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.

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

Zain

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 unwinding.in 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!

Tax incentives cost $138 billion…?

#taxpaysfor my PhDCongratulations to ActionAid on the launch of its new Tax Power campaign – an impressively internationalised version of the work ActionAid UK has been doing for five years now. I love the gallery of #taxpaysfor photos.

As part of the campaign launch, ActionAid asked me to help them come up with an estimate for the revenue foregone by governments in developing countries through corporate tax incentives. As the campaign briefing says, there is mounting evidence that such incentives are often ineffective at attracting the kind of investment that leads to sustainable economic growth. (This is distinct from the general rate of corporation tax, which is a whole other debate…) Certainly they are rarely put in place with any kind of cost-benefit analysis, which is why there’s so little reliable data out there.

We decided to come up with a ‘ballpark’ average figure for the revenue foregone as a share of GDP, and apply this to the total GDP of all developing countries. The scaling up part is obviously quite a simple approach, but I was quite pleased with the way we arrived at the average figure to begin with, so I thought I’d share it.

Data on ‘tax expenditures’ – that’s the revenue lost through tax incentives – is quite sparse, and where it does exist it’s plagued with inconsistencies. After quite a lot of hunting around, I managed to find about 20 developing countries where the government had published tax expenditure data, either directly or via a civil society organisation. I took the most recent year I could find in each case. I was particularly proud to have dug up a figure for Bhutan!

Tax expenditure reports can include the cost of everything from VAT exemptions to free trade zones, so it was essential to a) find something consistent and b) focus only on the kinds of expenditures that ActionAid is campaigning on. I’ve seen a few organisations cite massive figures for the cost of tax exemptions in a country where, if you go to the original source, you see that most of these go directly to ordinary people, not multinational companies. An IMF paper [pdf] says that tax expenditures probably amount to a couple of percent of GDP, but that refers to all types of exemption.

Although a few countries give one aggregate figure for direct taxes, which annoyingly makes personal and corporate income tax indistinguishable, there were 16 where I could find, or at least make a good guess at, the share of tax expenditures coming from corporate income tax (sometimes that involved running line-by-line through an itemised expenditure). So that’s the figure I used.

I ignored all other taxes from which companies get exemptions. I also excluded the expenditure on deferrals (i.e. accelerated depreciation) because in theory at least this just creates a timing difference – I presumed that in any given year the government foregoes some revenue in this way, but also receives some extra because of past deferrals. Maybe other tax brains out there can tell me if that was the right thing to do!

The data after all this processing is given in this Google spreadsheet.

I used some whizzy regression software from the LSE to check whether there was any connection between the proportion of revenue foregone and the amount raised, or GDP per capita, or the size of an economy, but I couldn’t find any meaningful relationship. That’s why it seemed like a simple average, 0.60% of GDP, would be the best way to go. Interestingly it’s pretty much the same as the figure for India, which is also by far the biggest economy in the sample.

When you think about it, rough though it is, that’s a huge ‘ballpark’ to be in.

The government adopted tax campaigners’ rhetoric at the G8, but much of the status quo is still intact

Here’s my post on the LSE Politics & Public Policy blog.

The Enough Food for Everyone If campaign – successor to Make Poverty History – has succeeded in making tax haven secrecy the centrepiece issue of public debate around the G8 summit, which closed yesterday in Eniskillen. It also chalked up a genuine success, in pushing the UK’s overseas territories to join a multilateral initiative to share tax information.

But what emerged from the summit itself (and indeed, what David Cameron proposed ahead of it) was a set of ten ‘principles’, with no concrete commitments beyond endorsement of developments already taking place through the G20 and OECD. “The public argument for a crackdown on tax-dodging has been won but the political battle remains,” said the IF campaign. This outcome is not illogical, because competency on tax most definitely resides with those other organisations, rather than the G8. Indeed, some of the developing countries in the G20 would likely bristle if asked to implement a decision taken by the G8.

Over the past few days, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish the campaigners’ messages from those coming out of the government. This demonstrates a real success on the part of campaigners in shifting the public debate. As Melanie Ward, of development charity ActionAid and the IF campaign, wrote yesterday, “at points it was bizarre watching David Cameron, the UK prime minister, use language that could have been written by those working in development agencies.”

The fight against tax haven secrecy was portrayed as Cameron’s personal mission in much of the media coverage, not least a Guardian interview on the eve of the summit. “The PM appears increasingly isolated in his bid for a tax evasion clampdown as world leaders hold talks at the G8 summit” said Sky News.

But the adoption of campaign rhetoric by politicians comes with risks, too. I’ve argued before that in the tax debate, it’s very easy for governments to say one thing in public and do another behind the scenes. The political yield for Cameron from the media portrayal of his global leadership on tax evasion will have been significant, and yet as campaigners have been saying, nothing agreed at the G8 is in itself likely to make a big difference to tax haven secrecy or to developing countries. In particular, there was no commitment to making public registers showing the beneficial ownership of companies, to help track down offshore income.

This puts me in mind of a couple of other headline-grabbing international summits. In 2009, Gordon Brown hosted the London G20 summit in the midst of the financial crisis. That summit has been back in the news because of the allegations of espionage, but there was something interesting in the Guardian’s account of how Brown did achieve a breakthrough:

“The key to Brown’s approach was to build up momentum before the summit behind the stimulus he and the newly elected Barack Obama favoured. The European participants met in February 2009 in Berlin in an attempt to reconcile their internal differences. Brown also travelled further afield to the US, Brazil, Argentina and Chile in the days immediately leading up to the summit to build up a loose coalition behind the stimulus plan.”

It’s not at all clear that the government invested in any similar preparatory work ahead of this G8 summit, despite it being such a difficult area. At a public meeting organised by the IF campaign last month, Treasury Minister David Gauke refused to set out the government’s position on any of the campaign’s proposals. Those favouring conspiracy theories might suggest that the failure to reach agreement could have been built into the strategy: much of the status quo is still intact, but the maximum political benefits from appearing to challenge it have been reaped.

On that crucial test of a register of beneficial ownership, for example, the UK has said it will lead by example, but the example is pretty lukewarm. It relies on Companies House, which admits it is incapable of enforcing existing transparency requirements. Meanwhile the issue of public transparency of the register is kicked into the long grass of a consultation.

Another summit this reminds me of is the last G8 hosted by the UK, at Gleneagles in 2005. The unprecedented Make Poverty History mobilisation called for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to use the summit to push reforms in three areas: aid, debt and trade. That summit is remembered as a partial success: Bob Geldof famously gave the G8 “10 out of 10 on aid, eight out of 10 on debt,” though he seemed to forget about trade.

On that occasion, Blair and Brown got the media fillip they wanted, lauded as the “Lennon and McCartney” of global development by Bono. And while that summit undoubtedly was a watershed moment on aid, many of the promises later unravelled. In an evaluation published earlier this year, Oxfam concluded that, while “the G8′s $50 billion aid promise acted as a catalyst to significantly boost total aid levels…it is true that it’s not all been good news. The G8′s collective $50 billion promise was missed by around US$20 billion at the 2010 deadline, and European countries remain remarkably off-track for meeting their collective promise to the 0.7% GNI target by 2015.”

Time will tell whether the G8 ‘principles’ from Eniskillen will meet the same fate.

Cancelling tax treaties: a lesson from the 1970s

Mike Lewis at ActionAid had a blog yesterday about the problem posed by Zambia’s tax treaty with Ireland, following up on ActionAid Zambia’s call for the treaty to be renegotiated. But how easy would that be?

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A campaigners’ code of conduct and the ABF story

I see Ben Saunders has taken up the ABF story with two really interesting posts, the first relating it to Bill Dodwell’s call for a campaigners’ code of conduct, and second to what on earth Zambia was doing signing its bonkers treaty with Ireland. As I’m writing this in a break from struggling to put together a PhD chapter on developing countries’ tax treaty policy, let’s have a look at the code of conduct point.

Ben is right that some campaigners have not exactly responded to this suggestion in a very mature way (although with the recent ‘tax prat’ incident I don’t think either side is exactly upholding the standards of decent debate). But I also agree with Chris Jordan (in the comments here) that the way companies respond to allegations is rarely whiter than white as well: this was the gist of my post last week, in which I felt it unfair that ABF’s misrepresentations of the ActionAid allegations and – in some cases – of its own position had been, for the media, the last word on the story.

I remembered that I wrote a post a few months ago that made a couple of suggestions for where campaigners could behave a bit differently. I thought it would be interesting to reflect on ActionAid’s ABF report in the light of this.

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ABF’s misleading statements

I try to use this blog to stimulate debate, rather than just pumping out propaganda. I particularly enjoyed the debates that the Starbucks case provoked, with Ben Saunders‘ investigation involving more twists than The Killing.

But today I’m quite annoyed, so this is probably a slightly more partisan post than normal. Day 2 of the Associated British Foods versus ActionAid story has been the “ABF denies” stories, which is natural. But what has annoyed me is that ABF’s statements are so selective and misleading, and that the journalists who’ve written them up don’t seem to have examined them critically at all. I was especially surprised by the piece in Tax Journal, because I’d expect the industry press to scrutinise both sides’ claims extensively.

In most cases, ABF either mischaracterises ActionAid’s argument, or makes points it already made in the correspondence [pdf] between the two organisations, and which are addressed directly in the report [pdf]. This is why it’s so frustrating to see the ABF line appearing as the last word in these stories.

So, below I’ve been through all the new ABF statements I’ve found since the ActionAid report was published, and explained why I don’t think they discredit the original report. I believe this is known in the blogosphere as “fisking“.

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