Panama Papers: Bolting the offshore stable door

There are plenty of good reasons for wanting to open an offshore account.

Perhaps you want to invest in foreign currency. You might want to get a higher rate of investment return.

It could be as simple as needing to facilitate foreign customers, or provide funds to a son or daughter in university abroad.

You might have business in a country where the conduct of some of the authorities there leads to risks of graft and bribe-taking, so the less they know about your affairs the better.

Merely having an offshore account does not make you a tax evader.

This, at least, was the conventional wisdom before the leaking of the Mossack Fonseca papers — the so-called Panama papers.

Panama is now seen as a toxic destination in which to do business.

The OECD was quick to point out, just days after the Panama files story broke, that it had consistently warned of the risks of countries such as Panama failing to comply with the accepted norms of tax transparency.

But the OECD also pointed out that the leaked documents showed a decline in the use of offshore companies and other forms of structures to conceal money which had been located abroad.

That side of the story has been a little eclipsed by the juicier revelations of the apparent involvement of household names with the Panama goings-on.

Ireland is not Panama. Dealing with colleagues in other countries, it frequently strikes me how long-established and robust the anti-tax evasion laws are here, compared even with the likes of highly developed economies.

For instance, the Australian authorities are bringing in rules to ensure tax on capital gains on Australian property is paid. Ireland has had those rules for more than 40 years.

In the last decade or so in this country, we have seen a succession of enquiries and investigations into the use of bank accounts and other forms of offshore or quasi-offshore investments to hide untaxed money — Ansbacher, bogus non-resident accounts, offshore assets and the like.

The amount of tax being recovered from these investigations — in excess of €1bn — virtually guaranteed that whatever powers were needed would be provided to Revenue by the Government.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the cross-border activities of multinational companies are the main matter of concern to the various tax authorities across the world.

In actual fact, much of the international focus in recent years has been on the kind of offshore tax evasion issues brought to the fore by the Panama papers.

Information exchange is the area of international tax co-operation which has seen the most rapid evolution.

Traditional offshore havens have had to sign up to information exchange agreements with other countries, and it was Panama’s reticence in this regard that was highlighted last week by the OECD.

The scale of the information in the Panama papers prompted rapid response.

At the administrative level, tax inspectors from several countries, Ireland included, met in Paris a few days ago to kick off co-operation and information-sharing in light of the Panama papers.

I gather that they hammered out a plan of action towards identifying taxpayers with assets offshore.

Perhaps more cynically, the EU Commission last week announced proposals for more detailed tax reporting by large multinationals.

Although such reporting has nothing to do with tax evasion, the current public debate means any type of tax monitoring has a far better chance of securing political approval now than it might have had just a fortnight ago.

Similarly, stronger proposals for anti-money laundering laws which were already going through the system now have a better prospect of success and widespread adoption than before.

Some of these safeguards and powers smack of bolting the stable door long after the horse has gone.

While it would be foolish to claim it is no longer possible to open and keep secret a foreign bank account in which to hide untaxed funds, it is certainly a lot harder than it used to be.

In Ireland, the current system of Revenue enquiries and penalties has already been comprehensively defined by the lessons of past offshore investigations.

In the international arena, it looks like the system of cross-border tax policing will be defined by the lessons of Mossack Fonseca.

Brian Keegan is director of taxation at Chartered Accountants Ireland

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