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Tackling abusive tax avoidance

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Michael Young

By Michael Young, TEP, Chairman, STEP

Over the past decade tax authorities around the world have been working on tackling the issue of the hiding of funds from tax authorities to facilitate tax evasion. There have been a series of both multilateral initiatives, such as the work of the OECD Global Forum, and unilateral initiatives, such as the US FATCA legislation.  Michael Young

The work on tax evasion continues, but in a range of major jurisdictions the issue of tackling abusive tax avoidance is now taking centre stage. A fair tax system must include effective measures to counteract abuse, but the issue has being given additional urgency by questions about fairness in the sharing of national tax burdens amid concerns over the funding of budget deficits.

Over the past 30 years, the OECD average top tax rate has dropped sharply, from 65.7% in 1980 to 41.7% in 2010. There are strong economic arguments in favour of this trend, but many wealthy individuals pay effective tax rates well below the current headline rates prompting accusations, however misinformed, of abusive tax avoidance.

In law, the rule for tax advisors is clear. Tax evasion – hiding taxable income from the tax authorities – is criminal. Tax avoidance – planning your affairs to minimise your tax bill – is legal. But if the principle is clear, the distinction between tax avoidance schemes that achieve their intended tax result and those that do not depends on decisions of the courts. In many jurisdictions, judges now adopt a purposive view of tax legislation to ensure that artificial schemes designed to defeat the purposes of the legislation do not succeed. Advisors who promote such schemes may reasonably be accused of mis-selling.

Many countries also have ‘general anti-avoidance rules’ to combat artificial schemes. Canada and Australia are prominent examples and the UK and India are considering similar legislation. Such legislation needs to be drafted extremely carefully to avoid introducing damaging levels of uncertainty into national tax systems. The potential revenue gains from anti-avoidance measures need to be balanced against the impact that bad drafting has on confidence, economic growth and, ultimately, tax revenues.

The judicial and legislative approach to abusive schemes raises significant challenges for advisors and their clients. The most pressing is the lack of precise definitions of what constitutes abusive schemes. The response is often that any experienced tax professional can recognise such tax schemes when they see one. Legislation often attempts to capture this sentiment via some form of ‘reasonableness test’, but what can appear ‘reasonable’ in one context – perhaps a parent keen to avoid funds falling into the hands of a spendthrift child – can appear quite unreasonable in another.

The lack of solid definitions of abuse is a particular problem for those, such as STEP members, who help draw-up long-term plans for families. It seems that just one bad headline can now move a particular form of tax planning – however poorly understood by the public – from the ‘acceptable’ to the ‘abusive’. Thus without warning large charitable donations recently moved from being socially praiseworthy to being an abusive tax dodge in the view of the UK government before common sense prevailed.

Another danger is that what counts as normal tax planning in one jurisdiction might be seen in a different light in another. Alongside the growing number of jurisdictions taking action unilaterally against abusive tax planning, we are also seeing multilateral initiatives. The EU Commission, for example, is planning work on ‘harmful tax competition and revenue loss and unfair competition deriving from aggressive tax planning’.  Mutually agreed consistent definitions and language are essential in such multilateral initiatives.

As we noted earlier, a fair tax system must include effective measures to counteract abuse. Equally, there must also be a clear balance between taxpayer obligations and taxpayer rights. STEP is therefore proposing a five-point programme that it believes could help in the fight against abusive tax avoidance while preserving tax payer rights. The main elements of this programme are:

  • Governments and tax professionals alike should refocus on working towards simpler tax laws. Abusive tax schemes usually exploit gaps and inconsistencies in the tax system. Such gaps and inconsistencies normally reflect complexity, but in many jurisdictions the drive for tax simplification has run out of steam, or even gone into reverse.
  • Governments should engage in effective and open consultation before legislating. Too often tax legislation is introduced that tax professionals quickly identify as adding to the risk of abuse. Equally, anti-abuse legislation is often introduced that either adds disproportionately to compliance costs or fails to tackle the real problems. Both these problems can be avoided by better prior consultation.
  • Governments need to ensure that anti-avoidance measures fit in with the core principles of good taxation. Introducing tax measures that create uncertainty, penalise international capital flows or impose high compliance costs can potentially create huge inefficiencies and costs on economies. Onerous anti-avoidance measures should not be seen as a substitute for well-designed tax systems.
  • Tax advisors should give their clients clear warnings of the risks of engaging in schemes that might be considered abusive. Clients engaging in such schemes will be challenged by the tax authorities and receive little sympathy in court. They may also be vulnerable to widespread adverse publicity – as recent high profile examples in a string of major jurisdictions have demonstrated.
  • Professional bodies such as STEP have a key role in promoting an informed debate about abusive tax conduct and, in particular, helping to develop a consistent approach internationally to what is a complex topic. A level playing field should be an important goal of the various multilateral initiatives on tax avoidance that are starting to take shape. The professional bodies played a key role in helping develop a co-operative rather combative multilateral approach to improving information gathering. To ensure a similar co-operative approach in respect of abusive tax avoidance, professional advisors need to fully engage in the developing debate on tackling abuse at both a national and international level.

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What Does the FinCEN File Leak Tell Us?

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What Does the FinCEN File Leak Tell Us? 1

By Ted Sausen, Subject Matter Expert, NICE Actimize

On September 20, 2020, just four days after the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued a much-anticipated Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the financial industry was shaken and their stock prices saw significant declines when the markets opened on Monday. So what caused this? Buzzfeed News in cooperation with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released what is now being tagged the FinCEN files. These files and summarized reports describe over 200,000 transactions with a total over $2 trillion USD that has been reported to FinCEN as being suspicious in nature from the time periods 1999 to 2017. Buzzfeed obtained over 2,100 Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) and over 2,600 confidential documents financial institutions had filed with FinCEN over that span of time.

Similar such leaks have occurred previously, such as the Panama Papers in 2016 where over 11 million documents containing personal financial information on over 200,000 entities that belonged to a Panamanian law firm. This was followed up a year and a half later by the Paradise Papers in 2017. This leak contained even more documents and contained the names of more than 120,000 persons and entities. There are three factors that make the FinCEN Files leak significantly different than those mentioned. First, they are highly confidential documents leaked from a government agency. Secondly, they weren’t leaked from a single source. The leaked documents came from nearly 90 financial institutions facilitating financial transactions in more than 150 countries. Lastly, some high-profile names were released in this leak; however, the focus of this leak centered more around the transactions themselves and the financial institutions involved, not necessarily the names of individuals involved.

FinCEN Files and the Impact

What does this mean for the financial institutions? As mentioned above, many experienced a negative impact to their stocks. The next biggest impact is their reputation. Leaders of the highlighted institutions do not enjoy having potential shortcomings in their operations be exposed, nor do customers of those institutions appreciate seeing the institution managing their funds being published adversely in the media.

Where did the financial institutions go wrong? Based on the information, it is actually hard to say where they went wrong, or even ‘if’ they went wrong. Financial institutions are obligated to monitor transactional activity, both inbound and outbound, for suspicious or unusual behavior, especially those that could appear to be illicit activities related to money laundering. If such behavior is identified, the financial institution is required to complete a Suspicious Activity Report, or a SAR, and file it with FinCEN. The SAR contains all relevant information such as the parties involved, transaction(s), account(s), and details describing why the activity is deemed to be suspicious. In some cases, financial institutions will file a SAR if there is no direct suspicion; however, there also was not a logical explanation found either.

So what deems certain activities to be suspicious and how do financial institutions detect them? Most financial institutions have sophisticated solutions in place that monitor transactions over a period of time, and determine typical behavioral patterns for that client, and that client compared to their peers. If any activity falls disproportionately beyond those norms, the financial institution is notified, and an investigation is conducted. Because of the nature of this detection, incorporating multiple transactions, and comparing it to historical “norms”, it is very difficult to stop a transaction related to money laundering real-time. It is not uncommon for a transaction or series of transactions to occur and later be identified as suspicious, and a SAR is filed after the transaction has been completed.

FinCEN Files: Who’s at Fault?

Going back to my original question, was there any wrong doing? In this case, they were doing exactly what they were required to do. When suspicion was identified, SARs were filed. There are two things that are important to note. Suspicion does not equate to guilt, and individual financial institutions have a very limited view as to the overall flow of funds. They have visibility of where funds are coming from, or where they are going to; however, they don’t have an overall picture of the original source, or the final destination. The area where financial institutions may have fault is if multiple suspicions or probable guilt is found, but they fail to take appropriate action. According to Buzzfeed News, instances of transactions to or from sanctioned parties occurred, and known suspicious activity was allowed to continue after it was discovered.

Moving Forward

How do we do better? First and foremost, FinCEN needs to identify the source of the leak and fix it immediately. This is very sensitive data. Even within a financial institution, this information is only exposed to individuals with a high-level clearance on a need-to-know basis. This leak may result in relationship strains with some of the banks’ customers. Some people already have a fear of being watched or tracked, and releasing publicly that all these reports are being filed from financial institutions to the federal government won’t make that any better – especially if their financial institution was highlighted as one of those filing the most reports. Next, there has been more discussion around real-time AML. Many experts are still working on defining what that truly means, especially when some activities deal with multiple transactions over a period of time; however, there is definitely a place for certain money laundering transactions to be held in real time.

Lastly, the ability to share information between financial institutions more easily will go a long way in fighting financial crime overall. For those of you who are AML professionals, you may be thinking we already have such a mechanism in place with 314b. However, the feedback I have received is that it does not do an adequate job. It’s voluntary and getting responses to requests can be a challenge. Financial institutions need a consortium to effectively communicate with each other, while being able to exchange critical data needed for financial institutions to see the complete picture of financial transactions and all associated activities. That, combined with some type of feedback loop from law enforcement indicating which SARs are “useful” versus which are either “inadequate” or “unnecessary” will allow institutions to focus on those where criminal activity is really occurring.

We will continue to post updates as we learn more.

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How can financial services firms keep pace with escalating requirements?

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How can financial services firms keep pace with escalating requirements? 2

By Tim FitzGerald, UK Banking & Financial Services Sales Manager, InterSystems

Financial services firms are currently coming up against a number of critical challenges, ranging from market volatility, most recently influenced by COVID-19, to the introduction of regulations, such as the Payment Services Directive (PSD2) and Fundamental Review of the Trading Book (FRTB). However, these issues are being compounded as many financial institutions find it increasingly difficult to get a handle on the vast volumes of data that they have at their disposal. This is no surprise given that IDC has projected that by 2025, the global “datasphere” will have grown to a staggering 175 zettabytes of data – more than five times the amount of data generated in 2018. As an industry that has typically only invested in new technology when regulations deem it necessary, many traditional banks are now operating using legacy systems and applications that haven’t been designed or built to interoperate. Consequently, banks are struggling to leverage data to achieve business goals and to gain a clear picture of their organisation and processes in order to comply with regulatory requirements. These challenges have been more prevalent during the pandemic as financial services firms were forced to adapt their operations to radical changes in customer behaviour and increased demand for digital services – all while working largely remotely themselves.

As more stringent regulations come in to play and financial services firms look to keep pace with escalating requirements from regulators, consumer demand for more online services, and the ever-evolving nature of the industry and world at large, it’s vital they do two things. Firstly, they must begin to invest in the technology and processes that will allow them to more easily manage the data that traditional banks have been collecting and storing for upwards of 50 years. Secondly, they must innovate. For many, the COVID-19 pandemic will have been a catalyst for both actions. However, the hard work has only just begun.

Legacy technology

Traditionally, due to tight budgets and no overarching regulatory imperative to change, financial institutions haven’t done enough to address their overreliance on disconnected legacy systems. Even when faced with the new wave of regulation that was implemented in the wake of the 2008 banking crash, financial services organisations generally only had to invest in different applications on an ad hoc basis to meet each individual regulation. However, as new regulations require the analysis of larger data sets within smaller processing windows, breaking down any and all data siloes is essential and this will require financial institutions that are still reliant on legacy systems to implement new technologies to meet the regulatory stipulations.

With this in mind, solutions which offer high-quality data analytics and enhanced integration will be key to the success of financial institutions and crucial to eliminate data silos. This will enable organisations to achieve a faster and more accurate analysis of real-time and historical data no matter where they are accessing the data from within smaller processing windows to keep pace with regulatory requirements, while also benefiting from low infrastructure costs.

This technology will also play a huge part in helping financial institutions scale their online operations to meet demand from customers for digital services. According to PNC Bank, during the pandemic, it saw online sales jump from 25% to 75%. Therefore, having data platforms that are able to handle surges in online activity is becoming increasingly important.

Real-time analysis of data

Tim FitzGerald

Tim FitzGerald

While the precise solution financial services institutions need will differ based on the organisation, broadly speaking, the more data they are storing on legacy solutions, the more they are going to require an updated data platform that can handle real-time analytics. Even organisations that have fewer legacy systems are still likely to require solutions that deliver enhanced interoperability to help provide a real-time view across the business and enable them to meet the pressing regulatory requirements they face. Let’s also not lose sight of the fact that moving transactional data to a data warehouse, data lake, or any other silo will never deliver real-time analytics, therefore, businesses making risk decisions based on this and thinking it is real-time is completely inappropriate.

As such, financial services firms require a data platform that can ingest real-time transactional data, as well as from a variety of other sources of historical and reference data, normalise it, and make sense of it. The ability to process transactions at scale in real-time and simultaneously run analytics using transactional real-time data and large sets of non-real-time data, such as reference data, is a crucial capability for various business requirements. For example, powering mission-critical trading platforms that cannot slow down or drop trades, even as volumes spike.

Not only will having access to real-time data enable financial institutions to meet evolving regulatory requirements, but it will also allow them to make faster and more accurate decisions for their organisation andcustomers. With many financial services firms operating on a global basis, this is vital to help them keep up not only with evolving regulations but also changing circumstances in different markets in light of the pandemic. This data can also help them understand how to become more agile, help their employees become productive while working remotely, and how to build up operational resilience. These insights will also be vital as financial institutions need to consider the likelihood of subsequent waves of the virus, allowing them to gain a better understanding of what has and hasn’t worked for their business so far. 

Innovation

The financial services sector is fast-paced and ever-changing. With the launch of more digital-only banks, traditional institutions need to innovate to avoid being left behind, with COVID-19 only highlighting this further. With more than a third (35%) of customers increasing their use of online banking during this period, it is those banks and financial services firms with a solid online offering that have been best placed to answer this demand. As financial institutions cater to changing customer requirements, both now and in the future, implementing new technology that provides access to data in real-time will help them to uncover the fresh insights needed to develop new and transformative products and services for their customers. In turn, this will enable them to realise new revenue streams and potentially capture a bigger slice of the market. For instance, access to data will help banks better understand the needs of their customers during periods of upheaval, as well as under normal circumstance, which will allow them to target them with the specific services they may need during each of these periods to not only help their customers through difficult times but also to ensure the growth of their business. As financial institutions not only look to keep pace with but also gain an advantage over their competitors, using data to fuel excellent customer experiences will be essential to success.  

With the current economic uncertainty and market volatility, it’s critical that financial services are able to meet the changing requirements coming from all angles. With COVID-19 likely to be the biggest catalyst for financial institutions to digitally transform, they will be better able to cater to rapidly evolving landscapes and prepare for continued periods of remote working. As they look to achieve this, replacing legacy systems with innovative and agile technology solutions will be crucial to ensure they can gain the accurate and complete view of their enterprise data they need to comply with new and changing regulations, and better meet the needs of consumers in an increasingly digital landscape, whether they are located in an office or working remotely.

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Lockdown 2.0 – Here’s how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room

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Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 3

Jeff Carlson, author of The Photographer’s Guide to Luminar 4 and Take Control of Your Digital Photos suggests “the product you’re creating is not the camera, the lens or a webcam’s clever industrial design. It’s the subject, you, which is just one part of the entire image they see. You want that image to convey quality, not convenience.”

Technology experts at Reincubate saw an opportunity in the rise of remote-working video calls and developed the app, Camo, to improve the video quality of our webcam calls. As part of this, they consulted the digital photography expert and author, Jeff Carlson, to reveal how we can look our best online. 

It’s clear by now that COVID-19 has normalised remote working, but as part of this the importance of video calls has risen exponentially. While we’re all used to seeing the more casual sides of our colleagues (t-shirt and shorts, anyone?), poor webcam quality is slightly less forgivable.

But how can we improve how we look on video? We consulted Jeff Carlson for some top tips– here is what he had to say.

  1. Improve the picture quality of your call

The better your camera, the higher quality your webcam calls will be. Most webcams (as well as currently being hard to get hold of and expensive), are subpar. A DSLR setup will give you the best picture, but will cost $1,500+. You can also use your iPhone’s amazing camera as a webcam, using the new app from Reincubate, Camo.

Jeff’s comments “The iPhone’s camera system features dedicated coprocessors for evaluating and adjusting the image in real time. Apple has put a tremendous amount of work into its imaging software as a way to compensate for the necessarily small camera sensors. Although it all works in service of creating stills and video, you get the same benefits when using the iPhone as a webcam.”

Aidan Fitzpatrick, CEO of Reincubate explains why the team created Camo, “Earlier this year our team moved to working remotely, and in video calls everyone looked pretty bad, irrespective of whether they were on built-in Mac webcams or third-party ones. Thus began my journey to build Camo: an iPhone has one of the world’s best cameras in it, so could we make it work as a webcam? Category-leading webcams are noticeably worse than an iPhone 7. This makes sense: six weeks of Apple’s R&D spend tops Logitech’s annual gross revenue.”

  1. Place your camera at eye level

A video call will never quite be the same as a face-to-face conversation, but bringing your camera up to eye level is a good place to start. That can involve putting your laptop on a stand or pile of books, mounting a webcam to the top of your display screen, or even using a tripod to get the perfect position.

Jeff points out, “If the camera is looking down on you, you’ll appear minimized in the frame; if it’s looking up, you’re inviting people to focus on your chin, neck, or nostrils. Most important, positioning the camera off your eye level is a distraction. Look them in the eye, even if they’re miles or continents away.

Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 4

Low camera placement from a MacBook

  1. Make the most of natural lighting

Be aware of the lighting in the room and move yourself to face natural lighting if you can. Positioning the camera so any natural light is behind you takes the light away from your face, which can make it harder to see and read expressions on a call.

Jeff Carlson’s top tip: “If the light from outside is too harsh, diffuse it and create softer shadows by tacking up a white sheet or a stand-alone diffuser over the window.” 

Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 5Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 6

Backlit against a window Facing natural light

  1. Use supplementary lighting like ring lights

The downside to natural lighting is that you’re at the mercy of the elements: if it’s too bright you’ll have the sun in your eyes, if it’s too dark you won’t be well lit.

Jeff recommends adding supplementary lighting if you’re looking to really enhance your video calls. After all, it looks like remote working will be carrying on for quite some time.

“The light can be just as easy as a household or inexpensive work light. Angle the light so it’s bouncing off a wall or the ceiling, depending on your work area, which, again, diffuses the light and makes it more flattering.

Or, for a little money, use a softbox or a shoot-through umbrella with daylight bulbs (5500K temperature), or if space is tight, LED panels. Larger lights are better for distributing illumination– don’t be afraid to get them in close to you. Placement depends on the look you’re going after; start by positioning one at a 45-degree angle in front and to the side of you, which lights most of your face while retaining nice shadow detail.” 

In some cases, a ring light may work best. LEDs are arranged in a circle, with space in the middle to put the camera’s lens and get direct illumination from the direction of the camera.

  1. Centre yourself in the frame

Make sure you’re getting the right angle and that you’re using the frame effectively.

“You should aim for people to see your head and part of your torso, not all the space between your hair and the ceiling. Leave a little space above your head so it’s not cut off, but not enough that someone’s eyes are going to drift there.”

  1. Be mindful of your backdrop

It’s not always easy to get the quiet space needed for video calls when working from home, but try as best you can to remove anything too distracting from your background.

“Get rid of clutter or anything that’s distracting or unprofessional, because you can bet that will be the second thing the viewers notice after they see you. (The Twitter account @RateMySkypeRoom is an amusing ongoing commentary on the environments people on television are connecting from.)”

A busy background as seen by a webcam

  1. Make the most of virtual backgrounds

If you’re really struggling with finding a background that looks professional, try using a virtual background.

Jeff suggests: “Some apps can identify your presence in the scene and create a live mask that enables you to use an entirely different image to cover the background. While it’s a fun feature, the quality of the masking is still rudimentary, even with a green screen background that makes this sort of keying more accurate.”

  1. Be aware of your audio settings

Our laptop webcams, cameras, and mobile phones all include microphones, but if it’s at all possible, use a separate microphone instead.

“That can be an inexpensive lavalier mic, a USB microphone, or a set of iPhone earbuds. You can also get wireless lavalier models if you’re moving around during a call, such as presenting at a whiteboard in the camera’s field of view.

The idea is to get the microphone closer to your mouth so it’s recording what you say, not other sounds or echoes in the room. If you type during meetings, mount the mic on an arm instead of resting it on the same surface as your keyboard.”

  1. Be wary of video app add-ons

Video apps like Zoom include a ‘Touch up your appearance’ option in the Video settings. This applies a skin-smoothing filter to your face, but more often than not, the end result looks artificially blurry instead of smooth.

“Zoom also includes settings for suppressing persistent and intermittent background noise, and echo cancellation. They’re all set to Auto by default, but you can choose how aggressive or not the feature is.”

  1. Be the best looking person in the virtual room

What’s important to remember about video calls at this point in time is that most people are new to what is, really, personal broadcasting. That means you can easily get an edge, just by adopting a few suggestions in this article. When your video and audio quality improves, people will take notice.

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