China, Hong Kong committed to global alliance to end banking secrecy
More than 80 countries will exchange information in battle against fraud
China is among more than 80 countries committed to signing a deal that could help end banking secrecy. Hong Kong has also pledged to join. Its sponsors hope the pact will be a major step in the global battle against tax evasion and fraud.
A total of 51 countries have signed up to the Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement, under which their national tax authorities will exchange information automatically from September 2017. More than 30 other countries said they would sign up a year later, in 2018.
Among the first round of signatories or "early adopters" were EU countries as well as previously staunch proponents of banking secrecy such as Liechtenstein and tax havens like the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands.
Others, such as Switzerland, Brazil, Canada, mainland China, Hong Kong, Monaco and Russia, have committed to start in 2018.
The signing of the pact in Berlin crowned two days of talks at the OECD's Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes, hosted by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble. The aim is for every country to be kept fully informed about the offshore holdings of its citizens.
Tax evasion was a "scourge across the world", British finance minister George Osborne said.
He said the signing of the deal would "reduce the places that tax evaders can hide their money".
Economist Gabriel Zucman, a specialist in fiscal fraud, has calculated that about US$7.4 trillion is stashed away in tax havens, depriving authorities all over the world of US$100 billion in revenue each year.
"The more countries sign up, the more difficult it will be for others to attract investment," said Pascal Saint-Amans, director for tax policy and administration at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
However, a number of financial centres remained a "source of concern", he said.
Panama, for example, still has not set a concrete date for its exchange of information, and Singapore has not joined the process.
The Tax Justice Network identified a number of potential shortcomings in the OECD deal.
In order to exchange information in 2017, the banks will collect data from 2016 on accounts holding more than US$250,000. The delay will be sufficient for tax evaders to carve up their assets and place them into multiple accounts.
Countries will also be able to decide on a case-by-case basis which information will be automatically exchanged.
Switzerland, for example, has said it will hand over information only to countries which are important for Swiss industry. Thus, the holdings of wealthy citizens from poor countries will not come under scrutiny.
Tax evaders could also hide behind "smokescreen" companies or foundations in certain cases where banks are not always obliged to reveal the identity of the account holder.