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Posts Tagged ‘Financial Privacy’

There hasn’t been much good economic news in recent years, but one bright spot for the economy is that the United States is a haven for foreign investors and this has helped attract more than $10 trillion to American capital markets according to Commerce Department data.

These funds are hugely important for the health of the U.S. financial sector and are a critical source of funds for new job creation and other forms of investment.

This is a credit to the competitiveness of American banks and other financial institutions, but we also should give credit to politicians. For more than 90 years, Congress has approved and maintained laws to attract investment from overseas. As a general rule, foreigners are not taxed on interest they earn in America. Moreover, by not requiring it to be reported to the IRS, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have effectively blocked foreign governments from taxing this U.S.-source income.

This is why it is so disappointing and frustrating that the Internal Revenue Service is creating grave risks for the American economy by pushing a regulation that would drive a significant slice of this foreign capital to other nations. More specifically, the IRS wants banks to report how much interest they pay foreign depositors so that this information can be forwarded to overseas tax authorities.

Yes, you read correctly. The IRS is seeking to abuse its regulatory power to overturn existing law.

Not surprisingly, many members of Congress are rather upset by this rogue behavior.

Senator Rubio, for instance, just sent a letter to President Obama, slamming the IRS and urging the withdrawal of the regulation.

At a time when unemployment remains high and economic growth is lagging, forcing banks to report interest paid to nonresident aliens would encourage the flight of capital overseas to jurisdictions without onerous reporting requirements, place unnecessary burdens on the American economy, put our financial system at a fundamental competitive disadvantage, and would restrict access to capital when our economy can least afford it. …I respectfully ask that Regulation 146097-09 be permanently withdrawn from consideration. This regulation would have a highly detrimental effect on our economy at a time when pro-growth measures are sorely needed.

And here’s what the entire Florida House delegation (including all Democrats) had to say in a separate letter organized by Congressman Posey.

America’s financial institutions benefit greatly from deposits of foreigners in U.S. banks. These deposits help finance jobs and generate economic growth… For more than 90 years, the United States has recognized the importance of foreign deposits and has refrained from taxing the interest earned by them or requiring their reporting. Unfortunately, a rule proposed by the Internal Revenue Service would overturn this practice and likely result in the flight of hundreds of billions of dollars from U.S. financial institutions. …According to the Commerce Department, foreigners have $10.6 trillion passively invested in the U.S. economy, including nearly “$3.6 trillion reported by U.S. banks and securities brokers.” In addition, a 2004 study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University estimated that “a scaled back version of the rule would drive $88 billion from American financial institutions,” and this version of the regulation will be far more damaging.

Both Texas Senators also have registered their opposition. Senators Hutchison and Cornyn wrote to the Obama Administration earlier this month.

We are very concerned that this proposed regulation will bring serious harm to the Texas economy, should it go into effect. …Forgoing the taxation of deposit interest paid to certain global investors is a long-standing tax policy that helps attract capital investment to the United States. For generations, these investors have placed their funds in institutions in Texas and across the United States because of the safety of our banks. Another reason that many of these investors deposit funds in American institutions is the instability in their home countries. …With less capital, community banks will be able to extend less credit to working families and small businesses. Ultimately, working families and small businesses will bear the brunt of this ill-advised rule. Given the ongoing fragility of our nation’s economy, we must not pursue policies that will send away job-creating capital.We ask you to withdraw the IRS’s proposed REG-14609-09. The United States should continue to encourage deposits from global investors, as our nation and our economy are best served by this policy.

Their dismay shouldn’t be too surprising since their state would be especially disadvantaged. Here are key passages from a story in the Houston Chronicle.

Texas bankers fear Mexican nationals will yank their deposits if the institutions are required to report to the Internal Revenue Service the interest income non-U.S. residents earn. …such a requirement would drive billions of dollars in deposits to other countries from banks in Texas and other parts the country, hindering the economic recovery, bankers argue. About a trillion dollars in deposits from foreign nationals are in U.S. bank accounts, according to some estimates. …The issue is of particular concern to some banks in South Texas, where many Mexican nationals have moved deposits because they don’t feel their money is safe in institutions in Mexico. …”This proposal has caused a wave of panic in Mexico,” said Lindsay Martin, an estate-planning lawyer with Oppenheimer Blend Harrison + Tate in San Antonio. He has received in recent weeks more than a dozen calls from Mexican nationals and U.S.-based financial planners with questions on the rule. …Jabier Rodriguez, chief executive of Pharr-based Lone Star National Bank, said not one Mexican national he has spoken to backs the rule. “Several of them have said if it were to happen, then there’s no reason for us to have our money here anymore,” he said. Many Mexican nationals worry that the data could end up in the wrong hands, jeopardizing their safety. If people in Mexico and some South American nations find out they have a million dollars in an FDIC-insured account in the United States, “their families could be kidnapped,” added Alex Sanchez, president of the Florida Bankers Association.

For those who want more information about this critical issue, here’s a video explaining why the IRS’s unlawful regulation is very bad for the American economy.

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I’m not a big fan of the IRS, but usually I blame politicians for America’s corrupt, unfair, and punitive tax system. Sometimes, though, the tax bureaucrats run amok and earn their reputation as America’s most despised bureaucracy.

Here’s an example. Earlier this year, the Internal Revenue Service proposed a regulation that would force American banks to become deputy tax collectors for foreign governments. Specifically, they would be required to report any interest they pay to accounts held by nonresident aliens (a term used for foreigners who live abroad).

The IRS issued this proposal, even though Congress repeatedly has voted not to tax this income because of an understandable desire to attract job-creating capital to the U.S. economy. In other words, the IRS is acting like a rogue bureaucracy, seeking to overturn laws enacted through the democratic process.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The IRS’s interest-reporting regulation also threatens the stability of the American banking system, makes America less attractive for foreign investors, and weakens the human rights of people who live under corrupt and tyrannical governments.

This Center for Freedom and Prosperity video outlines five specific reason why the IRS regulation is bad news and should be withdrawn.

I’m not sure what upsets me most. As a believer in honest and lawful government, it is outrageous that the IRS is abusing the regulatory process to pursue an ideological agenda that is contrary to 90 years of congressional law. But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see this kind of policy from the IRS with Obama in the White House. After all, this Administration already is using the EPA in a dubious scheme to impose costly global warming rules even though Congress decided not to approve Obama’s misguided legislation.

As an economist, however, I worry about the impact on the U.S. banking sector and the risks for the overall economy. Foreigners invest lots of money in the American economy, more than $10 trillion according to Commerce Department data. This money boosts our financial markets and creates untold numbers of jobs. We don’t know how much of the capital will leave if the regulation is implemented, but even the loss of a couple of hundred billion dollars would be bad news considering the weak recovery and shaky financial sector.

As a decent human being, I’m also angry that Obama’s IRS is undermining the human rights of foreigners who use the American financial system as a safe haven. Countless people protect their assets in America because of corruption, expropriation, instability, persecution, discrimination, and crime in their home countries. The only silver lining is that these people will simply move their money to safer jurisdictions, such as Panama, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, or Switzerland, if the regulation is implemented. That’s great news for them, but bad news for the U.S. economy.

In pushing this regulation, the IRS even disregarded rule-making procedures adopted during the Clinton Administration. But all this is explained in the video, so let’s close this post with a link to a somewhat naughty – but very appropriate – joke about the IRS.

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Greetings from Montreux, Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva. There aren’t many places where palm trees are framed by snow-capped mountains. Heck, even I managed to take a decent photo.

But let’s shift back to the world of public policy. Every time I’m in Switzerland, my admiration for the country increases. Here are five ways Switzerland is better than the United States.

1. The burden of government spending is lower in Switzerland. According to OECD, the public sector consumes only 33.1 percent of economic output in Switzerland, compared to 41.1 percent of GDP in the United States.

2. Switzerland has genuine federalism, with the national government responsible for only about one-third of government spending. The United States used to be like that, but now more than two-thirds of government spending comes from Washington.

3. Because of a belief that individuals have a right to control information about their personal affairs, Switzerland has a strong human rights policy that protects financial privacy. In the United States, the government can look at your bank account and does not even need a search warrant.

4. Switzerland has a positive form of multiculturalism with people living together peacefully notwithstanding different languages and different religions. In the United States, by contrast, the government causes strife and resentment with a system of racial spoils.

5. Gun ownership is pervasive in Switzerland, and the Swiss people value this freedom. Moreover, how can one not admire a nation where all able-bodied males have fully automatic rifles in their homes? To be sure, the United States is very good by world standards in protecting this freedom, so the  Swiss don’t really have an advantage on this issue, but it’s still worth mentioning.

Notwithstanding my admiration for Switzerland, there are five reasons why I don’t plan on expatriating.

1. I’m not rich and don’t particularly see how I will get rich anytime soon. Switzerland is not a cheap place to live.

2. It would be very time-consuming and expensive to go to Georgia Bulldog games, and I doubt the games would be on TV.

3. Speaking of sports, the Swiss share the disturbing European propensity to follow soccer.

4. It’s not warm enough.

5. Even though it’s considered a bit uncouth among some libertarians, I do have certain patriotic impulses. I’m not about to surrender my nation to the plundering thieves from Washington.

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Here’s a new mini-documentary from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, narrated by Natasha Montague of Americans for Tax Reform, that explains why the process of tax competition is a critical constraint on the propensity of governments to over-tax and over-spend.

The issue is very simple. When labor and capital have the ability to escape bad policy by moving across borders, politicians are more likely to realize that it is foolish to impose high tax rates. And they oftentimes compete for jobs and investment by lowering tax rates. This virtuous form of rivalry helps explain why so many nations in recent years have lowered tax rates and adopted simple and fair flat tax systems.

Another great feature of the video is the series of quotes from winners of the Nobel Prize. These economists all recognize competition between governments is just as desirable as competition between banks, pet stores, and supermarkets.

The video also discusses how politicians are attacking tax competition. It mentions a privacy-eroding scheme concocted by governors to tax out-of-state purchases (how dare consumers buy online and avoid state sales tax!).

And it also discusses a very destructive tax harmonization effort by a Paris-based bureaucracy (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, subsidized with American tax dollars!), which would undermine fiscal sovereignty by punishing jurisdictions that adopt pro-growth tax systems that attract labor and capital.

The issues discussed in this video generally don’t get a lot of attention, but they are critical for the long-run battle to restrain government. Please share widely.

P.S. This speech by Florida’s new Governor is a good example of how tax competition encourages governments to do the right thing.

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For the more than a decade the Internal Revenue Service has been chasing after potential U.S. tax evaders by forcing foreign jurisdictions and banks to become deputy tax collectors. From the Know-Your-Customer regulations to the Qualified Intermediary regime, non-U.S. banks have mostly complied with the IRS’s bullying. But as the excerpted article below discusses, U.S. tax collectors may have bitten off too much with the passage of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which dramatically modified the U.S. withholding tax and information reporting regimes for U.S. persons, non-U.S. banks and other financial institutions. A new 30-percent withholding tax was mandated on payments to foreign financial institutions (FFIs) that do not comply with disclosure requirements for U.S.-based account holders. Imposing draconian reporting requirements on the rest of the world does not serve American interests. FATCA will make it more difficult for Americans to raise foreign capital, prevent law-abiding Americans from investing in the institutions of their choice, and potentially spark reciprocal action by other governments against U.S. banks. (These and other problems CF&P has with the new law are spelled out in a September 2010 letter I sent to Stephen E. Shay, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs, U.S. Treasury Department.)

In his Forbes.com blog entry, George Clarke warns that non-U.S. banks and institutions may finally have enough of Uncle Sam’s bullying:

…For those readers who have recently emerged from a North Korean nuclear bunker for a smoke break, the U.S. has been cracking down on Swiss and other foreign bank accounts held (and undeclared) by its citizenry. A general problem with that crackdown is that it depends for its success on knowing which U.S. taxpayers have those accounts (the IRS does not have unlimited resources and cannot audit everyone). And the foreign banks – who derive income from the services they provide to this group of U.S. (non)taxpayers – may not disclose them unless they have to (as UBS did when its own existence was put on the negotiating table). FATCA posits a simple premise: banks will trade the “carrot” of access to U.S. stock and securities markets in exchange for ratting out these accountholders. The “stick” in this equation is a withholding tax on income earned from our markets should the bank decide not to sign up.

While FATCA is simple, its ramifications are anything but. As one set of observers view the world, U.S. stock and securities are not worth subjecting oneself to the rigors of American extra-territorialism. This is particularly the case where there is money to be made catering to those U.S. taxpayers who would continue to ignore U.S. tax laws. More pro-American voices admit the annoyance of expanding U.S. mandates against other nation’s institutions but view U.S. capital markets as too important to lose for a relatively small clientele of non-disclosed U.S. business. They also note that where America leads – at least historically – others will follow; so the days of offshore money may be as numbered as the accounts containing it. The differences in these viewpoints implicate nothing less than American exceptionalism. Do we still have enough sway in the world economy to cash the check written by FATCA; to offer up our capital markets in exchange for the tax evaders? Watch closely, as the number of banks signing up to FATCA will tell us how strongly the beacon still burns (at least as far as capital is concerned).

September 1, 2010, Letter on FATCA sent to Stephen E. Shay, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Affairs, U.S. Treasury Department
http://www.freedomandprosperity.org/fatca/shay-2010-09-01.pdf

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It was only a few decades ago that there was no such thing as money-laundering laws. Instead, the focus of law enforcement was on the underlying criminal behavior (such as robbery) that generated ill-gotten gains. In recent decades, however, politicians around the world have passed hundreds of laws, created hundreds of agencies, and spawned several international bureaucracies and treaties. The theory is that crime could be discouraged by making it more difficult for bad guys to make use of any resulting loot.

In reality, though, money-laundering laws have been a huge failure. From a cost-benefit perspective, there is an overwhelming case that these laws should be radically revised if not totally repealed.

The current approach has significantly increased the expense of providing financial services, which is particularly burdensome for the poor and others at risk of not being able to utilize the financial system. These laws also have dramatically eroded privacy, forcing financial service providers and professional advisers to spy on customers and clients. To get a sense of what this means, here’s a blurb from a recent article in the U.K.’s Law Society Gazette.

…an official from the World Bank’s Financial Market Integrity Unit…described his research on the kind of large-scale money laundering that takes place globally. At the end of his presentation, which he admitted touched only tangentially on the role of lawyers, he said that his research showed that the overwhelming majority of lawyer participation in money laundering took place by deliberate action of the lawyer, and not through unwitting manipulation by the criminal. Then I intervened. If that was the case, if money laundering overwhelmingly involves crooked lawyers and not unwitting ones, then why do we have the gigantic and unwieldy money laundering legislation in place for lawyers, with its duty to report suspicious transactions without tipping off the client, which turns the lawyer into a police officer? Obviously, if a lawyer is deliberately involved in the laundering, there are existing laws and professional rules to deal with it. But why must the balance of the rule of law, which depends on a client being able to confide information to a lawyer, be upset for a problem that does not exist? That is when the audience applauded. …I think it is time to use more of our resources to push for exposure of the lie on which the money laundering legislation is based. There is no evidence that unwitting lawyers’ reports are making any difference. Give us the evidence or repeal the legislation.

From a utilitarian standpoint, these costs might be justifiable if they resulted in a substantial reduction in crimes against people and property. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that money-laundering laws have reduced criminal behavior (heck, they don’t even do a good job of intercepting criminal funds).

Yet politicians and bureaucrats every year seek more laws and more powers in hopes of somehow turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. The latest example is from the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based bureaucracy filled with people who make very good salaries thanks to the existing plethora of laws and regulations. These bureaucrats now want to make tax matters a predicate offense for money laundering. And they want such laws to apply across borders, so a bank in New York could be held accountable if a French worker or investor didn’t fully comply with France’s oppressive tax laws. Or a bank in Miami could be guilty of an offense if it helps a Venezuelan family protect its assets from Hugo Chavez’s thugocracy.

So many costs, so few benefits. This video elaborates.

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I’m in Singapore for two days to help fight the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a statist international bureaucracy based in Paris. The OECD has something called a global tax forum, the purpose of which is to harass so-called tax havens in hopes of coercing them into acting as tax collectors for Europe’s decrepit welfare states. Here’s the executive summary from the memo I wrote, which warns low-tax jurisdictions that the OECD may push even harder to undermine fiscal sovereignty because of fears that a GOP takeover of Congress will make it more difficult to push for tax harmonization policies in the future.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has an ongoing project to prop up Europe’s inefficient welfare states by attacking tax competition in hopes of enabling governments to impose heavier tax burdens. This project received a boost when the Obama Administration joined forces with countries such as France and Germany, but the tide is now turning against high-tax nations – particularly as more people understand that such an approach inevitably leads to Greek-style fiscal collapse. Looming political changes in the United States will further complicate the OECD’s ability to impose bad policy. Because of these developments, low-tax jurisdictions should be especially wary of schemes to rush through new anti-tax competition initiatives at the Singapore Global Forum.

The good news is that nothing dramatic took place on the first day of the two-day conference. The OECD continued to bully low-tax jurisdictions to sign information-sharing agreements and the low-tax jurisdictions kept asking for double-taxation agreements so they could get some benefit in exchange for weakening their human rights/financial privacy laws. The OECD and high-tax nations have been ignoring these requests for a two-way street, thus continuing their bad-faith behavior.

For more information on this issue, here’s a link to my video on tax competition, and here are a handful of TV appearances where I discuss the issue. This is a challenging issue to debate, so I’d welcome feedback on which arguments you think are most effective.

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