cuts.
The tightening up of tax systems across borders, and opening up information on how businesses do their accounting across borders, are two of the burning issues for Britain which is currently chairing the G8 (Group of Eight) leading countries.
The G8 comprises the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Canada, Britain, Italy and Russia.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has prepared the way for the summit of heads and state and government by stating the “ambition” that the meeting at Lough Erne will “knock down the walls of banking secrecy” with “concrete measures”.
French President Francois Hollande, badly bruised by a recent scandal involving an admission by his budget minister Jerome Cahuzac, also responsible for fighting tax evasion, that he had hidden money abroad, has said: “Tax havens must be eradicated in Europe and throughout the world.”
The climate has turned strongly in favour of tough action: pressure on these two fronts, which seemed to have eased after progress in 2009, is again at a high pitch.
First, a new law in the United States, called Fatca, obliges all banks to provide US authorities with all information they hold concerning all assets owned by US taxpayers.
Meanwhile, revelations by journalists, known as “Offshore Leaks”, have further strengthened the perception that no bank account can be considered secret and that hidden funds are liable to exposure.
The consequence of this is that the gates of some strongholds of banking secrecy, such as Switzerland, are beginning to give way.
The European Union, in which some countries have arrangements considered favourable to those seeking to dissimulate funds, seems to be overcoming internal divisions and trying to catch up with the United States, even though Austria and Luxembourg still show some reticence.
The G8 leaders are expected to make strong statements calling for a “truly global system of multinational information exchange”, according to a draft final statement. But concrete measures appear unlikely.
Cameron has opened a second front to combat strategies by multinational companies to avoid paying tax via transfer pricing and other techniques to generate costs in high-tax countries and profits in low-tax countries or tax havens.
Public opinion in several countries, already inflamed by stories of tax evasion and tax avoidance at a time of austerity, has been roused further by revelations in the United States and Europe that international brands such as Starbucks, Google, Amazon and Apple, pay little tax in countries where they have high-volume business.
In Northern Ireland, the G8 leaders, all of whom are facing national budget pressures, will support an action plan to be put forward soon by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But even under this programme, hard-hitting measures will have to wait, mainly because of diverging interests.
Sources in Paris which are close to the talks said that “France is most interested in digital issues” while “American negotiators are not particularly enthusiastic.”
One of the most sensitive matters concerns trusts and other structures which can be used as legal shields to conceal the identities of people with offshore activities and assets.
Britain has put transparency in this field on the agenda, saying that change is needed also to help fight the laundering of illicit funds.
Cameron, to show goodwill, has also urged British crown dependencies and territories such as the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands, reputed to be flourishing tax havens, to join in and ramp up their cooperation against evasion.
However, the outcome of this appeal is unclear since some of them, such as Bermuda, are reluctant to sign an agreement put forward by Cameron. This could be a blow to the position taken by the G8.
Non-governmental organisations are calling for “public registers of the owners and real beneficiaries of companies and other legal entities offshore,” in the words of Mathilde Dupre, the coordinator of a body called the tax and judicial haven platform.
“This is a long way away,” she said, noting that the draft final statement so far referred only to vague “national action plans.”
At the NGO called One, founded by rock star Bono, Guillaume Grosso commented that “in the field of registers, Cameron has been unable to turn intentions into acts.”
He held that the United States and Russia had countered what would have been “the big step forward by the G8.”
Judging that this was “a missed opportunity”, he said that “these issues could just be forgotten.”
Here is a quick picture of where the G-8 countries’ economies stand:
UNITED STATES: If Europe is the weak link and Asia the strongest, then the US and Canadian economies are squarely in the middle. The two countries are experiencing steady, if not spectacular, economic growth and job gains.
In the US, the once-battered housing sector has been recovering for the past year. Home sales have reached three-year highs. And prices have jumped this spring by the most in seven years. That has encouraged builders to start work on more homes.
The unemployment rate has fallen to 7.6 per cent from 8.2 per cent a year earlier.
For all the G-8 participants, the most unsettling shift is the possible end of massive monetary stimulus from the Fed -- a factor beyond their immediate control. The Fed’s injections of money into the economy through bond purchases -- known as quantitative easing -- had helped send markets soaring.
Now it’s not clear which way markets will head.
At previous summits, Obama has pushed European leaders to focus more on growth, rather than austerity. But most European governments have already begun to make that shift.
So Obama is likely to focus on other global concerns, such as the violence in Syria.
JAPAN/ASIA: For once, the bad news for Asia is not coming from Japan. The world’s third-largest economy grew at a 4.1 per cent annual rate in the first three months of the year.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to explain to fellow G-8 leaders his strategies for fostering long-term growth. Over the past few months, the yen has dropped from about 80 yen to the dollar in October to about 94 yen now -- as the Abe administration tried to bring an end to the country’s two-decade stagnation.
Japan’s central bank has been pumping money into the economy in the hope of stoking inflation -- the country has suffered from falling prices for much of the past 20 years, which has halted growth. One consequence of the new inflationary approach has been the sharp fall in the value of the yen against other countries’ currencies. This has made Japanese goods cheaper to the rest of the world, which has boosted exports.
But the lower yen has provoked concern among German officials. Their exporters compete head to head with Japan’s in major markets. Abe is scheduled to meet separately with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Abe is likely eager to do some explaining after financial markets see-sawed since he presented his initial, broad-brush reform plans last week. Worries about the effectiveness of these measures, combined with the uncertainty over what the US Fed may do, has pushed Japan’s Nikkei index into bear market territory with a 20 per cent-plus fall.
EUROPE & RUSSIA: Europe’s leaders hope a new trade deal between the EU and the United States can help spur growth. EU trade ministers agreed last Friday on their negotiating position and it’s hoped a deal that would scrap the tariffs and regulations that impede trade might be reached next year.
And Europe needs stimulus. Austerity measures introduced by Europe’s governments to control their deficits have inflicted severe economic pain and produced social unrest across the group 17 European Union countries that use the euro
The euro zone’s economy shrank by 0.2 per cent in the first quarter -- the sixth such decline in a row -- and unemployment is at 12.2 per cent. The situation is far worse in countries that are struggling to reduce heavy debt burdens -- unemployment stands at 26.8 per cent in Spain, 27.0 per cent in Greece.
Private companies haven’t managed to fill the vacuum created by the drastically reduced government spending. In the United States, by contrast, the government has imposed far milder spending cuts and tax increases.
European leaders have recently agreed to ease up on the pace of deficit reduction -- but have proposed no other large-scale measures to boost growth, at least in the short term.
Russia has seen more than a decade of largely uninterrupted economic growth, thanks to its lucrative oil and gas industries, to become the world’s 8th largest economy. However now that energy prices have stabilized, experts say Russia is unlikely to grow as quickly unless it aggressively reforms its economy.
For a reminder of Europe’s troubles, the leaders won’t have to look far. The Lough Erne resort where they’re staying went bankrupt in 2011.
Dublin supermarket owner Jim Treacy borrowed 21 million pounds ($32 million) to open the five-star golf resort in the green rolling lakelands near Enniskillen in 2007 during the credit-fueled real estate boom sweeping the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. The end of the boom took with it much of the expected wealthy clientele.
Bankruptcy administrator KPMG has Lough Erne on the market for 10 million pounds. So far, no takers.
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press