G20 faces push for tax haven transparency

The fallout from the Panama Papers document leak continues to widen, as the Spanish industry minister was the latest to resign in the wake of revelations of offshore accounts.

A flurry of policy initiatives is also emerging. On Thursday, the governments of Germany, Britain, France, Spain and Italy, or G5 Group, agreed to quickly launch a pilot project sharing information about companies registered in tax havens, and called for an international registry of the beneficial owners of anonymous shell corporations.

The move is seen as another reaction to the leak of millions of documents from the databank of Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm specialised in setting up such companies.

"Current events show that identifying the ultimate beneficial owners behind corporate structures is key to fighting tax evasion, money laundering and illicit finance effectively," German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble said during a news conference.

The G5 proposal emerged on the sidelines of Spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and will also be put forward for discussion in the context of a meeting of G20 finance ministers and central bankers during meetings in Washington.

Senior finance ministers and officials met this week in Washington

Senior finance ministers and officials met this week in Washington: here, Osborne, Schäuble, Sapin de Guindos, and Lagarde

Not transparent enough?

The G5 proposal foresees keeping the data on beneficial owners of companies under close wrap, accessible only to authorised officials - a long-standing position of the German government in its negotiations over corporate transparency.

Oxfam, an anti-poverty group, was critical of this stance, saying the G5 proposal was too weak. On Thursday, Oxfam released a report showing that top US corporations had tucked away at least $1.4 trillion in profits in tax havens.

"If the proposed registry of beneficial owners of companies and trusts is hidden from the public, how can we know who is hiding their profits and fortunes and trying to avoid paying their fair share?," Oxfam asked.

Panama rolls over, presents its throat

The G5 sent their proposal to China, the country which chairs the G20 for 2016, in the lead-up to the G20 meeting on the weekend. The proposed registry would encompass companies, trusts, foundations and other entities routinely used to hide money from tax administrators and law enforcement. It would extend the steps already taken under the 2014 "Common Reporting Standard" (CRS) agreement on sharing information about assets and accounts of signatories' nationals.

Panama is among the countries that had previously refused to sign the CRS. The new G5 letter included a proposal to set up a blacklist of countries that don't cooperate on sharing data.

Yachts in harbour, at Nice, Cote d´Azur, Provence, France

Has the release of the Panama Papers caused some nervousness in the owners of fancy yachts like these at anchor in a harbour in Nice, France? Or are they confident politicians' tax-reform bark will remain far tougher than their bite?

"We want to have lists which make it possible to place sanctions on countries which don't respect the rules," France's finance minister Michel Sapin said.

The Panamanian government wasted little time in seeking to head off the threat. Isabel de Saint Malo, Panama's vice president and foreign minister, released a statement saying that "Panama's path to financial transparency is irreversible, and to that end, we willingly and actively support diplomatic dialogue and domestic reform to address this global challenge," thereby signalling the Central American country's willingness to sign the CRS agreement.

Germany up next as G20 chair

Oxfam and other critics say it isn't clear that the G5's move will make any real difference to the ability of criminals, corrupt officials, and assorted tax evaders or avoiders to hide money - because Panama is far from alone in allowing owners of companies to hide their identities through anonymous companies and trusts, nor is the list of countries that do so limited to small, weak banana republics. Among others, various US states like Delaware or Wyoming allow the same thing.

While the G5 may have the heft to force a small country like Panama into line on corporate ownership transparency, it's not clear whether any attempt to similarly pressure the world's most powerful country can succeed.

"Germany will have the G20 presidency next year [in 2017], and the issue of transparent finances, fair taxation, exchange of information, transparency will play a role," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Asked about offshore firms registered in the US state of Delaware, Merkel said that in regards to her conversations with US President Barack Obama, "we speak regularly about the issue of transparency of financial relationships."

Emerging country support for tax coordination

The G24 group of major emerging economies released a statement Thursday endorsing "effective international tax cooperation," saying "we strongly support the participation of development countries... in the implementation of ouctomes of the G20/OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) Project," and uring the IMF and World Bank Group to "strengthen their support to combat illicit financing flows."

The G24, which includes many developing-country heavyweights including India, Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Philippines, and DR Congo, called for a slew of improvements in the support given by international financial institutions to G24 countries, arguing that its members will need help - especially including concessional financing - in meeting the challenges posed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris climate accord, and the Sendai Framework on disaster risk management.

"We continue to face weaker global demand, tighter financial conditions, more volatile capital flows, and heightened security challenges. These headwinds could further weaken our growth outlook," the G24 communique said.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said illicit financial activities enabled by tax havens undermined the fight against poverty: "When taxes are evaded, when state assets are taken and put into these havens, all of these things can have a tremendous negative effect on our mission to end poverty and boost prosperity."

However, recent scandals in Ukraine and proposed measures against whistleblowers in Europe are among many data points suggesting corruption is a chronic condition unlikely to be excised from the global body politic in the foreseeable future.

nz / uhe (AFP, Reuters, dpa, G24)

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