Barclays tax-planning under investigation

The bank's tax planning has been described as a "sham" in a New York court briefing

In a court case starting today, the US Internal Revenue Service is facing off with the Bank of New York Mellon (BNY) over whether or not controversial tax planning measures that were designed by Barclays are legal.

The IRS claims that cross-border deals that Barclays prepared for the bank, as well as several other mid-sized ones like it, were in fact tax evasion, designed to exploit loopholes that exist in the difference between British and American laws.

The deal designed by Barclays is known as "structured trust advantaged repackaged securities" – STARS, for short – and it really is Byzantine:

Barclays required Petitioner [BNY] to transfer assets that produced income to a trust that would have a U.K. trustee so that the U.K. trustee, as a U.K. resident, would owe and pay U.K. income tax on that income. Of course, from Petitioner's perspective, Petitioner wanted a favorable borrowing rate but did not want to pay taxes twice on the same income. As between the U.S. and the U.K., Petitioner was neutral as to whom it paid its income tax; it just wanted to avoid being double-taxed.

That's BNY's description of the STARS deal. The IRS's is marginally simpler, and significantly more damning:

A U.S. taxpayer who pays $1 of foreign tax and claims $1 of foreign tax credit pays the same amount of tax as if it had paid the $1 to the United States. A U.S. taxpayer who pays $1 of foreign tax, is reimbursed for 50 cents of it by a counterparty, but still claims $1 of U.S. foreign tax credit comes out ahead by 50 cents.

If the counterparty simultaneously recovers the $1 of foreign tax through the foreign tax system, uses 50 cents of that to reimburse the u.s. taxpayer, and keeps the other 50 cents, then both parties are now ahead, each by 50 cents. But the US government has given $1 of foreign tax credit when no foreign tax was in fact paid.

Blown up to size, this is STARS.

Simplified, the case is over whether STARS existed to get BNY a good interest rate by borrowing in the UK, or whether it was a "sham" designed purely to pump the US government for tax credits. Between 1999 and 2006, the IRS claims that the six banks which were involved in STARS took $3.4bn in foreign tax credits. Five of those banks are now included in lawsuits with the IRS, although Barclays itself hasn't been implicated in any wrongdoing.

Despite this, it looks like life will be difficult for the bank, which is one of the leaders in the high-stakes tax planning world. The IRS crackdown follows HMRC retroactively forbidding Barclays from using a tax loophole in a "highly abusive" manner to buy back its own debt tax free. With governments worldwide facing pressure to pay down debt, and the "tax gap" being blamed for much of the difficulty, the bank is going to be facing an unprecedented level of scruitiny in its actions.

People queue to close their accounts. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle