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.

A tax target for post-2015

If you had to pick a single measure for the tax performance of a country, or a government, what would it be? That question now confronts the folks working on the post-2015 successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as they seek an indicator for the global framework.

In this post I look at a few contenders, and their strengths and weaknesses. Quick thoughts on the main contenders are below; but if you’re short on time, the table has a summary.

And if you’re really short on time, the answer: for all its issues, the tax/GDP ratio is probably worth sticking with; while the tax/total revenues ratio is an important complement.

tax ratio comparison table

Assessing tax system performance

One of many areas in which the framework is likely to improve upon the MDGs is the attention to tax. This includes a specific target on illicit financial flows, encompassing individual and corporate tax abuses inter alia. On these, I made three specific proposals for the Copenhagen Consensus.

But the question that’s come up a few times this week is on the broader point of measuring tax system performance. How, in the period 2015-2030 (say), can we track the success or otherwise of tax systems?

The five Rs of tax

Ten years ago I proposed the 4Rs of taxation, as a simple way to think of what a tax system can or should deliver. Richard Murphy has since added a fifth.

  • Revenue
  • Redistribution
  • Re-pricing
  • Re-balancing
  • Representation

To date, the focus has been almost entirely on revenue (‘domestic resource mobilisation’, in UN-speak). This makes sense, with one exception that I’ll come to.

Redistribution will be treated elsewhere. To my excitement, the current draft includes 10.1: ‘Measure income inequality using the Palma ratio, pre- and post-social transfers/tax…’.

Re-pricing (use of the tax system to make e.g. tobacco or carbon emissions more expensive) is less central, and the climate aspect also features elsewhere in the framework.

Re-balancing the economy (e.g. addressing tax differentials to reduce the size of a too-big-to-be-efficient financial sector), Richard’s important addition, is also an option in a good tax system more than a definition thereof.

Representation, however, is a vital outcome of a good tax system. It is the aggravation of paying tax, and above all direct taxes (on income, capital gains and profits), that build the citizen-state relationship as people are motivated to hold government to account for their spending decisions. The alternative dynamic is too often seen in resource-rich states where tax plays only a small role in overall spending, and may also result from situations of sustained, intense aid flows.

Various findings, most recently and powerfully a new analysis with the ICTD Government Revenue Dataset, confirm that the share of taxation in total government revenue is an important determinant of the emergence of effective democratic representation.

So we should consider representation as the other core feature of tax, alongside revenues, when we look for broad measures of progress.

Criteria for comparison of tax measures

Since comparing cash tax receipts across economies of different sizes is largely meaningless, we need to take ratios. The question then becomes:

What ratio of tax receipts should we use for inter-temporal and/or cross-country comparisons of tax performance?

I propose three criteria. Ideally we would have a ratio where the denominator is in the control of policymakers; where the denominator (as well as the numerator) is well measured; and where the ratio is demonstrably meaningful as a measure of performance of the tax system.

Tax/GDP ratio

The most commonly used measure is the ratio of tax revenues to GDP. Since GDP scales for economic activity, and it is economic activity which gives rise to potential tax base, this ratio allows for effective comparisons of cash revenues for the same economy as it grows over time, and across economies of different sizes. Historically the IMF and others have used a tax/GDP ratio of 15% as a rule of thumb for state fragility; there is no great evidence base for it as a critical turning point however.

total tax rev GRD

There are two main weaknesses to the tax/GDP ratio. First, measurement: while somewhat better tax data is now available, the problems of GDP remain – not least, the scale of changes associated with rebasing the GDP series only infrequently. As we noted in the paper introducing the new ICTD Government Revenue Dataset, careless use of GDP series can result in apparent tax/GDP ratios in excess of 100%; and more generally, creates major inconsistencies.

ghana series-specific gdp

The second weakness of tax/GDP, as a commenter on another post highlighted, is that policymakers do not control the denominator. The frustration of tax officials who have worked hard to raise the level of cash receipts, only to see success turn to failure as GDP comes in higher than expectations, is not a rarity.

Tax per capita

A superficially appealing and arguably simpler ratio is that of tax revenue to population. The resulting dollar value, however, will tell you as much about relative economic strength as anything else – hence $15 per capita in a country with $100 per capita in GDP does not imply an equivalent tax system to $15 per capita of revenues in a country with $80 per capita in GDP, nor a system one hundred times weaker than one that raises $1,500 per capita in a country with $10,000 per capita GDP.

Population data have improved, though remain imperfect; again, the denominator is not in policymaker control.

Tax effort

The comparison of economies with per capita GDP of $100 and $10,000 underlines the value of the tax/GDP ratio. But it also suggests the point that we have different expectations of different types of economies. Most simply, we might expect a higher proportional tax take in richer economies. But other factors may also enter – for example, economic openness (trade/GDP) and structure (e.g. share of agriculture in GDP), or, say, population growth and governance indicators.

Hypothetical measures of tax capacity can be constructed in this way, using summary economic indicators to gauge the potential for tax revenue. Tax effort is then defined as the ratio of the actual tax revenue (or tax/GDP ratio) against the hypothetically achievable revenue (or tax/GDP ratio).

The attraction of such a measure is that may provide a fairer comparison than the tax/GDP ratio alone, by allowing for broader, structural factors. The disadvantages are two: first, that there is no consensus on what to allow for in constructing tax capacity measures (in effect, no agreement on the ‘right’ peer group against which to judge a given country); and second, no established, consistent series to use. Improved performance of designated peers could, in theory, result in a worse assessment for a country which had raised its tax/GDP ratio – so the denominator is once again out of policymaker control.

Tax/total revenue ratio (and/or direct tax/total revenue ratio)

Finally, an indicator that does not provide a comparison on revenue terms but rather on tax reliance: the ratio of tax to total revenue. Since this ratio appears to be associated with improved governance, or more effective political representation, there is a good case for its inclusion in addition to – rather than instead of – one of the above.

Measurement presents no additional problems (if tax data is present and of acceptable quality, then so should total revenue be); and the denominator is in policy control to a similar extent to the numerator.

A non-ratio alternative: ‘Shadow economy’ estimates

The major alternative to the ratio measures discussed here would be measures of the scale of the untaxed ‘shadow’ economy, or informal sector, such as those pioneered by Friedrich Schneider. These values, as a ratio to official GDP, can provide single measures of the (lack of) reach of the tax system.

However, the measures are distant from policymaker levers of control, reflecting complex social, political and economic processes layered over time. In addition, there is no consensus on the method of estimation, or the likely precision of the main alternatives.

Nonetheless, the potential for these measures to capture both political and economic aspects of the strength of the tax system suggest further consideration may be worthwhile.

Conclusion

To recap: what’s the right tax target for post-2015?

  • Measures of illicit financial flows, and risks of tax evasion and international avoidance, must be treated elsewhere and cannot be combined in single measures of tax system performance.
  • While the tax/GDP ratio has its flaws, it remains probably the best single measure – albeit privileging revenue over benefits of an effective tax system.
  • The most important other benefit, of improved state-citizen relations and political representation, provides the basis to include tax/total revenue as an additional indicator.

Additions, subtractions, different conclusions, all welcome below the line.