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A funny thing happened on the way to banking transparency in Panama

We always knew that Panama would drag its feet on promises to clean up its banking secrecy problems. Indeed, both government and industry have spent a lot of airtime bragging about how the deal with the United States doesn't force them to change the country's operating philosophy in major ways. See here, for instance.

But we also knew that Panama's tax haven industry would push back hard on any more substantive changes. And indeed they have. See here and here and here.

It seems like at least some of the efforts to water down the legislation worked. The National Assembly watered down the Martinelli administration proposal (itself a watering down of what tax justice groups have called for) in a couple of ways.

First, registered agents in Panama that violated the Know Your Client legislation saw their period of debarment shrink from 1-3 years in the Martinelli proposal, to as little as three months in the National Assembly approved legislation (see Article 20, as amended). So, after a little slap on the wrist, a lawyer could return to offering untransparent services to anonymous tax dodgers, assuming the laws are enforced in the first place.

Second, the Martinelli proposal required resident agents to 1. identify their clients and verify that identity through a paper trail; 2. ascertain the purpose for the creation of the corporate entity, and 3. share information with the government under certain extenuating circumstances. But the National Assembly scaled this back so that, in order to comply with item 2, "the resident agent shall not have the obligation to carry out any proactive step or verification of the information provided by the client." (Article 3, as amended). In other words, trust, but do not verify.

(You can see the original and amended versions here.)

Congress and public interest groups have been very clear about what needs to be fixed before any U.S.-Panama trade deal can be voted on. First, Panama needs to clean up its tax haven practices. Second, the FTA needs to be changed so that tax dodgers don't have FTA "hard law" means of attacking tax collectors' anti-tax haven measures, while tax collectors only have "soft law" means of asking nicely for taxes owed from tax dodgers. Thus far, the Obama and Martinelli administrations have made no progress on the latter, and the Panamanian government has dimished the former to not-even-symbolic changes.

It's pretty clear that, absent redoubled pressure, Panama will remain a top tax haven.

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