Tag Archives: Tax evasion

Tax Evasion and Tax Rates

High rates of tax evasion are not necessarily a consequence of high tax rates. In an NBER working paper, Annette Alstadsæter, Niels Johannesen, and Gabriel Zucman provide estimates of countries’ wealth holdings in “tax havens.” Based on BIS statistics the authors find that:

  • Wealth on the order of 10% of global GDP is held offshore.
  • In Scandinavia, the number is much smaller.
  • In continental Europe, it equals roughly 15%.
  • In some Gulf and Latin American countries, almost 60%.
  • In Russia, the richest citizens hold the majority of their wealth abroad.

US Top Income Shares Rose Less Dramatically

That’s what Gerald Auten and David Splinter argue in a paper from last year.

… new estimates of top income shares using two consistent measures of income. Our measure of consistent market income includes full corporate profits and adjusts for changes from TRA86, including changes to the tax base and increased filing by dependent filers. In addition, we include employer paid payroll taxes and health insurance and adjust for falling marriage rates. The effect of these adjustments on estimated top income shares are dramatic. Using a consistent measure of market income shows that the increase in income shares of the top one percent since 1979 is about half of the PS unadjusted estimate. The increase since 1960 is about one-quarter of the unadjusted estimate. Moreover, our measure of broad income that includes government transfers reduces the top one percent share increase to one-tenth of the unadjusted estimate.

But in an NBER working paper, Annette Alstadsaeter, Niels Johannesen, and Gabriel Zucman argue that tax evasion and offshore wealth holdings work in the opposite direction:

Because offshore wealth is very concentrated at the top, accounting for it increases the top 0.01% wealth share substantially in Europe, even in countries that do not use tax havens extensively. It has considerable effects in Russia, where the vast majority of wealth at the top is held offshore. These results highlight the importance of looking beyond tax and survey data to study wealth accumulation among the very rich in a globalized world.

Why India’s Demonetization Didn’t Work as Expected

On his blog, JP Koning offers two explanations for the surprisingly high rupee notes redemption rate—nearly 99%—after last year’s demonetization experiment: Money laundering, and a partial amnesty.

Indians who had large quantities of illicit cash were able to contract with those who had room below their ceiling to convert illicit rupees on their behalf …

Two weeks after the initial … announcement, the government introduced a formal amnesty for demonetized banknote holders. Any deposit of cash above the ceiling would only be taxed at 50%, assuming it was declared. If not declared, the funds might still get through the note blockade undetected, although if apprehended an 85% penalty was to be levied. These new options were better than throwing away one’s stash altogether and suffering a sure 100% loss …

As a consequence, the windfall for the government likely was smaller than expected. But poorer Indians may still have benefited, by selling their services in the money laundering scheme.

Tax Evasion and Wealth Inequality

The Economist reports about a study by Annette Alstadsæter, Niels Johannesen and Gabriel Zucman who matched leaked information from Swiss banks and Panamanian shell companies with Scandinavian wealth records. Their findings:

  • Tax evasion is progressive. The average / top 1% / top 0.01% Scandinavian household paid 3% / 10% / 30% fewer taxes than it should.
  • Accordingly, estimates of wealth inequality (based on tax data) likely underestimate the degree of inequality.

Tax Evasion in Hong Kong and the US

The Economist reports about new strategies to evade taxes. One is based on an occupational retirement scheme (ORS) in Hong Kong:

A German or Australian with money to hide can set up a Hong Kong shell company, appoint himself as its director, with a local employment contract, and sign up with a trust company that provides an ORS. He can throw in cash, property or other assets, oversee the account himself, retire as soon or as far in the future as he likes, and then take out as much or as little as he chooses, whenever he wants. An ORS, in short, is like a flexible bank account.

The arrangement falls outside the CRS [Common Reporting Standard] and FATCA because the Hong Kong authorities classify ORS as “low risk” from a tax-evasion standpoint, meaning those running them are “non-reporting financial institutions” under both standards. Not surprisingly, some financial firms are hawking them enthusiastically to foreigners.

Another strategy exploits the secrecy provided by the United States:

It gets all the information it needs from other countries through its heavy-handed application of FATCA, and therefore sees no need to sign up to the CRS. So it is in the unique position of being able to take a lot, give little, and continue getting away with it. Not surprisingly, lots of tainted foreign cash is believed to have flowed into American banks, trusts and shell companies in recent years.

Tax Evasion in a (the) New World

In the FT, Vanessa Houlder reports about the tax evasion business. The new regulatory environment has led to portfolio adjustments and new types of behavior, and it exposes vast differences in enforcement across countries:

  • Diamonds in vaults rather than financial assets.
  • Trusts in South Dakota rather than anonymous bank accounts.
  • Moving to a different country rather than just shifting assets.
  • FATCA versus the Common Reporting Standard.

The article also links to an article by Kara Scannell and Vanessa Houlder earlier in the year entitled “US tax havens: The new Switzerland.” That article includes the following quotes:

I think the US is already the world’s largest offshore centre. It has done a real good job disabling competition from Swiss banks.

In a world where it’s very hard to hide ownership or hide assets sometimes the easiest place [is one] no one would normally think of, which is the US.

India’s Fight Against Shady Cash Holdings

India follows suggestions to fight tax evasion by taking high denomination notes out of circulation … and introducing new ones. Until the end of the year, Indians may exchange the old banknotes against new ones, at banks or post offices, by identifying themselves. On his blog, J P Koning discusses earlier demonetization episodes in Iraq and Sweden.

India’s move does not exactly follow the well publicized suggestions currently debated. But it might work.

The Demand for Cash

On his blog, J P Koning discusses Kenneth Rogoff’s proposal to abolish high denomination notes (discussed earlier). Koning concludes:

I agree with Rogoff’s general point that it makes sense to burden cash users with ever more work since this burden disproportionately falls on heavy users like criminals. But Rogoff hasn’t yet convinced me that the status quo policy of gradually increasing the workload involved in cash usage (via inflation) needs to be sped up by a sudden removal of every bill above the $10. After all, the Swedes are setting an example of how a policy of gradualism can be twinned with tax policy in order to get some of the very effects that Rogoff advocates, namely pulling people out of the underground economy into the legal economy.

Koning refers to Martin Enlund’s post on the Nordea blog; Enlund suggests that decreased cash demand in Sweden may partly be due to policy reforms that rendered tax evasion less attractive.

Figure from Enlund blog:

42139

FATCA in Reverse?

The Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament wants the European Union to exert more pressure on the United States: the US should no longer serve as a “tax haven” for European tax dodgers. Proposed measures include blacklisting and a FATCA-type 30% withholding tax on EU-sourced payments.

From the executive summary of the report commissioned by the group:

Two global transparency initiatives are underway that could help tackle financial crimes including tax evasion, money laundering and corruption: registration of beneficial ownership for companies (to identify the real persons owning or controlling such companies) and automatic exchange of bank account information between tax administrations. The European Union has made progress in both respects, with the adoption of a 4th anti-money laundering Directive (in May 2015) and by committing to implement the OECD’s common reporting standard for automatic exchange of financial account information. The United States (U.S.), in contrast, has done neither so far.

On May 5th, 2016 the U.S. announced new measures to improve its financial transparency, although not all the texts of the proposed regulations were provided. The U.S. Treasury announced three new measures: … In any case, not only would some of these new rules require Congress approval, but even the U.S. Treasury final proposals on beneficial ownership collection by financial institutions are not enough to solve all the problems nor to bring the U.S. into line with the OECD’s standard for automatic exchange of information. …

Two main issues in the U.S. affect the global progress towards transparency: … Company registration is regulated by each of the 50 states’ law. In 14 states, companies may be created identifying neither shareholders nor managers. At the federal level, tax rules require filing some information to obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN). However, not all companies require an EIN and, even if they do, the ‘beneficial owners’ (the actual natural persons owning or controlling the company) are not necessarily among the information to be provided. Companies only have to identify one ‘responsible party’, who may be a nominee director. In order to (partially) address this, the White House 2017 budget proposal and the new measures proposed on May 5th, 2016 suggest requiring all companies (or according to the May 5th proposed rules, at least some foreign-owned disregarded entities, such as single-member limited liability companies) to obtain an EIN. Not only does this proposal need to become effective, but information would apparently still be about the ‘responsible party’ and not necessarily about the real physical person owning and controlling the company (the so-called beneficial owner).

… The U.S. has refused to join the trend for multilateral automatic exchange of information. Instead, it will implement its domestic law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and the related Inter-Governmental Agreements signed with other countries. However, these involve unequal exchanges of information: the U.S. receives more information than what it sends (for example, about beneficial ownership data). Oddly, though, the OECD did not include the U.S. among jurisdictions that did not commit to its new standard.

Even if the U.S. committed to exchange equal levels of information in the future, the current U.S. legal framework does not allow its financial institutions to collect beneficial ownership information for all relevant cases covered by the OECD’s global automatic exchange of information standard. U.S. financial institutions are currently only required to obtain information on beneficial owners for correspondent banking (i.e. accounts held for foreign financial institutions) and for private banking of non-U.S. clients (accounts holding more than USD 1 million).

Final rules to address these limitations have been announced on May 5th, 2016 although financial institutions must comply with them only by May 11th, 2018. However, the final rules still have the same problems that the IMF identified regarding the 2014 version of the rules so they will not fix all the problems. Remaining shortcomings include: some entities will still not be covered (i.e. insurance companies), the definition of ‘beneficial owner’ is incomplete (it does not include the ‘control through other means’ test, meaning that if you cannot identify at least one person owning 25% or more of the shares, financial institutions should try to find someone who controls the company through other means, before identifying only someone with a managerial position-who may be a nominee director), the verification of information would rely mainly on customer’s own certification, information on beneficial owners would be required for new accounts only (not for existing ones) and it will not need to be updated after the first time of collection, unless the financial institution becomes aware of changes as part of monitoring for risks. In addition, trusts will not be required to provide beneficial ownership information unless they own enough equity in an entity, such as a company, required to provide this information.

To fix this situation and promote equal levels of transparency, this paper provides a series of recommendations. For example, the European Union should consider including the U.S. in the upcoming list of tax havens, unless it effectively ensures registration of beneficial ownership information for companies and commits to equal levels of automatic exchange of information with European Union countries. Ideally, all financial centres should effectively implement the OECD standard for automatic exchange of information (by becoming a party to the OECD Amended Multilateral Tax Convention, signing the Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement and agreeing to exchange information with all other cosignatories). The European Union could thus consider imposing a sanction (such as a 30% withholding tax on all EU-sourced payments) against any financial institution that refuses to automatically exchange information about EU residents holding accounts abroad. In a second stage, sanctions could also be used to ensure that financial institutions from financial centres will also provide information to developing countries with which the European Union is already exchanging information.

Reports by René Höltschi in the NZZ as well as Markus Fruehauf und Winand von Petersdorff in the FAZ.

Nevada Shell Companies, Elliott and Argentina—Some Unforeseen Consequences

In an earlier post (April 2015) I wrote:

The Economist reports about Nevada shell companies. In its eternal struggle against the Republic of Argentina, Elliott Management is inquiring about several shell companies in the state. They are suspected to own funds that might have been stolen from the Republic. The hedge fund reasons that it is entitled to those funds because they belong to Argentina, and Argentina owes 2 billion dollars to Elliott according to earlier court rulings. Elliott sued in Nevada for information on the shell companies and has been partially successful.

Now, The Economist reports about some unforeseen consequences of the earlier ruling and the “Panama Papers affair”:

Until now, getting information on clients of law firms in Panama has been [difficult]. … But sleuths may soon find it a lot easier, thanks to a court ruling in, of all places, Las Vegas.

In 2014 Elliott, a fund that owned debt on which Argentina had defaulted, sued in Nevada to compel Mossack’s local affiliate to provide information on shell companies, in the hope of discovering Argentine assets to seize. The affiliate, MF Nevada, claimed—implausibly—that it was independent of Mossack. …

A judge in Las Vegas ruled in March 2015 that Mossack and MF Nevada were one and the same. That put a crack in the wall of secrecy around American shell companies. But its full significance is only now becoming apparent: it means that, under an American law about assisting with foreign legal proceedings, any investigator anywhere in the world can subpoena Mossack, through the Nevada subsidiary, for information that could be relevant to cases in any country. …

Faced with the power of American subpoenas, Mossack’s head office will find it much harder to stonewall foreign requests for information. Ignoring them could mean being found in contempt of court. That would leave it open to penalties designed to compel it to comply, including asset seizures, in other countries where it operates.

 

EU Tax Blacklist

The Economist reports (somewhat belated) about a blacklist put together by the European Union. The EU list aggregates lists of member states which applied different criteria and in parts were outdated. The Economist writes:

As pressure has mounted, however, Brussels has backtracked. At a meeting with the 30 ostracised states last month, it agreed to make clearer reference to efforts that some of them have made to adhere to new tax-transparency standards—though it is not clear if it will ditch the “non-co-operative” label.

“Leben ohne Bargeld (Life without Cash),” SRF, 2015

SRF, Echo der Zeit, May 18, 2015. AUDIO, HTML.

  • The availability of cash has costs: It eases tax evasion and money laundering and obstructs monetary policy at the zero lower bound.
  • But it also has benefits.
  • And the zero lower bound constraint can be relaxed otherwise, using taxes or an exchange rate.

Removing the Zero Lower Bound on Interest Rates

Imperial College London (the business school’s Brevan Howard Centre), CEPR and the Swiss National Bank organized a conference on this topic in London.

Most of the speakers agreed that giving central banks the option to move interest rates much further into negative territory would be valuable; and that deposit rates lower than minus half a percent p.a. are difficult to sustain without triggering major cash withdrawals. There was less agreement on how to avoid such withdrawals. Some favored phasing out cash, as this would also render tax evasion and money laundering more difficult; others were unwilling to sacrifice the privacy benefits of cash. But many speakers emphasized that there are other possibilities to achieve the same objective. (See my earlier blog post.)

Nevada Shell Companies, Elliott and Argentina

The Economist reports about Nevada shell companies. In its eternal struggle against the Republic of Argentina, Elliott Management is inquiring about several shell companies in the state. They are suspected to own funds that might have been stolen from the Republic. The hedge fund reasons that it is entitled to those funds because they belong to Argentina, and Argentina owes 2 billion dollars to Elliott according to earlier court rulings. Elliott sued in Nevada for information on the shell companies and has been partially successful.

Bleak Prospects for Greece

My colleague Harris Dellas argues in swissinfo.ch that it is too easy to blame a tax dodging elite for the Greek malaise; tax evasion is much more prevalent, not least because a large share of the population is self employed, and institutionally ingrained. He doubts that the current government is better equipped to address the problem than earlier ones. And he fears that Grexit could turn Greece into a failed state.

Also, an open letter (in Greek and German, PDF) by Greek academics (mostly living abroad I presume). They doubt that the current Greek government actually helps to restore the country’s dignity as intended.

“Notenbankgeld für Alle? (Reserves for Everyone?),” NZZ, 2015

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, February 20, 2015. PDF, HTML. Ökonomenstimme, February 24, 2015. HTML.

  • Allowing the general public to hold reserves at the central bank could help reduce the risk of bank runs and the negative consequences of deposit insurance.
  • It would end the need to accept bank deposits as means of payment although they are not legal tender; this need arises due to prohibitions on cash payments, for tax reasons.
  • But it could also have negative consequences: Money and credit creation by banks would be undermined, with social costs and benefits.
  • Price stability and financial stability could be threatened during the transition period.
  • More technical questions would have to be addressed as well: They concern the payment system or the conduct of monetary policy.
  • Proposals to go further and to abolish cash are not convincing. One suggested benefit—more leeway for monetary policy makers—is over estimated: Negative rates can also be engineered (effectively) through fiscal policy, and they can fully be implemented with a flexible exchange rate between reserves and cash.
  • Another suggested benefit—better monitoring of tax dodgers and criminals—is also overrated; the fixed cost to circumvent the measure would deter minor illegal activity but not major one.
  • But abolishing cash would have severe negative consequences for privacy and could negatively affect financial literacy.
  • Enforcing an abolishment of cash would be difficult. In a free society, any reform to the monetary system is constrained by the requirement that money must remain attractive for its users.

Swiss Leaks

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published a report that seems to suggest that HSBC’s Swiss branch violated Swiss laws; helped customers to hide assets; and assisted in money laundering activities. The report is based on information that Hervé Falciani, a former HSBC employee-turned-whistleblower, handed over to French authorities in 2008.

The small print (in the footer of the “Swiss Leaks” website) reads:

There are legitimate uses for Swiss bank accounts and trusts. We do not intend to suggest or imply that any persons, companies or other entities included in the ICIJ Swiss Leaks interactive application have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly.

Additional reporting in The Guardian, FTNZZ, Süddeutsche Zeitung.

“Reserves For Everyone—Towards a New Monetary Regime?,” VoxEU, 2015

VoxEU, January 21, 2015. HTML.

New proposals to phase out cash are set to revive an old debate. Contributions to this debate focus on two related but independent issues: granting the general public access to central bank reserves; and phasing out cash.

Abolishing cash is neither necessary nor sufficient. But allowing the public to hold reserves at the central bank could have substantial benefits. Technical questions need careful consideration.