Tax Justice Research Bulletin 1(6)

June 2015. Surprising everyone by actually arriving within the stated month, here’s the sixth Tax Justice Research Bulletin – a monthly series dedicated to tracking the latest developments in policy-relevant research on national and international tax, available in full over at TJN.

This issue looks at a new paper in The Lancet on the potential links between direct taxation and health outcomes including child mortality; and at research on the suitability or otherwise of accounting data for tax purposes. The Spotlight falls on tobacco taxes, the shameful manipulation of economic arguments by Big Tobacco, and a paper entitled The Single Best Health Policy in the World: Tobacco Taxes. If this issue was any more health-y, you could put a vest on it and send it out to do a half-Iron Man with Owen Barder.

June’s tune, via Sarah Knott, is Jawad Ahmad’s ‘Bhola kya karey – Wo jiay ya marey’. 

The main research event  of the month, nay the year, is the TJN annual research workshop at City University, which you’ve either just attended (great to see you!) or just missed (boo).

This year’s thematic focus was on the flawed notion of “competition” between nation states, and there’s a cracking set of papers from a whole range of disciplines (from philosophy to accounting) and backgrounds (including practitioners, civil society researchers and academics from universities from Hong Kong to Barcelona); and touching on all sorts of tax and non-tax aspects of ‘competition’, with insights into everything from Guernsey’s dominant investment position in annexed Crimea, to the ‘voluntariness’ of migration; and from regulatory responses of commodity traders to the role of KPMG in systemic regulatory arbitrage.

The workshop ended with a really engaged discussion about the relative merits of taking on the entire logic of state competition, versus the practical value of keeping focus on tax.

There’s certainly an important challenge in reclaiming the word ‘competition’ in this context, which has been used almost as a synonym for ‘no government intervention’ – when ensuring competition may well require greater intervention, in order to prevent power abuses leading to further concentration. The creators of the ‘Global Competitiveness Index’, for example, probably don’t see themselves as advocates for a world regulatory body, preventing unfair competition between states…

Submissions for the Bulletin, including tax-related melodic suggestions, are most welcome.

 

A tracker for the new UK government’s tax commitments

The new UK government comes to power with what is probably the most ambitious package of international tax commitments of any elected party, anywhere, ever.

And Prime Minister David Cameron has been absolutely explicit that they will deliver on their promises.

So, in the spirit of public service, and of this blog in making sure things don’t go uncounted, here’s a cut-out-and-keep guide to each of the three main commitments on international tax and transparency, and some proposed measures of progress.

Commitment 1: We will lead international efforts to ensure global companies pay their fair share of tax

  1. External analysis of UK positions in OECD BEPS initiative
  2. Evaluation of UK policies in BEPS areas
  3. Evaluation of BEPS outcomes (BEPS Monitoring Group)
  4. Progress in reducing BEPS (tracked by BEPS 11 or alternatives if this Action Point itself fails)

Commitment 2: We will review the implementation of the new international country-by-country tax reporting rules and consider the case for making this information publicly available on a multilateral basis

  1. Review takes place
  2. Review engages seriously with views of multilateral partners, especially EU where discussion is currently ahead of UK
  3. Review findings are well supported by evidence on costs and benefits of publication

Commitment 3: We will ensure developing countries have full access to global automatic tax information exchange systems

  1. UK provides full access to developing countries
  2. UK ensures its territories and dependencies provide full access to developing countries
  3. UK works to ensure other leading economies and financial centres provide full access to developing countries
  4. Extent to which each developing country ultimately has access to automatic tax information exchange (e.g. % of world GDP, or share of global financial services exports, of those providing information to each country)

cons manifesto-tax 2015

International commission calls for corporate tax reform

When we look back, might today be the day that momentum swung decisively against current international tax rules? An independent commission made up of leading international economists, development thinkers and tax experts (see graphic) has called for a radical overhaul of international rules for corporate taxation.   ICRICT declaration commissioner stirip

There are six main recommendations, set out below. Taken together, it’s possible that they will provide the basis for the kind of comprehensive reworking of tax rules that the G20 and G8 signally failed to deliver when they allowed the OECD mandate on BEPS (corporate tax Base Erosion and Profit-Shifting) to be watered down to a tweaking of the current system. Here’s the start of the Commission’s press release:

Trento, IT – Today, the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation (ICRICT) launched a global declaration calling for an overhaul of the outdated international corporate tax system and demanding broad, sweeping changes in the current rules and governing institutions. The declaration will be discussed later today by a panel of ICRICT commissioners at the Trento Festival of Economics in Trento, Italy beginning at 5pm CET.

“Multinational corporations act and therefore should be taxed as single and unified firms – It is time for our leaders to be bold and recognize the legal fiction of the separate entity principle,” said Joseph Stiglitz, professor and Nobel Prize winning economist. “During the transition, leading developed nations should impose a global minimum corporate tax rate to stop the race to the bottom.”

So far, the media coverage has been impressive – from Handelsblatt, La Repubblica and Le Monde, to Reuters, CNN and the Wall St Journal. With the launch event about to get underway, more is likely to follow. [Update: more in the Guardian – thanks Rhiannon, and a cracking write-up in the Financial Times.]

Drawing on expert consultations held in New York in March this year, the ICRICT Declaration (pdf) contains recommendations for reform in six areas:

  1. Tax multinationals as single firms
  2. Curb tax competition
  3. Strengthen enforcement
  4. Increase transparency
  5. Reform tax treaties
  6. Build inclusivity into international tax cooperation

I can only recommend reading the full piece, but a few points stand out.

  • Unitary taxation: States should ‘reject the artifice’ of current separate accounting, and tax MNEs as a single unit, apportioning profit among the jurisdictions in which they operate according to the relative scale of their economic activity in each.
  • Public country-by-country reporting: States should make country-by-country reports (of MNEs’ economic activity, profits and tax) available to the public within 30 days of filing.
  • Public beneficial ownership: states should include the names of ultimate beneficial owners (the warm-blooded type) in public corporate registries.

Following the IMF paper showing how developing countries appear to lose around three times as much revenue as OECD members (1.7% of GDP, or more than $200 billion), the pressure is really on the BEPS process to deliver wider progress.

At present, despite the best efforts of OECD staff working on Action Point 11, it remains unclear if the final BEPS recommendations will include even sufficient transparency measures to allow the tracking of progress.

Politically, it seems that there was a victory before BEPS began for those who did not wish to see the rules opened up more widely; and some further success within the process, not least in terms of preventing (thus far) public reporting of country-by-country disclosures.

But if leading opinion continues to sway towards seeing the current approach as part of the problem, and the resulting process opens up the entire basis of international tax rules, it may turn out to have been a pyrrhic victory indeed.

Full disclosure: TJN is one of the organisations that helped to establish ICRICT, and I’m a member of the preparatory group – but nobody should imagine the commissioners have anything but carefully developed personal views on these issues. 

UNCTAD’s big number: A critique

Update 2: 8 May 2015, a slightly tweaked version of the blog is now back up, and the UNCTAD study authors will provide a comment which I’ll add at the start of next week.

A critique of the UNCTAD analysis of corporate tax avoidance suggests things may be (even) less rosy for developing countries. 

It is a mark of the importance of UNCTAD’s study on corporate tax avoidance in developing countries that it is provides the first numbers mentioned by the World Bank’s MD and COO Sri Mulyani in a major speech last month:

A recent UNCTAD study indicates that about $100 billion in annual tax revenue is lost to developing countries in transactions directly linked to offshore hubs. The total “development finance” loss – counting both revenue and reinvested earnings – is estimated in the range of $250 to $300 billion. This prevents developing countries from stopping the outflow of money – which thus bleeds them of essential resources.

For the schoolchild in Haiti, the new mother in Malawi, or the farmer in Bangladesh, these losses have a real impact: They result in classrooms that are overcrowded, health clinics that are never built, and water that is never delivered. People’s opportunities are being stolen from them – because tax revenues are not collected.

But there is a critique of the UNCTAD report, which also found that multinational enterprises (MNEs) may be paying developing countries around $700bn in revenues.
The import of the critique is that, rather than multinationals in developing countries avoiding a dollar of tax for every seven they contribute, they may by one form of avoidance alone be avoiding a dollar of tax for every three or four they contribute. Total revenue losses to avoidance might even stack up against the total contribution made… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
There are two main elements to the critique being advanced, one conceptual, the other practical. I should repeat my disclosure from the earlier blog that I’m part of the expert group that has fed in views about drafts of the study, so I’m probably not neutral.

The role of investment

The conceptual critique concerns whether the UNCTAD study appropriately captures the role of investment in development.

One risk is that a policy of avoidance might somehow be seen as an acceptable tool to encourage investment, that a tradeoff might exist (p.5):

The dilemma is clear: how can policymakers take action against tax avoidance to ensure that MNEs pay “the right amount of tax, at the right time, and in the right place” while avoiding excessive tightening of the fiscal regime for MNEs which might have a negative impact on investment.

Three main criticisms are made.

First, the study concentrates on FDI rather than the total of investment. But it’s conceivable that reducing multinational tax avoidance could (i) increase revenues for public investment, (ii) reduce the unfair competitive disadvantage faced by domestic firms (and more compliant multinationals), and through the combination of (i) and (ii) actually increase overall investment.

Second, any possible tradeoff hinges on assumptions of the importance of tax for investment (that is, for FDI). Namely (p.5, emphasis in original):

Tax is a key investment determinant influencing the attractiveness of a location or an economy for international investors.

Taxation, tax reliefs and other fiscal incentives are a key policy tool to attract investors.

The criticism is that these statements are undercut by the evidence – for example, TJN research (PDF) drawing on the IMF and McKinsey’s inter alia has long highlighted the non-importance of tax in locational decisions. [Such overall findings do not necessarily rule out any potential role of well-administered tax incentives as a possible lever of industrial policy, however.]

The third element of the conceptual critique is that while FDI inflows might fall in the event of targeted reduction in MNE tax avoidance, it is unlikely that a fall in FDI stock would occur – and highly unlikely that such a fall would be of sufficient scale to reduce overall revenues. The strongest impact of the financial crisis came in 2009, which saw positive inflows continue, albeit with a 20% fall in volume.

My take on this, for what it’s worth: the suggestion of a tradeoff is far from prominent in the paper, and UNCTAD exist in part to promote FDI (benefits), so the framing is not particularly surprising.

And nor need it be particularly damaging, if the dominant discourse is reflected by the kind of remarks that James Zhan (Director of the relevant UNCTAD department) made at the UNECE Financing for Development consultation about the importance of MNE tax avoidance, and the need to maximise not investment per se but the broader sustainable development benefits thereof – so that there’s no immediate, actionable avoidance/investment tradeoff as such, but a more holistic conception of the potential for FDI to influence multiple channels of a (much wider again) development strategy.
I don’t think anyone would argue – and the UNCTAD study does not – for promoting avoidance as an investment attraction mechanism (although that is in a sense the game for those jurisdictions that seek to capture the tax base of others.)

Methodological critique: Varying the assumptions

The methodological critique is multifaceted, and I will set aside much of it. Suffice to say, I think there are reasonable criticisms to be made – as with any regression analyses, and any attempt to estimate hidden financial flows on the basis of limited public data – but that the central approach is quite reasonable, and represents a valuable innovation to add to existing work.

A broad point is that the revenue loss number for one form of avoidance alone has been presented as the number for all avoidance – ignoring, for example, transfer pricing abuses of the sort that a Banque de France researcher has estimated to cost France alone tax base of around $8 billion a year. We certainly need to find ways to construct broader numbers of that type, but it’s not what the authors were about here.

The more specific criticisms of the UNCTAD study calculation are interesting, however, and worth showing in order to think about where one should imagine the probable range of MNE revenue contributions, and so the relative scale of avoidance – for the ‘contribution method’ and the ‘FDI-income method’, which are the two complementary approaches proposed and used in the UNCTAD study.

Contribution method

This approach uses countries’ revenue values from the new ICTD dataset, and allocates a proportion of each revenue type from 0-100% to MNEs in order to assess their total contribution.

The critics highlight a range of decisions as potentially difficult to justify (e.g. that MNEs contribute 50% of tax paid on property, or 100% of taxes on imports), and make some different proposals (‘Alternative 1′ in the table). This additionally includes a relaxation of the UNCTAD study’s assumption that MNEs’ share of taxable profit will be equivalent to their share of operating surplus, which will be violated when methods like thin capitalisation are used for profit-shifting. There is also a somewhat arbitrary reduction (by the critics) of the MNEs’ share of corporate tax revenues, apparently to reflect the original study’s recognition that ‘generous discounts on tax rates’ may lead to bias here.

This reduces the total estimated MNE contribution from $723 billion to $391 billion. In addition, the critics point out that the UNCTAD study uses a reference year from the crisis period. Choosing a different reference year (‘Alternative 1b’) leads to a total contribution of $399 billion, but where the share due to corporate income tax is now 43% of revenue contribution, as opposed to 30% in the original.

Here I have to put my hands up – the UNCTAD study (very wisely) uses the ICTD Government Revenue Dataset, as a better source of tax data, and until the upcoming release, the present edition contains only data to 2009/10.

UNCTAD critics table1

FDI-income method

In this method, the UNCTAD study takes balance of payments data on FDI income, and applies an average effective tax rate to estimate a revenue outcome. Good data on MNEs’ foreign tax payments, never mind effective tax rates, is notoriously difficult to come by – and especially so for lower-income countries.

The critics re-engineer the data in the UNCTAD study to show that an effective rate of 11% is not unreasonable, but more generously apply 15% (compared to nearer 20% and 25% in the original).

The overall effect, combined with the above finding that income tax produces a higher share of the total contribution, is to reduce the estimated total contribution to $291 billion.

Implications?

It is true that the UNCTAD study considers only one form of avoidance – so as they themselves say, one might reasonably add to their $100 billion an estimate of transfer pricing avoidance (for example).
[The reason not to, I imagine, is that there isn’t as rigorous an estimate of this as their estimate of the thin capitalisation avoidance, due to the failure to make available more widely the type of trade data used in the Banque de France study which explicitly contrasts real arm’s length pricing with related party trade prices.]

This is not a criticism of the UNCTAD study – just a caution against presenting the $100 billion as if it were an assessment of all avoidance.

A genuine, but as yet untested criticism relates to the potential sensitivity of the assessment of the revenue contribution of MNEs in developing countries, to the necessary set of assumptions made.

Is MNEs’ revenue contribution $300 billion or $700 billion?

You wouldn’t stand full square behind either, it seems to me, but that feels a more or less inevitable result of current data problems (yet one more that would be solved, of course, by public country-by-country reporting).

The UNCTAD study provides justification for the various choices it makes. It would be useful to have a broader discussion of these, and to onsider the range of movement in the estimate level of contributions.

What does this all mean for policy? One response to the UNCTAD study would be to acknowledge that it provides confirmation, at a minimum, of the ‘scale-reasonableness’ of NGO estimates of revenue losses of this scale. Another would be to note, as I did in the previous post on this report, that $100bn is small in relation to total revenues.

If the critics were right, and the total MNE contribution is half of what we thought, perhaps this whole area of tax should be even less of a priority. Alternatively, if the MNE contribution could be doubled from what it is – without any unreasonable impositions – that would suggest a much bigger prize…

The one form of avoidance (thin capitalisation) in the UNCTAD study seems likely to be joined by several significantly sized other mechanisms – as the evidence for Europe suggests fairly strongly may be the case; and see also the new OECD survey paper on evidence on an even broader range of BEPS channels.

So the total developing country revenue losses to MNE avoidance could be several times that $100 billion – which could be half of, or the same as MNEs’ total contribution, if the original or the critics’ assumptions are used.

The authors of the study have very kindly agreed to provide a response to some of the points raised, which I’ll post here when I have it. I think it will help the rest of us to understand more about the range of possible revenue contributions we should consider reasonable.

#Luxleaks: The Reality of Tax ‘Competition’

This post was first published on Views from the Center.

Aside from lurid revelations about individual companies and the big four accounting firms, the leaks of multinationals’ tax deals with Luxembourg confirm­—and expose to a wider audience­—the true nature of the tax ‘competition’ that prevents the emergence of effective international rules.

#Luxleaks

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published the second tranche of leaked files, showing tax agreements the big four accounting firms reached, on behalf of their clients, with Luxembourg. The general pattern is of establishing internal corporate finance companies in Luxembourg and using these to shift in billions of dollars of profits earned elsewhere, after obtaining confidential rulings from officials that ensure a very low effective tax rate — in many cases less than one percent.

The ICIJ’s reporting and detailed analysis of documents on individual companies from Disney to IKEA is outstanding. It clearly shows a systematic pattern of behaviour in Luxembourg, and adds to a range of other evidence suggesting the pattern is systematic across multiple jurisdictions.

Widespread tax base poaching

Several recent examples show other countries doing deals knowingly to shift in, and not (fully) tax, profits that arose elsewhere. The European Commission has initiated proceedings against Ireland for allegedly providing “State Aid” to Apple since the 1990s through unjustifiably beneficial tax treatment. This had effectively capped the level of profit Ireland would recognize as tax base, leaving untouched the vast majority of profit shifted in. Meanwhile, a more formalized version of this approach dating back 10 years, Belgium’s system of ‘excess profits rulings’, has also come under scrutiny.

In all three cases­—Luxembourg, Ireland, and Belgium—the pattern is consistent. Companies, through their big four accounting firm advisers, have obtained advance agreement not to tax profits that arise, but are not taxed, elsewhere.

A less blatant but increasingly common instrument is the patent box, or knowledge box, which provides a very low tax rate in relation to R&D. There are already generous tax breaks for R&D in most countries. A patent box can, controversially, allow one country to capture the tax base associated with the R&D that was supported by taxpayers in another.

Such tax incentives for intellectual property exist in Belgium, Cyprus, France, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Spain.  In addition, the UK, which had introduced the measure from 2013, recently bowed to German pressure to phase it out (albeit not fully until 2021). The decision came after initially resisting, along with Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Spain, the suggestion that the tax break should only apply to R&D actually carried out in the country offering the patent box.

Google tax

Less than a month after its compromise over the patent box tax break, the UK government proposed a measure designed to protect its own tax base against similar poaching. The ‘diverted profits tax’ (DPT), now subject to public consultation, seeks to ensure profit arising from sales in the UK do not escape taxation by claiming to have no permanent establishment in the UK, nor through ‘certain arrangements which lack economic substance’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given criticism of theapparent disconnect between Google’s UK profitability and tax payments, media are calling the measure the ‘Google tax’.

The expected revenue impact is small. Despite a marginally penal rate of 25 percent (compared to a standard 21 percent), the forecast is to raise around £1.3 billion over five years. The highest forecast annual take of £350 million implies a base of £1.4 billion of ‘diverted’ profits, which is equivalent to just 1.4 percent of the most recent quarterly UK corporate profits. (The basis for these estimates hasnot been published.)

The change of direction may nonetheless be important. During his announcement of the DPT, UK Chancellor George Osborne stressed “the government’s commitment to an internationally competitive tax system.” However, the DPT reflects an understanding that, too often, countries are competing not to attract real economic activity but only the taxable profit that arises from activity taking place in another jurisdiction.

The tension between playing this game, while trying to limit the counter-success of others, in large part explains the failure to develop more effective international rules – and hence the tilting of benefits towards multinationals rather than to (especially lower-income) states. Still, pressure is growing, and the eventual direction of travel will have important implications for developing countries. A companion post explores future scenarios for international tax rules, and the implications for developing countries.