Friday, February 28, 2014

FATCA in Canada-constitutional challenge mounting

A group of Canadians has put together a campaign to explore the constitutional violations posed by FATCA in Canada. Some of these issues were raised by pre-eminent constitutional scholar Peter Hogg, in this letter to Finance. Others arise because of the adoption of the intergovernmental agreement (IGA), which bypasses data protection laws and lacks even the minor anti-discrimination clause seen in other IGAs.

I've been asked if these issues are serious. I think they are. The issue FATCA raises for me is not so much sovereignty--though I perfectly understand the instinct on that front--but rather it is the problem of serious mismatch between the goals targeted and what will be attained by FATCA when law on the books meets law in practice. The constitutional challenge is a signal that something is seriously awry with FATCA. As with most activism, this effort demonstrates that a not-small number of people are experiencing some not-small violation of fundamental principles, and in light of government failure to respond, are forming grassroots responses in an effort to achieve a remedy.

Let's have a look at why this might be so.

The goals of FATCA are clear and the law writes a clear narrative that is palatable to the public: we must stop tax evasion. Who would possibly speak out against that goal? I don't know too many people that would.

However, the law in practice is a completely different story, with a normative dimension unique to the United States. This dimension has, as far as I can see, been completely ignored by lawmakers both in America and internationally. It involves the attempt by the United States to impose taxation of persons based on their legal status instead of their actual inclusion in American society.

I know that this s difficult to understand conceptually. An example might help.

A was born in Illinois to a Swedish mother and an American father. The family moved to Sweden when A was 6 months old, and she spent her whole life in Sweden, working there, paying taxes there, using the schools and the health care system there, and getting married to a fellow Swede. A is a US national, and therefore subject to US taxation as if A had done all of those things in America. A has always been subject to US taxation, and FATCA doesn't change that in the slightest. But A never paid any attention to US law or politics, decisions of the US Supreme Court, or Congressional hearings. Why would she? She is a resident of Sweden paying high taxes and living her life. A has bank accounts at her neighbourhood bank, and tax-deferred savings account sponsored by her government.

In the eye of FATCA, A is an offshore tax evader.

Since she is an evader, she must be monitored to ensure she is caught and brought to justice, and further that she goes forward in full compliance with all US tax laws. Since she cannot be trusted to come forward, her bank must disclose her personal and financial information, and that of her spouse (guilty by association), to the IRS. Since the bank has no incentive to do that, it must be threatened with sanctions if it fails to do so. Since banks don't want to work under that threat, Sweden must be compelled to step in and facilitate the data transfer.

As I have said often, this is an extraterritorial jurisdictional claim that requires the help of other countries. Getting help is not a choice, it is a necessity. One country simply cannot assert its jurisdiction over people who live in another country, without that other country's help. American scholars know this, and they say America should ask for the help it needs. The problem that we have seen FATCA reveal is that this help necessarily involves America's needs trumping domestic laws that apply to targeted persons in the country of their residence.

I do not think America should be demanding help from other countries in taxing the residents of those countries. America needs to learn to tax its own residents, like every other country must do. If the world's biggest economy cannot figure out how to make its own people pay for their own public goods, it is difficult to see why other countries should be enlisted to help it along.

This is why the mismatch between the law on the books and the law in practice is so troubling in the case of FATCA. Looking past the use of legal status instead of residence as a jurisdictional claim, a regime that requires financial institutions to report nonresident accounts to these account holder's home countries is absolutely necessary to protect the income tax base from widespread tax evasion facilitated by foreign bank secrecy laws.  Of that there is simply no doubt. To the extent FATCA can do that, it is to be applauded and most of all extended globally because this is a global issue. I explain and advance this argument here

Most countries cannot act alone in instituting this necessary regulatory structure, since foreign financial institutions would simply shun a given market rather than comply. This is the potentially positive side of what makes the United States different from most, maybe all, other countries. This also explains why the OECD is very very quickly trying to ride the coattails of FATCA (before it is too late and the US changes its mind about being part of a global data exchange system, as it has before), by gearing up to create a global FATCA, or call it a GATCA

GATCA is FATCA minus two key aspects: the normatively unjustifiable legal-status based tax, and most of the economic sanctions. The UK has done something similar with those same parameters with respect to a selected list of countries. (The OECD's GATCA is also fully reciprocal, but that deficiency in FATCA is another issue). These differences make a GATCA supportable exactly where FATCA is not (both systems have other major flaws but we can leave those aside for the big picture here).

FATCA's enforcement of legal-status based taxation renders it normatively unjustifiable. It violates the residence principle, which Reuven Avi-Yonah has gone so far as to call an international customary law. It is also of course completely unworkable on a global scale: imagine if other countries decided to learn from the US example and started smoking out their own disapora to enforce their own FATCA regimes. It is unimaginable that if the OECD countries got together and seriously debated status-based taxation, they would agree on a global standard to enforce it for all countries. The common reporting standard GATCA they have devised, which is so obviously based fundamentally on the residence principle, shows that the OECD recognizes that enforcing status-based taxation is not and should not be a goal of any project to counter tax evasion.

Yet no conversation is being had about the outlier, whose demands will make enforcement of GATCA more extensive and more expensive for every other country.

Residence based taxation is not perfect by any means but it is the least worst alternative if governments want to continue to use personal income taxes in a world in which individuals are to be allowed the freedom to move. FATCA deserves to fail to the extent it ignores this reality. A constitutional challenge will at minimum open a desperately needed political conversation about why this is so.

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.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Canada-US Agreement Reached on FATCA Data Sharing

Things have been exciting the past few days as a long-expected agreement on FATCA between Canada and the US was announced and Canada's Department of Finance released a flurry of accompanying materials. The US Treasury has now added Canada to the list of jurisdictions deemed to have an agreement in effect. I will have more analysis soon but just wanted to provide some of the most useful links to get things up to speed.

First, here is the text of the intergovernmental agreement--it is not a signed copy unfortunately, which leaves a couple of technical questions unanswered for now.  Here is the Press Release from the United States. Here is the Press Release from Canada, and here are explanatory notes to the agreement, a "backgrounder", and an FAQ,

Canada's Department of Finance has also produced a draft legislative proposal that would implement the agreement into Canadian law. This includes text for a new section on Enhanced International Information Reporting in the Income Tax Act. Assuming that the agreement is considered to be a treaty, Parliament needs to be officially notified that an agreement has been signed and 21 sitting days must pass before legislation is introduced to implement the agreement into Canadian law, which would take us to roughly March 27.

During Thursday's Parliamentary proceedings, MP Murray Rankin offered some pointed questions on the pact and the implications for the financial privacy of Canadians, but I am afraid the answers may actually sow confusion, more on that later.

Comments on the legislative proposal can be submitted to the Department of Finance at or to the address below. The closing date for comments is March 10, 2014.

Tax Policy Branch: Department of Finance
140 O’Connor Street Ottawa, ON K1A 0G5

The media, mostly Canadian at first, has taken notice of the agreement and many are commenting on the privacy concerns as well as the reciprocity and scope of the deal:

More to come as things unfold in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Brian Arnold talks about BEPS: Next Monday at McGill Law

I am very pleased to be hosting internationally renowned tax expert Brian Arnold at McGill Law next Monday, where he will deliver a talk on the OECD's ongoing initiative with respect to Base Erosion and Profit Shipping ("BEPS"). The talk is scheduled to commence at 12 pm; members of the public are warmly welcomed. 

Location: McGill Faculty of Law, 3644 Peel Street, New Chancellor Day Hall, Room 202.

Date and Time: Monday, 10 February, 12:00–13:30.