Over the objections of Florida lawmakers, the U.S. Treasury Department has issued a new rule that will force banks to disclose the identity of foreigners who deposit their money in America.
The regulation -- which represents a major shift in policy -- goes into effect next January and has alarmed the entire Florida congressional delegation, which is concerned the requirement will prompt foreigners to move their money to countries that require less disclosure.
"This is going to have a devastating impact on Florida and Florida banks," said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has filed legislation, along with U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, to block the rule. Banks in South Florida could be hit especially hard.
Rubio and others argue the change, announced late Tuesday, will harm states such as Florida whose banks have significant foreign deposits. According to one estimate, foreigners have put as much as $100 billion in Florida banks -- roughly $1 out of every $4 in the state.
One banking official said many of these customers, from countries with crime or corruption problems, are "tripwire sensitive" and could bolt because of fears their identities would get back to their home countries. Others may be dissidents concealing assets from repressive regimes.
"When they come into our banks, they don't [even] want to see other people from their own country," said Alex Sanchez, president of the Florida Bankers Association, based in Tallahassee. Losing these deposits would make it harder for banks to loan money, he said.
"I have to tell you, we are going to be one of the hardest-hit states with this, given South Florida's connection to the international markets," said Jorge Triay, president of the First Bank of Miami.
He estimated that foreign money comprised at least 20 percent to 30 percent of deposits in South Florida banks and that a major run could hurt them badly -- although he said he could not guess the amount of money that would leave, or how soon.
"That's a major funding source for people in South Florida so if people get scared, that would significantly affect their ability to lend money," Triay said.
Treasury officials said these fears are overblown and that foreigners put their money in U.S. banks for the stability of American financial institutions -- not their secrecy.
Further, they argue the new reporting requirements are a necessary companion to a 2010 law requiring foreign banks to track and report payments to U.S. depositors, who are then liable for taxes on the income.
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