The Tax Man Takes Aim At The World's Wealthy
As 2013 begins with wealthy Americans in line for bigger tax bills, they're not alone. Tax fairness takes the spotlight worldwide this year, as cash-strapped governments look to impose more of the burden on well-heeled companies, individuals and institutions, and to catch and punish tax cheaters.
This week, as the U.S. Congress averted a plunge off the fiscal precipice, British Prime Minister David Cameron sent a letter to leaders of the Group of Eight countries that make up about half of the world's economic output.
Cameron is incoming president of the G-8 and says corporate tax evasion is on his top 3 list of goals for the year.
"I do believe we all have a common interest in being able to tell our taxpayers who work hard and pay their fair share of taxes that we will make sure others do the same," he wrote in an open letter to the G-8, promoting a coordinated approach to discourage tax evaders.
Multinational corporations have defended themselves by pointing out that they're only taking advantage of international laws that allow them to look for "optimal" tax structures.
Google, for example, avoided about $2 billion in worldwide income taxes in 2011 by shifting $9.8 billion in revenue into a Bermuda shell company, Bloomberg recently reported.
"We did it based on the incentives that the governments offered us," Google Chairman Eric Schmidt told Bloomberg. Of course his company is going to take advantage of big tax savings, he said, "it's called capitalism."
But the global economic crisis has created enormous pressure for new revenue, and governments throughout Europe and other parts of the world are reconsidering sometimes century-old tax laws that haven't kept up with global economic changes. For example, officials in France, the U.K, Italy and Australia are investigating some of the largest multinational corporations' tax avoidance strategies, looking for ways to make them pay more.
European lawmakers howled at the end of last year, after Starbucks disclosed that it generated 398 million euros in sales in Britain in 2011, but paid no corporate tax for the third consecutive year.
When the company pointed out that its tax strategies were all within the law, government officials were not placated. Instead, they escalated their rhetorical indignation, calling them "immoral" business practices. Starbucks backpedaled and subsequently said that for the next two years, it would stop claiming deductions that helped bring its tax bill to zero for the past three years.
The Vatican also took aim at business practices that have exacerbated global conflict. In his New Year's Day address, the pope blamed a "selfish and individualistic mindset, which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism" for tension and conflict caused by growing inequality between rich and poor.
But the issues of taxes also loom over the Holy See. Although the Catholic Church has largely been considered an untouchable institution in some parts of Europe, the economic crisis is changing that. The Vatican's finances and tax obligations are also under international scrutiny.
On Wednesday, Italy's central bank suspended credit and debit card payments and cash withdrawals in Vatican City, reportedly because the Vatican doesn't comply with international money-laundering rules, a Bank of Italy official told Bloomberg. That means thousands of pilgrims and tourists are forced to use cash only in museums and shops until the matter is cleared up.
Some of the subsidy deals struck generations ago between the Catholic church and governments in predominantly Catholic countries are also being reviewed and, in some cases, changed.
At the end of 2012, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti won EU approval to strip the Catholic Church of its exemption from local taxes on real estate it owns that is used for commercial purposes.
In Spain, officials in one town outside Madrid are poised to send the Catholic Church a property tax bill for the first time. A city councilman told the The Washington Post, "We want to make a statement that the costs of the crisis should be borne equally by every person and institution."
The prospect of having to pay taxes when it never has before has enormous financial implications for the church, which has most of its assets tied up in property and art, has drained its cash reserves for hundreds of millions of dollars in clergy abuse settlements, and is seeing less money being dropped onto collection plates. On top of that, governments are looking to pull state funding.
In Ireland, the government has halved grants to poor families to help them cover the costs of their first Communions. More than half the city councils in Britain cut subsidies for transportation to faith-based schools.
The international focus on taxes is also turning on public officials. In Greece, as Joanna Kakissis tells NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, investigators have reportedly found evidence confirming that many of the more than 2,200 prominent Greek business people and politicians may have hidden billions in Swiss bank accounts.
This could be explosive, as protestors haven taken to the streets from Athens to small towns, decrying new rounds of austerity measures.
Since the economic crisis began, Greeks have seen salaries and pensions slashed by up to 40 percent, taxes hiked and more than a million people have lost their jobs.
Global financial institutions are not immune. Worldwide, dozens have been charged with helping wealthy Americans evade taxes.
Last week, the oldest bank in Switzerland was in Manhattan federal court to plead guilty to widespread tax evasion by U.S. citizens using its offshore accounts.
Wegelin was founded in 1741 and specialized in private banking and financial-management services for high-wealth individuals. It agreed to pay $57.8 million in fines and restitution and will shut down after it does.