Tax records will be shared around the world by 2015 as part of a G20 pledge to crack down on individual tax cheats and global corporations with complicated arrangements aimed at paying as little tax as possible.
The topic of taxation in a global economy has become a major political issue of late, as multinational firms like Apple and Starbucks have faced scrutiny over their corporate structures. Further, investigative reports into the use of offshore tax havens by the world's wealthiest individuals added momentum to the view that governments are getting short-changed of much needed revenue.
As business increasingly moves online and international, cash-strapped governments approved an aggressive timeline to adopt the automatic exchange of tax information among the G20. The deal was solidified after China, the last holdout, agreed to the plan just days before the summit in St. Petersburg.
"We are committed to automatic exchange of information as the new global standard," states the G20 final communiqué. The G20 says they will work out the details of the plan throughout 2014 with the goal of having the system in place by the end of 2015.
"This is quite fast," said Domenico Lombardi, Director of Global Economy, for the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, who is in St. Petersburg as an observer. Mr. Lombardi said the timeline appears "ambitious" and questioned whether it will be met.
"This is done on purpose to escalate pressure," he said.
At the conclusion of the summit, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the tax exchange agreement "extremely positive," even though concerns remain to be addressed.
"Obviously there are many details to be worked out," he said. "I think we'll find as we go forward in discussions that those kinds of difficulties, or potential difficulties, those concerns will also be shared by a number of our partner countries so I'm confident that we can move forward on this in a way that's positive for everyone."
Queen's law professor Arthur Cockfield, who studies these types of agreements, said problems can be addressed if every country makes clear assurances as to how the information will be protected.
"In my view, governments will more effectively engage in automatic tax information exchanges if they have assurances that the transferred information will be protected by laws that are similar to their own laws that protect taxpayer rights," he said in an e-mail. "This should help overcome concerns when taxpayer information is transferred to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, that may not have traditionally protected taxpayer rights to the extent expected under Canadian law."
A proposed U.S. law requiring foreign governments – including Canada – to report banking information involving U.S. citizens has already ran into concerns from the Canadian government and attracted the attention of Canada's privacy commissioner.
Questions of privacy will likely increase given that the G20 includes non-democratic countries where human rights are a concern, including China and Saudi Arabia.
While the political attention in St. Petersburg has focused on the crisis in Syria, the G20 releases numerous pages of communiqués, action plans and annex reports on their economic plans.
Among the key points:
The G20 noted improved growth in the U.S., Japan and Europe, but that global growth prospects have been marked down repeatedly over the past year.
"Despite our actions, the recovery is too weak, and risks remain tilted to the downside. In the last months financial market volatility has increased," the G20 stated.
On monetary policy, the G20 noted the concern that actions by some countries can lead to unintended negative consequences elsewhere.
"We commit to co-operate to ensure that policies implemented to support domestic growth also support global growth and financial stability and to manage their spillovers on other countries," it stated.
In an accompanying "action plan," report, The U.S. Federal Reserve – where its quantitative easing policies have caused concern within the G20 – issued a statement on its plans.
"The Federal Reserve intends to continue its asset purchase program and employ its other policy tools as appropriate until the outlook for the labor market has improved substantially in a context of price stability," it states.