What is the UN tax committee for, anyway?

In January, the UN tax committee sent out a call for submissions [pdf] to the update of its transfer pricing manual. The subgroup working on this update will be drafting additional chapters on intra-group services, management fees and intangibles, all topics that greatly interest developing countries and civil society organisations grouped around initiatives such as the BEPS monitoring group.

So who made submissions to the UN consultation? Four private sector organisations, two academics, the World Bank and the Chinese government. Not a single NGO. Meanwhile, considerable effort has been expended by civil society groups in drafting submissions to and reports about the OECD’s BEPS process, lamenting how issues of concern to developing countries are likely to be left by the wayside.

I think this is a pretty strange prioritisation. Why focus all your energies on a process that you suspect is not going to deliver results for developing countries, and ignore entirely a process with a specific mandate to do so? I debated this a bit on twitter earlier this week with, among others Alex Cobham of the Centre for Global Development, who told me he considered it “self-evident that BEPS is relevant to developing countries’ tax base in a way that UN Transfer Pricing Manual may not be.” (We were also discussing automatic information exchange, which I’ve discussed before).

I don’t agree with Alex on the detail. But let’s consider this from first principles. How do (or should) NGOs prioritise their campaigning resources? I suppose the equation is something like:

Importance = 1. Magnitude of potential impact x 2. Likelihood of success + 3. Effect on long term balance of power

In the short-to-medium term it’s important to take into account both the size of what is at stake and the capacity of civil society groups to influence it. But there’s a long term dynamic too that means it may be strategic (unstrategic) to work on something that is unlikely (likely) to succeed in itself but will contribute towards (undermine) a long term strategy.

When I ask them, NGO folks often suggest that they don’t want to prioritise the UN because it scores low on all three counts. That is:

  1. It’s just a talking shop, without the same influence as the OECD
  2. In any event, the UN’s track record shows that the OECD countries have got all the decisions sewn up
  3. And in the long term the UN would be too unwieldy and bureaucratic a forum to be a viable home for international tax politics

I’m going to try to explain why I think this calculation is wrong.

1. It’s just a talking shop, without the same influence as the OECD

Both the OECD and the UN are soft law bodies when it comes to tax treaties and transfer pricing. They set standards in the form of model treaties and guidelines, but these have no binding effect on countries unless they choose to use them in treaty negotiations and in their domestic transfer pricing rules. This applies to the outcomes of OECD deliberations just as much to those of the UN. (Nothwithstanding the OECD’s proposal for a mutlilateral convention to implement the treaty aspects of BEPS, which will presumably be offered as a fait accompli to developing countries, including negative as well as positive aspects for them).

To influence the distribution of the international tax base, then, you need to influence bilateral treaty negotiations and national lawmaking. When it comes to treaty negotiations, at the level of standard-setting you can do two things: influence the developed country position (the OECD model) and influence the developing country position (the UN and regional models). The former will be harder, but will it have a bigger potential impact than the latter?

As I mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago, a recent IBFD study shows that, where the model treaties diverge, the OECD model seems to be used more often than the UN model, which seems like a logical outcome of differentials in negotiating strength. So before even looking at how the model treaties might be changed, the best outcome for developing countries is surely to increase the prevalence of UN model provisions in negotiated treaties. In any event, the UN model is by no means ignored. Some of its most distinctive provisions, such as the services permanent establishment and source state taxation of royalties, have been adopted quite widely..

Turning to transfer pricing, you might remember that the first edition of the transfer pricing manual created some waves. This was mainly because of its inclusion of a annex on the ‘country practices’ of China, Brazil, India and South Africa, which emphasised their points of dissatisfaction with the OECD’s predominant transfer pricing guidelines. It is perhaps too early to see how influential the UN manual will be.

Accept for a moment the view, propounded by NGOs and sketched out in Chapter 10 of the UN manual, that OECD transfer pricing rules deprive developing countries of tax revenue because of enforcement troubles and an inherent bias towards countries that can capture the intangibles and high-value services. In that case an official document written by government officials discussing these issues and articulating alternatives is clearly very useful. Some people have suggested to me that the authors of Chapter 10 might be using it mainly as a tool to influence the OECD, but on the other hand there’s definite interest in its content from developing countries. South Africa indicates in its contribution that it is considering some aspects of the Indian and Chinese approaches.

2. In any event, the UN’s track record shows that the OECD countries have got all the decisions sewn up

I realised last October that although OECD members are in a minority on the UN committee, once you include the G20 members who are full partners in the BEPS process, the figure rises to 16 out of 25. And many of the individuals in key positions on the UN committee are the same people who represent their countries in the relevant OECD committees. So it would appear that for the UN to articulate any kind of alternative to the OECD, some of these people would need to set aside narrow national interest. Cynics feel that this is unlikely.

And yet the UN is doing alright. In the face of stiff opposition from a number of developed countries and the private sector, it’s ploughing ahead with a new article in its model treaty giving source countries the right to tax technical service fees. Developing countries often want such an article included when they negotiate, and they’re more likely to get it if it’s in the UN model.

I noted above that the UN’s transfer pricing manual is quite critical of the OECD approach, if only in its annex. Early plans for the manual proper had included greater divergence from the OECD approach, including discussion of fixed margins and formulary apportionment. During the drafting process these points were largely eliminated or relegated to the aforementioned annex.

If NGOs feel let down by what they see as the timidity of the UN committee, they might do well to study how their own (lack of) engagement in processes like this contributes to the outcomes in which they express disappointment. Having sat in on several sessions of the committee, I’m in no doubt that when matters like this come up for debate they stand or fall on the strength of feeling among the committee’s members, who in turn listen to the views of lobby groups. Business groups certainly think so, as evidenced by their submissions to the transfer pricing manual consultation.

If UN committee members were being lobbied at committee meetings, held to account in their home countries, and barraged with written submissions, all on the basis of a coordinated and specific agenda such as NGOs have developed for BEPS, the outcomes really would be different. That more confident exploration of unorthodox approaches proposed for the UN transfer pricing manual, for example, might well have made it into the final draft.

3. And in the long term the UN would be too unwieldy and bureaucratic a forum to be a viable home for international tax politics

I have less to say about this, because my experience of the UN is limited to the tax committee we have today. Most international relations theories accord power to international organisations in their own right, not just the sum of their members. An organisation’s power might come from its technical dominance, by exerting social pressure as monitoring reports from the OECD and IMF do, and through agenda setting, which is also a power that NGOs have. How much attention NGOs show towards an international organisation most certainly affects that organisation’s capacity to set the agenda, and its authority to speak about developing country issues.

It’s only one part of a bigger picture, of course, but nonetheless, development NGOs’ propensity to engage in media battles with Pascal Saint-Amans, and to attend OECD meetings in force, even if making critical comments, reinforces the idea that the OECD is where the action is for developing countries too. Of course the OECD can make technical reforms that help developing countries, but, since international tax is also about political settlements, I think it’s a strategic error to focus the overwhelming share of NGOs’ resources there at the expense of the UN.

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