Panama Bank Secrecy Laws

by : Ronald Edwards

Today Panama has become the Switzerland of Latin America. There are 150 banks in Panama many of which have their name on a 40 story modern skyscraper. Panama is often touted as having the best banking secrecy laws in the world. This author believes this to be true and we will address the bank secrecy laws of Panama in depth.

The first important point to look at is the existence of any tax treaties that Panama may be in with any other countries. This is an easy topic since Panama has no tax treaties with any other countries. Tax treaties can be privacy invasive for a banking client. Under some treaties the bank must collect a certain percentage of taxes from interest income paid to the clients and this money is turned over to the client’s home country. Other treaties call for an exchange of information so if a requesting country wanted to gather certain facts about a bank account or if a certain constituent of theirs had a bank account the bank would be obligated to provide the information. The European Union Withholding Tax Treaty is a very relevant treaty.

The next type of treaty one must look at is called the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, or MLAT. This treaty allows countries to request information from other countries in the treaty. The general way this type of treaty operates is through diplomatic channels. Panama is in such treaties. The requesting country must have a criminal case on file in the national courts of their country. They would then cite this case already in their criminal courts when the request for information is made. The requesting country would a need to show that the requested information about the Panama bank account is absolutely required to successfully prosecute the case and that the requesting country has no other way to obtain such evidence. Then the request is considered by Panama. Panama may ask for more information. Panama could deny the request on whatever grounds they wish to use. Panama could also decide to conduct their own investigation because they feel that some Panama laws may have been broken and delay the MLAT request until after they have concluded their investigation which may be some years. The statue of limitations could expire before Panama completed their investigation. This is not to say that Panama is in the habit of thwarting requests for information but Panama does have a right to investigate crimes that took place in their jurisdiction. As a result of these investigations they could confiscate assets and prosecute individuals under their own laws.

For the MLAT to take effect the violation in question must be a crime in both the requesting country and the country the information is requested from. Various MLAT treaties have all sorts of details and exceptions and should be read individually if you are seriously interested in a particular treaty. Panama not only has no tax treaties with any other nation but all income tax related offenses in Panama are civil offenses only, not criminal offenses. So tax matters are not a crime in Panama. Thus Panama does not participate in requests for information in tax offenses. Panama does cooperate in certain areas freely. If one acts fraudulently while in the capacity of a fiduciary in a financial relationship Panama will cooperate. Panama also cooperates in cases of narcotics trafficking, money laundering, terrorism and child pornography.

The Panama Bank Secrecy laws are contained in a number of different legal statues. We will go through some of the relevant ones:

The Panama National Banking Commission was formed by Cabinet Decree 238 of July 2, 1970.

Article 74 of Decree 238 deals with protecting the privacy of Panama bank clients. It states that the Commission is prevented from conducting or requesting investigations concerning the banking affairs of any bank clients. Any data obtained by the Commission in the course of its normal regulatory functions may not be revealed to any person or authority, except if subpoenaed in accordance with the legal provisions in force (Panama Court Order required). If a violation of this occurred Article 101 of this Cabinet Decree contains provisions for the dealing of such a violation.

Article 101 of Cabinet Decree 238 states that:

"Any person who furnishes information in violation of this Cabinet Decree, or who violates any of the prohibitions established in it, for which no specific punishment is provided for, shall be subject to a monetary fine as determined by the Banking Commission, without prejudice to applicable criminal and civil liabilities." This is fairly strong language.

Article 65 of Cabinet Decree 238 deals with how the National Banking Commission may gain access to documents relating to the bank's operation, not individual records of banking clients. The Banking Commission needs to regulate the banks financially and thus inspect their books but this is mandated to be done on a collective basis, thus the books for the bank as a whole are inspected not the records for an individual account holder at the bank. The Banking Commission may not examine or inspect any type of individual deposit accounts, nor the securities held in custody by the bank for clients, nor the safe deposit boxes belonging to clients and their contents, nor the documents associated with receiving credit from the bank, unless there is a Panama Court Order in place that specifically authorizes such inspection or examination according to Article 89 of the Panama Commercial Code.

Panama statues specify that bank secrecy may be lifted by a Panamanian court through Article 89 of the Commercial Code. This is not a commonly invoked procedure but is possible concerning serious criminal activities.

Articles 168 and 170 of the Panamanian Criminal Code contain two sections which enables criminal prosecution for violation the privacy of Panama banking clients:

Article 168. Any person that is in legitimate possession of correspondence, records or documents which are not intended for public knowledge and notwithstanding discloses said correspondence, records or document without proper authorization, even in the event that they were addressed to him, shall be subject to prosecution, whenever such disclosure might inflict damage.

Article 170. Any person that in the course of his occupation, employment, profession or activity obtains knowledge of confidential information that in the event of being made public could inflict damages, and such person discloses that information without the consent of the concerned party; or in the case that disclosure of such information were not necessary to safeguard a higher interest, shall be punishable by imprisonment of 10 months to 2 years or a comparable fine, and the inability to practice his occupation, employment, profession or activity for not more than 2 years. One can readily discern that this would cover Panama Stock Brokers, and Panama Banks including all the employees and officers. This could also be construed to cover Directors of Panama Anonymous Bearer Share Corporations and Council Members of Anonymous Panama Private Interest Foundations.

Panama has done away with numbered bank accounts as have the rest of the offshore tax haven jurisdictions. This is due to pressure from FATF, the Financial Action Task Force. FATF is a private entity that unofficially dictates anti-money laundering statues to the banks worldwide. Numbered accounts are no longer allowed.

Panama through the use of anonymous Bearer Share Corporations accomplishes practically the same privacy as the old numbered bank account. The banks around the world including those in Panama must know who their customers are. This usually means getting identity documents such as passports, driver’s licenses, national identity cards, and letters of reference from banks and businesses. The Panama Bearer Share Corporation is anonymous in that there is no reporting or recording of any stock ownership records in any registry or database thus it is impossible to determine who the natural persons are behind the corporate veil. This means when international wire transfers are sent only the name of the anonymous corporation appears in the wire, the true owner of the account is not revealed for the world to see same as it was when numbered bank accounts were allowed. With regards to writing checks the same applies assuming the signatory signs the check in a hard to read manner. To provide for more privacy Panama only allows an attorney to form a corporation or foundation. This cloaks the formation of the corporation with Panama attorney client privilege further protecting the owners of the corporation or foundation with an additional layer of privacy. In most tax haven jurisdictions the formation of a corporation handled by a corporate agent which does not provide privileged communication to protect the identity of the person owning the corporation.

One can readily see why Panama has become the new Switzerland of Latin America.