Tax competition: Tax Justice Network and the Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation agree!

The [corporate tax] system allows countries to compete with one another in a manner that destabilises the system itself. Countries compete to attract economic activity and to favour ‘domestic’ companies…Such a goal is not easily reconciled with another goal often explicitly held by governments: ensuring that companies should pay to some country or countries a fair amount of tax on their global profits.

– Michael Devereux and John Vella

The effective tax rates on multinational corporations are being pushed steadily downwards, allowing multinationals increasingly to free-ride on the public services that everyone else pays for.

– Tax Justice Network

My term’s teaching is over, which means a return to blogging. Conveniently, several new – and related – papers popped into my inbox this week. There’s “Ten Reasons to Defend the Corporate Income Tax” from the Tax Justice Network, and two from the Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation, “Business Taxation under the Coalition Government” [pdf] and “Are we heading towards a corporate tax system fit for the 21st century?” No love lost between these two organisations, so it’s interesting to see how much common ground they share.

TJN’s paper, written by Nick Shaxson, is typically polemical, smartly designed and peppered with quotes from authoritative sources in support of its case, which is of course that corporation tax is good, and under threat. Shaxson marshals an impressive battery of sources in support of his argument, although the polemical tone, natural from a campaigning organisation, often left me suspecting that the other side of the argument had not been done justice. For example, a lengthy footnote convinced me that “numerous independent bodies have concluded after exhaustive studies that the burden [of corporation tax] largely falls on the owners of capital — that is, predominantly wealthy people”, with a split between capital and labour of something like 75/25. The claim is that numerous, not all, studies find this, and numerous papers are indeed cited, but I still wish that the studies finding a different result had been included, too, even if only to debunk them.

This point came up at the launch event for “Business Taxation under the Coalition Government”, a collective publication of the OUCBT. Chris Wales from PWC, who was a special adviser to Gordon Brown and now advises Labour on corporation tax, was there to suggest what Labour might do in government. When the Treasury minister David Gauke asserted that the incidence of corporation tax falls predominantly on (small-L) labour, Wales retorted that the cut in UK corporation tax rates over the past five years does not appear to have been passed on to workers, given the stagnation in wages over the same period.

Tax cuts in the UK

“The UK’s tax-cutting corporate model since 2010 is a terrible model for anyone to copy – for all the evidence so far suggests that the experiment has been a disaster,” says TJN, citing Reuters research suggesting the creation of just 50 jobs. Because TJN’s argument is about growth, it doesn’t rely on the absence of a link between taxation and investment, and indeed Shaxson is happy to concede the existence of such evidence. His case is as follows:

Many of these studies focus on gross benefits stemming from a tax cut (i.e. they measure investment levels), without also considering all the tax and other costs as outlined in the rest of this document: lost revenue, damage to other parts of the tax system, steeper inequality, greater rent-seeking and externalities, and so on. From the perspective of those designing national tax policies – which is the perspective that matters most – it’s the benefits net of these costs that matter.

The OUCBT report agrees with TJN that it’s near impossible to isolate the effect of the UK reforms on investment, and seems to accept TJN’s point in a footnote to its discussion on the effects of different tax rate measures:

Such measures help in comparing the UK to other countries, but only relative to the costs associated to the corporate tax system: they tell us whether the UK corporate tax burden is low enough to attract and foster investment in competition with other countries, ceteris paribus. They are not suitable to derive conclusions on the broader welfare implications of tax policy measures or on the broader economic performance of the UK.

Earlier on, the report finds an annual tax cost for the next financial year of £7.5 billion, noting that “[b]y any standards, these represent large costs, which must be met either by other taxes raising more revenue, lower spending or a higher deficit. This represents a clear trade-off with the gains in competitiveness.”

Setting that to one side for a minute, the OUCBT discussion of the effects of different tax rate measures on investment was new to me and certainly interesting. The authors distinguish between three different tax rates:

  • the headline rate, which they say is what incentivises profit-shifting;
  • the effective average tax rate (EATR), which they say affects the number of investments (the extensive margin); and
  • the effective marginal tax rate (EMTR), which they say affects the size of investments (the intensive margin).

The UK is now very competitive in terms of the EATR, but not so much the EMTR. This should have a positive effect on investment into the UK, because,

There is strong empirical evidence that differences in the EATR across countries affect the location of investment projects. The EATR is relevant in a context where a firm needs to decide among a set of mutually exclusive projects. This is the typical decision faced by a multinational choosing to locate investment in one of the OECD countries.

In contrast, the higher EMTR might discourage investment from capital-intensive sectors:

The UK tax component of the user cost of capital (EMTR) has historically been higher than the OECD average and this has not changed under the Coalition. For large companies, the UK capital allowances regime remains one of the least generous in the OECD. This affects firms’ cost of capital negatively, especially for businesses with substantial investment in physical assets such as plant and machinery and buildings.

According to the report, the UK has actually tightened its capital allowance regime for large companies during the past five years. So pointing to headline rates alone is not enough to demonstrate the death of corporation tax. The tax base needs to be considered, and in the UK case changes here seem to have slightly mitigated the impact of the falling rate.

Effective Average tax RatesEffective Marginal Tax Rates

The nature of competition

“Tax ‘competition’ has nothing to do with competition but has more in common with currency wars or trade wars,” says TJN. “We prefer the term ‘tax wars,’ which is more economically literate and more accurately reflects the harm that the process causes.” The OUCBT is a common target for this vein of criticism from TJN (see for example this blog by Nick Shaxson on its origins), and its Business Tax report is certainly laced with the term ‘competitiveness’. But the new paper “Are we heading towards a corporate tax system fit for the 21st century?” by the Centre’s Michael Devereux and John Vella is actually much closer to TJN’s position than one might expect.

The paper examines the OECD’s BEPS process in the light of two criticisms of the current system. First, it argues that the “arbitrary compromise for the allocation of profit between countries first agreed in the 1920s is wholly inappropriate for taxing modern multinational companies.” That discussion is for another day. Its second argument, the relevant one for our discussion here, is that the international tax system is undermined by tax competition, and BEPS will only succeed if it “contain[s] the power of existing competitive forces”:

Recognising the power of this competition is key to creating a stable long-run system for taxing the profits of multinational companies. Even if existing governments were to reach an agreement to preserve the basics of the existing system, while tightening anti-avoidance rules, there will still be an incentive for future governments to undermine that system, as their predecessors have done in the past. A stable system must remove the incentives for governments to undercut each other.

Importantly, Devereux and Vella argue that tax competition is not merely about attracting foreign companies to invest into a country. It is also about giving domestic companies a competitive advantage over their foreign competitors. Both the UK’s Finance Company Partial Exemption and the US ‘Check the Box’ rules are seen in this light, as instruments that confer a competitive advantage on firms headquartered in those countries at a potential cost to the countries in which they invest. The paper even goes as far as to question the “underlying rationale for providing a competitive advantage to domestic multinationals,” since if the beneficiaries are shareholders, many or indeed most of them may be foreign citizens.

A final thought

I’ve compared here three papers, two from academics, who have academic freedom but are nonetheless funded by multinational firms, and one from campaigners who consider the behaviour of those same firms (and to some extent those same academics) to be a threat to democracy and prosperity. They all agree that corporate tax competition is a problem that should be tackled. But they all stand outside the system looking in.

What about those engaged in tax competition? At the OUCBT event to mark the launch of its Business Tax report, Michael Devereux tried and failed to identify some “clear blue water” between the British Conservative and Labour parties. The only difference – at a time when the Labour party is seeking to differentiate itself from the Conservatives as the champion of responsible capitalism and fair taxation – appeared to be a single percentage point on the corporation tax rate. No mainstream political actor in the UK is proposing to move away from the structural changes made to the UK tax system, some of which are characterised by Devereux and Vella as “state-approved base erosion.”

The social construction of multinational firms’ tax behaviour

This week I am trying to help the undergraduate students that I teach to understand a range of scholarship that uses social constructivism to study the political economy. When you go back to first principles to teach something you often see some of your own work in a new light, and that is what I am going to write about today. I’m briefly going to sketch out some social constructivist thoughts about multinational firms’ tax behaviour.

For a side project I’ve been reading some of the academic literature on tax compliance. There’s a great summary of the different theoretical perspectives on tax compliance in this working paper by Odd-Helge Fjeldstad and colleagues. The authors divide them into five:

  1. Economic deterrance. This is the classic rational choice framework, in which taxpayers weigh up the incentives, essentially the tax rate versus the penalty and the probability of being caught.
  2. Fiscal exchange. This is where the notion of ‘quasi-voluntary compliance’ comes in. If taxpayers think they will receive something in return – public services, in other words – they are more likely to pay. Although the evidence for this, according to the ICTD paper, is weak.
  3. Social influences. The final three positions, which I am going to appropriate into the social constructivist field, have stronger evidence to support them than fiscal exchange. The first is that tax compliance relates to perceived social norms: if they think their neighbours are honest, people are more likely to be honest themselves.
  4. Comparative treatment. From this perspective, people are more likely to comply with tax rules if they think the system treats them fairly relative to their compatriots.
  5. Political legitimacy. The final constructivist view is that if people trust the government and the tax authority, they are more likely to comply.

There are loads of empirical studies looking into the determinants of tax compliance behaviour among individuals and small businesses. It’s fascinating, but I think I found a big gap: I didn’t find a single study explaining the attitude to compliance among large businesses (or, to clarify, I found studies about staff compliance with management decisions, but not about compliance with externally-derived rules and regulations).

What do I mean by compliance? Trying to define this could easily veer into a discussion about tax morality, but that’s not where I want to go. We know that multinational businesses have a degree of choice over how aggressive their tax position is, and I want to ask, empirically, “what determines this?” Most of the existing work examining multinational firms’ decisions about their tax affairs tends, I think, to be situated in the rational choice, economic deterrance framework. According to that view, the first theoretical position listed above just needs to be adjusted to reflect the additional risks faced by businesses, in particular the reputation risk attached to aggressive tax planning (here is a paper that tries to do this empirically). Current discourse suggests that this risk is increasing, and businesses are revising their positions in response.

John Maynard Keynes

It all starts with Keynes…

This is where my undergraduate class comes in. We could argue that large business decision-making is more likely to be rational than that by small companies and individuals, because a successful large organisation has to create systems that obtain the right information and use it effectively. But a growing trend of political economy work, especially since the financial crisis, has focused very much on the fact that behaviour in financial markets (often by actors who are part of very large companies) can’t be explained solely through rational choices. My students are reading Andre Broome’s excellent introduction to constructivist international political economy, which refers to work in this vein on capital account liberalisation, european monetary union, and behaviour within financial markets.

Economic constructivist thought is often traced back to John Maynard Keynes’ analysis of how actors in financial markets deal with their inherent uncertainty. According to another useful book chapter by Rawi Abdelal and colleagues [pdf]:

Keynes lists “three techniques” economic agents have devised for dealing with this situation, all of which are inherently constructivist. First, “we assume that the present is a much more serviceable guide to the future than a candid examination of the past would show it to have been hitherto.” Second, “we assume that the existing state of opinion … is based on a correct summing up of future prospects.” Third, “knowing that our own judgment is worthless, we endeavor to fall back on the judgment of the rest of the world … that is, we endeavor to conform with the behavior of the majority or average…to copy the others … [to follow] … a conventional judgment.” In short, Keynes’ macro-economy rests upon conventions, that is, shared ideas about how the economy should work.

As the works cited by Broome show, this insight has been applied beyond financial markets to many other processes involving decision-makers and market actors. So why not multinational taxation? If we decide to do so, we can come back round to the theoretical perspectives I set out at the start. Perhaps the calculation about how much uncertainty to build into a company’s tax position is subject to the kinds of conventions identified by Keynes. And perhaps, beyond just uncertainty, the social conventions that influence business decision-making about taxation incorporate perceptions of social norms among decision-makers’ peers, as well as notions of comparative treatment and political legitimacy.

Here is one example, a quote from a survey of corporate tax directors [pdf] conducted by Judith Freedman and colleagues back in 2007 (and which it would be interesting to repeat now). There are remarks here that might support the fiscal exchange, social influence and political legitimacy theories:

One respondent said that his firm’s CSR policy does not extend to paying more tax than is due under the law; they are not interested in ‘making donations to Government’. Others echoed this view, arguing that they could spend their tax savings more wisely than the Government could. At least two firms suggested that there would be a greater social aspect to taxpaying if the amounts collected were earmarked for particular public services, rather than going into general revenue.

Social constructivists devote a lot of time to identifying and analysing the different groups among which social conventions form. There will be overlapping communities within and across companies, including for example the Davos elite, the tax function, social classes, nationality, and so on. I’ve written previously about a paper that touches on transfer pricing practitioners as a social group.

Corporate decisionmakers will have different information depending on their membership of different communities, but they may also be influenced by different social norms within their communities. This morning, for example, Chris Lenon suggests that corporate tax advisers are frustrated by what they see as a lack of rationality on the part of their boards, reporting “a gap between [tax advisers’] perception of the direction of travel in this debate and the denial of this at Board level because of the impact on earnings.”

I understand the normative case against using social norms to make up for deficiencies in the law, as well as the populist argument to the contrary. But I wonder if that debate might be seen in a different light if we begin from a constructivist ontology, in which, like it or not, social norms of one kind or another have always conditioned corporate tax behaviour.

The Mopani saga and Zambia’s windfall tax: an alternative reading

In 2010, Zambian NGOs obtained a leaked copy of an audit report conducted for the Zambia Revenue Authority into Mopani Copper Mine, a subsidiary of the Swiss behemoth Glencore. I was working at ActionAid at the time, where we took an active interest in the case. The particular allegation concerning systematic transfer pricing abuse contained in the report was consistent with the experience of many tax authorities, so much so that many Latin American countries have a specific transfer pricing rule to combat it. And with the Grant Thornton imprimatur, it seemed like the perfect story. The company denied it, but then of course they would.

A group of NGOs filed a complaint with Swiss National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (not to be confused with the OECD Transfer Pricing Guidelines), triggering an investigation, but with the parties disputing the facts, there was no concrete outcome. The European Investment Bank, which had lent money to Mopani, conducted an investigation, but so far the findings have not been published. The whole thing feels frustratingly inconclusive.

So while I was in Zambia recently I thought I would look into the story. I have pieced together the account below from interviews with current and former government officials, and with tax advisers from the private sector. It is no doubt only one interpretation of the facts, given to me by stakeholders with their own interests to defend. But it is certainly an interesting one.

In the mid 2000s, as copper prices rose dramatically, the lack of tax revenue from copper mines started to become an issue in Zambia. So in 2008, the government decided to break the fiscal stability clauses in its agreements with mining companies, and enact new taxes.

Historical Copper Prices - Copper Price History Chart

There were two: the windfall tax was based on the value of copper extracted, and the variable profits tax was levied when profitability exceeded a certain amount. There’s an excellent paper by David Manley [pdf], who was in the Zambian finance ministry at the time, explaining all of this. The idea, so I was told, was to begin with a moderate tax on sales, and meanwhile to build capacity in the Zambia Revenue Authority to administer a variable profits tax.

Officials were frustrated, however, that the original proposal to levy the withholding tax at between five and 15 percent (depending on the price of the copper sold) was rejected by politicians, who instead set it at between 25 and 75 percent. This was politically unsustainable in a country where the mining industry is willing and able to lay off hundreds or thousands of unskilled workers in a standoff with the government, as it is doing now in a dispute over VAT refunds, and (so I was told by one researcher) powerful enough to manipulate the exchange rate.

“At the time the mines were in the development stage, and it would have killed them to tax on sales,” a former official told me. According to a tax adviser, “It was pushing the mines into a loss.” Manley is more understated:

The mining companies were upset by the unilateral revocation of the Development Agreements and some refused to pay the new taxes. The announcement was followed shortly after by the onset of the global financial crisis. Copper prices fell sharply and marginal mines started laying off workers.

In 2009, the government backed down, and the windfall tax was repealed. It is here that the Mopani audit comes into play. The ZRA, with support from Norwegian technical assistants, began to conduct (or rather commission) audits of all the mining companies. The purpose was to start enforcing the variable profits tax with a clear idea of the mines’ cost bases. This targeted approach would work well with limited tax authority capacity and only a few very large mines. As the Mopani audit report makes clear, the company wasn’t very cooperative with the audit. Here I paraphrase what a former official told me:

“It was a tactic.” It’s what you do in an audit if they are not supplying the information. There was a lot of missing information and so the report was written with the intention of giving it to the company and saying ‘either you provide the information, or we will tax you on this basis.’ So of course you take an aggressive position in the audit report to create an incentive for them to supply the information. Then it was leaked and it all exploded internationally. Over time, some information came and we settled with them. Of course it was lower than the amount in the audit.

According to this official’s version of events, the audit tells a tale of a company doing its best to frustrate a tax authority by obfuscating, but for that same reason it can’t be read as a final word on Mopani’s tax affairs.

As for taxing mining profits, it now seems that Zambia’s new government has given up on this altogether, opting instead for a much higher royalty rate – effectively a return to the windfall tax. The industry is unhappy. Worse still, “as audit firms we’ve been rendered useless,” a tax adviser said to me.

But one way to interpret this in the light of the Mopani audit is that, if firms make it difficult for developing countries to administer taxes on their net income, they risk being taxed on gross instead. Zambia has, after all, already raised withholding taxes on management and consultancy fees to 20 percent.


Taxing the digital economy is (going to be) an African issue

This is the second of three posts in which I’m reflecting on the recent report on BEPS and developing countries [pdf] during a short stay in Africa. Today, I’m looking at the digital economy. This visit to Africa has been the first time I’ve really grasped the scale of what mobile internet is doing to Africa. It’s huge. Half of all urban-dwelling Africans have smartphones, and mobile internet use is growing at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Nairobi, Kampala and Lusaka have all been festooned with adverts promising “world class internet”.

Buying a SIM card in Kampala, I commiserated with the vendor about the recent discontinuation of Skype on our outdated Windows Phone devices. Later, I debated the merits of Facebook and Whatsapp with the boy serving breakfast at my guest house. At a music festival I found the best implementation of a Twitter wall that I’ve seen.

Here in Lusaka, I had a long chat with the manager of a hostel about Zambians’ penchant for second hand Japanese cars, only to log on to the internet and find every website plastered with adverts for exactly that. And when you ask for directions, people just say “don’t you have Google maps?”

So I thought it quite odd that the BEPS and developing countries report – unlike the BEPS project itself – pretty much skips over the digital economy. McKinsey think that by 2025 the internet could be the same or even a bigger share of African GDP than it is in the UK – as much as ten percent. It’s precisely because Africa lags behind in everything from telephone lines to bank accounts to textbooks that this might happen: the internet, and particularly the internet on mobile devices, offers the chance to leapfrog that capital-hungry stage.

There are two sides to the digital challenge when it comes to taxation, as the BEPS digital economy report [pdf] outlines. The first is the challenges it creates for getting our current international tax rules to deliver the intended outcome, which is broadly that multinational companies pay tax on their profits where they generate them through a physical presence.

Leaving aside the stratospheric “double Irish” schemes and their like, the report discusses some nuts and bolts areas where companies have gone right to the edge of the definition of a taxable permanent establishment (PE), without crossing it. For example, OECD (but not UN) model treaties exempt a delivery unit from the definition of a PE, which is how Amazon avoided a tax liability in the UK despite its huge warehouses. Zambia is not well prepared for similar developments, as most of its treaties follow the OECD provision on this, not the UN one.

But it’s the second side of the issue that I think is big for Africa. This is the growing irrelevance of physical presence to modern business models. The OECD report talks about problems with ‘nexus’: how digital companies can make a lot of money in a country over the internet without needing any physical presence at all. It moots the idea of supplementing the physically-rooted PE concept with a new concept of “significant digital presence”, levying a withholding tax on digital transactions, or even abandoning PE altogether,

It also talks about the value attached to data: how digital companies can generate significant value in a country from user data without any money changing hands. There’s no mention of the French Colin/Collin report [pdf], which I thought was fascinating on this. Digital companies like Facebook and, I guess, WordPress, have millions of users creating value (and hence, profits) for them for free, so how does that affect a tax system that tries to allocate taxing rights based on where a company’s value is created?

It’s not just the likely size of the digital economy in Africa that makes this an important issue for the future here. It’s also the fact that digital’s exponential growth here is happening precisely because there isn’t the infrastructure to support physical presence. People will be increasingly downloading textbooks instead of buying them, Whatsapping instead of telephoning, faxing or writing, and using Facebook instead of sending out mailshots, Digital will render irrelevant some of the growth of the physical, taxable economy that already exists in more developed regions. (The exception, of course, is the mobile phone companies…but that’s for another day).

I imagine that the more radical ideas mooted in the OECD paper to deal with the challenges of nexus and data will face stiff opposition from certain countries that are big exporters of digital services. After all, this is not strictly speaking base erosion or profit shifting, because it’s about changing what the rules are intended to do, rather than making sure that they work.

Ordinarily, in this kind of situation I would suggest that developing countries band together to implement a home-grown, tailor-made solution to this problem, and add it to their domestic laws and the COMESA/EAC/SADC model treaties. But they are going to need help. The reason is that if companies are making money from their citizens without any physical presence, they don’t have any cash in the country to take the tax from. To collect tax revenue from digital companies, African governments will need the assistance of tax authorities in the home countries of those companies, which will in turn mean a treaty (either bilateral or multilateral) that supports this.

I’ve realised in my interviews here that developing countries are running just to keep up with the changes to model tax treaties. All their energy is taken up trying to understand, obtain and implement the newer treaty provisions, transfer pricing rules, and information exchange standards. What they aren’t doing so much is evaluating them. So I’d suggest that countries such as Zambia stop, take a breath, and think about what they are likely to want to tax in ten or twenty years’ time. Then they’ll be ready to throw themselves into building a future-proofed set of international tax rules that works for them.

Capital gains tax avoidance: can Uganda succeed where India didn’t?


Uganda is pursuing Zain for $85m capital gains tax on the indirect sale of its Ugandan subsidiary

I’m writing this post from under a mosquito net on a close Kampala evening. Since arriving on Wednesday I’ve had a whistlestop tour of the issues facing Uganda as it embarks on a review of its tax treaties. So far I’ve met with four tax inspectors, two finance ministry officials, four (count ’em) tax advisers, one academic and three NGO people. I also spoke at an event to launch a a report on Uganda”s tax treaties written by Ugandan NGO SEATINI and ActionAid Uganda.

This post is about “indirect transfers” of assets, where a sale is structured to take place via offshore holding companies, thus escaping capital gains tax. It turns out there is an $85m tax dispute on this between Uganda and the mobile phone company Zain. This is just about the biggest issue in Ugandan tax right now: the tax inspectors are even tweeting about it.

“Indirect transfers” were highlighted in the recent (and generally solid, I thought) OECD report to the G-20 development working group [pdf].* It says:

Developing countries report that the profit made by the owner of an asset when selling it (for example, the sale of a mineral licence) is often not taxed in the country in which the asset is situated. Artificial structures are being used in some cases to make an ‘indirect transfer’; for example through the sale of the shares in the company that owns the asset rather than the sale of the asset itself.

Unfortunately, it is pretty lame on the solutions. As far as I can tell from the G-20 response [pdf], what is going to happen on it is this:

(deep breath…)

As part of its multi-year action plan, the G-20 development working group will consider calling on the OECD, in consultation with the IMF, to report on whether further analysis is needed.

(…and exhale)

I don’t hear the sound of tax positions response to that one.

To remind you, the big daddy of indirect transfer cases is the Vodafone-India dispute. In that case,  according to this handy summary:

In 2007, Vodafone’s Dutch subsidiary acquired the stock of a Cayman Islands company from a subsidiary of Hutchinson Telecommunications International Ltd. (the subsidiary was also located in the Cayman Islands). The purchase price was $11.1 billion. The Cayman company acquired by Vodafone owned an indirect interest in Hutchinson Essar Ltd. (an Indian company) through several tiers of Mauritius and Indian companies.

Like India, Uganda is trying to tax the sale of a mobile phone company when the transaction took place via offshore holding companies:

Zain International BV owned Zain Africa BV, which had equity in 26 companies all registered in the Netherlands, but effectively owning the telephone operator business in as many African countries. One of them, Celtel Uganda Holding BV, owned 99.99 per cent of the Kampala-registered Celtel Uganda Ltd. On March 30, 2010 Zain International BV sold its shares in Zain Africa BV to Bharti Airtel International BV. As all three companies are registered in the Netherlands, and as the transaction was a sale of shares rather than assets, the company said it did not attract capital gains tax.

The cases are of course not identical. For one thing, Uganda is going after the firm that actually made the capital gain. But the Indian jurisprudence is being used in the Ugandan case.

Just last week, an appeal court ruled that the Uganda Revenue Authority does have the jurisdiction to assess and tax Zain on the gain. Zain will now argue that the transaction was exempt. One of its core arguments is sure to be the Netherlands-Uganda tax treaty.

In common with 86% [pdf] of tax treaties signed by developing countries since 1997, this treaty does not contain the UN model treaty provision that would have allowed Uganda to tax gains on the sale of shares in Ugandan companies made by Dutch residents. It may be that Celtel Uganda counts as a ‘property rich’ company because of all its infrastructure assets, in which case Uganda would have been able to fall back on the OECD and UN model provision permitting it to tax those…except (oops!) even that isn’t included in its treaty with the Netherlands. Yes, this treaty is worse for Uganda than the OECD model, never mind the UN.

So instead we come to Section 88(5) of Uganda’s Income Tax Act [pdf] . This is an anti-treaty shopping provision, which denies the benefits of the treaty to a company whose ‘underlying ownership’ is mostly in a third country:

Where an international agreement provides that income derived from sources in Uganda is exempt from Ugandan tax or is subject to a reduction in the rate of Ugandan tax, the benefit of that exemption or reduction is not available to any person who, for the purposes of the agreement, is a resident of the other contracting state where 50 percent or more of the underlying ownership of that person is held by an individual or individuals who are not
residents of that other Contracting State for the purposes of the agreement.

Sounds like Uganda has it in the bag, right? Unfortunately, this matter will turn on whether Uganda’s domestic law can override its treaty commitments. It is quite likely (certain, if you ask Zain’s tax adviser) that a court will decide it cannot. What everyone I have spoken with agrees on (apart, perhaps, from Zain’s tax adviser) is that it would be preferable to have some certainty about this unresolved question.

The URA has recently begun denying treaty benefits under section 88(5), and until now taxpayers have accepted its reasoning. But, speaking in genera terms at the SEATINI/ActionAid public meeting, a tax official said that the URA doesn’t know if its position will stand up to a court challenge. Tax advisers in the private sector say that, as well as the question of treaty override, the meaning of “underlying ownership” needs to be clarified. Because the Zain case has so far been fought on technicalities, “we were robbed of the opportunity to see how it [Section 88(5)] would work in practice,” one told me.

Perhaps the next stage of the Zain case will answer this question. If it does, it should give some welcome guidance to developing countries struggling with these indirect transfers. If they can’t use their domestic law to override their treaties, they will need to insert an anti-abuse clause into their treaties, strengthen their source taxing rights, or consider cancelling them.

This brings us back to BEPS, and the action on tackling treaty abuse. The OECD is proposing a limitation of benefits clause based on that used by the US, which is similar to that in Uganda’s domestic legislation, only a lot more detailed about who is ruled in and out. This would do the trick, but the challenge would be getting it into treaties that have been already signed.

To solve that, the OECD is pushing a multilateral convention to modify treaties all at once, built on a flexible level of commitment. It concedes [pdf] that the multilateral instrument “has not been identified as high priority by developing countries.” For it to work for them, I think it would need two things:

1. Genuine flexibility so that developing countries can opt into only the bits they want, such as the anti-abuse clause.

2. Willingness on the part of high-risk jurisdictions for treaty shopping (in Uganda’s case the Netherlands, Mauritius, and perhaps now the UK) to opt in to the anti-abuse clause as well.

For Uganda, it might not make sense to wait for this, since we are only talking about two or three treaties. It could ask its partners for a protocol containing a limitation of benefits clause right now. Or, of course, it protect itself and raise more revenue by strengthening all its treaties’ capital gains articles, as the UN model provides for in the first place.

*thanks to @psaintamans for the link!

Legislative scrutiny of tax treaties: compare and contrast the UK and US

Here’s an interesting chart. Do you notice anyone missing? Interestingly, the United States is considerably less keen on signing tax treaties with developing countries than you might expect, given the amount of investment from it to, well, most places. Its only treaty with the whole of sub-Saharan Africa is with South Africa. When I looked in the wikileaks cables (of which more another day) it’s clear that many more developing countries want tax treaties with the US than get them.

Countries with the most tax treaties with developing countries

Source: IBFD data

I can think of a number of reasons for this. Perhaps colonial ties have bumped up the number of treaties signed by countries such as France and the UK. Perhaps the US system of deferral encourages the use of intermediate jurisdictions to structure investments, which in turn reduces the demand for direct bilateral agreements. When I asked people who know about what goes inside the US Treasury, they tend to cite limited civil service capacity as the main constraint, but I don’t get the feeling that the US has a lot less capacity than anywhere else.

The other thing I’ve heard, which sounds more plausible (or at least more interesting), is that in the US, tax treaties have to be ratified by a two-thirds majority of the Senate, and that can be a rocky ride. There are currently several treaties pending, Senator Rand Paul having made an issue out of the US-Swiss treaty. The Senate has been known to reject elements of tax treaties, including for example anti-abuse clauses in treaties with Italy and Slovakia. You can see the level of detailed examination in this report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

It’s not just the US, however: the French senate rejected a proposed tax treaty with Panama a few years ago. This level of control must surely drive treaty negotiators mad, and I can quite imagine it acting as a brake on negotiations (though not, it seems, in France, which is at the top of the chart above). But surely it’s in everyone’s interests for the legislature to interrogate international tax instruments before they become law, rather than afterwards, as has happened with the Public Accounts Committee in the UK?

Well, speaking of the UK, I took a quick look at what happens here. Tax treaties are first scrutinised by the House of Commons’ delegated legislation committee, before being passed without a debate in the full house. So what does that scrutiny committee do? It turns out they have a nice little chat and then everyone votes in favour. For example, how long did it spend on 29 November 2010 considering six treaties with Belgium, the Cayman Islands, Georgia, Germany, Hong Kong and Malaysia? 25 minutes. Hungary, Armenia, Brazil, Ethiopia, and China on 1 November 2011? 25 minutes. Bahrain, Barbados, Singapore, Switzerland and Liechtenstein on 5 November 2012? 28 minutes.

In all cases, the treaties are passed with cross party consensus, perhaps in part because many were negotiated when Labour were in power. To be fair, there is a small amount of probing. When the treaty with Switzerland is discussed, a couple of backbenchers raise tax avoidance issues, while not at any point appearing to question the treaty itself. And there is this exchange during the 2011 session:

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): […] The hon. Gentleman raises a number of detailed questions. Let me try to address them as best I can. His first question is part of the tradition of these debates, which is to ask how much will be saved and what the financial benefit is of these agreements. It is part of the tradition, because it is a question that I asked on several occasions, and, whoever has been standing in the Minister’s position, the answer has consistently been the same: it is not possible to give a precise number for the revenue effects of these agreements—or indeed of other double taxation agreements. The overall cost or benefit of an agreement is a function of the income flows between the two countries, and the agreement itself is likely to change both the volume and nature of those flows by encouraging cross-border investment. It can be somewhat difficult to make any predictions about the impact of any one agreement.

Clearly, there is consensus on the point that it is in the UK’s interest to have an extended number of double taxation agreements, and the fact that we have such an advanced set of agreements is one of the advantages that the UK offers to international—multinational—businesses, but, as I say, it is not possible to identify particular sums.

Owen Smith: I fully accept the Minister’s point about the difficulty of prospectively projecting precise revenues, but does he feel that taken together these agreements—the Chinese one in particular—are revenue-positive for the UK?

Mr Gauke: I can go so far as to say that, in the round, these agreements are beneficial to the UK as a place to do business, and that that in itself has revenue advantages, but it is difficult to say whether each individual agreement works out revenue-positive or negative. In truth, it is not a zero-sum game. As with all international trade, there are advantages to being an open, outward-looking economy and to trading with other countries. The UK will benefit from being able to do that, and our advanced set of double taxation agreements will play a role in it.

And that’s the end of the matter. From this brief survey, I can’t tell whether this rather lacklustre scrutiny in parliament is a temporary blip, whether the Labour party are being a particularly compliant opposition, or whether this is how it has always been.

It is, however, more than occurs in many developing countries, where tax treaties can often be ratified by the executive without any legislative approval. That includes India, whose parliament has been powerless to change the controversial treaty with Mauritius. And even in countries where there is a vote, the tax officials I’ve spoken to say it usually descends into mud-slinging about all kinds of tax issues. After all, this is technical stuff that would require MPs to do a lot of homework, and is unlikely to catch the public imagination.

Getting the right balance is tricky. But tax treaties are not just arcane bits of bureaucracy, they’re actual tax policy, setting the tax rates paid by taxpayers and thus affecting the amount of public revenue available, as well as tax equity issues. And that deserves a proper scrutiny.

Some political questions for Unitary Taxation

It sometimes feels like, when discussing unitary taxation [pdf], one is expected to self-identify as either a UT advocate, interested in how it could be made a reality, or a sceptic, determined to defend the status quo. I’m neither. As a political scientist, I want to understand (among other things) how our international tax instruments came about, how they affect what individual countries do, and how different actors influence national and international policymaking. These are empirical questions that I think are relevant to the UT debate.

Unitary tax is certainly a case in point for each of these questions. If it really is a better system than transfer pricing, then a political economist would want to explain the persistence of the latter. It seems clear enough that developing countries, when they decide to get serious about taxing multinational companies, head almost automatically down the transfer pricing route. Yet the people making these decisions are often, in my experience, very sharp, with a healthy scepticism of the international tax institutions from which transfer pricing standards have emerged. So have they considered other options? Are their decisions based on legal or economic preference, political calculation, or the hegemonic power of the OECD guidelines? I’d like to know.

There is a tremendous body of legal literature arguing that unitary taxation would be a more effective way to administer corporation tax than transfer pricing. I find this more convincing than the argument for the status quo, as made for example in the OECD guidelines. This seems to boil down a political impossibility theorem: to prevent double taxation there would need to be global agreement on a formula, but this would be impossible, so we should stick to the status quo.

What I find odd about it is that the same surely applies to transfer pricing, and yet there has never been a global agreement on those standards: just an agreement between OECD countries. Everyone should do what the OECD countries do, it seems, not because of its technical merits, but because it would be too difficult to do anything else.

I’ve argued elsewhere that moves in some of the BRICS countries are specifically undermining any notion that there’s an international consensus on the arm’s length principle. What India and China are doing is not, like Brazil, just based on the idea that they have found a better way to approximate the arm’s length price: they seem to argue instead that they are entitled to a larger-than-arm’s length share of taxing rights, because that’s what they consider fair.

If there has been a breakdown in the transfer pricing consensus, and one that leads to double taxation, that substantially lowers the bar for UT: it no longer needs a tight global consensus in order to match transfer pricing. Furthermore, if a debate is opening up over the fair distribution of taxing rights, that’s comfortable territory for unitary taxation, where the debate is articulated clearly over the choice of formula.

In making a judgement about which international tax system is best, we need to ask ‘best in what way?’ I think we can look at it through the classic three-way lens of tax policy valuation:

  • Equity: does it produce a fair (we might say ‘progressive’) result?
  • Efficiency: does it minimise the role of tax factors in shaping economic decisions?
  • Administrability: can it be administered and enforced effectively without imposing too large a burden on taxpayers and revenue authorities?

Looking at one of Sol Picciotto’s recent papers, it seems that his main argument in favour of unitary taxation is an administrability one: under UT there would be less avoidance and evasion than under transfer pricing. (He also touches on the impact of tax planning on economic efficiency, and we could discuss how it affects equity as well). Efficiency is interesting, but I am certainly not able to do the kind of economic modelling that we’d need to predict behaviour change under UT.

But what if we start from equity? There is the question of equity between taxpayers, and in particular how the tax treatment of multinationals compares to domestic firms – a matter of vertical equity. But I am interested in ‘inter-nation equity’. How would (or indeed could) unitary taxation affect the distribution of taxing rights between countries, and in particular between developed and developing countries? Sol’s paper ends on this point:

Some might also wish to see even more ambitious projects for global taxes, which might be used for international redistribution to assist development. Those, however, are topics for another occasion.

To me, this is a political question. Considering how different formulae would change the distribution of taxing rights is the starting point, but you can’t end there: you have to ask what a politically viable settlement would look like. If global consensus is needed, is it possible to imagine one in which developing countries have a bigger share of taxing rights than under transfer pricing? If global consensus is not needed, how are developing countries likely to act? One hypothesis might be that larger, more powerful economies would adopt formulae that maximise their tax revenues, just as they are doing with their transfer pricing standards, while the choice of formula could become a matter of tax competition for smaller countries.

Of course it may not be a zero sum game. If avoidance and evasion are reduced under UT, the overall cake to be divided up would be bigger. In that case, it may just be a question of working out how to divide up the spoils.

My view is that these questions can’t be asked through only thinking about unitary taxation in the hypothetical. Key to determining if unitary taxation produces a more equitable outcome is developing a model of how countries behave in international tax. To do this, we need to study how countries act under the current international tax system – both unilaterally and in international negotiations. Coincidentally, that is what I am trying to do!

PS: on the technical side, I’m also watching the International Centre for Tax and Development’s unitary tax workstream and the unitary taxation project on Andrew Jackson’s blog with interest