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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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR