Sunday, November 8, 2015

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Commitee Hearing on Tax Treaties and Protocols, Including Swiss (11/8/15)

On October 29, 2015, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had a hearing on pending amendments to several tax treaties and tax protocols, including one for the Switzerland-U.S. tax treaty.  The hearing can be viewed here.  Two key witnesses testified.  One was Robert Stack, Treasury deputy assistant secretary (international tax affairs).  Stack's prepared opening statement is here.  The other was Thomas Barthold, chief of staff, Joint Committee on Taxation.  Barthold's statement can be downloaded here.

Both statements offer excellent introductions to the U.S. tax treaty system and to the specific treaties and protocols being considered.  I highly recommend them.  Given the focus on Switzerland in this blog, I thought it might be helpful to excerpt the portions of the statements dealing with Switzerland.

From Stark's statement:
[*5 ff] 
Combating Tax Evasion and Improving Transparency through Full Exchange of Information 
As noted above, effective information exchange to combat tax evasion and ensure full and fair enforcement of the tax laws is a top priority for the United States. A key provision found in all modern U.S. tax treaties is a rule that obligates the competent authorities of the two countries to obtain and exchange information that is foreseeably relevant to tax administration in the requesting country. In recent years there has been a global recognition of the need to strive for greater transparency and for full exchange of information between revenue authorities to combat tax evasion. The United States has taken a leading role in this movement. 
The proposed protocols amending the bilateral tax treaties with Switzerland and Luxembourg and the Multilateral Convention that are before the Committee today are intended to ensure full exchange of information to prevent tax evasion and enhance  transparency. These proposed protocols incorporate the modern international standards for exchange of information, which require countries to obtain and exchange information for both civil and criminal matters, and which require the tax authorities to obtain and exchange information held by banks or other financial institutions. 
The international standards on transparency and exchange of information for tax purposes are now virtually universally accepted in the global community. Indeed, all jurisdictions surveyed by the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes (the Global Forum) are now committed to implementing these standards. The Global Forum, now the largest international tax group in the world with 126 member jurisdictions (and fifteen observing members), endorses exchange of information. The Global Forum uses a robust and comprehensive monitoring and peer review process by evaluating the compliance of jurisdictions with the international standards of transparency. Initiated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Global Forum has been a driving force behind the acceptance and implementation of international standards. The United States actively participates in the Global Forum. Treasury’s Offices of Tax Policy and General Counsel, and IRS’s Office of Chief Counsel and its Large Business and International Division have devoted substantial resources over the past two years both to the peer review of U.S. rules and procedures and to our role as members of the Steering Group and Peer Review Group of the Forum. 
In addition, the G-20 has, for the past several years, stressed the importance of quickly implementing the international standards for transparency and exchange of information. It has also requested proposals to make it easier for developing countries to secure the benefits of the new cooperative tax environment, including a multilateral approach for the exchange of information.  
Against the backdrop of the Global Forum and the G-20 process, the proposed Protocol to the Multilateral Convention was opened for signature on May 27, 2010. The Multilateral Convention is an instrument that permits its signatories to exchange information for tax purposes. However, because it was signed in 1989, its provisions are out-of-date in many respects and do not conform to current international standards for transparency and exchange of information. In addition, prior to its amendment by the proposed protocol, the Multilateral Convention was open for accession only to member countries of either the Council of Europe or the OECD. The proposed protocol to the Multilateral Convention conforms the existing agreement to the current international standards for exchange of information, and opens the agreement for signature by any country, provided that the Parties have provided unanimous consent. This important agreement is therefore a centerpiece to the global effort to improve transparency and foster full exchange of information between tax authorities. 
* * * *

The proposed protocol to amend the existing tax treaty with Switzerland and related agreement effected by exchange of notes were negotiated to bring the existing treaty, signed in 1996, into closer conformity with current U.S. tax treaty policy regarding exchange of information. There are, as with all bilateral tax conventions, some variations from these norms. In the proposed protocol, these minor differences reflect particular aspects of Swiss law and treaty policy, and they generally follow the OECD standard for exchange of information. 
The proposed protocol replaces the existing treaty’s information exchange provisions with updated rules that are consistent with current U.S. tax treaty practice and the current international standards for exchange of information. The proposed protocol will also allow the tax authorities of each country to exchange information that may be relevant to carrying out the provisions of the agreement or the domestic tax laws of either country, including information that would otherwise be protected by the bank secrecy laws of either country. In addition, it will allow the United States to obtain information from Switzerland whether or not Switzerland needs the information for its own tax purposes, and provides that requests for information cannot be declined solely because the information is held by a bank or other financial institution.  
The proposed protocol amends a paragraph of the existing protocol to the existing treaty by incorporating procedural rules to govern requests for information and an agreement between the United States and Switzerland that such procedural rules are to be interpreted in order not to frustrate effective exchange of information.  
The proposed protocol and related agreement effected by exchange of notes update the provisions of the existing treaty with respect to the mutual agreement procedure by incorporating Switzerland are unable to resolve after a reasonable period of time.
Finally, the proposed protocol updates the provisions of the existing treaty to provide that individual retirement accounts are eligible for the benefits afforded to pensions under the existing treaty. 
The proposed protocol would enter into force when the United States and Switzerland exchange instruments of ratification. The proposed protocol would have effect, with respect to taxes withheld at source, for amounts paid or credited on or after the first day of January of the year following entry into force. With respect to information exchange, the proposed protocol would have effect with respect to requests for bank information that relate to any date beginning on or after the date the proposed protocol is signed. With respect to all other cases, the proposed protocol would have effect with respect to requests for information that relates to taxable periods beginning on or after the first day of January next following the date of signature. The mandatory arbitration provision would have effect with respect both to cases that are under consideration by the competent authorities as of the date on which the proposed protocol enters into force and to cases that come under consideration after that date.
From Thomas A. Barthold Statement:
Exchange of information issues in all pending protocols 
* * * * 
Although the United States has long had bilateral income tax treaties in force with Hungary, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, the United States has engaged in relatively limited exchange of information under these tax treaties. With Luxembourg and Switzerland, the limitations stem from strict bank secrecy rules in those jurisdictions. The proposed protocols with Luxembourg and Switzerland are a response to that history as well as part of the international trend in exchange of information. 
 The inability of the United States to provide information about beneficial ownership of entities formed in the United States has been criticized in the past and led to pressure to eliminate policies that provide foreign persons with the ability to shelter income. n16 Because the information obtained through information exchange relationships with other jurisdictions has been central to recent successful IRS enforcement efforts against offshore tax evasion, the Treasury Department has included in its budgets for fiscal years 2015 and 2016 a proposal to address the perceived shortcoming by requiring certain financial institutions to report the account  [*13] balance (including, in the case of a cash value insurance contract or annuity contract, the cash value or surrender value) for all financial accounts maintained at a U.S. office and held by foreign persons. n17 The Committee may wish to explore the extent to which either the existing U.S. know-your-customer rules or the corporate formation and ownership standards prevent the United States from providing information about beneficial ownership on a reciprocal basis with its treaty countries. The Committee may also consider whether there are steps to take that would help refute the perception that the United States permits States to operate as tax havens and that would help the United States better respond to information requests from treaty countries who suspect that their own citizens and residents may be engaging in  illegal activities through U.S. corporations and limited liability companies. n18
   n16 Financial Action Task Force, IMF, Summary of the Third Mutual Evaluation Report on Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism United States of America, pp. 10-11 (June 23, 2006); Government Accountability Office, Company Formations: Minimal Ownership Information Is Collected and Available, a report to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate GAO-06-376 (April 2006); Government Accountability Office, Suspicious Banking Activities: Possible Money Laundering by US Corporations Formed for Russian Entities, GAO-01-120 (October 31, 2006)
   n17 [Omitted]
   n18 E.g., the “Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act,” S. 569, 111th Congress (2009), would require States to obtain and periodically update beneficial ownership information from persons who seek to form a corporation or limited liability company. 
The Committee may wish to inquire as to the extent to which a request that a treaty country provide information in response to a John Doe summons  n19 is a specific request within the meaning of the Article 26, and whether protracted litigation similar to that which occurred in the UBS litigation n20 can be avoided or shortened. A “specific” request refers to an exchange which occurs when one treaty country provides information to the other treaty country in response to a specific request by the latter country for information that is relevant to an ongoing investigation of a particular tax matter. One problem with specific exchange has been that the proposed treaties and protocols, treaty countries are required to exchange information in response to specific requests that are comparable to John Doe summonses under domestic law.22 some treaty countries have declined to exchange information in response to specific requests intended to identify limited classes of persons. n21 Your committee may wish to seek assurances that, under the proposed treaties and protocols, treaty countries are required to exchange information in response to specific requests that are comparable to John Doe summonses under domestic law. n22 
   n19 When the existence of a possibly noncompliant taxpayer is known but not his identity, as in the case of holders of offshore bank accounts or investors in particular abusive transactions, the IRS is able to issue a summons to learn the identity of the taxpayer, but must first meet greater statutory requirements, to guard against fishing expeditions. Prior to issuance of the summons intended to learn the identity of unnamed “John Does,” the United States must seek judicial review in an ex parte proceeding. In its application and supporting documents, the United States must establish that the information sought pertains to an ascertainable group of persons, that there is a reasonable basis to believe that taxes have been avoided, and that the information is not otherwise available
   n20 See, United States v. UBS AG, Civil No. 09-20423 (S.D. Fla.), enforcing a “John Doe summons” which requested the identities of U.S. persons believed to have accounts at UBS in Switzerland. On August 19, 2009, the United States and UBS announced an agreement (approved by the Swiss Parliament on June 17, 2010) under which UBS provided the requested information.
   n21 For example, a petition to enforce a John Doe summons served by the United States on UBS, AG was filed on February 21, 2009, accompanied by an affidavit of Barry B. Shott, the U.S. competent authority for the United States-Switzerland income tax treaty. Paragraph 16 of that affidavit notes that Switzerland had traditionally
taken the position that a specific request must identify the taxpayer. See United States v. UBS AG, Civil No. 09-20423 (S.D. Fla.). On August 19, 2009, after extensive negotiations between the Swiss and U.S. governments, theUnited States and UBS announced that UBS had agreed to provide information on over 4,000 U.S. persons with accounts at UBS.
   n22 Under a John Doe summons, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) asks for information to identify unnamed “John Doe” taxpayers. The IRS may issue a John Doe summons only with judicial approval, and judicial approval is given only if there is a reasonable basis to believe that taxes have been avoided and that the information  sought pertains to an ascertainable group of taxpayers and is not otherwise available.  
Information exchange with Luxembourg and Switzerland 
The existing treaties with Luxembourg and Switzerland include exchange of information articles that do not comply with the U.S. Model treaty, the terms of U.S. tax treaties currently in force, or the international norms on transparency. To date, neither jurisdiction has achieved a satisfactory rating under the peer review process of the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information, the international body organized within the OECD to conduct its work on exchange of information standards (“Global Forum”). The peer review is conducted in two phases: Phase I evaluates the legal and regulatory aspects of exchange, that is, whether or not the domestic law and administrative structures exist in a jurisdiction to enable it to exchange information. In Phase II, the peer review evaluates the actual practice of exchange of information.23 Both jurisdictions have made progress in addressing the deficiencies, according to the Global Forum, but neither has yet been rated to be compliant or largely compliant.
23 Certain OECD conclusions about information exchange with Luxembourg and Switzerland are noted below. The OECD peer reviews of Chile and Hungary found that although those jurisdictions generally are compliant with OECD standards, each country had certain deficiencies preventing fully effective information exchange.  
The exchange of information article in the 1951 U.S.-Swiss treaty was limited to “prevention of fraud or the like.” Under the treaty, Switzerland applied a principle of dual criminality, requiring that the purpose for which the information was sought also be a valid purpose under local law. Because “fraud or the like” was limited to nontax crimes in Switzerland, information on civil or criminal tax cases was not available. The provision was substantially revised for the present treaty, signed in 1996, and accompanied by a contemporaneous protocol that elaborated on the terms used in the exchange of information article. That 1996 Protocol was intended to broaden the circumstances under which tax authorities could exchange information to include tax fraud or fraudulent conduct, both civil and criminal. It provided a definition at paragraph 10 of “tax fraud” to mean “fraudulent conduct that causes or is intended to cause an illegal and substantial reduction in the amount of tax paid to a contracting state.” In practice, exchange apparently remained limited, leading the competent authorities to negotiate a subsequent memorandum of understanding that included numerous examples of the facts upon which a treaty country may base its suspicions of fraud to support a request to exchange information. n24
   n24 “Mutual Agreement of January 23, 2003, Regarding the Administration of Article 26 (Exchange of Information) of the Swiss-U.S. Tax Convention of October 2, 1996,” reprinted at paragraph 9106, Tax Treaties, (CCH 2005).   
The proposed protocol, by replacing Article 26 (Exchange of Information and Administrative Assistance) of the present treaty and amending paragraph 10 of the 1996 Protocol, closely adheres to the principles announced by Switzerland. It also conforms to the standards, if not the language, of the exchange of information provisions in the U.S. Model treaty in many respects. As a result, the proposed protocol may facilitate greater exchange of information than has occurred in the past, chiefly by eliminating the present treaty requirement that the requesting treaty country establish tax fraud or fraudulent conduct or the like as a basis for exchange of information and providing that domestic bank secrecy laws and lack of a domestic interest in the requested information are not possible grounds for refusing to provide requested information. Lack of proof of fraud, lack of a domestic interest in the information requested, and Swiss bank secrecy laws were cited by Swiss authorities in declining to exchange information. The proposed protocol attempts to ensure that subsequent changes in domestic law cannot be relied upon to prevent access to the information by including in the proposed protocol a self-executing statement that the competent authorities are empowered to obtain access to the information notwithstanding any domestic legislation to the contrary. 
Nevertheless, there are several areas in which questions about the extent to which the exchange of information article in the proposed protocol may prove effective are warranted. The proposed revisions to paragraph 10 of the 1996 Protocol reflect complete adoption of the first element listed above in the Swiss negotiating position,  “limitation of administrative assistance to individual cases and thus no fishing expeditions.” The limitation poses issues regarding (1) the extent to which the Swiss will continue to reject requests that do not name the taxpayer as a result of the requirement that a taxpayer be “typically” identified by name, and (2) the standard of relevance to be applied to requests for information, in light of the caveat against “fishing expeditions.” In addition, the appropriate interpretation of the scope of purposes for which exchanged information may be used may be unnecessarily limited by comments in the Technical Explanation. In particular, although paragraph 2 of Article 26 (Exchange of Information), as modified by the proposed protocol, generally prohibits persons who receive information exchanged under the article from using the information for purposes other than those related to the administration, assessment, or collection of taxes covered by the treaty, the paragraph also allows the information to be used for other purposes so long as the laws of both the United States and Switzerland permit that use and the competent authority of the requested country consents to that use. The Technical Explanation, however, states that one treaty country (for example, the United States) will seek the other treaty country’s (for example, Switzerland’s) consent under this expanded use provision only to the extent that use is allowed under the provisions of the U.S.-Switzerland Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty that entered into force in 1977.  
The extent to which Swiss commitment to transparency in practice is consistent with international norms remains the subject of inquiry by the Global Forum, despite the apparent adoption of the OECD standards on administrative assistance in tax matters in 2009, n25 when it  simultaneously announced key elements that it would require as conditions to be met in any new agreements. The Swiss conditions established by the Federal Council limited administrative assistance to individual cases and only in response to a specific and justified request. Although Switzerland is considered by the OECD to be a jurisdiction that has fully committed to the transparency standards of the OECD, the OECD report on Phase I of its peer review of Switzerland states that the Swiss authorities’ initial insistence on imposing identification requirements as a predicate for exchange of information was inconsistent with the international standards and that additional actions would be needed to permit the review process to proceed to Phase II. Those actions include bringing a significant number of its agreements into line with the standards and taking action to confirm that all new agreements are interpreted in line with the standard. On October 1, 2015, the Global Forum launched the Phase II peer review of Switzerland, signaling that the actions taken by Switzerland to improve its transparency with respect to tax matters since the Phase I report have satisfied the Global Forum.
   n25 See “Switzerland to adopt OECD standard on administrative assistance in fiscal matters,” Federal Department of Finance, FDF (March 13, 2009), available at (last accessed March 1, 2011).  
According to advice we received from foreign law specialists at the Global Legal Research Center of the Library of Congress’s Law Library, the actions taken by the Swiss since the initial unfavorable Phase I peer review include its agreement to the international standards on automatic exchange, expansion of its information exchange network, amendment of existing agreements to conform to the international transparency norms, and revision of domestic law to ensure the ability of tax authorities to comply with the exchange of information obligations and safeguards required in its bilateral and multilateral agreements. A report of the recently launched Phase II peer review is expected in 2016. 

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