The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists: OECD’s plan to end bank secrecy

By Hamish Boland-Rudder

Despite coming with news that more than €37 billion worth of hidden wealth has been revealed in transparency drives, the announcement of a new financial information exchange scheme was greeted with skepticism by activist groups this week.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published full details of its global Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters on Monday, which has been under development for months as part of an international drive for more transparency in the banking sector.

The standard provides a framework for governments to obtain detailed account information from their financial institutions and share it annually with other jurisdictions.

It would include sharing information about who owns the account, and the amount of money in the account, to help governments fight tax fraud and evasion.

“[This] launch moves us closer to a world in which tax cheats have nowhere left to hide,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria in a statement.

The OECD said more than 65 countries and jurisdictions, including Switzerland, Luxembourg and Singapore, have already publicly committed to implementation of the new standard, with many looking to have structures in place by 2017. But other financial centers, such as Dubai and Panama have indicated they will resist any global push for greater transparency.

And the response so far from transparency activist groups has been mixed at best, as a number questioned the OECD’s commitment to including developing nations in the framework.

While Global Financial Integrity’s Heather Lowe welcomed the plan as a “successful and important step forward” she said the “real test will be whether the standards create a functioning and effective system … and whether that system is truly global, with low income countries permitted and willing to participate.”

The Tax Justice Network went a step further in their criticism of the OECD’s standard, and accused the organization of missing a “golden opportunity to make a real dent in the fight against corruption and tax evasion.”

“Yet again, the OECD has flunked an opportunity to rid the world of the curse of tax havenry,” said Tax Justice Network’s Markus Meinzer in a statement.

One of their primary criticisms is that developing countries will be forced to collect and provide information – a process that can be prohibitively costly and difficult – in order to take part in the scheme.

Tax havens, on the other hand, will have to provide information but can elect not to receive any in return.

“This does not reflect well on an organization whose membership includes so many of the world-leading tax havens,” Meinzer said.

The Financial Transparency Coalition was scathing in its analysis, attacking not only a perceived disregard of developing countries, but also the very publication and cost of the OECD’s report itself.

“Accessing the document is a perfect illustration of why this process needs to include low income countries from the start; it costs $73 to download the document—not an insignificant sum for a cash-strapped government, and a prohibitive amount for a citizen watchdog group,” said Porter McConnell, Manager of the Financial Transparency Coalition.

“It’s hardly a convincing sign that the automatic exchange standard is ‘ready for implementation’ or open to everyone.”

British aid organization Christian Aid was similarly unimpressed, and said the standard as it currently reads not only opened a number of loopholes for tax havens to exploit (including unequal standards for how information is shared), but also neglected to include mechanisms that would make the process easier to implement in developing nations.

“Since the move to automatic information exchange began we have heard rumors that some offshore centers are focusing their attentions on developing countries, knowing that they will be/can be excluded from such developments, and so provide a source of continued business profiting from tax evasion,” said Christian Aid’s economic adviser Joseph Stead.

As part of the publication of the standard, OECD released analysis which found more than 500,000 taxpayers from around the world have voluntarily disclosed hidden income and wealth to their relevant national tax authority since 2009, often taking advantage of reduced penalties to taxpayers who admitted having overseas accounts. The OECD said voluntary disclosure schemes have helped countries identify more than €37 billion in assets hidden overseas.

The information exchange standard has been released with a call for public comment to be submitted to the OECD by September 12. The standard will then be presented to the G20 Finance Ministers meeting in Australia in late September ahead of the full G20 Summit in November.

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Despite coming with news that more than €37 billion worth of hidden wealth has been revealed in transparency drives, the announcement of a new financial information exchange scheme was greeted with skepticism by activist groups this week.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published full details of its global Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters on Monday, which has been under development for months as part of an international drive for more transparency in the banking sector.

The standard provides a framework for governments to obtain detailed account information from their financial institutions and share it annually with other jurisdictions.

It would include sharing information about who owns the account, and the amount of money in the account, to help governments fight tax fraud and evasion.

“[This] launch moves us closer to a world in which tax cheats have nowhere left to hide,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria in a statement.

The OECD said more than 65 countries and jurisdictions, including Switzerland, Luxembourg and Singapore, have already publicly committed to implementation of the new standard, with many looking to have structures in place by 2017. But other financial centers, such as Dubai and Panama have indicated they will resist any global push for greater transparency.

And the response so far from transparency activist groups has been mixed at best, as a number questioned the OECD’s commitment to including developing nations in the framework.

While Global Financial Integrity’s Heather Lowe welcomed the plan as a “successful and important step forward” she said the “real test will be whether the standards create a functioning and effective system … and whether that system is truly global, with low income countries permitted and willing to participate.”

The Tax Justice Network went a step further in their criticism of the OECD’s standard, and accused the organization of missing a “golden opportunity to make a real dent in the fight against corruption and tax evasion.”

“Yet again, the OECD has flunked an opportunity to rid the world of the curse of tax havenry,” said Tax Justice Network’s Markus Meinzer in a statement.

One of their primary criticisms is that developing countries will be forced to collect and provide information – a process that can be prohibitively costly and difficult – in order to take part in the scheme.

Tax havens, on the other hand, will have to provide information but can elect not to receive any in return.

“This does not reflect well on an organization whose membership includes so many of the world-leading tax havens,” Meinzer said.

The Financial Transparency Coalition was scathing in its analysis, attacking not only a perceived disregard of developing countries, but also the very publication and cost of the OECD’s report itself.

“Accessing the document is a perfect illustration of why this process needs to include low income countries from the start; it costs $73 to download the document—not an insignificant sum for a cash-strapped government, and a prohibitive amount for a citizen watchdog group,” said Porter McConnell, Manager of the Financial Transparency Coalition.

“It’s hardly a convincing sign that the automatic exchange standard is ‘ready for implementation’ or open to everyone.”

British aid organization Christian Aid was similarly unimpressed, and said the standard as it currently reads not only opened a number of loopholes for tax havens to exploit (including unequal standards for how information is shared), but also neglected to include mechanisms that would make the process easier to implement in developing nations.

“Since the move to automatic information exchange began we have heard rumors that some offshore centers are focusing their attentions on developing countries, knowing that they will be/can be excluded from such developments, and so provide a source of continued business profiting from tax evasion,” said Christian Aid’s economic adviser Joseph Stead.

As part of the publication of the standard, OECD released analysis which found more than 500,000 taxpayers from around the world have voluntarily disclosed hidden income and wealth to their relevant national tax authority since 2009, often taking advantage of reduced penalties to taxpayers who admitted having overseas accounts. The OECD said voluntary disclosure schemes have helped countries identify more than €37 billion in assets hidden overseas.

The information exchange standard has been released with a call for public comment to be submitted to the OECD by September 12. The standard will then be presented to the G20 Finance Ministers meeting in Australia in late September ahead of the full G20 Summit in November.

Subscribe to The ICIJ Global Muckraker by email or get the RSS feed