World No Tobacco Day: Marching to Big Tobacco’s tune?

Has World No Tobacco Day 2015 – this Sunday – been manipulated by Big Tobacco’s lobbying agenda? Where the tobacco lobby is concerned, it would be naive to think there’s smoke without fire.

One of the dirtier secrets of the international tax world – and yes, the bar is quite high – is the role of tobacco companies in seeking to manipulate policies that might reduce the number of people smoking dying because they consume tobacco.

The main angle taken by the lobby has been to direct attention towards ‘illicit’ tobacco, where customs duties and tax may not have been paid.

Now I care a lot about tax, but even I can see that whether tobacco was taxed before being consumed is barely even a second-order issue, when compared to the question of whether people are dying because of their consumption – which they are, and will continue to do, in their millions.

But the thematic focus of the World Health Organisation’s World No Tobacco Day 2015 is not directly on stopping tobacco consumption, as the name might suggest.

Instead it turns out to be… ‘Stop the illicit trade in tobacco products‘.

This is a long post, looking at the human impact of tobacco consumption, the role of the tobacco lobby, and the substantive basis for arguments to address ‘illicit’ tobacco trade. 

The conclusion is two-fold:

  • First, while the WHO has sought to resist Big Tobacco, it seems that the focus of World No Tobacco Day is nonetheless a reflection of the lobby’s concerted efforts to shift policy attention away from measures that cut consumption (and death).
  • Second, the tobacco lobby benefits from the effective support – inadvertent or otherwise – of some major players (corporate and individual) in international tax, who should be taking a long, hard look at their role. 

Human impact of tobacco

Tobacco kills. And overwhelmingly, it kills poorer rather than richer people; and as time goes by, it kills people in poorer rather than richer countries.

My former Center for Global Development colleague Bill Savedoff has been doing great work highlighting the human and development cost of tobacco – see e.g. his latest blog and a great podcast, from which this section draws.

In a rich country like the United States, leading researcher Prabhat Jha and colleagues find that:

the rate of death from any cause among current smokers was about three times that among those who had never smoked… The probability of surviving from 25 to 79 years of age was about twice as great in those who had never smoked as in current smokers (70% vs. 38% among women and 61% vs. 26% among men). Life expectancy was shortened by more than 10 years among the current smokers, as compared with those who had never smoked.

Overall, the study suggests that smoking may be responsible for a quarter of deaths of those aged 25-69.

But it is in lower-income countries where most smokers and other tobacco consumers are, and will be – and the same for tobacco-related deaths (data from Tobacco Atlas, figure from CGD). Over 4 million a year, more than TB, malaria and HIV/AIDS combined.

tobacco_corrected - CGD

And the costs are likely only to rise, since the number of daily smokers continues to grow, from 721 million in 1980 to 967 million in 2012 (despite a drop in smoking prevalence).

So call it a billion daily smokers. That’s a big market, for something expensive and addictive, where most people who start are unlikely to cease. (Well, not until they themselves do.)

The role of the tobacco lobby…

The most visible activity of the tobacco lobby is that carried out by the International Tax and Investment Center. The Financial Times covered the ITIC in October, under the headline ‘Tobacco lobby aims to derail WHO on tax increases‘:

A tobacco-industry funded lobby group will attempt to derail a World Health Organisation summit aimed at agreeing increased taxes on smoking, according to leaked documents seen by the Financial Times.

The International Tax and Investment Center, which is sponsored by all four major tobacco groups, will meet on the eve of the WHO’s global summit on tobacco policy in Moscow later this month in a bid to head off unwanted duty increases.

The article goes on to identify the four tobacco groups: “British American Tobacco, Philip Morris International, Japan Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco are sponsors of the ITIC and have representatives on its board of directors, along with other large multinationals.”

The WHO sees the ITIC’s actions as so extreme that it has called for governments not even to engage with them:

Itic have used their international conferences, such as in Moscow in 2014 and in New Delhi earlier this month, to lobby government officials against tobacco taxation. This is despite tobacco taxation being the most effective and efficient measure to reduce demand for tobacco products. Parties to the WHO framework convention on tobacco control are obliged to protect their public health policies from interference by the tobacco industry and its allies. In this light, WHO urges all countries to follow a non-engagement policy with Itic.

This is damning. With such a position taken by a major UN body, the ITIC cannot be seen as legitimate in its claim to provide objective analysis to governments around the world.

…and the international tax arena

But within the tax sphere, many leading actors work with the ITIC.

As the Observer highlighted, the former permanent secretary of HM Revenue and Customs (head of the UK tax authority) became a director of ITIC just a year after stepping down. His justification, given to the paper, was that he is not an executive director and is unpaid; and that around 50 other “leading figures in taxation” are involved in the same way.

The ITIC’s ‘Senior Advisors‘ list is certainly an impressive one from the tax perspective, including a number of respected researchers and tax officials, with Jeffrey Owens – former head of the OECD’s tax arm, the Centre for Tax Policy and Administration – singled out as a ‘Distinguished Fellow’.

I haven’t spoken with any of these people about ITIC, and can only imagine (and hope) that they simply haven’t registered that the ITIC is a tobacco lobby group. The ITIC certainly doesn’t present itself as such.

Similarly, it’s unclear why non-tobacco multinationals like Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil would want to associate themselves with this lobby, not to mention the professional services firms which include big 4 accounting firms, and lawyers such as Pinsent Masons.

The ITIC explains it this way: “Sponsors recognize the tremendous value added by ITIC in the countries in which they operate, through the promotion of an environment that welcomes business.”

But commercial organisations of this size can surely promote such an environment without the taint of tobacco lobbying.

There could hardly be a clearer message for the sponsors and fellows to find an alternative to the ITIC, than for a major UN organisation like the WHO actively warning governments not even to engage with it.

The ‘illicit’ tobacco argument

So far you might say I’ve played the man, rather than the ball. What about the substantive basis for the arguments made by the ITIC?

The main claim made is that taxing tobacco creates incentives for illegal tobacco trade. This in turn reduces the revenue benefits of the tax, and also encourages criminal activity:

“This growing and dangerous problem is not just a tax issue – beyond substantial government revenue losses, the impact of illegal trade constrains economic development and raises barriers and costs for international trade,” said Daniel Witt, President of the International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC). “It also poses significant health risks, and presents numerous challenges for law enforcement, from violations of intellectual property rights to money laundering and organized crime activity.”

I’m all for development, and the curtailing of illicit financial flows. But does this position stand up to scrutiny?

Arguments along these lines have been used in seeking to influence tax policy – that is, against higher tobacco taxes – from Ukraine to the Philippines, with critics arguing that the estimates provided tend to systematically overstate the case.

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal’s Tobacco Control, for example, looks at estimates produced for Hong Kong, and finds that

The industry-funded estimate was inflated by 133–337% of the probable true value.

And as Bill Savedoff highlights in this CGD podcast, the broader evidence simply does not support the claim that higher tobacco taxes lead to illicit tobacco trade. Significant tax rises over the last 10-15 years have not been associated with any increase in the proportion of tobacco that is illicit (about 9%-11%). Other factors like enforcement and effective tax administration seem much more important.

In addition, as Bill puts it:

What’s particularly ironic about this argument from the tobacco companies is that they are the ones that have been responsible for most smuggling…

Essentially, to get the magnitude of smuggling that you would need, to have an impact on the tobacco tax, or consumption,  you have to have the complicity, if not the actual responsibility, of the tobacco companies themselves.

The EU, UK, other countries had huge settlements with tobacco companies about their responsibility for smuggling in the 90s, and now they’re turning around and saying ‘Smuggling is the reason you shouldn’t tax our industry’? I don’t think they have much credibility on that score.

Bill also shreds the claim that tobacco taxation is regressive. In fact the majority of tobacco tax revenues will come from richer, not poorer people. And the behavioural responses mean that poorer people benefit disproportionately in health terms. So this is that rare thing, a sales tax which is progressive – and powerfully so.

Finally Bill, and also Michal Stoklosa of the American Cancer Society in this great Tobacco Atlas piece, argue that tobacco taxation has been shown to be the most effective tool to reduce tobacco consumption.

Stoklosa puts the overall point: “most importantly, it is clear that the measures that aim at reducing demand for cigarettes more generally are crucial in reducing the illicit trade problem.”

So even if we buy the importance of the illicit trade here, we should keep doing what we’re doing, including higher taxes.

Conclusions

There is no doubt that illicit trade in tobacco exists; and nobody argues it’s a good thing. But it’s clearly not the big issue about tobacco consumption – that would be, er, tobacco consumption.

Illicitness, in this case, is not associated with any greater health damage. And overall tax revenues losses do not seem to result from well-administered rises in tobacco taxation that cuts consumption, because illicit trade has tended not to increase. (As an aside: unlike some  taxes, revenue is not the prime reason for ‘sin’  taxes – in this case the aim is, explicitly, to reduce the tax base and eventually the revenues, by curtailing damaging behaviour.)

Should the WHO then use their biggest awareness-raising moment of the year to focus on illicit trade? From the outside, it seems clear that ‘No Tobacco’ would have found a stronger expression in a theme that sought to reduce all tobacco consumption.

I don’t mean to suggest anything illicit in the WHO’s adoption of this theme. Clearly they have taken a very direct stance against the well-funded lobbying of the ITIC.

But if we ask whether this theme would have been chosen, absent ITIC lobbying over recent years, it seems likely the answer is no. I hope the WTO can stick to the mission of the day – that is, of No Tobacco.

For now, chalk one up for the ITIC.

But then ask: Of the many individuals; the chairmen, co-chairmen and directors; and the professional services firms and non-tobacco multinationals that are working with the ITIC, how many would see this as a win?

Do they each mean to lend their names and reputation to an organisation that has consistently lobbied individual governments, especially in developing countries, and international organisations, against tax measures that are proven to reduce tobacco consumption, and all the health damage and needless death that results?

If not – and I very much hope not – then World No Tobacco Day 2015 seems like a fine time to step away from the ITIC.

Should tax targets for post-2015 be rejected?

In a strident blog at the International Centre for Tax and Development, Mick Moore, Nora Lustig, Richard Bird, Nancy Birdsall, Odd-Helge Fjeldstad, Richard Manning and Wilson Prichard have called for the rejection of post-2015 tax targets. (Full disclosure – I work with the ICTD, including on the Government Revenue Dataset.)

Seven leading thinkers on development and tax can’t be wrong – can they?

The case against

The  Zero Draft of the Outcome Document suggests that “… Countries with government revenue below 20 per cent of GDP agree to progressively increase tax revenues, with the aim of halving the gap towards 20 per cent by 2025.…”

It would be a great mistake to encourage quantitative tax targeting of any kind.  It would be like reintroducing the kind of production targets that did so much damage in the former Soviet Union.

This position rests on three arguments:

First, it is already a significant problem in developing countries that most tax agencies are already subject to a single performance measure: the extent to which they achieve the cash targets for revenue raising set by ministries of finance…

Second, increasing revenue collection will likely in some countries lead to an increase in poverty… It is not uncommon that the net effect of all governments taxing and spending is to leave the poor worse off…

The third objection is that, in many cases, the figures used to assess performance in relation to these targets may be almost meaningless.

Background

I’ve posted on this before, in response to a request on what would be the best post-2015 tax targets (taking for granted that there would be some kind of a tax target).

The limitations of the tax/GDP ratio should give us pause, and so it is useful to consider alternative denominators in particular – not least the tax/total revenues ratio, which is associated with improvements in governance. This was the conclusion:

[F]or 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

But maybe I should have been more cautious about having any target at all…

A useful intervention

There is a legitimate debate about whether there are too many goals and targets in the proposed SDGs (not to be confused with the pretty feeble argument sometimes heard that we should ‘stick with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)’, and ignore difficult things like inequality).

There has been a tendency to think that any important issue needs a target – and it may not be true.

Not all important issues have a clear consensus on the right value to target. Even a pure ‘bad’ like infant mortality may more usefully have a positive, rather than a zero target. So it’s possible that tax – reflecting the complexities of state-citizen relations as well as economic structure – simply doesn’t lend itself to a target.

But: the individual elements of the critique seem overstated, so it becomes hard to support the authors’ stark conclusions.

To recap, they argue that a tax target is a bad idea because

  1. it’s a blunt tool that risks the wrong prioritisation;
  2. tax may be bad for poverty, so more of it may be worse; and
  3. we measure both components of the proposed tax/GDP target too badly.

Criticism 1. Too blunt?

The first criticism is that the tax/GDP target is too blunt. Tax authorities can already face too much pressure around a single measure (cash collections). Might tax authorities be put under such pressure to reach a tax/GDP target that they undermined broader progress on e.g. taxpayer trust, revenue diversification or stability?

Diversifying the performance criteria for tax collectors is vital. Some developing countries are making progress. Any kind of international blessing for archaic practices would be a mistake – and perverse in terms of the Sustainable Development Goals.

This is clearly a legitimate concern. But it’s hard to feel comfortable with it being used to draw such a stark, final conclusion as that there should be no target at all.

The whole SDG process requires finding the best individual targets to reflect political priority in important areas. Almost by definition, these cannot reflect the perfect, broader dynamics in any of those areas. And this is not their role.

Would a tax/GDP target really be ‘archaic’, and ‘perverse’?

As the authors note, there is currently excess pressure on cash collection targets. Could one international target (among many) overtake this existing domestic political pressure? If it did, would a tax/GDP target (for which there is some evidence of association with development) be worse than a cash collection pressure (for which there is none)?

And what if the target was instead on tax/total revenue – which tends to support accountability over time? Or what if we included additional targets (as I suggested), or nested indicators, that reflected some of the other aspects?

Criticism 2. Bad for poverty?

This criticism rests on Nora Lustig’s important findings from the valuable Commitment to Equity (CEQ) project, namely that some countries’ tax and transfer systems leave people living in poverty worse off.

This is clearly of great importance. If more tax led to more poverty, a (positive) tax target would be obscene.

But I don’t think the authors of this post hold that view – in fact, quite the reverse. As Mick wrote earlier this year: “The developmental benefits of governments taxing citizens, even for modest sums, are often disregarded.”

And nor does the evidence support a broad pattern of taxation worsening poverty.

The problem that the blog authors highlight is that “the number of poor people who are made poorer through the taxing and spending activities of governments exceeds the number who actually benefit”, in Armenia, Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Ethiopia and Guatemala.

I couldn’t see the claim stated as such in the CEQ paper linked, so it’s a little hard to be sure. But what it does show is the pattern of net receivers and net payers in figure 6:

CEQ fig6 net payersNow where the $2.50 absolute poverty line falls above the blue/red changeover in the cases mentioned, it implies that some of the people below that line are absolute losers from the tax and expenditure system. (Directly only – the analysis doesn’t look at broader benefits of taxation, such as improved long-term government accountability, which may be of particular benefit to those living in poverty, as opposed to elite insiders.)

The CEQ analysis also finds that expenditures in developing countries are broadly progressive, and becoming more so. What we can tell from figure 6 is that in all cases  examined, the poorest appear to do best (that is, net receivers are always at lower income levels than net payers). Where there are high levels of absolute poverty, some systems are insufficiently progressive to ensure that the better-off of those living below the poverty line are also net winners.

From this, the blog authors conclude:

The big risk in setting tax targets is that governments will then strive to reach them – and in the process impoverish poor people even further.

Clearly, there is risk that governments raise (more) tax without making it (more) progressive. But is this really ‘the big risk’?

Consider draft SDG target 10.1:

by 2030 progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average

Indicators under discussion for this include pre- and post-tax and transfer income shares of the top 10% and bottom 40% (yay Palma).

It seems unlikely that a tax/GDP target would take precedent over 10.1, such that regressive taxation is pursued in order to hit the tax target. And on balance, you’d expect the progressive of taxes and transfers to improve (or at least, not to deteriorate) with a rising tax/GDP ratio.

So again, I think the authors raise an important point to think about, but then draw such a stark conclusion that it’s hard to support.

Criticism 3. Too badly measured

The third criticism made is that GDP in particular is too badly measured, and tax too open to manipulation, for tax/GDP to provide a decent basis for target. (Per my earlier piece, the denominator is also not in policymakers’ control.)

The authors note the extent of GDP mismeasurement, and what I hope is a uniquely egregious example of tax timing manipulation, as well as the instability associated with e.g. resource revenue volatility.

Accounting and reporting games are already being played around tax collection targets. If the international community were to popularise the idea that an improved ratio of tax collection to GDP is intrinsically a good thing, we can expect more such games.

This seems to be the strongest, and also the least over-stated, criticism.

Here’s the thing though: substitute other words for ‘tax collection’ in the quote, and it still makes sense.

The measurement of a great many aspects of the MDGs – never mind the SDGs – is open to manipulation. Tying this to public accountability for performance is, yes, likely to result in more manipulation (see e.g. the contrasting measures of educational enrolment in Kenya; or consider how the much-celebrated dollar-a-day poverty target was successively re-engineered to allow increases of hundreds of millions of people in the target numbers living in extreme poverty).

In addition, there are a great many proposed SDG targets for which data is – currently – not good enough. I hope there is also a general consensus that this time, the targets should be chosen on merit and the measurement then addressed; rather than allowing the existence of data to dictate what targets are set, as with the MDGs.

So the criticism is fair, but it doesn’t follow that this is a reason not to have a target. (If it were such a reason, the entire SDGs project – and the MDGs before them – would be open to question…)

Long story short(ish)

The intervention from the seven authors of the ICTD blog raises a set of important questions, and these merit further attention in the design of a post-2015 tax target. As they suggest, tax should almost certainly be better and more diversely measured, as well as more progressive.

What the intervention does not, however, provide, is substantial support for the conclusion that introducing a tax target would be a mistake.

Like the MDGs, the SDG targets will not be universally pursued – never mind achieved. What they will do, if successful, is establish important norms that will in turn drive broad progress.

There’s no question that the MDG model was seriously flawed in its reliance on aid as the implicit source of finance. Flawed, because aid could only ever have formed a small part of the solution; and flawed because of the politics (note that progress only really got going in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, with the mid-2000s adoption of MDG targets into national planning processes – where they began to exert substantial influence on budget decisions).

We can, and should, design better tax targets. But domestic taxation must be central to Financing for Development in post-2015.

Dropping tax targets completely would be, by far, the bigger mistake.

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.

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

 

The Offshore Game

Football’s a funny old game, or so it’s been said. The people’s game. The beautiful game. The offshore game? £3 billion says so, according to the new TJN project which launched with a splash in The Guardian today.

DSC_1099

The Offshore Game

The new project, The Offshore Game, will focus on a range of financial secrecy issues in sport around the world – from match-fixing to administrative corruption, and from tax dodging to the lack of accountability to fans.

In this first major report, we focus on the extent of offshore finance – through both equity ownership and the provision of loans – in the English and Scottish football leagues, using the most recent full accounts plus additional data in the public domain (that is, information that fans could reasonably access in order to see who is in control of their club). [Here’s the methodology.]

A major finding is the total of £3 billion of offshore money, much of it through some of the most financially secretive jurisdictions around the world. The clubs involved range from giants like Manchester United, to minnows such as Dumbarton.

The report highlights the range of risks – not least for fans, tax authorities and sporting integrity – that are exacerbated through greater exposure to financial secrecy.

The Offshore League Table

The league table follows TJN’s Financial Secrecy Index in ranking clubs according to the combination of scale and secrecy: how much offshore money is involved, and how secretive are the particular jurisdictions?

Full details are in the report, including responses from clubs where they provided them, and detailed studies of the top five’s financial secrecy and possible risks.

TOG league table

 

Thanks and kudos to George Turner for driving the project forward, and writing the report. And to Christian Aid, who provided the space for the fore-running 2010 report, Blowing the Whistle.

Next steps?

Where The Offshore Game goes next will depend, in part, on the opportunities that arise. There are, for example, some very interesting developments in the field of match-fixing analytics that offer the potential of identifying the extreme abnormalities associated with rigged matches in various sports.

We are already receiving tip-offs and suggestions about individual cases of hidden ownership, and associated criminality; while there is clearly scope for financial scrutiny of major international sporting institutions such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA.

Give us a shout if you have an idea or some info you think we should see (secure options available). It’s all over the world, this stuff…

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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.