* * * *
I recently read an interesting article on offshore evasion by Professor Cass Sunstein in the New York Review of Books, called Parking the Big Money. The article reviewed Professor Gabriel Zucman’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens as well as a film called The Price We Pay. Zucman’s book takes a crack at putting a price tag on offshore evasion, using an approach that compares the world’s liabilities to the world’s assets, noting that “as far back as statistics go, there is a ‘hole’; if we look at the world balance sheet, more financial assets are recorded as liabilities than as assets, as if planet Earth were in part held by Mars.”
In 2015, for example, the nations of the world reported $2 trillion as mutual fund holdings in Luxembourg; this is the total of recorded liabilities. But Luxembourg’s own statisticians calculated that worldwide, $3.5 trillion in mutual fund holdings were kept in Luxembourg; that is the total of recorded assets. What happened to the missing $1.5 trillion? In global statistics, that amount had no owners. For Zucman’s purposes, the anomaly is a revealing one: the amount by which assets exceed liabilities is a measure of wealth hidden in offshore accounts.
Using some detective skills, Zucman estimates that the effects of offshore evasion are severe, with the cost annually at $200 billion in lost revenues, with the US out about $35 billion. Zucman’s proposal to address the problem is a far-reaching international registry of ownership, though he is a big fan of our own FATCA and that law’s requirement that foreign banks identify their US clients and disclose them to the IRS.
At around the same time I read the Sunstein review, I also received via email a report by the American Citizens Abroad that was based on a survey it and researchers at the University of Nevada Reno conducted on Americans abroad. The survey revealed how overseas Americans believe FATCA should be reformed to address some of its negative consequences. Those consequences include some overseas financial institutions no longer dealing with Americans and among those that still do, higher costs of doing business.
FATCA, as Sunstein notes, is a blunt tool and to the Americans abroad who are complying or who are small fish, the law imposes heavy costs. But as the State of the Union reflects, there should be little sympathy for Americans who stash cash and the like in tax havens. Given the extent of the problem that Zucman via Sunstein lays out, I suspect that FATCA will not be going away soon though there are proposals that minimize costs without giving away too much in terms of the law’s effort to bring accounts into the sunshine.
The issue is politicized. FATCA and the IRS for that matter have been part of the presidential campaign, with Senator Paul for example suing to stop FATCA (see a post in Forbes by Robert Goulder discussing that unusual approach) and Senator Cruz noting that recent laws have contributed to the “weaponization” of the IRS leading to his calls to abolish the agency.