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A recent flurry of signed IGAs and press releases on ongoing negotiations suggests the US is acting tremendously quickly and even brazenly on FATCA. Almost as if they are trying to get this all nailed down before anyone outside the US government has time to study it and think it through. This is absurd, considering the enormity of what FATCA is trying to do--an enormity that is acknowledged in the IGAs themselves merely as "issues"--issues involving taxpayers' inability to comply with US law because it would involve breaking the law in their own country. The hubris is breathtaking. But it is virtually invisible as a policy matter because it is all wrapped up in the idea that we are cracking down on the world's tax cheats, and who could be against that?The speed and intensity on FATCA is troubling though, when we consider the lock-in nature of the agreements in terms of future flexibility on the part of the US. To see what I mean by this, let's take a look at the IGA Mexico signed on November 19. I blacklined it against the US Model 1A (reciprocal) IGA: it reads as virtually identical. Interesting, as the agreement with Mexico has apparently been two years in the making and the model IGA came out this past July. I find it amazing that the model was apparently so easy to write and these IGAs so easy to conclude--Denmark signed one just four days earlier. Contrast that to the US model double tax agreement, which was written some three decades after its first double tax conventions appeared (and which only gets updated every six years or so) and the average five year span it typically takes to get a new tax convention negotiated and signed. In terms of Treasury resources, it looks like a lot more time is spent on FATCA these days than on new tax treaty protocols, multilateral information sharing standards, or perhaps anything else. The first thing the parity between the model and the actual agreement with Mexico suggests is that the terms of agreement on FATCA are absolutely non-negotiable. This is a put up or shut up, my way or the highway moment: sign our template or face sanctions in the form of draconian and even unprecedented (such as in the treatment of gross sales proceeds) gross basis withholding. That's hard enough on its own but it is also bad news for other countries that might see themselves in a position to drive a hard bargain with the US. It is bad news not only because it looks like the US will not deviate from its chosen path right now, but also because, perversely, the US has included a "most favored nation" clause in the FATCA agreements--something almost unheard of in double tax agreements, because it makes a better deal for one a better deal for all. The language is in article 7 of the model, and it reads virtually identically in the US-Mexico agreement, the UK agreement, and the Denmark agreement (signed Nov 15 2012).
Consistency in the Application of FATCA to Partner Jurisdictions
1. [FATCA Partner] shall be granted the benefit of any more favorable terms under Article 4 or Annex I of this Agreement relating to the application of FATCA to [FATCA Partner] Financial Institutions afforded to another Partner Jurisdiction ....
2. The United States shall notify [FATCA Partner] of any such more favorable terms and shall apply such more favorable terms automatically under this Agreement as if they were specified in this Agreement and effective as of the date of the entry into force of the agreement incorporating the more favorable terms.
The implication is that the US is tying its own hands against the possibility of making any different deal for any other country. Now why on earth would they do that?
Purely, I think, to drive home the unilateral message. Information sharing is no longer going to be multilateral, engaged in through international dialogue and consensus. Information is a commodity, the US can apparently afford to extract it on a unilateral basis and without regard to "issues" like other countries' domestic laws, and there will be no spoils for any other country that can't or won't submit to the US standard, even if they themselves are victims of the US' own bank secrecy & notorious apathy when it comes to things like anonymous incorporation.
None of this is to say that bank secrecy is good, that information should not be shared among countries. This is not an apology for tax havenry. I do think information has to be shared if we are to keep taxpayers honest the world over. But it is to say that a unilateral battering ram is not the right answer. The problem of global misconduct by wealthy taxpayers is not solved by the US strong arming to get information that serves itself alone.
If you'd like to see the blackline I ran, you can download it here. Careful readers will note that in the agreement with Mexico, some periods are followed by two spaces (old school) while others are followed by one (new school), and these are different from the US Model. So someone somewhere is paying attention to these important details as the US rips through a century long tradition of multilateral information sharing to build its own private empire of information gathering. That's good to know.
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