On December 29, 2016, the US Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the IRS announced that they have reached final resolutions with Swiss banks that have met the requirements of the Swiss Bank Program. In this article, I would like to provide the Swiss Bank Program summary and explain the importance of the Program to the overall US international tax enforcement efforts.
Swiss Bank Program Summary: History of the Swiss Bank Program
The Swiss Bank Program was a groundbreaking initiative of the DOJ and the IRS. It was the very first time when the tax authorities of one country (United States) conducted a voluntary disclosure program for banks in a different country (Switzerland) as if it were not an independent sovereign territory.
At the core of the Swiss Bank Program was the promise of the DOJ not to prosecute Swiss banks that would come forward and participate in the Swiss Bank Program. The banks were divided into four categories.
Category 1 banks were not eligible to participate because they were already under the DOJ investigation.
Category 2 banks had to pay a penalty and consisted of banks for which was a reason to believe that they committed tax-related criminal offenses with respect to undisclosed foreign accounts owned by US persons. In addition to paying a penalty, Category 2 banks also had to disclose all of their cross-border activities and provide detailed information with respect to US-owned accounts to the DOJ and the IRS.
Category 3 consisted of banks that established, with the assistance of an independent internal investigation of their cross-border business, that they did not commit tax or monetary transaction-related offenses and had an effective compliance program in place. These banks did not pay any penalties.
Finally, category 4 was reserved for Swiss banks that were able to demonstrate that they met certain criteria for deemed-compliance under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). They also did not pay any penalties.
Swiss Bank Program Summary: Results
Let’s discuss the results of the Program in our Swiss Bank Program summary. The Swiss Bank Program was announced on August 29, 2013 and it was in operation until December 29, 2016. During that time the DOJ executed non-prosecution agreements with 80 Category 2 banks and collected more than $1.36 billion in penalties. The Department also signed a non-prosecution agreement with Finacor, a Swiss asset management firm. Between July and December 2016, four banks and one bank cooperative satisfied the requirements of Category 3, making them eligible for Non-Target Letters. No banks qualified under Category 4 of the Program.
Swiss Bank Program Summary: Legacy
No Swiss Bank Program summary would be complete without a discussion of the legacy of the Program. In our Swiss Bank Program summary, let’s divide the impact of the Program into four parts: impact on Switzerland as a bank secrecy fortress, impact on other tax havens, impact on US tax compliance and the precedent for the future.
The most immediate impact was felt in Switzerland itself. The Swiss Bank Program has in effect completely destroyed the vaunted Swiss bank secrecy laws with respect to US taxpayers and gave the green light to other European countries to conduct similar interventions. In essence, the Swiss Bank Program has completely destroyed the main fortress of bank secrecy that had existed for centuries.
The destruction of the Swiss bank secrecy laws also influenced the other tax havens. Fearing a similar DOJ intervention, the rest of the world’s tax havens have significantly softened their own bank secrecy laws and have agreed to an automatic exchange of information regarding their account owners with the IRS. There can be no doubt that the Swiss Bank Program has greatly facilitated the implementation of FATCA on the global scale.
The combined effect of the Swiss Bank Program, the softening of the bank secrecy laws in tax havens and the implementation of FATCA was acutely felt by noncompliant US taxpayers. Tens of thousands of US taxpayers participated in the IRS voluntary disclosure programs (often, they were urged by the Swiss banks to enter the OVDP, because this is how the banks mitigated their own penalties under the Program). Many more tens of thousands of taxpayers became tax compliant through a noisy or quiet disclosure. The greater awareness of US international tax laws among the tax preparers has greatly improved US annual tax compliance, bringing huge amounts of additional revenue to the US treasury.
Finally, no Swiss Bank Program summary would be complete without mentioning the potential for repetition of the Swiss Bank Program in another country. It may not necessarily come in the same format, but it is very likely that a version of the Program will be implemented elsewhere, especially since the IRS commitment to offshore tax compliance will remain a priority in the immediate future.
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