LatAm advancing along tax transparency highway

Friday, February 9, 2018

In terms of global efforts to combat tax evasion, this year is a particularly important one.

That's because major financial centers Switzerland and Panama are due to implement the OECD's Common Reporting Standard (CRS) - one of various international initiatives designed to boost tax transparency.

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Both countries are seen as secretive jurisdictions when it comes to sharing financial information. Indeed, international advocacy group the Tax Justice Network (TJN) brands Switzerland the "grandfather of the world's tax havens."

Panama - thrust into the spotlight following the Panama Papers scandal - is working to burnish its image. Adopting the CRS is part of these efforts.

In January the country became the 98th to sign the CRS Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement, one of four constituent parts of the CRS. And, with Barbados and Jamaica, the region's financial hub inked the landmark BEPS Multilateral Convention to strengthen tax treaties. Other BEPS signatories were Ivory Coast, Malaysia and Tunisia.

At the signing of the CRS agreement, OECD deputy secretary general Masamichi Kono said: "I congratulate Panama on taking this very substantial step towards putting in place a truly global exchange network for the automatic exchange of financial account information. Your signing today puts Panama in an excellent position to fully deliver on its commitment to start CRS exchanges with all interested appropriate partners in September of this year."

Other regional jurisdictions scheduled to implement the standard this year include Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, the Bahamas, Grenada, Belize, Uruguay and Barbados.

The TJN, in its 2018 Financial Secrecy Index, said Panama can choose who it exchanges information with under the CRS and that the scope of BEPS is limited.

The TJN added: "But more importantly, these commitments can be seen for the cynical actions they are if placed next to some of Panama's other ongoing activities: like offering passports for sale so that people who are keeping their money in other jurisdictions that have signed up for automatic exchange will have their tax information sent to the authorities in their new 'country' - Panama - who are extremely likely to fail to do anything with it."  

An estimated US$21tn-32tn of private financial wealth is located in secrecy jurisdictions and is untaxed or lightly taxed, according to the TJN

Investors - particularly multilateral organizations and government development agencies - consider financial transparency when assessing a country or project.

"In international trade and other intergovernmental dealings, countries will obviously judge their foreign counterparts on their readiness and ability to effectively implement initiatives such as CRS," Lyndsey Wheeler, managing director of financial and business compliance services firm TMF's Central America operations (pictured), told BNamericas.

Wheeler said that, while implementing standards such as CRS presents key stakeholders, financial institutions and regulators with headaches in areas including technology and resourcing, adoption pays off.

Wheeler said: "The cost of being excluded from international trade deals, inaccessibility to international aid and the possibility of deteriorating international cooperation, as well as being blacklisted, may prove to be much higher.

"It is especially important for developing markets in the Americas because there are still countries that depend heavily on international aid. That will definitely twist their arms to get them to participate in these initiatives."

In January the EU removed Panama, Barbados and Grenada from its blacklist of non-compliant tax havens after EU authorities assessed commitments made by the three nations to up their game. The original December 5 listing sparked a swift response from the countries.

"The EU's decision has demonstrated the reality of Panama," Panama's vice president Isabel de Saint Malo said last month on Twitter. "Our commitment has been and continues to be compliance with the highest standards of international transparency."

Companies that fall under the CRS include banks, insurers, funds, trustees and asset managers.  

Wheeler said that the Dominican Republic launched a transparency initiative that requires firms, from this year, to provide ultimate beneficial ownership information in their tax returns. 

The scheme is the first of its kind in the firm's mid-Americas region, which comprises Central America as well as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

Countries including Peru, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Nicaragua and Guatemala have not adopted CRS.

Some of these nations, however, have signed the OECD's Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters.

"This confirms to the international community that international tax cooperation and the fight against international evasion and tax avoidance is on the agenda of these governments," said Wheeler.

Wheeler believes some will eventually join the CRS and receive aid to help implement the standard.

Financial institutions in the signatory nations are the main focus of the standard - and face the biggest task in terms of implementation. Gathering data and developing technology to transmit it to tax authorities are major hurdles.

"They have an obligation under CRS and the data is the most important factor and is also the biggest challenge," said Wheeler. "They have so many accounts and they have to go back and pick up this additional information that's required in order to comply."

In terms of deadlines, OECD has been flexible with countries implementing the standard because of the associated complexities, among them so-called first adopter jurisdictions Argentina, Curaçao, BVI and Cayman Islands.

Other first adopters, which committed to start automatically exchanging tax information from 2017, include Mexico, Colombia, and Turks and Caicos Islands.

Penalties for non-compliance vary in the region but include both fines and prison sentences.