Miami bankers join fight to curtail law hurting US deposits
By Victor Cruz
Responding to national efforts to stop proposed regulations that would force banks to disclose non-resident alien accounts to government officials from a customer's home country, several area bankers say they have signed up for the fight.
Robert Brookes, president of Eagle National Bank; Carlos Migoya, Miami-Dade and Monroe president for First Union National Bank, and Mike Fields, senior vice president of government affairs for Bank of America, said they have joined bankers from around the country to lobby against the measure.
The change, requested Jan. 17, was one of the last things the Clinton Administration did with Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers at the helm, said Tara Bradshaw, spokesperson for the Treasury Department.
The proposed rule change asks US financial institutions to report bank deposit interest paid to nonresident aliens. Currently, the US only has an agreement with Canada where US banks report deposits by citizens of Canada.
The new measure, Mr. Brookes said, is an effort to catch false claims of non-residency by persons subject to taxes on interest accrued to deposits and to appease officials from some European countries clamoring for information on US accounts.
But Mr. Brookes said US banking regulations make posing as an alien nearly impossible.
Bank officials scrutinize non-resident alien accounts three times yearly for verification, then submit their findings to the Internal Revenue Service, Mr. Fields said.
"The change seemed innocuous at first, so much so that there was no economic impact study done on it. In fact, it was determined that there was economic impact," Mr. Brookes said.
The ramifications are staggering to the extent that since the January request for the rule change, representatives of the national banking community has been visiting Washington regularly in an effort to convince the IRS not to adopt the change, said Alex Sanchez, CEO of the Florida Bankers Association.
Last week, for example, representatives for America's Community Bankers, the American Bankers Association and the Independent Bankers Association of America asked for an end to the rule in a joint letter to the secretary of the treasury, Mr. Sanchez said.
According to the letter, the rule "deviates from longstanding policies designed to encourage foreign investment in the US. If finalized, the proposed regulation would not only result in significant withdrawals of foreign deposits from US banks but would place US banks at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace."
The greatest fear for bankers in the US is that implementing the change would create a crisis in which foreign depositors would withdraw their funds and deposit them in the Cayman Islands, which doesn't enforce the rule, said one bank executive.
Foreign deposits account for $40 billion in Florida alone, Mr. Brookes said.
"If even 50% of that were at risk, you can imagine the impact," he said.
Nationwide, foreign deposits account for $1.4 trillion, he said.
There are also costs associated with implementing the proposed rule. Eagle National Bank, for example, has $230 million in assets, 40% of which represent deposits by non-resident aliens, Mr. Brookes said. He said to comply with the change would cost the bank $100,000 in the first year.
Also, the information could get into the wrong hands in countries such as Colombia, where kidnapping has become a cottage industry, bank officials said.
Representatives of the Florida International Bankers Association have visited Washington seven times since learning of the proposed rule change in February, Mr. Brookes said.
The Florida congressional delegation, in an Aug. 2 letter to fellow congressmen, called for a congressional hearing on the matter, federal documents show.
And in June 7 letter to Paul O'Neill, secretary of the US Treasury, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called for an in-depth economic analysis of the proposed rule change.
There is no time line for a decision, Ms. Bradshaw said.
Most bankers agree that a decision on whether to adopt the rule should come soon after Labor Day.