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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot