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Michael Ambuehl of the Swiss finance department, left, and Donald Sternoff Beyer, U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, sign the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act in Bern Feb. 14, 2013. (PASCAL LAUENER/REUTERS)
Michael Ambuehl of the Swiss finance department, left, and Donald Sternoff Beyer, U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, sign the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act in Bern Feb. 14, 2013. (PASCAL LAUENER/REUTERS)

Switzerland agrees to tell IRS about U.S. citizens' offshore accounts Add to ...

Advancing a U.S. crackdown on tax evasion by Americans, the U.S. Treasury Department said on Thursday that Switzerland and the United States have signed a pact to make Swiss banks disclose information about U.S. account-holders.

The agreement is the latest in a series between the United States and other countries designed to carry out the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA, enacted in 2010.

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The Swiss deal is the first of its kind and differs in key ways from previous pacts. It requires Swiss banks to sign up directly with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, while giving the banks a way to avoid violating Swiss financial secrecy laws.

FATCA requires foreign financial institutions to tell the U.S. Internal Revenue Service about Americans’ offshore accounts worth more than $50,000. FATCA was enacted after a Swiss banking scandal showed U.S. taxpayers hid millions of dollars overseas.

The pact announced on Thursday, known as an intergovernmental agreement (IGA), needs to be ratified by the Swiss parliament. It does not need approval by the U.S. Senate. The deal has been close to completion since December.

FATCA imposes steep penalties beginning in 2014 on financial institutions that do not comply with the law. Banks and other financial institutions failing to comply could be frozen out of U.S. financial markets.

“We are pleased that Switzerland has signed a bilateral agreement with us, and we look forward to quickly concluding agreements based on this model with other jurisdictions,” Acting Secretary of the Treasury Neal Wolin said in a statement.

The Swiss Bankers Association said it welcomed the FATCA deal but remains critical of the compliance and administrative burdens of the U.S. law.

In signing the pact, Switzerland joins Britain, Denmark, Ireland and Mexico as countries that have finished FATCA IGAs with the United States.

The Treasury has pursued two different IGA models. The Swiss deal is the first ‘model two’ agreement signed. It will require Swiss financial institutions to provide U.S. account holder information directly to the IRS.

The four other IGAs concluded so far are ‘model one’ agreements, which allow financial institutions to comply with FATCA by channeling U.S. account-holder information through their national tax authorities to the IRS.

The Swiss deal does not require Swiss banks to automatically give the IRS account-holder information if the U.S. client refuses to co-operate. But the IRS can still get that information via Swiss government authorities.

“At the end of the day, the IRS gets the information it wants, it’s just going to take a little bit longer,” said Laurie Hatten-Boyd, a principal with Big Four accounting firm KPMG LLP.

Luxembourg and Austria are also considering ‘model two’ deals, she said.

Also, the Swiss deal is not reciprocal, meaning the IRS will not provide Switzerland with information about Swiss citizens’ accounts in U.S. banks.

Some IGAs have limited reciprocity. The Obama administration is considering asking Congress for the power to require U.S. banks to provide more information about foreigners’ accounts to the clients’ home governments.

The Swiss pact excludes Swiss social security, pension funds and some insurers from FATCA.

Japan is also working on a “model two” FATCA agreement, and Italy is in the final stages of a FATCA deal, according to the Treasury.

The Treasury is working with more than 50 countries to complete deals, but negotiations have not progressed with key U.S. trading partners Canada and China.

South Africa’s National Treasury said earlier this month it had started negotiating with the Treasury for a FATCA deal and was aiming for a reciprocal pact.

Final rules for FATCA compliance were published in January. Financial firms must register by Oct. 25, 2013, to avoid next year’s penalties.

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