Friday, February 14, 2014

OECD's Plan for Global Tax Info Exchange: Could be Deja Vu All Over Again

The OECD has released its "Common Reporting Standard," a.k.a. a global "Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information." The plan more or less tracks the so-called "intergovernmental agreements" (IGAs) that the US Treasury is using to try to get the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act working. But the OECD's model for the world differs in two critical respects:

  1. it is based on the global standard of residence-based taxation
  2. it would require reciprocity

One obvious question is whether the US would sign on to this standard, since it represents a major reduction of the massive expansion of the US taxpayer base contemplated by FATCA. If not, can one really envision a world in which everyone shares data reciprocally except the United States, which not only does not share data reciprocally but also places the most expansive demands on everyone else? (For those not following along, the US claims people based on their legal status in the US as well as their actual residence, in contravention of the global norm reflected in the OECD standard, which rejects the former claim in favor of the latter. In terms of reciprocity, what the US calls reciprocal with respect to data sharing is so far reciprocal in name only).

A related issue that already exists under FATCA and will be expanded exponentially under the OECD plan is that reciprocity means every government bears the cost of incorporating expansive financial surveillance (in the case of the US, far beyond that required for all other countries) yet as the Tax Justice Network points out, this formal equality in fact introduces substantive inequality and potentially great harm to poorer countries.

Readers of my prior work (on soft law, on the OECD's norm-creating role, and on its grappling with the issue of sovereignty) will know that I am cautious about the premise of accepting proclamations of the OECD about "global" tax norms.

In the case of residence-based taxation, however, this is not an OECD-created norm but one that dates to the very beginnings of modern income taxation and while flawed is the best available structure if more than one country in the world is going to have an income tax and people are going to be allowed to leave their countries freely if they so choose. Relax either of those assumptions and legal status-based taxation might become technically feasible, though it would still be fundamentally unjust. Neither is the reciprocity norm an OECD invention: instead, its roots trace back to post-Westphalian fundamental international legal principles.

The OECD's forging ahead with a plan that more or less relies heavily on US acceptance is eerily reminiscent of the last OECD attempt to curb tax evasion, via the harmful tax practices initiative. The US first supporting and then completely reversing course eviscerated that effort, thus cementing the status quo we witness today.

US exceptionalism with respect to who should be considered its residents and what it can be compelled to share with other countries cannot help but perpetuate a grave reciprocity imbalance that will only be exacerbated if the US does not sign up to the OECD standard, and the OECD accepts a carve-out to accommodate it.

Given that efforts toward a repeal of FATCA and an ongoing legal challenge to data reporting by US banks are currently unfolding in the US, the OECD's report comes at an interesting juncture in the process of picking up where the harmful tax practices project left off. It could unfortunately foreshadow a repeat of the events that unfolded in that project circa 2001. Or, more optimistically, it could be that the OECD report is a means of giving the US a reason and the political cover to bring its antiquated status-based tax regime up to date with the global residence-based standard, and its one-sided view of the value of data sharing in line with how the rest of the world views things. That would make global automatic data exchange of offshore financial accounts a much more clearly positive development overall, leaving room to focus on solving the other outstanding issues. Only time will tell which way this will unfold.


  1. Looks like it's déjà bonus all over again: