Obama Intensifies Push for More Onshore Ownership Disclosure

  • Treasury finalizes rule after massive Panama document leak
  • Congress urged to act on ownership, subpoena legislation

President Barack Obama attends a celebration of the 5th anniversary of Joining Forces and the 75th anniversary of the USO at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on May 5, 2016.

Photographer: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama renewed his push to make it harder for people to hide money in the U.S., jumping on momentum created by the release of leaked Panama legal documents to pressure Congress on proposals that have been languishing for years.

The government will send proposed legislation to lawmakers that would require companies to name the owners of any new entities they create and would expand the Justice Department’s power to subpoena information in some corruption cases.

It also on Thursday finalized a rule that will require financial institutions to identify the account holders hidden behind shell companies, while proposing new rules to eliminate a loophole that allows some foreign-owned companies to hide assets in the U.S.

“We’re saying to those financial institutions you’ve got to step up and get that information,” Obama told reporters Friday at the White House, regarding the finalized Treasury rule.

The leak of more than 11 million documents from a Panama law firm last month put the spotlight on offshore companies used to shield owners’ identities and sparked an international push for transparency. While U.S. officials said Thursday’s proposals weren’t in response to the Panama documents, the leak highlighted the need for more to be done to combat money laundering and tax evasion.

The U.S. Treasury Department announced a proposed rule that would require certain foreign-owned companies to get employer identification numbers from the Internal Revenue Service, something that hadn’t been required. The rule would allow the IRS to determine if the companies owed U.S. taxes and to share information with other jurisdictions. Officials also repeated the administration’s call for Congress to pass legislation that would require financial institutions to report U.S. accounts held by foreign persons to overseas regulators, bringing the U.S. in line with other countries.

“We’re not going to be able to complete this job unless Congress acts as well,” Obama said Friday. “I’m calling on Congress to pass legislation to require all companies” created in the U.S. to report information about their ownership to the U.S. government.

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office referred questions to the House Financial Services Committee, Doug Andres, a spokesman for Ryan of Wisconsin, said in an e-mail. Sarah Rozier, a spokeswoman for the panel, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will review the proposal, said Antonia Ferrier, a spokeswoman.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, will also study the proposals, said Julia Lawless, a spokeswoman. “While there is certainly a bipartisan desire to craft effective policies to prevent tax cheats from gaming the system, details matter,” she said.

Collecting Names

In its final language for the rule requiring banks to collect the names behind corporate accounts, the administration made tweaks to extend its implementation period and allow more exemptions. The so-called customer due-diligence rule left at 25 percent the level of ownership that triggers disclosure.

The changes don’t go as far as advocates want. Under the rule, would-be money launderers could structure companies with multiple owners, so each falls below the 25 percent threshold. They could then put in place managers and use their names to satisfy the rule, while withholding true owners’ identities, said Stefanie Ostfeld, acting head of the U.S. office for Global Witness, a non-profit group that presses for global financial transparency.

“There’s still loopholes in it and it’s possible to provide the information, to be in compliance, without providing the true beneficial owner,” she said.

For years, Congress and the Treasury have floated measures that would require greater disclosure of the beneficial owners of companies registered in the U.S. Those efforts escalated after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as homeland security officials warned that onshore shell companies could be used to finance terrorist groups. But opposition by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Bar Association -- and lobbying by the National Association of Secretaries of State -- thwarted most of those calls for more disclosure, according to Heather Lowe, director of Global Financial Integrity, a group that advocates for greater business transparency.

“The primary opposition was from the secretaries of state, who didn’t want to lose business,” she said. “And politicians don’t want to alienate the secretaries of state because they are the ones who run the elections.”

Some other countries have also been pushing for greater transparency. The European Union last year passed a directive requiring member states to set up registries to collect companies’ real owners -- an effort to crack down on money laundering and terrorist financing. But the EU effectively left it up to each country to decide if its registry should be fully public.

If Congress passed legislation creating a central registry to list the beneficial owners of shell companies, the impact could be felt across multiple industries. Swaths of high-end real estate in the U.S., as well as some art, are purchased through companies that shield the identities of the true owners. The Treasury said it is temporarily requiring ownership disclosure for all-cash purchases of high-value real estate in New York and Miami.

The Treasury also pushed Congress for action on tax-information sharing. Nearly 100 jurisdictions around the world have agreed since 2014 to impose new disclosure standards for bank accounts and other investments requiring that information is shared with regulators in their home countries regardless of where the account is held. But the most prominent holdout is the U.S., which along with Panama has not signed onto the standard.

Obama pressed Congress to approve eight pending tax treaties, singling out Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, for blocking them.

“We’re going to need to cooperate internationally because tax avoidance” and money laundering take place globally, Obama said. “If we can’t cooperate with other countries, it makes it harder to crack down.”

Account Disclosure

A 2010 U.S. law, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca, requires financial firms to disclose foreign accounts held by U.S. citizens and report them to the IRS. But the law doesn’t require disclosure of U.S. bank accounts held by foreigners to regulators overseas. As a result, financial planners are advising customers seeking confidentiality to move accounts out of traditional secrecy jurisdictions like Switzerland and Bermuda and into the U.S., as reported by Bloomberg in January.

“Currently, the United States does not provide its Fatca partners with the same information about U.S. financial institutions that foreign financial institutions must provide the IRS,” Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a letter to Ryan. “Reciprocity with other jurisdictions is a key component of any successful strategy for combating international tax evasion.”

The Justice Department proposed a series of legislative changes that it said would help boost efforts to pursue kleptocrats and speed up the ability to gain evidence located in other countries.

One proposal would let the agency seek evidence in money laundering investigations through the use of civil administrative subpoenas, as opposed to a criminal grand jury. Leslie Caldwell, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said those subpoenas would be used in civil cases, such as those involving funds stolen by leaders of corrupt countries.

The Justice Department also wants to increase the time foreign governments have to initiate a forfeiture case when seeking assets located in the U.S. -- from 30 days to 90 days.

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