GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – I’m going to do something unusual here, recommend that you read a government paper, the Swiss foreign minister’s paper on his country’s appproach to foreign policy. You don’t have to be a member of his party (you probably can’t even name him, much less his party, right?) to appreciate that there is a coherent plan here that’s well thought out, practical and practicable.
Switzerland mostly baffles people outside the country, and that includes politicians from elsewhere. If you believe all the clichés, the place should not really be working as well as it obviously does. Unemployment, GDP, crime, even bilateral relations when you examine them closely, are in pretty good shape. And while everyone loves to say other governments are about to stomp on the Swiss for banking secrecy, for the most part other governments and Switzerland get on remarkably well.
It’s also worth noting that Didier Burkhalter, Swiss foreign minister, is at ease speaking English.
He gave this paper at the opening session of the International Security Forum in Geneva.
French military unsuccessful in pressuring web site – page suddenly hugely popular
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Wikepedia’s page on French military radio installations at Pierre-sur-Haute did not escape the attention of France’s military powers, although there might have been limited public interest in the page. Authorities demanded that the page be removed. The story of the demand, agreement and then re-posting of the page made for gripping reading in France and, with Wikipedia adding the story of the military pressure to the page, by the weekend of 6-7 April the page had become the most-read page on the French language version of Wikipedia, with 120,000 views.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the incident, in case the page disappears again:
In April 2013, the radio station attracted attention after the French interior intelligence agency Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur (DCRI) attempted to have an article about the facility removed from the French language Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation asked the intelligence agency what precise part(s) of the article were a problem in the eyes of the intelligence agency, noting that the article closely reflected information in a freely available television broadcast. The DCRI refused to give these details, and repeated its demand for deletion of the article. The Wikimedia Foundation refused to delete the article, and the DCRI pressured Rémi Mathis, a volunteer administrator of the French language Wikipedia and resident of France, into removing the article. The administrator, an employee of the state-owned Bibliothèque nationale de France and president of Wikimédia France, obeyed. According to a statement issued by Wikimédia France on 6 April 2013:
‘The DCRI summoned a Wikipedia volunteer in their offices on April 4th . This volunteer, which was one of those having access to the tools that allow the deletion of pages, was forced to delete the article while in the DCRI offices, on the understanding that he would have been held in custody and prosecuted if he did not comply. Under pressure, he had no other choice than to delete the article, despite explaining to the DCRI this is not how Wikipedia works. He warned the other sysops that trying to undelete the article would engage their responsibility before the law. This volunteer had no link with that article, having never edited it and not even knowing of its existence before entering the DCRI offices. He was chosen and summoned because he was easily identifiable, given his regular promotional actions of Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects in France.’
“Later, the article was restored by another Wikipedia contributor. The French ministry of the interior told the Agence France-Presse that for the moment it did not wish to comment on the incident. As a result of the controversy, the article became the most-read page on the French Wikipedia, with over 120,000 page views during the weekend of 6/7 April 2013. It was translated into multiple other languages. The French newspaper 20 minutes, Ars Technica, and a posting on Slashdot, noted it as an example of the Streisand effect in action.”
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - Ed. note: William Olenick has been active in Republicans Abroad in Switzerland, where he is a longtime resident. He sent the following email letter to friends 28 January; we reprint it in full as part of our coverage of the ongoing problems for US citizens in Switzerland.
Read the article below my comments and you will see why I also have my problems with the banks and I am tax compliant.
For the last 25 years I have been busting open niche markets for American products, contributing to lowering the trade deficit, developing new markets for US producers, creating employment for my brethren back home, increasing the tax base where they live.
The only way to do this is to be on the ground in the countries you are selling.
In my case, my markets were Europe, North Africa and the Middle East so it made sense to set up a base of operations in Switzerland, as it was close to the markets, was a well run country, my wife happened to be Swiss, from a large, close-knit family, so it was a no brainer.
Two months ago my bank informed me that I could no longer make wire transfers to the states.
That being the case how will I pay my suppliers?
These absolute black boot fools in DC are shooting themselves in the foot and biting the hand that feeds them.
Sure there were those evading taxes and there were many greedy bankers stumbling over themselves to help those evaders, but the numb nuts in Washington are ruining the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent American citizens, and just spitting in the face of our allies, by strong arming them (Remember the Nazis?) to enforce US tax law, when they have nothing to do with the US tax system.
It is the job of the IRS to prevent untaxed dollars from leaving the country but they are unable to do that, as they surely are not up to the job, so they blackmail our allies.
The complete lack of justified foresight, coming out of Washington today, is appalling.
This is forcing me to shut down my 100% legal and tax compliant operation abroad, building new long term nitch markets for US products, and to relocate back to Vermont, where I intend to farm.
What ever happened to the pursuit of life,freedom and happiness, as laid out by the constitution?
I refuse to give up my citizenship, as I am 100% American, to my bone marrow.
I could have been Swiss, through my marriage to my wife, but I am not Swiss, I was born American and will die American.
Pass these comments on as you wish and feel free to publish in what ever publication you wish.
We need to do away with the two-party system, as it serves its citizens poorly, we need to set term limits on all elected officials, coming to Washington, and should pass a law that the newly elected must bring their staffers from their home states.
These professional staffers, on the hill, are a large percentage of the problem and they are not even elected!
Don’t get me going…
William Olenick, Zermatt,Switzerland
If you don’t like it you know where to find me.”
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Eat forms! Stay thin! Whittle down those calories through worry! Americans abroad may have some sage advice for fellow citizens. A survey headline that is being picked up by media because it is catchy and touches a subject near and dear to Americans, food, states that “Americans Find Doing Their Own Taxes Simpler Than Improving Diet and Health”.
US citizens abroad struggle to convince fellow Americans that the tax-filing burden is onerous for those living outside the US, but getting the folks back home to digest that information looks unlikely, if the new survey is right. Taxes aren’t as sweet as food, and sadly, the survey report lacks any meat on tax filing problems to back up the story.
Here’s what it does show, providing food for thought for Americans abroad:
The US-based International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2012 Food & Health Survey shows that “Six out of 10 Americans have given a lot of thought to the foods and beverages they consume (58 percent) and the amount of physical activity they get (61 percent). Yet, only 20 percent say their diet is very healthful and 23 percent describe their diet as extremely or very unhealthful; less than 20 percent meet the national Physical Activity Guidelines.”
A worrisome detail is that “Fewer than one in 10 Americans correctly estimate the number of calories they need to maintain their weight and only three in 10 believe that all sources of calories play an equal role in weight gain. Calories from sugar, carbohydrates and fats are believed more likely to cause weight gain.”
Marianne Smith Edge, senior vice president for nutrition and food safety at the foundation, says “Clearly, there is a disconnect for many Americans.” The survey shows that “76 percent agree that ever-changing nutritional guidance makes it hard to know what to believe.”
That point eerily echoes one often made by US citizens living overseas, that the ever-changing IRS guidelines and rules make it hard to know how to file.
The tax part of the survey is thin, to say the least. The catchy headline is not backed up in either the press release or the executive summary with even a hint of what questions people were asked about filing taxes. A comparitive survey with Americans abroad could be interesting.
LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND – Compromise is the only way forward, former US President Bill Clinton told business leaders and students in Lausanne Sunday night, in a speech at IMD, and that includes resolving the eurozone crisis. “What works in people’s lives are creative networks of cooperation,” he told the crowd of several hundred. He pointed to areas, including some of the world’s poorest, where progress is being made because of cooperation. “Always, there are creative networks of cooperation committed to sustainable economics, good business practice and vibrant civil society.”
Europe’s crisis today with Greece and sovereign debt needs a strong dose of cooperation, and that involves compromise, Clinton argues. “Those principles have to inform what you ultimately do in trying to reach a compromise growth pact in the short run with appropriate levels of semi-restraint and structural reform in the long run, in Europe. That’s what works. Everywhere. And that’s what gets you moving forward.
“There are no perfect solutions in a murky life. What you want to do is bend the arc so you’re going forward every day so when people get up in the morning they have something to look forward to instead of looking in the mirror and feeling despair.”
Clinton in 2005 founded the William J Clinton Foundation.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – This is an appeal to intelligent readers, and I know there are many out there, to at least reflect on the other side of the story if you’ve read the New York Times editorial published Friday 10 February on US pressure on Swiss banks.
It’s a remarkably trite piece of writing, with generalized and inaccurate remarks like “the Swiss banking industry refuses to exit the business of tax evasion” which are an embarrassment to more honest journalists who spend time researching, interviewing and pulling the threads that make for balanced reporting.
Our goal is to inform the public so public opinion can help drive negotiations to be based on understanding and fairness rather than acrimony; the NY Times appears to have another agenda.
For a start, look at the Reuters story today on Swiss banking and business industry suggestions, run by the Chicago Tribune, although I would have liked to see a suggestion that US banks in Florida ask for proof of tax payments from Latin American clients, just to put the comments about proof of payment difficulties in perspective.
The Economist can’t be accused of coming down soft on the Swiss, but its story this week provides better balanced reporting than that from NewYork.
Ironically, one of the people quoted there seems to admire the NY Times editorial but in the way you love a football team whose weaknesses you’re willing to overlook. You just want them to win.
The NY Times editorial has at least six factual errors (I got tired of counting after that), mostly just slight exaggerations, but they undermine any credibility the writer had at the outset. One of the errors is this: “The United States would like details of all secret Swiss bank accounts used by Americans to evade taxes”, as if every American who has a Swiss bank account is hiding money and evading taxes.
No, either the writer should say that within the scope of these negotiations the US is asking for help with data from 11 banks out of the 325 that provide wealth management or he or she should say bluntly that the US is asking for details of all Swiss bank accounts held by all Americans. Both of those statements are accurate. Most of the US accounts are not Jame Bond-style numbered accounts and they are not “secret” in the sense that Americans who live in Switzerland routinely file reports from their banks when they file Swiss taxes.
Americans at town hall meetings in Switzerland in the past two years, and more recently in Canada, have been objecting to the new Fatca rules because they object to the underlying principle the US follows, the only major country in the world to tax on the basis of citizenship rather than residence. Participants have said it forces them to bear a heavier burden than Americans who live in the US. Others object to the unfair treatment of double taxation, the case for Americans who are retired in another country, for example. And yet others object to the high cost of filing US taxes they don’t owe.
Fatca, the tool for obtaining this information, is part of the current US-Swiss negotiations, for a good reason. It will place a huge financial burden on Swiss banks, as well as banks elsewhere, with its extra-territorial legislation, and the ramifications of this go beyond the current situation where Swiss banks are refusing American clients, to the dismay of Americans who live in Switzerland.
The NY Times would have us believe, taking the American bully approach of bluffing, that it’s just a question of the Swiss government dragging its heels: “There is no need for the United States to accept this sort of arrangement. If Switzerland stonewalls, the Justice Department can indict banks that benefit from tax evasion and seize their assets in the United States, moves that could put them out of business. At some point, the Swiss government will find that result a lot more costly than handing over information on American tax cheats.”
The negotiators for both countries are perhaps wiser, well aware that Swiss banks, and those elsewhere, could also recommend to clients that they pull out of US securities investments, a move that would be dire for the US economy. Switzerland has a far larger chunk of offshore private banking than the US, a business American banks would love to get their hands on, particularly in Florida. And Americans are just a small part of that Swiss wealth management business, so losing that group won’t put Swiss banks out of business.
These distinctions are important for an intelligent debate to take place and for negotiators’ efforts on both sides to be understood at home. The Swiss, contrary to the image US media perpetuate, don’t love crooks. The income tax non-compliance rate in Switzerland, which uses the carrot more than the stick to get its citizens to pay, is estimated to vary from 12 to 35 percent a year. It hit the peak abruptly in 1990 as non-compliance in the cities of Basel and Geneva soared, then rapidly dropped again by 1995 to 21 percent, according to a study in 2007 by Lars Feld and Bruno Frey.
The IRS said in a 2006 report that non-compliance in the US was “low”, at an estimated 26 percent.
To balance out the debate a bit, here is what the Swiss government says in a report published Friday 10 February, “Report on international financial and tax matters 2012″:
“Switzerland has been holding talks with the United States on unresolved tax issues for more than a year. These talks relate to the US investigations into alleged infringements of US tax legislation by Swiss banks and the potential handover of client data. Under Swiss law, client data may be handed over as part of an administrative assistance
procedure at federal level, but not directly by a bank. The objective of the negotiations with the US authorities is to find a solution that is compatible with Switzerland’s current legal framework.
“The cases of the directly affected banks are to be dealt with through requests for administrative assistance: in the case of tax fraud in accordance with the existing double taxation agreement (DTA) of 1996, and in the case of both tax fraud and tax evasion in accordance with the new – but not yet ratified – DTA of 2009. Under the existing DTA, requests for assistance are possible even without the provision of specific names or personal details, as long as an alternative form of identification is supplied. Applications on the basis of specific patterns of behaviour should also be possible under the new DTA without the provision of specific names or personal details. However a decision has yet to be made by Swiss parliament in this respect.
“At the same time, a global solution is being sought that will apply to the entire Swiss financial centre and thereby put the past to rest. Another development geared to the future is the US “Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act” (FATCA), which was passed by Congress in March 2010. This legislation is designed to ensure comprehensive worldwide reporting on US taxpayers who hold bank accounts and assets with financial services providers outside the United States. The US authorities have set out a staggered timeframe for the implementation of this Act (expected to apply from 1 January 2014 onward).
“Given its significant international activity, particularly with the United States, Switzerland will be greatly affected by this legislation. FATCA envisages the imposition of a withholding tax of 30% on all payments of dividends, interest, sales proceeds, etc. from the United States to a foreign financial institution, irrespective of whether the financial institution in question is accepting payment on behalf of a US taxpayer, another client or indeed itself. To avoid payment of this withholding tax, a financial institution must sign an agreement with the US tax authority (the IRS) in which it accepts comprehensive reporting obligations with respect to all clients who are liable to pay US taxes. This will involve a substantial amount of administrative work. After the Federal Council instructed the FDF to initiate discussions, SIF made it clear to the US authorities during a number of different meetings that the implementation of FATCA had to take account of the concerns of the financial institutions that would be affected. Modalities for a simplified implementation of FATCA will be sounded out within the scope of talks on general financial issues.”
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – “Tax haven” must be one of the most over-used and abused and least understood terms that is regularly unleashed by bureaucrats and politicians on unsuspecting voters who are angry about financial and tax inequality. I’m one of those voters, but I cringe when I see the term, especially coming from the US. This morning it was used by CBS News, which lumped together Ireland, Switzerland and the Bahamas as tax havens” in relation to Mitt Romney and his money.
If the name Delaware surfaces, “tax haven” is replaced by something like “no corporate tax” or “corporate friendly” by its fans and if it is Ireland we hear about “low corporate tax” or “tax friendly” from the big accounting firms, although Business Insider and Ireland’s Politico more bluntly call it a tax haven. Google is one of the key examples there.
Politico’s article on where FTSE 100 companies plant their money and which tax havens they use is a helpful contribution to the discussion.
The over-burdened taxpayer in the US or Ireland could be forgiven for saying yes, but these are companies that create jobs, so this kind of tax haven is okay, whereas the ones that cater to rich individuals (and Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Bahamas are likely to come to mind) are wrong because they’re just used by the rich to hide their wealth.
My sin, but your sensible tax policy
This isn’t a plea for higher corporate and wealth taxes or lower ones for those who aren’t rich. It is a plea to everyone, voters included, to stop using “tax haven” to mean a sin if you do it and sound tax savings practice if I do it. If we can get past that we might get somewhere in finding more balanced tax payment systems.
Here’s the US Government Audit Office (GAO) definition of the term, and keep in mind the list of countries mentioned above:
“There is no agreed-upon definition of a tax haven or agreed-upon list of jurisdictions that should be considered tax havens. However,various governmental, international, and academic sources used similar characteristics to define and identify tax havens. Some of the characteristics included no or nominal taxes; a lack of effective exchange of information with foreign tax authorities; and a lack of transparency in legislative, legal, or administrative provisions.”
This isn’t too far from the OECD one that has caused Switzerland trouble in the past two to three years: “factors to be considered are:
- Whether there is a lack of transparency
- Whether there are laws or administrative practices that prevent the effective exchange of information for tax purposes with other governments on taxpayers benefiting from the no or nominal taxation.
- Whether there is an absence of a requirement that the activity be substantial.”
For the record, I’ve paid taxes in four countries where I’ve lived and while there is room for improvement, I’d put Switzerland at the top of the fair tax list and the US at the bottom. A bonus: it takes me just an hour to do my family’s taxes in Switzerland.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Kirsten Gillibrand is a senator from New York who has been in Geneva this week to raise campaign funds: she is going after part of her constituency, American voters from her state who live in Europe. Democrats from New York who live in neighbouring France and Switzerland are being given an astonishingly rare treat that could provoke envy among other Americans abroad: a member of the US Congress has noticed and is listening to them.
Her trip has drawn the ire of Republicans back home, however, in the conservative press, with the state chairman of the Republican party, Ed Cox, saying “Senator Gillibrand touts her un-passed ‘Upstate Works Act’ while sipping champagne, popping canapés, and filling her campaign coffers in the shadow of the Swiss Alps. She is clinking glasses overseas when she should be cracking heads in Washington to actually get a bill passed.”
The National Journal published an article on the trip. “Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman at the government watchdog group Common Cause, said the trip ‘shows the insane lengths that candidates and members of Congress go to raise money for their reelection campaigns.’”
The criticism of Gillibrand and underlying assumptions that Geneva = overseas Americans = wealthy Americans come shortly after James Fallows, writing “The Fatca Chronicles” in The Atlantic, has cautioned Americans abroad that when they complain about lack of representation and unfair tax regulations they are likely to be viewed as “whiners”:
“Something most overseas Americans don’t realize: The home-bound population does not view them as a hardship class. A known risk category for long-term expats is becoming whiners—I speak as someone who’s lived outside the U.S. for several multi-year stretches and has been known to whine,” he wrote 2 January in “The Fatca Menace”.
Americans living overseas, from Canada to Switzerland, have been complaining loudly in recent months about unfair treatment at the hands of the IRS, starting with double taxation and onerous financial reporting requirements, such as the FBAR and the impact of Fatca on their ability to have bank accounts in the countries where they live, pay rent or own homes and try to set aside retirement money.
Town hall meetings in Geneva and protests in Canada have made it clear that the complaints are coming, not from a handful of wealthy diletante expats, but from a large group of middle income Americans who happen to live outside the country and who ultimately help the rest of the world better understand the US through personal contact.
Many fall below the $92,000 earned income exclusion, the bar set by the IRS for double taxation, and they have been vocal in their complaints about how the system has nevertheless cost them unfairly and grossly.
A significant part of their complaint but one that has so far fallen on deaf ears in the US is that they are taxed without representation. True, an American abroad technically should have Congressional representatives to whom complaints and pleas for help can be sent, and these overseas citizens are supposed to be able to vote and can, in theory, help elect people who understand their concerns.
The system sounds fine on paper, but the reality is very different. For a start, many Americans who live overseas, especially long-term residents or children born abroad to US citizens, no longer or have never had addresses they can use in a US state, and your US address is the starting point for all congressional relations.
Offspring are told by some states, in order to vote and to have a congressional rep, to use a parent’s last address in a state, but this can make voter registration an onerous process. They are simply not eligible to vote in some states.
The Overseas Vote Foundation has been working hard to improve the situation, but few Americans in the US appear to be aware that for a large number of Americans overseas the basic representation and taxation rights that are so stridently defended during electoral campaigns sadly do not apply to all citizens.
Groups like Geneva-based ACA (American Citizens Abroad) have been working hard to draw attention to the issues.
But even if all US citizens abroad managed to find a senator or representative willing to listen to them, this group is dispersed, so its voice remains weak. Their common concerns appear through a prism of all the states, so few politicians see them as having enough weight to be important.
Gillibrand isn’t just raising money for a campaign. She’s opened a conversation with a group of Americans who are often ill-treated by their own government because its elected leaders too often focus on larger vested interests. She should be given some credit by Democrats and Republicans alike for doing her homework and taking her responsibilities seriously.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – American Citizens Abroad are hosting a fourth Town Hall meeting in Geneva Wednesday evening 16 November to talk about US tax obligations. Among the odd questions likely to come up is this one: does the US Justice Department really expect people to inform the Justice Dept. that they are appealing a Swiss federal government decision, if their bank accounts are slated to be turned over to the IRS by Credit Suisse at the behest of the Swiss government?
Swiss law allows the account owners to appeal before any data is turned over, so their privacy is respected until the day the Swiss court rules that the client’s case meets the criteria for “administrative assistance” under the terms of the the bilateral double taxation treaty.
In other words, the day the Swiss tax office says they do indeed appear to be committing fraud or tax evasion involving a substantial amount of money.
Nasdaq, which published a Dow-Jones article Sunday 13 November about Credit Suisse turning names over, ends with this startling sentence: “Taxpayers who challenge the release of the information are supposed to report their challenge to the US Justice Department.”
It takes a bureaucratic mind to come up with that one.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – We have reported regularly on the US government’s efforts to bring its far-flung citizens back into the American tax fold, and I’m about to write something on American Citizens Abroad’s efforts to get Congress to repeal Fatca (if you don’t yet know what that is, you’re not alone, which means you’re part of the problem).
But an article that appeared in Tom Dispatch, which is always excellent reading, stopped me in my tracks. There are the very public wars, and the quiet ones: this is part of one of the quiet ones, and I leave you to determine who is fighting whom here.
The story of Ann Jones, Fulbright Scholar in Norway, not being able to get her rent money out of her US bank account, will raise the anxiety level and hackles of many Americans. Years ago I was an illegal alien in France, at a time when Paris was filled with Americans, almost all of them living there illegally because France didn’t give many visas to Americans. Banking was a nightmare, for me and almost everyone I knew. In a particularly Gallic twist on logic, I was allowed by the French to pay taxes and social security there, to the tune of nearly 40% of my income. My US bank was Citibank, so I felt a strange comradery with Ann Jones when I read her saga, even though my problem at the time was not the US Justice Department but the French government.
I left France, despite having a good job, because I wanted to live in peace, with peace of mind, in a country where I could do my banking and pay my taxes and sleep at night, a country where the machinations of government were more open: Switzerland.
What really bothers me in the Ann Jones story is reading about the questionnaires. These are oddly and uncomfortably close to the questionnaires Americans appear to be receiving once they have turned themselves into the IRS for non-filing (IRS voluntary disclosure), without knowing in advance they will receive these unless they have a pricey US accountant handling their paper – and that the filing apparently doesn’t count unless they fill out the questionnaires. I’m still looking for more information on that – accurate rather than the rumours floated by a New York Times/Reuters reporter (more on that later today). I’ll report on that when I know more.
For now, I guess this is the little rider, in the IRS FAQ, that implies late filers will have to answer more questions after they have filed: “Cooperate in the voluntary disclosure process, including providing information on offshore financial accounts, institutions and facilitators, and signing agreements to extend the period of time for assessing tax and penalties…”
A bonus is that I discovered she’s written a book that sounds promising, War is not over when it’s over (women and the unseen consequences of conflict).