Common Reporting Standard – what is it?
The Common Reporting Standard (or 'CRS') is a global system of automatic information exchange developed by the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development based in Paris) and adopted by 102 jurisdictions around the world(1).
How does the new global standard of information exchange work?
Under the CRS, financial institutions based in any of the countries that have adopted the standard will have to provide their local authorities with the following information about their clients for onward transmission to the tax authorities of the country of residence of the client.
The information that will be exchanged under the CRS includes:
- The name of the account holder;
- His/her date and place of birth;
- His/her tax reference number ('TIN'):
- The name of the financial institution;
- The account number;
- The account balance at the end of the relevant reporting period (e.g. at the end of the year); and
- The total gross amount paid to the account during the relevant reporting period.
What happens if the account is held via a company, trust, foundation, etc.?
In this case, the reporting financial institution has to apply a 'look-through' approach and report the individuals behind the relevant company, trust, foundation or similar. The term used by the CRS is 'Controlling Person' or (in the case of a self-reporting entity), 'Equity Interest' holder.
The definition of 'Controlling Person'/'Equity Interest' holder contained in the CRS is very wide and is based on broad money laundering concepts. In other words, it matters not whether the relevant individual has an actual tax liability in relation to the bank account to which s/he is linked. Thus, the CRS provides that the settlor of a trust/a founder or a foundation, the trustees (or members of the foundation council), any protector and the beneficiaries or class of beneficiaries 'must always be treated as Controlling Persons' [and therefore must be reported upon] regardless of whether or not any of them exercises any control over the trust/foundation.' The definition of 'Equity Interest' holder is practically identical and although discretionary beneficiaries of trusts and foundations who do not receive distributions may find that they will not be subject to reporting because of a quirk contained in the commentary published by the OECD, in most cases trusts and foundations (but also partnerships and passive companies) will be subject to extensive reporting.
Because of the way it operates, in many cases the CRS requires multiple reporting, i.e. the whole value of the account is attributed to several people, e.g. in the case of an 'usufruit' or a trust/foundation. In practice, this is likely to increase the risk of tax audits, especially where the reported individuals are resident in different jurisdictions.
What about privacy and data protection?
A number of European data protection agencies have raised concerns about the broad nature of the new rules and the fact that they require a generalised exchange of information which is automatic and independent of the existence of any actual risk of tax evasion. Clients living in high-risk jurisdictions are particularly vulnerable. In addition, the nature of the information exchanged (name, date and place of birth, bank account details) has the potential of exposing millions of individuals who have a bank account abroad (or who are 'Controlling Persons'/'Equity Interest' holders of foreign structures) to the risk of hacking and data theft.
With experts in taxation, data protection and cyber-security, Mishcon de Reya is at the forefront of the campaign to raise awareness in relation to the potential risks of the new rules on automatic exchange of information, as well as the risks associated with the EU registers of beneficial ownership which are due to entered into force in June 2017. Under the new EU rules, anyone who can demonstrate a legitimate interest may obtain information about the beneficial owners of corporate and other legal entities, whereby the definition of 'beneficial owner' follows closely the definition of 'Controlling Person' under the CRS.
I am concerned about my safety or the quality of the information: what can I do?
Some 50 countries around the world will started to exchange information before September 2017. In many countries, financial institutions had to send the relevant information to their local authorities for onward transmission by 30 June 2017. A second group of countries (so-called 'Late Adopters) will start exchanging information from 2018 using data relating to 2017.
As time is running out, it is important to consider the CRS treatment of any account, especially in the presence of corporate structures, trusts or foundations. The rules are very complex and most financial institutions tend to apply a broad approach to reporting.
Where a financial institution applies a wrong approach or where the rules are too broad, individuals may have no alternative but to resort to litigation to ensure that the data to be exchanged is correct or to prevent the exchange of information which is irrelevant for tax purposes.
What about charities?
There is no general exclusion for charities under the CRS. Most charities will qualify as 'active' entities, which means that the only reporting will be made to the country where the charity is based. However, charities that derive most of their income from passive investments (e.g. endowment charities) are potentially caught by the new rules and will have to report their grantees. In many cases (e.g. in the case of a charity that supports political activists, LGBT campaigners in traditional jurisdictions, anti-corruption activists, human rights advocates or similar) this may expose the grantees to danger. Following an activist campaign in which some of our lawyers took a leading role, the UK tax authorities have amended their guidance to enable charities to apply for redacted reporting. However, the position in other countries remains unclear and as far as the UK is concerned it is too early to gauge how the UK tax authorities will approach this topic in practice.
I live in a high-risk jurisdiction – surely, there will be no reporting to the authorities of the country I live in?
The CRS has been designed as a global automatic information exchange system. Although some countries are considering the reporting position in relation to high-risk countries, there is no consensus in this area. The issue is not academic: the extent of the problem is evident if one compares the list of countries that will exchange and receive information under the CRS with well-known corruption indexes (such as the Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International(2) or the crony-capitalism index published by The Economist(3)). Even at EU level, some countries are engulfed by popular anti-corruption protests or have been put on notice by the European Commissions because of perceived problems with the rule of law. In an increasingly unstable world, the CRS will provide a useful tool for combating tax evasion, whilst raising complex issues for millions of compliant citizens. To give an idea of the likely scale of information exchange under the CRS, the EU estimated that in March 2017 there were 35.1 million people born outside of the EU-28 living in an EU Member State on 1 January 2016, while there were 19.3 million persons who had been born in a different EU Member State from the one where they were resident (4). In practice, it is likely that many of these people will own bank accounts in more than one country, leading to information exchange under the CRS.
- List of countries that have adopted the CRS: https://www.oecd.org/tax/transparency/AEOI-commitments.pdf
Current status of implementation:
- Corruption Perception Index 2016 (Transparency International): https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/corruption_perceptions_index_2016
- Crony-capitalism Index (the Economist): http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/05/daily-chart-2
- EU migration and migrant population statistics: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Migration_and_migrant_population_statistics