Tax Justice Research Bulletin 1(4)

April-ish 2015. The fourth Tax Justice Research Bulletin is out (a monthly series dedicated to tracking the latest developments in policy-relevant research on national and international taxation). Find it all together, as it should be, at its TJN home.

Zidar 2015 fig5This issue looks at some striking results from the US on the employment impact of cutting taxes for the top 10%; and at ‘inefficient and unjust’ Greek tax policy since 1995. The Spotlight looks at the literature on base erosion and profit shifting by multinational companies, drawing on a handy study from the OECD BEPS 11 people, and a new Banque de France working paper.

This month’s backing track probably refers more to Greek policymakers than the CTPA: the late, great Lucky Dube’s Mr Taxman (“What have you done for me lately?”).

For your future research needs, the updating of the ICTD Government Revenue Dataset is almost complete, so with a bit of luck it will be published in June. Discussions about a major 2016 conference and call for papers using the data are underway.

As ever, submissions for the Bulletin – substantial and musical – are most welcome.

Greek tragedy: Reversing development through tax

[From the Tax Justice Research Bulletin 1(4)]

The 4 Rs (or 5) of tax provide a simple basis for thinking about what effective taxation can deliver: not only revenues and redistribution, but also re-pricing of social goods and bads, rebalancing of an economy between sectors, and perhaps most importantly, supporting accountable political representation (in which the evidence indicates a critical role for direct taxation).

While popular analyses of Greece’s fiscal issues have tended to start and end with fiscal profligacy, a new (ungated) article by Yiorgos Ioannidis on ‘The political economy of the distributional character of the Greek taxation system (1995-2008)’ reveals that the problem is not high spending but weak revenue-raising; and that the underlying failure is one of representation as much as of revenues.

Greek v EZ revenues Ioannidis 2015 table1

The starting point for Ioannidis is the disconnect from the mid-1990s between buoyant economic performance and the failure to close the gap in tax performance with the rest of the Eurozone – seen clearly in table 1. The specific underlying failure, as Ioannidis reveals, relates to direct taxation.

Despite the propitious circumstances of strong growth and a natural widening of the formal wage tax base, policymakers allowed overall tax receipts as share of GDP to fall – and in particular direct taxes fell from around 10% to 8% of GDP, with the majority coming from corporate tax cuts. Revenue reliance on indirect taxes, above all VAT, remained unchallenged – so that Greece’s tax structure continued to resemble ‘a developing rather than a developed country.’

Ioannidis explores much of the detail on policy mistakes, including the decision to use growing formal employment to fund corporate tax cuts, and in respect of property taxation. Most striking is the analysis of decisions around income taxation that actively undermined compliance, along with vertical and horizontal equity, and resulted in a highly regressive structure. If tragedy is the right word, it is because it could have been foretold to the protagonist policymakers beforehand that these decisions would squander both the economic and political development opportunities that presented themselves in the 90s.

The challenge for the new government is that rebuilding faith in public institutions, their fairness and representativeness, is necessarily a slow process. But while the need to raise greater revenues risks greater hardship on the way, it may ultimately support the virtuous cycle of better taxation and more accountable political representation.

One role in this for Eurozone partners and other jurisdictions is to ensure the automatic provision of tax information that is necessary to curtail offshore tax evasion.

Base erosion and profit-shifting: What do we know?

[From the Tax Justice Research Bulletin 1(4)]

The OECD was mandated by the G8 and G20 to revise its international tax rules in order to combat multinational corporate tax dodging – known in OECD jargon as “Base Erosion and Profit-Shifting (BEPS). The final deliverables due later this year, and because of the complexity of international tax, it has been broken down into 15 “Action Points.” (On Monday, TJN blogged Action Points 3 and 12, as discussed by the BEPS Monitoring Group, or BMG.)

The geeks’ Action Point of choice has always been number 11, which requires the collation of baseline data on how far profits are misaligned away from genuine economic activity: e.g. by being shoveled into tax havens where nothing really happens. Action Point 11 also involves continuous tracking of progress in this area.

The team working on BEPS 11 has now published a discussion draft, which sets out not only their thinking on questions of data and measurement (check back later with the BMG for our response to these) but also a broad survey of the literature on the scale and channels of BEPS.

A Banque de France researcher found that measured deviations from the Arm’s Length Principle may have cost France $8 billion of its revenuetax base in 2008 alone – and this is just one aspect of profit-shifting

Some of the main findings:

    • There is broad consensus (regardless of time period, country or data source) that there has been widespread tax-motivated BEPS activity by multinationals — though the intensity varies.
    • BEPS via manipulation of debt and interest payments is particularly important (and relatively well-studied: e.g. Huizinga, Laeven and Nicodeme (2008).)
    • Transfer pricing studies of various kinds show consistently, again, that prices are manipulated for tax reasons; and that intangible assets are important here. We might also point to the more recent study by Banque de France researcher Vincent Vicard, finding that the deviation between intra-firm pricing and true arm’s length prices may result in a revenuetax base loss to France of $8bn in 2008, having grown over the decade – and this remains just a part of estimated total profit-shifting. [Phew!]
    • Treaty shopping is estimated to reduce withholding tax rates ‘by more than five percentage points from nearly 8% to 3%.’
    • Transparency: evidence on the role of disclosure and transparency – i.e. measures such as BEPS 11 itself – is limited but striking. Most obviously, Dyreng, Hoopes and Wilder (2014) found that ActionAid’s revelations about FTSE100 companies failing to meet a rule on disclosure of subsidiaries resulted in greater disclosure, a reduction in ‘tax haven’ subsidiaries and a reduction in avoidance [Kudos to Actionaid!].
ActionAid’s revelations about FTSE100 companies failing to meet a rule on disclosure of subsidiaries resulted in greater disclosure, a reduction in ‘tax haven’ subsidiaries and a reduction in avoidance
  • Developing country scale: only two studies provide a comparative assessment of the likely scale of BEPS in developing as opposed to higher-income countries. The first, by authors including long-standing critics of NGO estimates in the broad area, finds that profit-shifting (in this case, only that of German multinationals and via debt manipulations) is roughly double the size in developing countries. The IMF, meanwhile, recently presented evidence that the revenue losses of developing countries may be several times higher than elsewhere (as a share of corporate tax revenue).

Without wishing to prejudge the BEPS Monitoring Group’s analysis (oh go on then), it is clear even from this chapter of the OECD study alone that the authors have reached a point very similar to that which motivated Richard Murphy to elaborate the first TJN proposal for country-by-country reporting back in the day: namely, that existing data sources can only provide parts of the picture, and to develop a comprehensive understanding of BEPS will require consistent and comprehensive data on global multinational activity. [Well done Richard!]

To this we might add, in the spirit of Uncounted, that current data availability has “non-random weaknesses” which will systematically result in disproportionately lower tax revenues in lower-income countries. BEPS 11, if it delivers that comprehensive data, might just be the greatest contribution to fairer international tax that is compatible with the insistence on separate accounting.

Myths vs evidence: Tax cuts for the 10%

[From the Tax Justice Research Bulletin 1(4)]

Do tax cuts targeted at different parts of the income distribution produce different effects in terms of employment growth? This is the question addressed in a new NBER paper by Owen Zidar, an economist at Chicago (not known historically for progressive analysis). But the paper (ungated version; and slides) has had a good deal of US media coverage, largely because of the progressive tax implications.

Zidar 2015 fig5The main innovation of the paper is to overcome the scarcity of time series data by exploit US data on state-level income distributions, which differ widely, in order to view each state-year response to a national tax policy change as a separate observation.

The main result is not, intuitively, surprising: but it is not a question that has been commonly posed, nor this well answered before. The result is that tax cuts are least likely to generate benefits when targeted to the top 10% of households; and most likely to generate benefits when targeted to the bottom 90% – or as in figure 5, the bottom 50%.

Overall, tax cuts for the bottom 90% tend to result in more output, employment, consumption and investment growth than equivalently sized cuts for the top 10% over a business cycle frequency.

Why would we ever cut taxes for the top 10% as a stimulus, I hear you ask? Because they’re in charge, say the cynics. Or perhaps because policymakers and/or the public have bought a series of economic myths. Like:

  • the top 10% drive the economy;
  • the top 10%’s economic decisions respond strongly to marginal incentives rather than broader factors like aggregate demand, or the availability of sound infrastructure and a healthy, well-educated workforce; so
  • progressive taxation is bad for growth, and ultimately bad for the poor as well as the rich.

One fairly clear implication of the findings is: the opposite.

The employment growth impact of a tax change for the top 10% is impossible to distinguish from zero, so it follows that a revenue-neutral change in tax structure that deliberately reduces the Palma measure of inequality (that is, the ratio of incomes of the top 10% to the bottom 40%) will not only be progressive but will have the effect of increasing employment growth.

Zidar 2015 slide36

 

Non-dom, undone?

An interesting development in the UK election campaign today, as the opposition Labour party will pledge to end ‘non-domicile’ tax status – an 18th century relic which allows residents to exempt their foreign income from tax, provided they can make at least some (often highly tenuous) connection to some other state.

It’s heartening to see tax in the centre of the discussion, not least given the minimal attention that has been paid to the UK pursuing the most extreme tax-averse austerity of any leading country (the only country to cut spending more than it cut the deficit).

Unsurprisingly, media attention has focused on the likely revenue impacts and the behavioural effects. Tax accountant Richard Murphy and tax lawyer Jolyon Maugham both suggest a top end revenue impact around £4 billion, falling with behaviour change to £1 billion or so. [Delete as appropriate: great minds/fools etc.]

The revenue numbers may be relatively small, but they’re not really the main point. Abolishing non-dom status would remove a clear injustice in the system, a deliberately created horizontal inequality in treatment of otherwise similar people.

More importantly, it responds to Piketty’s case for a wealth tax:

The primary purpose of the capital tax is not to finance the social state but to regulate capitalism. The goal is first to stop the indefinite increase of inequality of wealth, and second to impose effective regulation on the financial and banking system in order to avoid crises.

Absent a tax, even at a nominal 0.01%, data may not be collected and so policymakers will lack information about the distribution which might lead them to set policies to tackle inequality.

Aside from the aspect of tax injustice, non-dom status has been pernicious in part because it has taken a deal of high-income individuals’ income out of tax and other data – so that the actual distribution is simply not known.

If we can envisage scenarios in which policymakers may wish to address the (top end of the) distribution, then the absence of this data is an obstacle. In fact, this is one more example of the phenomenon of Uncounted – where the power of an elite group, in this case, allows them to go uncounted and this in turn militates towards higher inequality.

Finally, the existence of non-dom status is iconic – a clear message that the UK wishes to retain its role at the heart of global tax haven activity, providing differential tax and transparency treatment to a certain elite. Knocking non-dommery on the head would build the credibility of, for example, the outgoing government’s important efforts to address financial secrecy worldwide through the G8 and beyond.

Tax Justice Research Bulletin 1(3)

March 2015. The third Tax Justice Research Bulletin is out, catch it in its full glory (with backing track suggested by Christian Hallum) on its TJN home.

Mahon2015 fig2This issue looks at new papers on the responsibilities of tax professionals in respect of abusive tax behaviour and corruption; and on the parallels between the 1974 banking crisis and that of 2008, and policy lessons that emerge. The Spotlight considers contrasting views on tax and freedom.

One thing to flag: a call for papers from UNU-WIDER, who are stepping up their interest in tax. The call is open until 30 April, and is part of WIDER’s new project on ‘The economics and politics of taxation and social protection’ which is also worth a look (includes call for research proposals and researcher vacancies).

As ever, ideas for the Bulletin are most welcome – including suggested music.

PS. Congratulations to tax lawyer @jolyonmaugham on formally becoming a QC this month – now so silky he could feature in Barcelona’s midfield.

Tax freedom

Tax Freedom Day began in the late 1940s in the United States, as a political marking of the day when the nation has in theory earned sufficient income to pay the total tax for the year – in other words, the same proportion of the year has passed, which is expected to be the proportion of taxes to GDP. It is now calculated, generally by quite right-wing organisations that see tax as a threat to democracy, in a handful of other countries.

A fairly clear critique can be constructed on the basis that the national aggregation obscures more than it reveals. A different political story could be told, for example, by comparing the ‘tax freedom’ day of a median-income employee of a given company, with the ‘tax freedom’ day for the company itself. Or of that employee with the CEO?

But the more substantive critique revolves around whether tax and freedom have any relationship. One of the more well-established results about aggregate taxation has been found between the proportion of public expenditure funded by tax, and the strength of democracy (notably Ross, 2004; and even more clearly by Prichard et al, 2014, with the new ICTD Government Revenue Dataset).

So political freedom (if by that we understand the freedom facilitated by effective political representation) seems to increase with reliance on tax, compared to other revenue sources. What of economic freedom?

Mahon2015 fig2A new paper from James Mahon sets out to examine just this question, using the ‘freedom’ measures created by the range of relatively right-wing organisations that have tended to support tax freedom day – notably the Fraser Institute, and also the Heritage Foundation.

As with the democracy studies above, Mahon finds an important distinction between tax and spending. There is some evidence of a negative, or zero effect of higher spending on some measures of economic freedom. But for tax, the finding are clear:

States that taxed more in the 1970s tended to broaden economic freedom in later decades; and after 1995, higher levels of taxation predict more economic freedom, on two different measures, in the following year…

[T]he need to expand tax revenues in order to pay down debt, tends to keep governments attentive to what pleases investors and inspires the compliance of taxpayers – whether or not these mount colourful demonstrations against the ‘tyranny’ of big government.

On the moral responsibilities of tax professionals

Why is abusive tax avoidance the prerogative of wealthy individuals and large corporations? Primarily because a very high level of technical expertise is required to establish and manage an effective tax avoidance strategy, and that expertise does not come cheap. A large and multifaceted industry of professionals – including lawyers, accountants, finance specialists, bankers and offshore service experts – thrive on creating ‘tax benefits’ for those who can afford their services…

Our primary aim is to argue that tax professionals […] have specific responsibilities to help reduce the incidence of abusive tax avoidance and remedy its negative consequences.

This is the basis for a new paper, ‘Abusive tax avoidance and institutional corruption: The responsibilities of tax professionals’, by Gillian Brock and Hamish Russell. Brock is one of the world’s foremost cosmopolitan philosophers, and an earlier version of the paper won the Amartya Sen prize.

The paper builds on Lawrence Lessig’s work on institutional corruption, defined as the illegitimate weakening of an institution, and especially of public trust in it. The paper highlights the role of various tax professionals in corrupting fiscal institutions, creates a framework for assigning remedial responsibilities, and applies it to three groups in particular: accountants (the big 4 firms), lawyers and financial advisors.

brock russell 2015 - big4In each case, Brock and Russell explore the causal contribution of each group of professionals, the extent to which they benefit, and their capacity to bring about remedy. The figure outlines the structure of the argument, for the case of big 4 firms, and points to the type of collective action that might be fair to expect, as a moral response to the situation.

Some may query the actual scale of abusive avoidance in which big 4 firms are complicit, or the benefits they derive. Others will question the policy recommendations: if part of the weakness of tax rules results from lobbying activities of tax professionals, is it reasonable to expect the same professionals to act from their position of power to reduce the opportunities that exist?

But the paper provides a logical clarity to what many will already feel: that (some/too many) tax professionals have (sometimes/for too long) benefited from exploiting the weakness of tax systems; and that ultimately any important steps towards progress will need to be taken with the acquiescence, if not the active leadership, of at least some professional groups.

UNCTAD study on corporate tax in developing countries

UNCTAD, the UN body that tracks trade and investment with the aim of improving development impacts, has published a major new study on corporate tax. [Link broken as at 20 July 2015, thanks Lisa, so see World Investment Report 2015 chapter 5 and annexes instead – this is the updated version.] Much attention will go to the estimate of $100 billion in developing country revenue losses due to MNEs’ tax avoidance, but the study contains much more of value:

  • The first comprehensive overview of MNEs’ revenue contribution in developing countries;
  • A relatively detailed overview of the use of ‘offshore hubs’ as conduits for investment;
  • Regression analysis of the profit-shifting impact of conduit use, and an estimate of the revenue losses; and
  • A discussion of potential policy responses that emphasise the value of investment but also recognise the damage of tax avoidance.

This (long) post will summarise each area in turn, then offer a few thoughts on the importance of the study, and future research directions. [Full disclosure: I’m on the expert group for the upcoming World Investment Report, of which this study is a part; which is to say that I may be biased, but certainly not that I can take any credit.]

MNEs’ revenue contribution

The first major element of the paper consists of creating a baseline for the revenue contribution of (the foreign affiliates of) MNEs, drawing primarily on the ICTD Government Revenue Dataset.

unctad draft fig3The authors break down the pattern of revenues overall (figure 3 – click for full size), and then focus on the contribution of MNEs.

Figure 6 shows the results of the ‘contribution method’, where each component of revenues is decomposed into a corporate and a non-corporate element, and the former again into a domestic and foreign affiliate element (see Annex I for full details). This allows an overall estimate of the contribution of MNEs’ foreign affiliates, of around $725 billion or 10% of total revenues. Around 3% of revenues derives from MNEs’ corporate income tax.

unctad draft fig6

As a cross-check, the authors use balance of payments data to construct the ‘FDI-income method’ which involves estimating the total revenue contribution from both unctad draft fig7corporate income taxation and non-income items. Per figure 7 (click to enlarge), this yields an overall contribution of $730 billion. There is perhaps more uncertainty in this approach, since it rests on the estimated tax rate and on the extrapolated rate of other (non-income tax) revenue contributions. Nonetheless, the full approach (again detailed in Annex I) is plausible, and the cross-check on the contribution approach is valuable.

The investment role of ‘offshore’

The second contribution of the study is to assess the (jurisdiction) sources of investment. 42 jurisdictions are identified as either ‘tax havens’ (“small jurisdictions whose economy is entirely, or almost entirely, dedicated to the provision of offshore financial services”) or ‘SPEs’ (jurisdictions offering SPEs or other entities facilitating transit investment. Larger jurisdictions with substantial real economic activity that act as major global investment hubs for MNEs due to favorable tax and investment conditions”).

This might be considered a rather blunt approach; as I’ve written elsewhere, there are serious issues with any ‘tax haven’ definition, and the intuition of the Financial Secrecy Index is that it makes more sense to think of jurisdictions on a spectrum, rather than being either ‘havens’ or not. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the approach here identifies the major players one way or another.

unctad draft fig13

Figure 13 (click to enlarge) shows the specific picture in the US. The difference in relative tax rates is striking: averages of 3% (‘tax havens’) and 2% (‘SPE countries’) versus 17% elsewhere.

In this light, the growth in use of these conduit jurisdictions for investment in developing countries which figure 17 illustrates is of clear concern.

unctad draft fig17

Estimate of MNE tax avoidance

The logical next step of the paper is to consider the likely effect of using conduit jurisdictions for investment into developing countries on MNEs’ revenue contribution. It seems inevitable that this calculation will draw the most attention.

The estimate is based on (fixed effects OLS) regression analysis of the relationship, at the national level, between the aggregate use of investment conduits and the rate of (taxable) return on the investment stock. On the basis of a variety of specifications, the authors conclude that

“an additional 10% share of inward investment stock originating from offshore investment hubs is associated with a decrease in the rate of return of 1-1.5 percentage point” (p.34).

Extrapolating to all (non-haven) developing countries generates a range of revenue loss estimates from $70 billion to $120 billion. Figure 20 shows the central estimate of $100 billion in revenue losses: towards half of the actual tax paid.

unctad draft fig20

The $100 billion is also around a tenth of the ‘potential value at stake’ – in effect, the total development finance associated with the activities of MNEs’ foreign affiliates. As an earlier draft had noted, the leakage of development resources is not limited to the loss of domestic fiscal revenues but it also affects overall GDP (as the profit component of value added is reduced) and potentially the reinvested earnings component of FDI. As companies shift away profits from the recipient country they may also undermine the development opportunities related to reinvestment of those profits for productive purposes.

Applying an average reinvestment rate of 50%, for example, to the calculated (after-tax) profit shifting of $330 – $450 billion would yield lost reinvested earnings in the range of $165- $225 billion. Summing up the revenue loss component and the reinvested earnings component the total leakage of development financing resources would then be in the order of $250 billion and $300 billion – in other words, between a quarter and third of the potential value at stake.

The pot of gold, however, should not be overstated: although this is likely to be a lower bound, since it does not capture all forms of corporate tax reducing behaviour, we’re talking about something like 1.5 percent of developing country government revenues on average. The absolute amount involved is clearly worth pursuing, and can have a substantial benefit in revenue terms and beyond; but the tax justice agenda cannot be boiled down to this alone. Much broader improvements, with both domestic and international components, are required to achieve a step change in effective taxation for development.

Policy recommendations

The study concludes with a range of policy recommendations, focused on improving the sustainable development impact of investment into developing countries. These are summarised in figure 21.

Multiple measures are set out, each worthy of more detailed discussion. A particular strength is the clarity of intent to ‘Ban tolerance or facilitation of tax avoidance as a means to attract investment’. If such an aim could be made operational and effective, it would imply an end to ‘competition’ among jurisdictions to take the tax base arising from economic activity elsewhere, of the type so clearly exposed in LuxLeaks.

I would have liked to see more emphasis on transparency measures – including, crucially, public country-by-country reporting – that would not only make the analysis here much more of a calculation and less of an estimation, but also provide an ongoing tool for accountability to ensure progress in reducing avoidance.

Summary

The UNCTAD study marks a major step forward in our understanding of the scale and nature of multinational tax avoidance in developing countries. Both the baseline for multinationals’ revenue contribution, and the assessment of the losses to avoidance, are likely to become part of the literature and the policy discussion for a good time to come.

No doubt some of the approaches will be challenged, including the regression results (when aren’t they?); and data will evolve over time (for example, the updating of the ICTD dataset in a few months’ time). But the pioneering approaches in the contribution method and the FDI-income method, as well as the model for the avoidance estimate, are likely to endure.

The policy recommendations are likely to have influence, perhaps including in the FfD process, and provide a valuable reminder of the importance of maximising not investment, nor revenues, but the development benefits that result. Better tools to resist avoidance will improve the ability of governments to make any necessary trade-offs.

An African civil society perspective on FfD

The African regional consultation on Financing for Development (FfD) took place at the start of the week (like the European one). The submission from TJN-Africa puts particular emphasis on inequality, including women’s rights, and on global data issues.

Summary of CSO Recommendations to African governments

  1. African countries should push for the centrality of taxation as both the most important source of financing for development needs and the key lever to fight inequality.
  2. African countries should call for the establishment of a new intergovernmental body on tax matters with a clear mandate.
  3. African countries should stand together to ensure that FfD process not only recognises the importance of measures to increase transparency and accountability within the private sector as it does in Article 25 of the Zero draft but also that it commits the countries to act.
  4. African countries should implement the recommendations contained in the AU/UNECA high level panel (HLP) on IFF report.
  5. African countries should push for the integration of women’s rights into the FfD agenda as an  important issue which has relevance for tax policy.
  6. African countries should push for commitment  to the principle of redistribution via taxation and ensure the global data collection effort envisaged within the SDGs includes tracking the equity implications of tax policy
  7. African countries should call for the recognition of international cooperation on tax as a key priority related to financing within the new global partnership for sustainable development.
  8. African countries should make an explicit statement that MNCs paying their share of tax will be a major means of financing the SDGs.

The full document (with thanks to Savior Mwamba) can be found here.