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Mini-budgets and illicit money

Government is relying on mini budgets as outflow of investments from Pakistan continues due to lack of security and political uncertainty

Mini-budgets and illicit money

After failure to bring even a single penny from hidden Swiss bank accounts, our worthy finance minister on February 9, 2015 announced the third mini-budget since June 2014 on the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The ‘mini budget’ levies 5 per cent regulatory duty on more than 285 importable items, including furnace oil used in power generation, and increases withholding tax rates on many items of import and services for non-filers. These decisions were taken at a meeting of the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the Cabinet to meet the revised revenue target of Rs2691 billion — the original target was Rs2810 billion. The IMF not only slashed the sixth loan tranche to $518 million but made its release conditional to imposition of extra taxes.

Leader of the Opposition, Syed Khursheed Shah, reacted strongly against the mini-budget and boycotted the parliamentary proceedings on February 10, 2015. He lamented that the citizens were suffering due to incompetence of the government. He was also critical of the government for taking important decisions without any form of debate or approval in the Parliament.

Khursheed Shah, on a point of order, said he had been raising this issue in the Parliament for the last many days but to no avail as the government was not giving importance to his demand to bring the matter of 10 per cent GST increase on petrol in the House. He said it was shocking that the government had announced two times 5 plus 5 (10 per cent) sales tax increases on petrol, violating Article 77 of the Constitution. The opposition leader also criticised enhancement of taxes on mobile phone card to 25 per cent from 17 per cent.

When Ishaq Dar was imposing new regressive taxes, revelation came that as many as 338 clients of Swiss HSBC were associated with Pakistan, with 34 per cent having a Pakistani passport or nationality. The maximum amount of money associated with a client connected to Pakistan was $133.5 million. In an investigative project dubbed ‘Swiss Leaks,’ the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) claimed: “With approximately $859.7 million by 2006-07, Pakistan ranked 48th on the list of countries with the largest dollar amounts in the leaked Swiss files.”

On May 9, 2014 and on August 1, 2014, Ishaq Dar told Parliament of his firm resolve to recoup billions stashed in Swiss banks. He revealed that a team of Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) would re-negotiate and upgrade agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation with Switzerland for this purpose. Since then he never told the Cabinet, Parliament, media or nation what happened to his “efforts”.

Outflow of investments from Pakistan will continue in 2015 as well and is likely to increase because of lack of security and political uncertainty in the country.

In a written reply to a question by Dr Arif Alvi of Tehreek-i-Insaf, Ishaq Dar told the National Assembly on May 9, 2014 that “total amount of Pakistanis in Swiss banks was reported at $200 billion”. He gave no basis for this. In our article, ‘Our money, their banks’, The News on Sunday [Political Economy] of July 7, 2013, we quoted The Times of India of June 21, 2013, which claimed that Pakistanis in 2013 had funds amounting to Swiss francs 1441 million [Rs1.52 trillion]. It was claimed that this was the lowest level — less than half of the record high amount of over 3 billion Swiss francs [equivalent to Rs4.18 trillion] reported in 2005. The Times of India further claimed that in terms of Pak rupee, “the total funds held by individuals and entities in Swiss banks were Rs1.5 trillion as on December 31, 2012”—

The Times of India did not quote any reliable sources as was the case with Ishaq Dar. It is now for Ishaq Dar to explain to the Parliament how he estimated the amount at US $200 billion and what is the progress so far to retrieve these funds.

There is no doubt that huge out-flows take place from Pakistan on daily basis. The Governor State Bank of Pakistan made a startling disclosure before a parliamentary committee on October 1, 2013 that $25 million in foreign currency was illegally flowing out of the country each day from airport — annually $9billion! “Investment flow from Pakistan to Dubai in 2014 in real estate stood second by injecting $2.06 billion with the maturity of 5,079 property transactions, according to , a leading portal of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Outflow of investments from Pakistan will continue in 2015 as well and is likely to increase because of lack of security and political uncertainty in the country. According to a  survey, 17 per cent Pakistani investors wanted to invest in overseas property, out of which 49 per cent wanted to buy property in UAE. This trend is due to an insecure environment in Pakistan, and Dubai is a sort of second home for many influential Pakistanis and this is the main reason for the outflow of investment.

On January 9, 2015, the FBR chairman told the Senate’s Standing Committee on Finance that “the government has been making efforts to reach an arrangement with foreign countries, especially Switzerland and the UAE, for information sharing, to know about the wealth of Pakistanis in their banks as well as properties and other assets purchased by them.” He admitted that the FBR was facing difficulties in this regard.

The committee members inquired from the chairman why letters were not written to big businessmen and politicians to show their foreign properties and wealth in their tax returns. The chairman said that problem for the tax officials was that assets and properties abroad were kept benami. He revealed that a request was made to the Dubai government to provide information of Pakistani investors in their country.

According to FBR chairman, they know about “mega untaxed black money” invested by Pakistanis in Dubai, Malaysia, and some other countries and “are re-negotiating on double taxation treaties with the US, African countries, United Arab Emirates.” This is, however, a lengthy and time consuming process as long-drawn negotiations are involved before entering into new amended provisions.

Switzerland on August 1, 2014 adopted Tax Administrative Assistance Act (TAAC) that can help identify Pakistani account holders in Swiss banks provided the government of Pakistan modifies treaty with the Swiss government in accordance with Article 26 of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Model Tax Convention. TAAC significantly reduces the chance of tax dodgers to withdraw their assets and vanish before they can be prosecuted. So, all is not lost for countries like Pakistan. TAAC is the outcome of Switzerland’s acceptance of the demand of Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes, a body set up to monitor the crackdown on tax evasion on behalf of the OECD and the G20.

Since 2010, many countries have taken steps to recover hidden, ill-gotten wealth stashed in Swiss banks. Over the last many years, the Swiss government has returned more than US $11.5 billion in assets of criminal origin-including assets from some of the most famous kleptocrats in history such as Sani Abacha of Nigeria, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Carlos Salinas of Mexico.

According to the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery initiative estimates, the cross-border flow of proceeds from criminal activities, corruption and tax evasion is between US $1 trillion and US$1.6 trillion per year, about half of which comes from developing and transitional economies.

The FBR, unfortunately, is not taking firm actions against tax cheats. The FBR team before leaving for Switzerland in August 2014 did not study the important judgment of Indian Supreme Court in the case of Ram Jethmalani and Other v Union of India [2011 PTR 1933 (S.C. Ind)] which gives detailed guidelines on how to retrieve stolen wealth and untaxed funds lying in offshore tax havens.

Before re-negotiating tax treaties with Switzerland and other countries, Pakistan must pass asset-seizure legislation providing for confiscation of assets at home or abroad created through illicit means and/or from untaxed money.

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