Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tax Haven Questions Could Trip Up Panama Trade Pact

From the Wall Street Journal:

Questions about Panama's status as a tax haven have raised a new hurdle for U.S. approval of a free trade deal between the U.S. and the Central American nation.

The U.S.-Panama trade pact was signed in June 2007, but the deal has been stalled along with separate bilateral trade pacts with Colombia and South Korea.

The latter two trade deals are ensnared in controversial human rights and market access disputes. But the White House said earlier this year in a "trade policy agenda" document that it hoped to send the Panama deal to Congress for consideration "relatively quickly."

Democratic lawmakers and Obama administration officials now say Panama must take steps to increase transparency and information exchange with U.S. authorities on tax issues, before the free trade agreement can advance.

"I would say with respect to Panama that there are also some important issues that need to be worked through having to do with cooperation in resisting tax evasion," White House National Economic Council Director Larry Summers said at an April 18 press conference at the Summit of the Americas.

The Treasury Dept. launched talks with Panama towards a tax information exchange agreement in 2002, but the talks have made little progress.

U.S. business lobbyists who back the U.S.-Panama trade deal have been pushing for a vote prior to Congress' August recess. But the demands from the Obama administration on tax transparency seem to make that timetable unlikely.

Panama holds presidential and parliamentary elections May 3, and it is doubtful whether the Treasury Dept. would be able to conclude a tax information exchange agreement with the lame-duck administration of outgoing President Martin Torrijos.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on April 2 listed Panama as one of 30 tax haven jurisdictions that have committed to international standards on bank secrecy, but have "not yet substantially implemented" those standards. Panama is also mentioned in legislation introduced by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., with sanctions for tax haven jurisdictions.

Panamanian officials did not immediately respond to inquiries for this article. In a March letter to the OECD, Panama said that while it is not a tax haven, it is taking steps to strengthen its "legal and regulatory framework, thus helping our international financial center to not by unduly utilized by citizens of other States to evade or defraud their respective tax authorities."

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