Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tax Justice Focus - The Inequality Edition. Guest edited by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

"The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, 
the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least,
 to neglect persons of poor and mean condition 
is the great and most universal cause of 
the corruption of our moral sentiments."  
Adam Smith (1723-1790)
Tax Justice Focus - The Inequality Edition  
Volume 7, Number 2   
Download here
Inequality is divisive and socially corrosive.  For centuries, many people recognised that truth intuitively, but now the data show it is truer than we ever imagined. The bigger the income gaps between rich and poor, the less cohesive the society: community life weakens, people trust each other less and violence increases. 
This edition of Tax Justice Focus is devoted to inequality.  Our guest editors are Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, whose book, The Spirit Level, has been acclaimed worldwide for its comprehensive analysis of how inequality is not just about differences in material comforts, but also has powerful psychosocial effect that reduce the wellbeing of whole populations.
In our lead article, Nick Shaxson, John Christensen and Nick Mathiason explain why studies of economic inequality have systematically underestimated the wealth and income enjoyed by the world’s wealthiest people.
In the following articles, Danny Dorling examines how tax changes in recent decades have contributed to rising inequality in the United Kingdom; David Erdal explores how wealth distribution has nothing to do with markets: it is a result of the use of power; and Thomas Pikkety, Emmanuel Saex and Stefanie Stantcheva find that chief executive officers are consistently rewarded for good outcomes which are directly due to a good industry-wide climate, and hence are not achieved by hard work.
This issue also include Francis Weyzig’s review of Tax Treaties: Building Bridges between Law and Economics (Lang et al, IBFD) and a news in brief section summarising some of the top stories in recent months.
The Inequality edition is available for download here


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Monday, July 23, 2012

July Taxcast on HSBC, the Olympic tax swindle, and a success story in Norway

This month the Taxcast covers those rotten bankers (more here, here and here), the Great Olympic Tax Haven Swindle, and a happy tax justice story from Norway.  Plug in here.

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Reasoned debate. Not

While we wait for reasoned debate from the supporters of tax havens, you might like this sample of the toxic nonsense that's pouring into our mailboxes at the moment:

I heard the good news today, you've found out 21 trillion is hidden in tax havens. Good for them! I say great! Governments just waste money anyway, better that the rightful owners not have it stolen from them by the evil governments of the world (all government is evil).
Thank you for brightening my day! I will now aim to stash some money myself! Good to know these options are available.
And you're wrong by the way, poverty is not caused by tax evasion. That is a fucking false claim on your shitty organization's behalf.
Go to hell,
Moneybags

(as always these courageous crusaders hide behind false identities: in this case  anonnymust35@yahoo.com)

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Price of Offshore Revisited and Inequality Underestimated

Embargoed: July 22, 2012, 10am BST

Pre-launch update, July 22: Updated estimates of data for the top 50 private banks: click here. These update and replace the relevant tables in the main report. The main change is that the ranking alters slightly, but the final figure for total offshore assets remains almost the same.

Update 2:
Pre-launch Coverage in The Observer
: Front page article; longer overview, and related articles on private banking, editorial on banking secrecy.

MAIN REPORT 1 - The Price of Offshore Revisited
: TJN's in-depth and unprecedented study into the size of the offshore system.
MAIN REPORT 2 - Inequality: You don't know the half of it: TJN's assessment of why inequality is much worse than we think
Appendix 1: The pre-history of offshore estimates

Appendix 2: Explaining Capital Flight

Appendix 3

See our full range of reports, appendices and press packs on our new web page.

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Inequality: You Don't Know the Half of It


Inequality: You Don’t Know the Half of It
(Or why inequality is worse than we thought)
By Nicholas Shaxson, John Christensen and Nick Mathiason[1]
22 July 2012

The full version of our research into the underestimation of global inequality is available for download here. The introduction is blogged below.
Introduction
Economic inequality has reached extreme proportions in many countries. But the problem is far worse than we have understood until now. This is because all studies exploring economic inequality have systematically underestimated the wealth and income enjoyed by the world’s wealthiest individuals. The enormous quantity of assets held offshore and in opaque and anonymous structures is not factored properly into anybody’s calculations.Not only that, but the trend of rising inequality in many countries appears to be worse than previously thought,for similar reasons.
At its simplest, our argument is that if an asset is hidden in an offshore bank account, or an offshore trust or company,and the ultimate owner or beneficiary of the income or capital cannot be identified, then this asset and the income it produces will not be counted in the inequality statistics. Almost all these hidden assets are owned by the world’s wealthiest individuals. So it follows that the inequality statistics, particularly at the top end of the scale, underestimate the scale of the problem.
Although many studies do try to compensate for missing offshore data, all experts interviewed for this report agreed that no study comes even close to compensating sufficiently
In response to our initial question: do you believe our thesis is valid? The following responses came from the experts we contacted:

Yes, definitely.
- Thomas Piketty, professor, Paris School ofEconomics

Absolutely.
- Sam Pizzigati, Associate Fellow, Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)in Washington, D.C.

I agree with your thesis and I believe - everyone does.
- Milorad Kovacevic, Chief Statistician for the U.N. HumanDevelopment Report Office

I think there’s no doubt whatsoever. . . People say there’s lots of money missed out and that’s true. There is an issue here.
- Branko Milanovic, Lead Economist in the World Bank research group

The main bias is likely to be at the top end of the distribution. But we do not yet have the data needed to correct for this problem across all countries.
- Martin Ravallion Acting Chief Economist and Senior Vice President Development Economics, World Bank

There is absolutely no doubt at all that the statistics on income and wealth at the top understate the problem, for the reasons that you say.
- Stewart Lansley, author of The Cost of Inequality: Why Economic Equality is Essential for Recovery.

The wealth of the very rich is massively under-reported in households surveys and(probably slightly less so) in tax accounts. Proper reporting would drive up the Gini and drive down the wealth share of the poorest 20 per cent.
-Kevin Watkins, nonresident senior fellow, Center for Universal Education,Brookings Institution

Although much of the wealth and income of the poorest is also “missing,” as they are especially hard to access and to survey, their ‘missing’ assets and income are insignificant when compared to those at the top, so they make little difference to the overall inequality picture.
Wealthy people, or High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) in the bankers’ parlance, usually have advisers offering all manner of offshore services, ranging from mild (legal) tax planning to the cloaking of assets for the purpose of tax evasion and many other crimes. A private global infrastructure of lawyers, accountants, bankers and company and trust formation agents are dedicated to hiding the assets of the world’s wealthiest individuals – and they have been spectacularly successful, as James Henry’s accompanying report for the Tax Justice Network shows.
Henry’s research, which we believe is the most rigorous and comprehensive study of its kind, reveals that well in excess of US$ 21 trillion is held unrecorded and offshore, conservatively estimated. No estimate of missing wealth on this scale has ever before been constructed. Therefore, both wealth and inequality are being dramatically underestimated toa very significant degree, in every study and in every country.
With the bottom half of the world’s population together possessing barely 1% percent of global wealth while the top10% owns 84%[2],economic inequality is widely and increasingly recognised as a problem in its own right. Research shows that more unequal societies tend to experience slower growth, higher political instability, and a wide range of negative health and social outcomes, as Box 2 explains.
Both the legal and the illegal aspects of this pose big problems for inequality studies.
This paper is a first attempt to lay out the nature of how unrecorded offshore assets and income feed through to our understanding of inequality. Based primarily on our interviews with some of the world’s top experts, it contains relatively little in the way of econometric analysis, and it does not seek to be comprehensive: it should be viewed as a starting point. Our aim is to focus attention on the problem and to spur others to research this field in more depth.
See our full range of reports, appendices and press packs on our new web page.


[1] Nicholas Shaxson is author of Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World, Random House, 2011. John Christensen is former Economic Adviser to the UK tax haven of Jersey and is director of the Tax Justice Network. Nick Mathiason is business correspondent at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
[2] Source: Global Wealth Report 2011, Credit Suisse Research Institute, p10 http://bit.ly/pAHcoa

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Friday, July 20, 2012

TJN - audited accounts for year ended 2011

The director's report and audited accounts for Tax Justice Network International Secretariat Limited for yead ending 31st December 2011 are available here.

Reports and accounts for earlier years can be downloaded here.



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Links - 16-19th July 2012


Reuters – 16 July 2012
Idle Corporate Cash Piles Up
Hoarded wealth adds up to a figure three times larger than estimated, provides a plump cushion for CEOs should economies belly-up, meanwhile there are fewer jobs, lower wages and less demand, meaning profit is all quietly shuffled offshore, and not being used to stimulate the economy.  Read David Cay Johnston's column here

Business News Europe – 18 July 2012
A UN Security Council report alleges that UK shell companies have acted as ‘middle-men’ for Ukrainian arms-dealers to sell technology abroad, namely Eritrea and Somalia, providing damning evidence of Ukraine's role as a recurrent arm’s sanction infringer, and the UK’s reputation as a no-questions-asked jurisdiction.  Read the article here.

NYU School of Law – Spring 2011
Unintended Consequences: How US Tax Law Encourages Investment in Offshore Tax Havens
A report released early last year focusing on how the loopholes in the American tax system have encouraged the wealthy to exploit them and move their money offshore.

Media Part – 14 July 2012
A reflection on the Swiss media's far from happy record in covering the Rudolf Elmer affair.  Elmer blew the whistle on his former bank Julius Bauer after revealing systematic complacency and active complicity with tax evasion and fraud in connection to the Cayman Islands.  Was the Swiss press complicit with the Swiss state and the banking industry (a major source of advertising revenue) in portraying Elmer as a traitor, a thief and a blackmailer. Read the full article by Mehdi Taïleb of Liberté.

LA Times - 19 July 2012
Bain Capital started with help of offshore investors
When Mitt Romney launched Bain Capital he struggled to raise capital from conventional sources, so he looked elsewhere, including offshore, to attract wealthy foreigners, who mostly used companies in the secrecy jurisdiction of Panama, known for taax evasion and banking secrecy.  The LA Times reports.

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Coca-Cola to pay tax shock, but big questions remain about Olympic tax swindle

Hot on the news that McDonalds have reversed out of the Great Olympic Tax Swindle, comes news that Coca-Cola has also agreed to pay tax on its Olympic profits.

According to Britain's New Statesman magazine: "On Wednesday McDonald's bowed to furious online petitioners, saying that the revenue from the games would only make up 0.1 per cent of annual sales in the UK. Hours later, Coca Cola also conceded and made a statement on their website to pay their fair share of tax during the Games."

And quite right too.  But why should this be left to the discretion of companies facing the wrath of public opinion.  What was going through the heads of the politicians who conceded the Olympic tax haven status in the first place?  And how did sport become such a powerful political lobby that it can force through these totally unnecessary tax exemptions in the first place?  As the New Statesman comments:

". . tax exemption is far from unknown in the Olympic world; in fact, such legislations have long since been endemic to the Games for years. Usain Bolt is just one of the big-name athletes who has pushed tax exemption rules to be adopted by hosting countries."  

Can anyone provide a single good reason why highly paid athletes should not pay tax?  And why profitable corporations should not contribute towards the massive cost of hosting the Olympics in London?  The New Statesman again:

"Organisations like the Olympics promote the idea that only the losers pay tax and the winners, be they competing athletes or corporations that get brownie points for monopolising industries, are lucky enough to get out of helping their country function. As long as we keep this mentality it's inevitable that McDonald's and Coca Cola deciding to pay tax will be something of a shock to us."

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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Masters of Tax Evasion

Masters of Tax Evasion 

Hat tip: Molly Brooks, MastersDegreeOnline.org

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Tax Dodgers playing 99 Percent this weekend

Word is out that Tax Dodgers, now on display in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, will be playing against the 99 Percent this coming Sunday in Jackson Heights (starting 3p.m.).
The game will be preceded by an event at High Noon in front of Citi Field (Mets Stadium) when Citibank will be awarded an MVP award for their commitment to tax dodging, taking bailouts and committing mortgage fraud.  
This is the moment to call real Tax Dodgers "OUT!"



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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Links - 13-16th July 2012


McDonalds – 11 July 2012
The fast food retailer has quietly released this snippet.  While the Olympics tax haven story has by and large been ignored by the mainstream media, following an effective online campaign by Ethical Consumer and 38 Degrees McDonalds are now claiming they will not utilise the Olympic ‘Tax Bubble’.

Bloomberg Business Week – 13 July 2012
The IRS has announced it will no longer tolerate companies entering deals that circled round the ‘repatriation’ laws on foreign-earned profits by big corporations.  New rules will prevent companies from using their offshore wealth to enter transactions therefore bypassing US tax regulation.
 
The Financial Times – 15 July 2012
Michael Izza, CEO of the Institute of Chartered Accountants In England and Wales, has spoken out against aggressive tax avoidance measures employed by his profession, saying that practitioners must reconcile themselves with prudent, acceptable tax planning, and with their public interests duty.

Suddeutsche – 15 July 2012
Germany and Switzerland’s planned deal to take effect as of the January 2013 may be damaged after a CD containing approximately one thousand client files of the Zurich branch of Coutts’ Bank was sold to a state authority.  The controversial deal would prevent German authorities from using leaked data to investigate offshore accounts in Switzerland. 

Economic Times of India – 25 April 2012
From island-jungle to concrete Jungle, Mauritius has been superseded by the city-state of Singapore since announcing that the small African state will implement a ‘General Anti-Avoidance Rule’ that counters the old binary avoidance agreement with India.

The Guardian – 17 July 2012
Rippling out from Nick Shaxson’s Vanity Fair article, US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has faced unending and remorseless questioning on his tax affairs, which continues to ‘rain on his parade’ (pun intended).

The Guardian – 17 July 2012
Amid allegations that at least one person was bullied into a contract involving deliberate tax dodging, the British Broadcasting Corporation will now review how its TV and radio presenters are paid and how the BBC deals with avoidance and evasion. 

The Telegraph – 17 July 2012
Tax rate increases proposed by the new French government have sparked the beginnings of a “wealth-exodus” to neighbouring countries such as Switzerland and the UK.   Estate agents are recording marked increases in french super-rich buying property in London.

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HSBC: a "pervasively polluted" culture

Yesterday it was Coutts. Last week it was Barclays. Now HSBC - the World's local bank - stands in the firing line. The US Senate's Permanent SubCommittee on Investigations has issued a statement about HSBC's multiple and severe deficiencies in its internal anti-money laundering regime. According to Senator Carl Levis, SubCommittee chairman, HSBC:

". . . exposed the United States to Mexican drug money, suspicious travelers cheques, bearer share corporations, and rogue jurisdictions. The bank’s federal bank regulator, the OCC, tolerated HSBC’s weak AML [anti money laundering] system for years. If an international bank won’t police its own affiliates to stop illicit money, the regulatory agencies should consider whether to revoke the charter of the U.S. bank being used to aid and abet that illicit money.”
The Subcommittee investigation focused on five areas of abuse:
  • Servicing High Risk Affiliates. HSBC’s U.S. bank, HBUS, offered correspondent banking services to HSBC Bank Mexico, and treated it as a low risk client, despite its location in a country facing money laundering and drug trafficking challenges, high risk clients like casas de cambio, high risk products like U.S. dollar accounts in the Cayman Islands, a secrecy jurisdiction, and weak AML controls. The Mexican affiliate transported $7 billion in physical U.S. dollars to HBUS from 2007 to 2008, outstripping other Mexican banks, even one twice its size, raising red flags that the volume of dollars included proceeds from illegal drug sales in the United States.
  • Circumventing OFAC Safeguards. Foreign HSBC banks actively circumvented U.S. safeguards at HUBS designed to block transactions involving terrorists, drug lords, and rogue regimes. In one case examined by the Subcommittee, two HSBC affiliates sent nearly 25,000 transactions involving $19.4 billion through their HBUS accounts over seven years without disclosing the transactions’ links to Iran.
  • Disregarding Terrorist Financing Links. HBUS provided U.S. dollars and banking services to some banks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh despite links to terrorist financing.
  • Clearing Suspicious Bulk Travelers Checks. In less than four years, HSBC cleared $290 million in obviously suspicious U.S. travelers cheques for a Japanese bank, benefiting Russians who claimed to be in the used car business.
  • Offering Bearer Share Accounts. HSBC offered more than 2,000 accounts to bearer share corporations, despite the high risk of money laundering and illicit conduct that results since their ownership can be readily transferred without a trail.
HSBC is already under investigation for the offshore activities of its Geneva branch, and the weaknesses exposed above bear all the hallmarks of HSBC's role as an offshore wealth manager at the dodgy end of the spectrum; bearer shares and bulk traveller cheques are bottom-grazing activities for a bank which claims to be global league, but we'll give the final word to Senator Levin:

“HSBC’s compliance culture has been pervasively polluted for a long time. Its recent change in leadership says it’s committed to cleaning house. That commitment is welcome surely, but it will take more than words for the bank to change course. Just as certain is the need for tough regulation by the OCC.”
The Thatcher revolution of the 1980s led the world into the brave new era of corporate deregulation. With the state "off their backs" British businesses could thrive and the glory days of pre-Keynesianism would be revived. Thirty years on a different picture emerges. Former stars like BP have wrecked their reputations through corner cutting on environmental protection. Others like Debenhams and the Rover Group had their guts extracted by asset strippers. But the worst impact of deregulation can be seen in the City of London which stands exposed as almost irredeemably corrupt.

And the man in charge of HSBC amidst all this? A Church of England Vicar.

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The Olympic tax swindle: McDonalds breaks from the pack?


Recently we blogged about the Great Olympics Tax Swindle, involving the creation of a temporary tax haven, or tax 'bubble' around the London 2012 games. (Sporting festivals have form on this: remember how football's FIFA forcibly ripped a whole lot of money out of poverty-stricken South Africa too.)

Just days ahead of the start of the Olympics, McDonalds - one of the companies hitherto involved in the Olympic Tax Swindle - has announced that they will not be making any corporate tax exemption claim on the Olympic game activities. According to their statement:
"We will not be making any corporate income tax exemption claim with respect to any activity concerning our involvement with the London Olympic and Paralympic Games."
Three cheers for that. If there is substance behind this statement - which there may well be - then this is fantastic news. We should note, however, that this climb-down occured in the face of adverse publicity from our friends at Ethical Consumer magazine supported by 38 Degrees' nimble campaign which secured 100,000 signatures in a matter of days. Well done both. (You, dear reader, can sign the 38 Degrees petition here.)

The exact details of how McDonalds will allow for verification of its tax claims are not made clear, and we look forward to hearing more from them about this. At least McDonalds have broken from the pack; we now look forward to hearing from other Olympic corporate tax dodgers, including Adidas, BMW, BP, Coca-Cola, General Electric, etc. etc.

See McDonald's statement here.

Read Ethical Consumer's original articles here.

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Uncounted - a blog about the forgotten people

Alex Cobham, head of research at the charity Save the Children, has started up a new blog, Uncounted, which promises to be an important new voice in the field of development and tax justice. It is about inequality and development - and those who are uncounted. And in its inaugural blog, it has some useful things to say.
"The development narrative no longer solely focuses on reducing extreme income poverty, to be addressed primarily by financial flows from rich countries to poor ones."
Absolutely. It is time for a re-think. Cobham identifies four main changes in the way that people in the international development community are thinking about poverty. As he says:
First, the location of poverty has shifted: rather than ‘poor people in poor countries’, the majority of people in extreme income poverty now live in countries designated by the World Bank as middle income. (Do we count this poverty as the same, better or worse, than that in low income countries?)

Second, the underlying understanding of poverty has shifted: while extreme income poverty continues to be used as a form of shorthand, and reflects the major data effort, poverty is now widely understood as multi-dimensional, covering many aspects of people’s power to enjoy a good life, and to determine their own future. (When will data catch up, to be able to count in these multiple dimensions?)

Third, there is increasing recognition of the centrality of national level policy decisions and of underlying structures in delivering development. Whether we look at corruption, tax dodging and the massive (uncounted) illicit financial outflows they create, or broader questions of a lack of transparency and political accountability, or the central importance of economic activity through trade and investment (á la David Cameron’s golden thread), or the challenges of financial regulation, it is clear that while aid is vital it is far from the whole puzzle.

Fourth, the urgency of sustainability has become uncontroversial. In these austere times the political emphasis on the constraints posed by planetary boundaries may not feel as powerful, but no-one seriously disputes their importance any more (although our ability to measure them all remains less than perfect)."
A most useful addition to the blogosphere, from an old ally of ours.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Meet the Jolly Dodgers: new top UK tax man

The UK magazine Private Eye has an important article (subscription-only) entitled 'Meet the Jolly Dodger' which looks at the new chair for the board of Her Majesty Revenue and Customs (HMRC:) Ian Barlow.
"Step forward Ian Barlow, who has built a career on tax scheming every bit as contrived as comedian Jimmy Carr's dodge - but far more costly to the UK.

Barlow was head of tax at accountancy firm KPMG from 1993 till 2001 and then became senior partner in London until 2008. Over this period he was directly responsible for selling some of the most aggressive tax avoidance schemes on the market."
Following the series of scandals that have dogged HMRC chief Dave Hartnett, it is shocking that the UK should see fit to continue in the same vein. The Eye describes a number of schemes Barlow has been involved in, including one where internal KPMG papers admitted that
"in our view HM Customs & Excise will regard these planning arrangements as 'unacceptable tax avoidance." (it did, and so did the courts)
It then notes that Barlow arrives to chair HMRC in the middle of a conflict of interest, amid a dispute between HMRC and a firm where his is a non-executive director, over an offshore scheme. Barlow has said in the past:
"There is no meaningful distinction to be drawn between acceptable tax planning and unacceptable tax avoidance."
The Eye concludes in its own inimitable style.
"What next? Bob Diamond [TJN: the disgraced boss of the UK's Barclays Bank] for the Bank of England, no doubt."
In the HMRC press release, it notes that Barlow will have responsibility for, among other things,
"ensuring HMRC delivers its performance and customer service objectives."
What are those customer service objectives? Well, Treasure Islands notes:

"HMRC used to assign a ‘case director’ to investigate multinationals; this is now a ‘customer relationship manager’ charged with building a happy connection. After a review in 2006, promising better ‘customer service’ and ‘greater mutual respect and trust’, average times spent on international investigations fell from thirty-seven to eighteen months.

‘We used to have a priority to collect tax,’ my informant said, ‘now we have a priority to have a good relationship. We have got into a situation of persuading ourselves that it is a win-win to have businesses pay their taxes voluntarily, rather than have us take them to litigation.’
All in all, it does not look good for the ordinary people of Britain - and of developing countries either.

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Suddeutsche reports leak of CD data implicating British Coutts bank in tax evasion

Suddeutsche has reported that the state of North-Rhine Westphalia has purchased a leaked CD holding account data relating to around one thousand German clients of the Zurich branch of British private bank Coutts, famously banker to the reigning British monarch. This happens at a particularly sensitive time for the German government, which hopes to conclude a shoddy little deal with the Swiss government which would prevent German authorities from using leaked data to investigate offshore Swiss accounts.

According to Suddeutsche:

"The purchase of a tax disc with data on approximately 1,000 customers of the Zurich branch of the private bank Coutts, North Rhine-Westphalia by tax authorities will probably have political consequences. Because after this business, it has become even more unlikely that the tax treaty between Germany and Switzerland as planned on 1 January 2013 to take effect."
For very good reason TJN will welcome any development that scuppers this unprincipled deal between Germany and Switzerland. It is hard to see any upside to the deal apart from the protection of the crooks who continue to use offshore secrecy to persist with tax evasion, and it is difficult for us to avoid the conclusion that the deal has largely been driven by their political lobbying in Berlin (and London, where the UK has already concluded an equally shabby deal).

The leak also comes at a rather awkward moment for 320 year old private bank Coutts, which has been criticised for taking unacceptable risks in handling the proceeds of crime and was fined £8.75 million earlier this year for handling funds deposited by foreign despots.

Back in Switzerland, however, Suddeutsche reports the authorities are seething with anger. Federal Finance Secretary Steffen Kampeter (CDU), is reported to have said

"Shady CD purchases are not a permanent rule of law principle."
With all due respect, Minister, law enforcement officials have relied on paid informants for centuries, and crooked Swiss-diving (British in the case of HSBC and Coutts) banks are no exception to this rule. With revelations of banking corruption and criminality breaking weekly, whistleblowers have a crucial role to play in cleaning up what has clearly become a rotten industry.

German readers can access the Suddeutsche article here.

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