Who will chair the new UN tax committee?

As I write this post, the new UN tax committee is in closed session, choosing its new chair. This first act of the committee feels like it will have an important tone-setting impact. There is much speculation about who is the preferred candidate among members from OECD countries, and an assumption that those members will have arrived with a pre-agreed nominee. In contrast, while one name in particular among the members from developing countries is being mentioned in informal chat, there does not seem to be a consensus, a consequence perhaps of politics and of the fact that these members do not know each other so well. This dynamic is especially important, because the composition of the committee has changed, with members from the OECD now significantly outnumbered for the first time.

The last committee was finely balanced, with 12 members from OECD states and 13 from outside the OECD. Having said that, four more were G20 members, meaning that 16 of the committee came from countries that had seats at the high table of international tax rulemaking, while only nine were outside that particular tent. Looking at it by country income group, 13 were from high income countries, despite the UN tax committee’s developing country remit.

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If we consider the members personally, eight of them were officers of an OECD tax committee, including the chair and vice-chair of Chair of OECD Working Party 1 on Tax Conventions and Related Questions, two bureau members of OECD Working Party No. 6 on the Taxation of Multinational Enterprises, and two bureau members of the OECD’s Committee on Fiscal Affairs itself. Many of these eight were among the most vocal and active members, chairing the UN tax committee itself and several of its subcommittees.

This time around, I can count only eight members from OECD countries, and a clear majority of members from developing countries. There’s a caveat, however, which is that, as the OECD has invited more countries to participate in its Committee on Fiscal Affairs, a further seven members come from countries that are CFA participants or associates. There are now only five committee members who are officers on OECD committees, including both Vice-chairs of WP1 and two CFA bureau members. It’s a measure of how things are changing that one of these is from Argentina, which is not yet an OECD member. All of this means that, largely as before, only 10 of the 25 committee members come from countries that do not have a seat in the OECD and G20’s main tax discussions. Many of those ten, of course, are members of the Inclusive Framework and other OECD forums.Capturenew

So there is still some truth to the idea that the UN tax committee is essentially a forum in which many of the same people discuss many of the same topics, but with a different mandate and to some extent a different balance of power. For example, some UN committee members from OECD countries had reputations for actively supporting positions that differed from the OECD consensus, but were favoured by developing countries, in UN deliberations.

How ‘equal’ the ‘equal footing’ granted by the OECD is in practice is a question often raised. But it is also worth noting that at the UN committee, not all members have equal influence. Much of this variation is due to the personal capacity in which members attend. As a result, outcomes are a product of, among other things, their experience in international negotiations, how much of a mandate they have from the country that nominated them to adopt contentious positions, the strength of their informal relationships, their fluency in English, and how effectively they caucus in blocs. There is often a trade-off, for example, between seniority and technical knowledge.

This feels like a critical moment for international tax governance. The BRICS (or at least China and India) are becoming increasingly confident in articulating an autonomous position that diverges from that of the OECD, and many other developing countries are becoming more confident and experienced in international tax policy. The OECD’s offer of limited but significant participation to developing countries might be seen as a threat to the UN. But with a growing rift between the US and Europe on digital taxation, as well as between the OECD and emerging markets, a committee without US and UK membership for the next four years will have a different centre of gravity, and may therefore be more likely to carve a different path. If these terms still mean anything, the UN committee is now much closer to ‘source’ countries and further from ‘residence’ countries.

Update: The committee elected two co-chairs: Eric Mensah from Ghana and Carmel Peters from New Zealand.

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Developing Countries’ Role in International Tax Cooperation

Developing Countries' Role in International Tax CooperationOver the past year I’ve worked with the secretariat of the Intergovernmental Group of 24* on a paper that discusses how developing countries could engage with a range of international tax cooperation issues. The paper can be downloaded here: Developing countries’ role in international tax cooperation [pdf].

The G-24 plays a caucusing role for its members in the IMF and World Bank, and so tax cooperation is becoming increasingly important for it as those organisations’ profile in tax work increases. There were some interesting presentations at the G-24’s last technical group meeting in February, and its most recent ministerial communique [pdf] includes the following statement, a mix of welcoming current initiatives and noting areas where they are insufficient for emerging markets and developing countries (‘EMDCs’):

We welcome ongoing initiatives on international tax cooperation such as the Automatic Exchange of Information (AEoI) initiative and the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS), and call for a framework that ensures effective participation of EMDCs. We support the development of a digital global platform with least compliance cost for implementation of AEoI. We appreciate the work of the UN Tax Committee and encourage multilateral support to upgrade the Committee to an intergovernmental body to enhance the voice of EMDCs on international tax policy matters. We also call for more attention to developing fair tax rules to guide the taxation of multinational corporations and for international cooperation to prevent harmful international tax competition, negative spillovers from shifts in tax policies in major countries, and illicit financial flows.

One of the interesting elements of this project was the diverse positions and interests within an equally diverse group of ‘EMDCs’. Below, for example, is a table showing participation in international tax organisations and institutions. This was such a moving target that we had to set a ‘freeze date’ of 25th May 2017.

G-24 participation in international tax initiatives, May 2017

I hope the report provides a good overview of the state of play and issues involved on that date. Below is the text of the recommendations section, which gives a flavour of the document.

The G-24 has highlighted the importance of effective international tax cooperation to support developing countries’ efforts to mobilise domestic resources, so that they can achieve their development goals.  It could build on this recognition by setting out to develop a pro-active agenda for international tax rule reform that meets the needs of developing countries, and identify different international forums through which to achieve it. G-24 members could work together within existing forums such as the UN tax committee and OECD to put their issues of concern on the agenda. The UN tax committee’s potential has yet to be fully realised by developing countries, and there may also be new opportunities created by enhanced participation in OECD initiatives. G-24 members could strengthen their engagement by enhancing national political oversight of UN and OECD tax work, as well as advocating a stronger, upgraded UN tax committee when the opportunity next arises.

On tax avoidance and evasion, G-24 members could consolidate their participation in multilateral conventions on information exchange and mutual assistance, and could share their knowledge and experiences in this area to build each other’s capacity to benefit from their participation, as well as to identify reforms to international tax standards that might reduce the administrative hurdles to benefit.  Where necessary, this could lead to alternative, but compatible, standards in areas such as transfer pricing and tax treaties that give a greater share of the tax base to developing countries.

As some G-24 countries are capital-exporters to other developing countries, they could take up the IMF and OECD’s recommendation to perform ‘spillover analyses’ of the main aspects of their tax systems that have the potential to adversely affect other developing countries’ tax revenues, whether by encouraging tax competition or increasing incentives for tax avoidance. Also with regard to tax avoidance, G-24 members could share experiences across regional economic groupings such as ASEAN and MERCOSUR to advocate codes of conduct on tax competition, as well as working through ECOSOC for the adoption of the UN tax committee’s proposed code of conduct on exchange of tax information.

Above all, the G-24 provides a political platform for forging common views on international development issues among developing countries, in which tax coordination is a main concern.  It is able to work with the OECD within its inclusive framework, and a number of G-24 members are now participating in many of its initiatives. It can also support the efforts of the UN and other forums in which developing countries can more actively engage so that they can benefit more effectively from international tax rule reforms and cooperation.  A sustainable approach to international tax cooperation in the long term requires international institutions that reflect the increasingly diverse needs of countries with an interest in international tax standards.

*Just as there are 19 countries in the G-20, and 134 countries in the G-77, there are now 26-and-a-half countries in the G-24. The ‘half’ is China, which has the status of ‘special invitee’.

Certainty in the tax treaty regime

Here’s the text and slides of a talk I gave yesterday at an event called Harnessing the Commonwealth Advantage in International Trade.

I want to talk today about issues related to tax treaties in developing countries, and their impact on tax certainty for multinational investors. To do this I think we have to consider two aspects of the tax treaty regime: the multilateral norm-setting processes at the OECD and United Nations, and the individual bilateral treaties negotiated by pairs of countries. The key point I want to make is that, at both these levels, the elaboration of a regime that constrains developing countries’ source taxation rights in ways that risk being seen as excessive is not sustainable in the long term.

Consider first the multilateral level. Last week I was reading a PWC document, ‘Navigating the Maze: Impact of BEPS and Other International Tax Risks on the Jersey Funds Industry [pdf].’ It notes that:

Countries are already diverging from suggested guidance from the OECD, which was meant to bring coherence and consistency.

This does not only apply to developing countries, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that in emerging markets there is a growing dissatisfaction with the OECD approach, as illustrated by the ongoing row over the status of the UN tax committee, and India’s recent financial contribution to its trust fund, which until then had been empty for over a decade.

Here are two quotes that illustrate this sentiment further:

“For developing countries the balance between source and residence taxation [is] very crucial. International tax rules with its preferences for residence based taxation [are] not in interest of developing countries.”

Eric Mensah, Ghana Revenue Authority, 2017 [pdf]

“The global tax system is stacked in favour of paying taxes in the headquarters countries of transnational companies, rather than in the countries where raw materials are produced.”

Francophone LIC Finance Ministers Network, 2014 [pdf]

It seems that, to maintain the integrity of the international tax system as emerging market voices become stronger, countries that favour residence-based taxation will need to accept greater flexibility within the instruments agreed at multilateral level.

Turning to the bilateral treaties that developing countries have negotiated, here I want to introduce you to some research I conducted at the LSE, funded by an NGO called ActionAid. ActionAid used it to inform a campaign that has targeted individual governments and treaties, calling for renegotiations.

Slide2

I took 500 tax treaties concluded by developing countries and had a group of LLM students code them for the main clauses that could vary on a source-residence axis, using an International Bureau of Fiscal Documentation analysis. We can use that data to plot each treaty along a simple axis from 0 to 1, where 0 means an overwhelmingly residence-based treaty, and 1 a more source-based treaty. Remember that 1 here represents the presence of the most source-based clauses within existing treaties, and doesn’t take into account the concerns about inherent bias in the parameters for those treaties set by the OECD and UN models. In this first slide you can see that treaties among developing countries, in light blue, are becoming marginally more source-based over time, while treaties between developing countries and OECD members are becoming more residence-based.

Slide3

The next chart shows some of the underlying drivers of those trends. You can see that permanent establishment definitions are becoming more expansive, perhaps reflecting changes to the model treaties, while withholding tax rates are trending downwards. There are diverse trends in different clauses within areas such as capital gains tax and taxation of services.

I want to talk to you about a few examples.

Slide4

Here we see Vietnam’s treaties taken from the same dataset. Vietnam has actually expressed a comprehensive set of observations on the OECD model convention, broadly following the UN model. So here a zero on the vertical axis means the treaty contains none of those positions and instead follows the OECD model, while 1 means it includes all of Vietnam’s observations. You can see that in the 1990s Vietnam signed a number of more residence-based treaties that are completely the opposite of its stated negotiating position. And of course, these are with many of its biggest sources of investment.

More recently, Vietnam has come to regret those earlier treaties, and has chosen to interpret certain provisions on PE and technical services in the way it wished it had signed them, rather than the way it did. Businesses are very unhappy, and in the words of the Vietnam Business Forum, it has:

made the application of DTA[s] of foreign enterprises impossible, effectively it obliterate[s] the legitimate benefit of enterprises.

The residence-based treaties that Vietnam signed when it was inexperienced and urgently in need of investment are creating uncertainty, rather than the stability that investors are looking for.

Slide5

You might be aware that a few years ago Mongolia tried to renegotiate a few of its treaties, and when it was unsuccessful it terminated them. They’re the treaties with the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Kuwait and the UEA, marked in black on here. But if you look on the bottom left, you see a number of treaties with OECD countries, including the UK and Germany, that have even more limited source taxing rights. Indeed, according to an IMF technical assistance report from 2012 [pdf]:

The Mongolian authorities are currently considering cancelling all DTAs and start building up a new DTA network with countries based on trade volumes and reciprocity in economic relations.

I’m told the IMF talked them out of this, but it is worth knowing that they considered it.

Slide6

Here is Zambia, a Commonwealth example. You can see the same pattern. Its earlier treaties were very residence-based. I did some archival and interview work on those early treaties, and you can see that when they were first signed, Zambia had a hugely under-resourced civil service, with no experience of negotiation, and other countries took advantage of this. The most egregious example is its treaty with Ireland, which had zero withholding tax rates on all types of payment. That’s in contrast to the East African community countries, which had very strong negotiating red lines, and as a result either walked away, or obtained more source-based treaties that today appear quite generous, but have stood the test of time.

Slide7

This chart shows a few renegotiations that have taken place in response to government and civil society concerns. You can see that Zambia’s renegotiations have focused more on updating treaties and closing loopholes, not dramatically shifting the balance of taxing rights. In contrast, Pakistan and Rwanda have both negotiated big overhauls.

So in conclusion, as the politicisation of the international tax regime continues, especially in developing countries, I think we’re likely to see growing demands for a rebalancing between source and residence not just in the multilateral setting, but also in individual treaties. My advice to OECD governments, and businesses who engage with them, is that tax certainty in the future depends on an enlightened approach to the tax treaty regime that leaves more developing country taxing rights intact.

European Economic and Social Council hearing on tax treaties and development

I’ve posted below the slides I just used for a presentation here at the European Economic and Social Council. The EESC has formed a study group to consider the question of “EU development partnerships and the challenge posed by international tax agreements.”

Interesting discussions included the evidence base for the effect of tax treaties on investment into developing countries. Here I think the key question is what provisions of tax treaties are relevant to investment flows, and in what circumstances, rather than simply whether tax treaties per se attract investment.

Tax certainty is the new buzzword, and it was interesting to think about how it applies here. On one hand, a treaty provides greater certainty because it commits its signatories to tax investors in a certain way as long as the treaty is in force. But that certainty relies on ongoing support for tax treaty norms. Developing countries feel unhappy with the content of the international tax norms on which bilateral treaties are based, as well as the institutions that develop those norms. (Here, for example, is a recent presentation by Eric Mensah from the Ghana Revenue Authority that makes these points). Countries such as Mongolia, Vietnam and Uganda are beginning to question the constraints imposed on their tax policy by treaties signed in the past. There is perhaps a trade-off between developed countries’ desire to defend the content of existing norms and the role of the OECD, and developing countries’ willingness to abide by those standards in the long term.

Link to presentation on Slideshare

Visualising Uganda’s (and others’) tax treaties

Interesting news from Uganda, where the government announced in its latest budget that it has finished formulating its new tax treaty policy, and will be renegotiating treaties that don’t comply. Seatini and ActionAid Uganda will no doubt chalk this up as a success! The news report linked to above also states that the the government plans to amend the awkwardly-worded anti-treaty-shopping clause in its Income Tax Act, although there are clearly still doubts about its application. According to a report in Tax Notes International, there’s an ongoing mutual agreement procedure between the Netherlands and Uganda to try to settle the ongoing Zain capital gains case, which turns on the applicability of that clause. 105_screen_shot_2016_04_29_at_6_11_10_am

So this is good timing for my working paper with Jalia Kangave, based on a submission we made to the Ugandan government’s review, to have been published by the International Centre for Tax and Development.

Here’s a link to that paper on Researchgate

When writing that paper, I thought that Uganda had a pretty good record of tax treaty negotiations, but some new visualisations of the ActionAid Tax Treaties Dataset suggest otherwise. For these I am indebted to Zack Korman, and to tax twitter for introducing me to him. Below are some maps Zach has made using the ‘source index’ I developed for the dataset (read more about that here). Red means a residence-based treaty that gives fewer taxing rights to the developing country, while green means a source-based treaty that gives it more taxing rights.

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Links to high-res versions of individual images: Uganda map, Uganda bar chart, Vietnam, Mauritius, UK, Nordics

Uganda’s treaties are pretty red, meaning that most of its treaties restrict its taxing rights much more than average. Looking at the breakdown of the index shows that Uganda has some above-average withholding tax provisions, but its treaties are quite a lot worse than average in other areas. The slide show also gives some other countries for comparison. Vietnam’s treaties are mostly green, while Asian countries have got better deals from Mauritius (an offshore financial centre, not a developing country, in this context) than African ones. The UK’s treaties are pretty red, while the Nordics are very interesting: diverse in content, but consistent among themselves, giving good deals to Kenya and Sri Lanka, and worse ones to Tanzania and Bangladesh. This suggests that more source-based treaties with Nordic countries have been up for grabs for tough-negotiating developing countries.

Below I’ve posted some of Zach’s animated maps, on which it’s easier (and interesting) to follow the developments at earlier stages. There’s lots to comment on, but mostly I just keep watching them. The technical service fees map, at the bottom, is especially interesting, as it shows how countries have changed attitudes over time: watch how Pakistan suddenly changes position in the mid 1980s, for example.

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Above: All treaties in the dataset (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Asia

Above: Asia (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Africa2

Above: Africa (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Vietnam2

Above: Vietnam (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


UK2

Above: UK (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Nordic2

Above: Nordic countries (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Netherlands2

Above: Netherlands (red=residence-based, green=source-based)


Slow WHT

Above: Management, technical service and consultancy fees WHT (green=included, red=excluded)

 

The Panama papers and the OECD: re-reading Havens in a Storm

Last week I re-read Jason Sharman’s classic Havens in a Storm, described by Tax Analysts’ Martin Sullivan as “one of the best books out there for tax experts trying to make sense of big countries’ policies toward tax havens” (Sullivan’s review includes a length summary of the book). I was looking for a hook for this blog and, well, it was provided by Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca.

The OECD has published a curious Q&A on the Panama papers leak, according to which the problem is “Panama’s consistent failure to fully adhere to and comply with international standards”, which it contrasts with “almost all international financial centres including Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, Jersey, Singapore, and Switzerland.” But the Panama papers story isn’t just about Panama, it’s about the other financial centres that were used by Mossack Fonseca (see the chart below), most of which are rated as “largely compliant” by the Global Forum, the OECD satellite body that peer reviews information exchange compliance.

panama

Arguably the OECD have a point: the Mossack papers show how the world was before the G20 got involved and these jurisdictions reformed, in which case there’s been a lot of unnecessary hot air on British TV news over the last few days. There is certainly some evidence on the ICIJ’s data page to support this view:

Mossack Fonseca’s clients have been rapidly deactivating companies since 2009, records show. The number of incorporations of offshore entities has been in decline for the past four years.

But the main groundswell of opinion, as anticipated by Rasmus Christensen (Fair Skat), is that it’s time to use some serious economic and (in the UK’s case) legal power to overturn haven secrecy. That’s Global Witness’s position. France has wasted no time in restoring Panama to its tax haven blacklist. According to Richard Brooks, with his typically powerful prose:

To tackle the cancer of corruption at the heart of the global financial system, tax havens need not just to reform but to end. Companies, trusts and other structures constituted in this shadow world must be refused access to the real one, so they can no longer steal money and wash it back in. No bank accounts, no property ownership, no access to legal systems.

Turn the clock to 1998…

Havens in a Storm gives us some important context about why we are where we are. The OECD’s Harmful Tax Competition project has come to be seen as the defining international political tax project of a generation of global tax actors – both OECD bureaucrats and governments – in the way that BEPS is for the current generation.  The initial 1998 report [pdf] is still a reference point, primarily for its classic definition of ‘tax haven’, and the list of ‘uncooperative tax havens’ published in 2000 has not ceased to be cited, even though the last jurisdictions were removed from it in a 2009 update.

The four characteristics of the OECD’s 1998 tax haven definition
1. No or only nominal taxes
2. Lack of effective exchange of information
3. Lack of transparency (i.e., bank secrecy)
4. No requirement that activities booked there for tax have economic substance

Yet the 1998 and 2000 reports are also anachronisms. They raised the spectre of sanctions against countries meeting the tax haven definition, but within a few years, the project had been dramatically scaled back and watered down. The initial threat of specific sanctions against jurisdictions that did not commit to comply by 31st July 2001 became a partnership approach accompanied by what Sullivan refers to as “a series of toothless pronouncements, a mixture of cheerleading and scorekeeping.” Furthermore, the OECD’s ambitious original aim of dealing with harmful competition for mobile capital was abandoned for a focus exclusively on the exchange of tax information on request.

According to Sharman, these failures came about because the OECD lost a battle of ideas and language, not an economic (or, for that matter, military) one. Central to this analysis is that “the technocratic identity of the OECD as an international organisation comprised of ‘apolitical’ experts” resulted in a battle waged in a rhetorical and normative space, rather than a political one dominated by the calculus of economic power. “The OECD made the struggle with tax havens a rhetorical contest, that is, one centred on the public use of language to achieve political ends.” The OECD is able to do this not because of the economic dominance of its members, but because of the secretariat’s use of “expert authority” to create influential regulative norms. The power of ‘blacklisting’ tax havens lies not in the economic might behind the implied threat of sanctions, but in the very act of labelling, with its reputational consequences (“the bark is the bite”).

Opponents forced the OECD to abandon key planks of the project by turning its rhetorical weapons against it. First, they portrayed the idea of sanctions as a contravention of the principle of fiscal sovereignty, suggesting that by its implied advocacy of sanctions, the OECD secretariat was breaching norms of reasonable conduct. Second, they turned the term ‘harmful tax competition’ back on the OECD, forcing it to defend its pro-tax competition stance and eventually to replace the term with ‘harmful tax practices’. Third, they alleged hypocrisy among OECD countries, pointing to Luxembourg and Switzerland’s (and later Belgium and Austria’s) refusal to be bound by the project’s outcomes. In the world of rhetorical power, such ‘rhetorical entrapment’ is a powerful tool..

If the project had been primarily a manifestation of raw state power, these rhetorical skirmishes would have mattered little to the eventual outcome. Yet Sharman makes a powerful case that they were its main determinants. One important example is that he attributes the decisive intervention of the Bush administration not to its being ’captured’ by multinational businesses with material interests in the project being scaled back, but to the ideologically-driven machinations of lobbyists from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

So what does it mean that, in 2016, language continues to be the OECD’s main weapon? As its Q&A on the Panama papers makes clear:

As part of its ongoing fight against opacity in the financial sector, the OECD will continue monitoring Panama’s commitment to and application of international standards, and continue reporting to the international community on the issue.

On one hand, the OECD’s normative claims are more powerful because of its claim to be the custodian of ‘international standards’, a claim that probably has more weight as a result of the increasing involvement of some non-OECD countries in its various tax projects. On the other hand, the peer review approach seems to implicitly concede a conservative notion of procedural fairness (reasonable behaviour, again) towards secrecy jurisdictions.

And the allegations of hypocrisy among its members don’t help its authority: the US’ ambivalence [pdf] towards sharing tax information automatically on a reciprocal basis is the standout example; there is talk about the use of US states as tax havens by Mossack Fonseca; the list of non-compliant jurisdictions that marked the G20’s entry into tax information exchange in 2009 gave Hong Kong and Macao special treatment.   This is perhaps also one sense in which the UK’s actions towards its overseas territories could have some bearing on how Panama behaves.

…now turn the clock forward to 2013

To finish, the parallels between the Harmful Tax Competition project and the Base Erosion and Profit-Shifting (BEPS) project on multinational corporate taxation are worth pointing out. Consider: an initial ground-breaking report from the OECD secretariat that has become an intellectual reference point, a whittling away of that initial ambition in intergovernmental negotiations, and an inevitable feeling after the fact that the policy reforms agreed won’t quite fix the problem so eloquently framed by the OECD in the first place. It would be too soon, of course, to judge how successful BEPS has been in comparison to its predecessor.

But it’s more interesting, I think, to look at the rhetorical battle. In inventing a new term, ‘Base Erosion and Profit Shifting’, the OECD succeeded in owning the construction of the problem just as it did by defining ‘tax haven’. ‘BEPS’ refers simultaneously to a set of corporate practices that, because they are brought under this umbrella, are hard to define, but it also refers to the OECD’s own project to tackle them. In using the term, critics and supporters alike endorse the OECD’s intellectual leadership. The rapid and widespread adoption of the term illustrates that in 2013, just as in 1998, the OECD knew how to operate in a rhetorical battlefield.

The hypocrisy concern applies here too: for example, several OECD and EU members are in trouble for providing selective tax advantages to multinationals. It’s quite noticeable that, from the start, the OECD secretariat has tried to neutralise this problem by tackling it head on. For example, its tax chief, Pascal Saint-Amans, told the Financial Times in 2012:

The aggressive tax planning of the last 20 years was achieved with the complicity of governments themselves to cope with tax competition

An interesting research question is whether Sharman’s analysis of why the Harmful Tax Competition project struggled can still explain developments in its successor, the Global Forum, or indeed the outcomes of the BEPS project. Do OECD tax projects always stand and fall on the secretariat’s skill at owning the rhetorical space, or do we need to acknowledge governments’ material interests and incentives to fully explain outcomes? (In their commentary on the Panama papers, Len Seabrooke and Duncan Wigan, political scientists who believe in the causal role of ideas, seem to emphasise the latter, how “big, powerful states…themselves may benefit from sheltering other countries’ hot money.”) Answering that question might help us resolve a second, prescriptive one: can the problem of offshore tax avoidance and evasion ever be fully addressed on the technical, normative and rhetorical terrain occupied by the OECD, or does it require an institution with a more political modus operandi? This is certainly an interesting time to be studying the politics of international tax!

New data and working paper: measuring tax treaty negotiation outcomes

Today the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD) and ActionAid are launching a new dataset that I’ve developed over the last year. It’s the product of over a year’s work, mostly by an intrepid team of research assistants in the LSE law department, to code the content of over 500 tax treaties signed by developing countries. ActionAid, who funded the research assistants’ time, have also used the dataset to construct a league table for their campaigning work, and there’s a piece in the Guardian based on that. (I’m sure the headline, which criticises the UK, will provoke some debate.)

The aim of the dataset project is to make possible a whole lot of new research to get to the bottom of questions that have not been satisfactorily addressed in the literature to date. The jury is still out on whether tax treaties affect investment flows into developing countries, but do certain clauses matter more than others to investors? What determines the outcome of tax treaty negotiations: is it cooperation, power, or competence? What is a good outcome for a developing country from a tax treaty negotiation? Work on trade and investment agreements has already moved from a simple ‘is there a treaty?’ binary to studies based on the content of those agreements. With this dataset, we can do the same for tax treaties.

There’s also a working paper that I’ve written for ICTD, which sets out some of the initial conclusions I drew from simple descriptive work using the dataset. For example, here’s the chart showing how common treaty provisions that allow developing countries to tax foreign service providers have been over time. The difference between the two is that with a ‘service PE’, developing countries can only tax the company’s net profits, and only if it is physically present for a certain length of time; with a WHT clause, they can tax gross payments to foreign service providers, as most do in their domestic law, regardless of whether there is a physical presence.  The growth in both the provisions highlighted is quite notable.dataset1

The story for capital gains is more mixed. Article 13(4) is an anti-avoidance tool that allows a developing country to tax capital gains from the sale of a company whose value is mainly physical assets in the developing country, even if the company is located abroad. It’s becoming more common, which is not surprising since variations on it are included in both the OECD and UN model tax treaties. Article 13(5) gives a developing country the right to tax gains from the sale of any company resident in that country, even if the sale takes place abroad. Interestingly, this provision is becoming more scarce, though countries such as Vietnam have only recently begun to tax in this way in their domestic law. dataset2

I also constructed an index that evaluates the content of 24 different clauses within each tax treaty to assess how much of the developing country’s taxing rights it leaves intact (a higher value means a bigger share of taxing rights for the developing country). This chart shows that treaties between developing countries and OECD members are gradually becoming more favourable to the latter, while in contrast developing countries are starting to get better deals with countries outside the OECD.

Overall negotiated content by date of signature and type of treaty partner

dataset3

The downward trend is driven by falling withholding tax (WHT) rates, while the upward trend is primarily in permanent establishment (PE) provisions, as we can see by disaggregating the index into these different components.

Average values of category indexes for treaties signed in a given year

dataset4

This is new information that I don’t think people have been aware of before, so I’m quite excited about it. Here’s the summary of the working paper:

Measuring Tax Treaty Negotiation Outcomes:the ActionAid Tax Treaties Dataset

This paper introduces a new dataset that codes the content of 519 tax treaties signed by low- and lower-middle- income countries in Africa and Asia. Often called Double Taxation Agreements, bilateral tax treaties divide up the right to tax cross-border economic activity between their two signatories. When one of the signatories is a developing country that is predominantly a recipient of foreign investment, the effect of the tax treaty is to impose constraints on its ability to tax inward investors, ostensibly to encourage more investment.

The merits of tax treaties for developing countries have been challenged in critical legal literature for decades, and studies of whether or not they attract new investment into developing countries give contradictory and inconclusive results. These studies have rarely disaggregated the elements of tax treaties to determine which may be most pertinent to any investment-promoting effect. Meanwhile, as developing countries continue to negotiate, renegotiate, review and terminate tax treaties, comparative data on negotiating histories and outcomes is not easily obtained.

The new dataset fills both these gaps. Using it, this paper demonstrates how tax treaties are changing over time. The restrictions they impose on the rate of withholding tax developing countries can levy on cross-border payments have intensified since 1970. In contrast, the permanent establishment threshold, which specifies when a foreign company’s profits become taxable in a developing country, has been falling, giving developing countries more opportunity to tax foreign investors. The picture with respect to capital gains tax and other provisions is mixed. As a group, OECD countries appear to be moving towards treaties with developing countries that impose more restrictions on the latter’s taxing rights, while non-OECD countries appear to be allowing developing countries to retain more taxing rights than in the past. These overall trends, however, mask some surprising differences between the positions of individual industrialised and emerging economies. These findings pose more questions than they answer, and it is hoped that this paper and the dataset it accompanies will stimulate new research on tax treaties.