Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Telling it like it isn’t

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Very last call …

A rabbi, a priest and the secretary-general of the OECD walk into a bar… Not heard that one before? Read on.

Last Wednesday, January 2nd, as the 20th Knesset breathed its last before flatlining in the run-up to a General Election, the Finance Committee approved regulations paving the way for the introduction of the international ‘Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters’.

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Game over

The New World Order, where there is nowhere for the less-than-honest to hide their ill-gotten gains, has been heading this way to much fanfare for some time. Too long, in fact. Israel signed on to the G20/OECD 2014 initiative early on, and was committed to having the necessary legislation in place by January 1st 2017. This was to be followed by necessary bi- or multilateral agreements (it committed to two multilateral ones), necessary bilateral commitments to ensure  the other side would respect confidentiality – as well as being both legislatively and operationally sound – and technical guidance to Israel’s banks on how to provide data on accounts of foreign resident in standard international format (so they could be easily deciphered at the other end). Information exchange was to start in September 2018. In fairness, Israel didn’t score too badly other than on one rather critical point – although legislation was in place in mid-2016, well in time for the 2017 deadline, it could not come into force until accompanying regulations took effect.

Well, as the naysayers would have it, a miss is as good as a mile and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. By December 2018, there were only seven countries that were non-compliant: Antigua & Barbados, Brunei Darusallam, Dominica, Niue (is that a country or a spelling mistake?), Qatar, Sint Maarten and … Israel. This prompted a desperate letter from the secretary-general of the OECD to Israel’s prime minister, and the eleventh hour passing of the regulations last week, exactly two years and one day late. If you are going to be late, you might as well do it in style.

What went wrong?

The required regulations, as the American FATCA information exchange regulations before them, hacked at one of the mainstays of ultra-Orthodox society (and a much valued traditional Jewish institution)  – the ‘Gemach’. The concept is a simple one. Groups of largely anonymous donors provide money to an intermediary who generally disburses the funds as interest free loans to those in need. In the event the borrower is unable to repay, the donors (who have generally kissed goodbye to the money) have no recourse. Until now, these arrangements have had no legal or regulatory basis – essentially private arrangements that could run into incredibly large sums. When FATCA came along, Israel’s banks started closing Gemach accounts as they were unable to verify to the US authorities that there were no US ‘depositors’. On the other hand, as the chairman of the Finance Committee repeatedly protested, requiring a donor who gets nothing other than a place in Heaven out of the whole process to fill in forms for the tax authority is a kiss of death for the institutions.

A solution was found, with the evident acquiescence of the US authorities, for small Gemachim, and in August 2016 Gemachim generally were given two years grace, in which time they would – against their will – be brought under regulation, and they could organize their affairs to be compliant for the banks. To cut a long story short, after a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth, including the flat refusal of the Bank of Israel and Capital Markets Authority to supervise them (The Capital Markets Authority lost, and ‘won’ the job), the very last piece of legislation to pass its third reading in the 20th Knesset was the attrition-much-reduced Gemachim Law, which paved the way for the Chairman of the Finance Committee to agree to approve the information exchange regulations.

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The only thing crooked about him

Had the script of this farce been written by the 2008 financial crash’s moral voice, then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Finance Committee and Israel might have walked away with their heads held high. Williams had maintained that the ‘markets’ that bankers claimed dictated the path of the financial system, were – in Judeo-Christian – terms a form of idolatry, something man-made being attributed independent powers. He argued that modern financial transactions lacked the face-to-face component of yesteryear – it is much easier to default when lenders are obscured behind a curtain of intermediate transactions than when recognized at an individual or community level. Here were self-regulating funds that should not be collateral damage in the post-2008 meltdown regulatory war against the unfettered avarice of the players in the financial markets.

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There are always the traditional methods

However, Anglicanism hasn’t had much of a look-in around these parts since 1948, and  the ‘guilty’ Knesset Finance Committee was chaired until last week by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi-politician not given to philosophical musings, but rather to horse-trading in the name of his flock. The reason there was a need for a law regulating the Gemachim was that a number of them, predominantly in the United States and Israel,  had been the facilitators of big-time money laundering and tax evasion. A war of attrition in the long process of arriving at the final wording,  holding the inevitable (and, hence, unforgiveably late) information exchange regulations hostage,  is considered  to have severely compromised the regulatory effect of the law. Any collateral damage ultimately suffered by the moral majority of Gemachim is thanks, therefore, to the unsavoury dealings of some of their number, rather than the excesses of the financial system.

The last weak joke of the 20th Knesset…

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