Financial Secrecy in Panama and Beyond

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD


 
In 2009, leaders of the Group of 20 nations, distressed by the global financial crisis, pledged to dismantle the tax havens that have allowed the world’s richest people to avoid paying taxes.

The United States and European governments were equally concerned about banks being used by tax cheats and criminals in a shadowy international financial system.
 
In response, most nations have taken significant steps to make it harder and riskier to hide money overseas. The leaders of 132 nations have agreed to adopt an information-sharing standard developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Of those, 96 are expected to start sharing banking information over the next couple of years through an automated system designed to allow the tax authorities of participating governments to see the overseas holdings of their citizens.
 
But one major international financial hub has refused to sign on — Panama.
 
The recent leak of millions of documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which specializes in enabling shadowy overseas transactions, may change that. President Juan Carlos Varela of Panama announced Wednesday that his government will appoint a team of local and international experts to propose measures the country can take to “strengthen the transparency of the financial and legal systems.”
 
A wholesale review of the legal and financial systems of a country that has enabled money laundering and tax evasion is certainly welcome. It is no coincidence that thousands of government officials and magnates from around the globe have turned to Panama for ways to hide their cash. But the government doesn’t need a committee to recommend that it adhere to the international information sharing standard or to sign the Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters.
 
In recent years, Panama has tried to shed its status as a tax haven by, for example, negotiating bilateral tax information sharing agreements — including one with the United States. In 2014, it adopted new banking policies designed to make it harder to establish anonymous business entities.
 
Panama had also agreed to adopt the international data sharing standard, but it recently changed that position, saying it was not ready to comply with all the requirements, the O.E.C.D. reported in February. On Wednesday, however, Álvaro Alemán, the Panamanian cabinet chief, said that there were no “irreconcilable differences” with the O.E.C.D., and that the government was ready to find a way to cooperate.
 
Officials in Panama have pointed out that the American banking system has not been a model of transparency either. They are right. The United States remains one of the world’s top tax havens. Several states have eagerly attracted foreign capital by making it easy to set up shell corporations and other legal entities that hide the identities of the owners.
 
While the United States government has taken some steps to address this problem, they have been insufficient. The Obama administration intends to adopt new rules that would close loopholes by forcing banks and financial institutions to learn the identity of customers who set up accounts in the name of shell companies.
 
Washington has negotiated bilateral agreements with several countries, including the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands, to exchange tax information upon request. Unfortunately, recent tax treaties the United States has negotiated with several countries and a proposed amendment to the Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters remain stalled in the Senate because of privacy concerns and fears that financial data could be compromised. While these concerns are worthy of attention, they should not block change to a system that has made tax evasion easy.

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