If, like me, you have been wondering for decades what the European Parliament is there for, wonder no more. Following a recent vote, the august institution is considering setting up an investigations unit to tackle two humongous European fraud schemes named improbably ‘cum-cum’ and ‘cum-ex’. The first warning that something was afoot came in 1992, and the fan turned brown in 2017, but the wheels of power turn slowly in Strasbourg. (Or was it Brussels? Or Luxembourg?)
For those without a Latin education, the schemes translate as ‘with-with’ and ‘with-without’. It would be nice to leave it at that, but I had better explain.
Both schemes revolve around dividends on stocks. A stock is cum-dividend when a securities buyer is destined to receive a dividend that a company has declared but not paid. That is the status quo (more Latin) until the date at which the stock trades ex-dividend – when the dividend will go to the seller. Thanks to lacunae (Latin noun – first declension nominative plural, like mensa/mensae) especially in German law, but evidently in about ten other European jurisdictions, bankers and the other usual suspects were (possibly still are) able to bleed national treasuries of scarcely imaginable sums.
The cum-cum smacks more of an old-style tax avoidance scheme than hardcore evasion. Stocks of German companies held by foreigners who were not eligible to dividend witholding tax exemption were ‘lent’ (effectively sold with an agreement to repurchase , – but it isn’t written that way) to bona fide German banks shortly before a payment date. The stock went back at a lower price without the dividend. Naughty, but with loud protests that it only made hay while the legislators slept. There was one exemption, and the bank had a technical right to it.
Cum-ex was a far dodgier form of exploitation, which did not rely on foreigners. It did, however, require collusion and, on the grounds that ‘two people can keep a secret as long as one of them is dead’, it was bound to be found out eventually (having said which, the German and other authorities seem to have made gargantuan efforts to miss what was going on beneath their noses). Basically, a bank would ‘borrow’ stocks cum-dividend within two days of the dividend payment date and would sell them (short) to a third party. Delivery was required in two days, by which time the stock had gone ex-dividend. The procedure in force until 2011 in Germany (and heaven knows what is still happening elsewhere) was that the bank had to make a compensatory transfer between the seller and the buyer for the net after-tax amount of the dividend, and then issue a certificate of withholding to the buyer even though he did not actually receive the dividend. The theory went that the seller would no longer be entitled to that withholding as he had transferred the dividend amount to the buyer, and therefore would not receive a withholding certificate. Aye, and there’s the rub. The short seller of the stock was not the ultimate owner and had not suffered the withholding tax. The ultimate owner also received a witholding tax certificate (if handled correctly, the number of withholding tax certificates could be multiplied) enabling two or more ‘owners’ to cash in on the same tax benefit. This is not clever tax avoidance. It is clearly tax evasion. And it has cost European state coffers an estimated €60 billion.
But, at least we know we can now sleep safe at night in the knowledge that the European Parliament is on to it. It has only taken them 26 years. Rumour has it that MEPs are soon to issue a communique announcing the end of the Second World War. The suspense is killing.