“The U.S. failure to sign onto the OECD information-sharing standard is “proving to be a strong driver of growth for our business,” wrote Bolton’s chief executive officer, Ray Grenier, in a marketing e-mail to bankers. His firm is seeing a spike in accounts moved out of European banks—“Switzerland in particular”—and into the U.S. The new OECD standard “was the beginning of the exodus,” he said in an interview.
The U.S. Treasury is proposing standards similar to the OECD’s for foreign-held accounts in the U.S. But similar proposals in the past have stalled in the face of opposition from the Republican-controlled Congress and the banking industry.
At issue is not just non-U.S. citizens skirting their home countries’ taxes. Treasury also is concerned that massive inflows of capital into secret accounts could become a new channel for criminal money laundering. At least $1.6 trillion in illicit funds are laundered through the global financial system each year, according to a United Nations estimate.
Offering secrecy to clients is not against the law, but U.S. firms are not permitted to knowingly help overseas customers evade foreign taxes, said Scott Michel, a criminal tax defense attorney at Washington, D.C.-based Caplin & Drysdale who has represented Swiss banks and foreign account holders.
“To the extent non-U.S. persons are encouraged to come to the U.S. for what may be our own ‘tax haven’ characteristics, the U.S. government would likely take a dim view of any marketing suggesting that evading home country tax is a legal objective,” he said.
Rothschild says it takes “significant care” to ensure account holders’ assets are fully declared. The bank “adheres to the legal, regulatory, and tax rules wherever we operate,” said Rees, the Rothschild spokeswoman.
Penney, who oversees the Reno business, is a longtime Rothschild lawyer who worked his way up from the firm’s trust operations in the tiny British isle of Guernsey. Penney, 56, is now a managing director based in London for Rothschild Wealth Management & Trust, which handles about $23 billion for 7,000 clients from offices including Milan, Zurich, and Hong Kong. A few years ago he was voted “Trustee of the Year” by an elite group of U.K. wealth advisers.
In his September San Francisco talk, called “Using U.S. Trusts in International Planning: 10 Amazing Feats to Impress Clients and Colleagues,” Penney laid out legal ways to avoid both U.S. taxes and disclosures to clients’ home countries.
In a section originally titled “U.S. Trusts to Preserve Privacy,” he included the hypothetical example of an Internet investor named “Wang, a Hong Kong resident,” originally from the People’s Republic of China, concerned that information about his wealth could be shared with Chinese authorities.
Putting his assets into a Nevada LLC, in turn owned by a Nevada trust, would generate no U.S. tax returns, Penney wrote. Any forms the IRS would receive would result in “no meaningful information to exchange under” agreements between Hong Kong and the U.S., according to Penney’s PowerPoint presentation reviewed by Bloomberg.
Penney offered a disclaimer: At least one government, the U.K., intends to make it a criminal offense for any U.K. firm to facilitate tax evasion.
Rothschild said the PowerPoint was subsequently revised before Penney delivered his presentation. The firm provided what it said was the final version of the talk, which this time excluded several potentially controversial passages. Among them: the U.S. being the “biggest tax haven in the world,” the U.S.’s low appetite for enforcing other countries’ tax laws, and two references to “privacy” offered by the U.S.
“The presentation was drafted in response to a request by the organizers to be controversial and create a lively debate among the experienced, professional audience,” Rees said. “On reviewing the initial draft, these lines were not deemed to represent either Rothschild’s or Mr. Penney’s view. They were therefore removed.”