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!

The tax treaty arbitrators cometh

Next month sees the results of the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit-Shifting project, as well as a discussion at the UN tax committee on alternative dispute resolution in tax treaties. India has apparently vetoed the inclusion of mandatory binding arbitration by default in the OECD model tax treaty, and it remains an optional provision within the UN model too. This post will show that arbitration provisions in treaties with developing countries are nonetheless on the march, and it will discuss some of the issues that this raises. It is taken from some comments I submitted alongside Todd Tucker on a draft paper for the UN committee’s discussion.

I’ve just returned from a field visit to, among other countries, Vietnam. With around 60 tax treaties in force, it’s been one of the most enthusiastic concluders of tax treaties over the last two and a half decades. It’s also quite clear that the General Department of Taxation regrets some of the things that the country gave away in its early negotiations. It is endeavouring to apply some provisions of these treaties in unconventional ways, and coming under pressure from foreign businesses who say that by doing so it is breaking with international norms. I sat in on a large meeting between the Vice Minister of Finance and Vietnam Business Forum (VBF) members, at which these concerns were raised. According to a typical statement from the VBF [pdf], Vietnam’s interpretations have “made the application of DTA[s] of foreign enterprises impossible, effectively it obliterate[s] the legitimate benefit of enterprises.”

As a consequence, Korean investors have recently begun to invoke the mutual agreement procedure (MAP) in the Korea-Vietnam tax treaty. Vietnam’s first ever MAP negotiation was taking place while I was there. MAPs, remember, do not require the two countries to reach an agreement, just to try their best. The resulting backlog of disputes among OECD countries is the reason why the OECD now seems to favour mandatory binding arbitration. Vietnam does not want to see mandatory binding arbitration clauses in its tax treaties, having already had its fingers burnt with investor-state arbitration. I am informed that such a clause was proposed by the US and rejected by Vietnam when the two countries negotiated their new tax treaty.

Vietnam said no, but others have not. One outcome of the Netherlands’ programme of renegotiations with developing countries, which is supposed to be about adding anti-abuse clauses, has been the insertion of binding arbitration clauses in several treaties with African countries. Here are all the arbitration clauses in African tax treaties to date (based on searching the IBFD tax treaties database for the term ‘arbitration’). They key column to look at is “how triggered”. Whereas the Canadian and Italian arbitration clauses require both countries’ consent before the case enters arbitration, all the others, following the OECD and UN model provisions, are binding on the developing country and can be triggered by either the other country or the taxpayer. The rest of the typology indicates that, as per usual, OECD-type provisions are more common than UN-type ones, even though the latter are supposed to be better for the developing country.

Arbitration clauses in African tax treaties

If we search for the term ‘arbitration’ in the IBFD tax treaties database, there are 219 results (caveat: not all of these references might be to ‘an arbitration clause’ as such, and some foreign-language treaties may have been missed). As the table below shows, arbitration clauses are of particular importance to jurisdictions whose treaty networks are used as part of tax planning strategies. By far the most arbitration clauses are in the treaty networks of the Netherlands and Switzerland, although the presence of Liechtenstein and Luxembourg in the top 10 list may also be indicative. At least two of the Swiss clauses, in its treaties with Peru and Argentina, are actually Most-Favoured Nation clauses triggered if the Latin American countries agree to binding arbitration with a third country. This suggests that, for Switzerland at least, arbitration clauses are important for its competitive position.

List of countries by number of tax treaties with some kind of arbitration clause

Here are a few issues that are presented by the spread of arbitration provisions that are binding on developing countries:

  1. There is barely any MAP experience in many developing countries. Interviews with revenue authority staff across numerous developing countries indicate that, outside perhaps the BRICS, many countries have yet to enter into a single MAP. Vietnam is a typical example. So the case for arbitration based on the huge backlog in OECD and G-20 countries is simply not there in many other countries, and may never be. Furthermore, that developing countries do not have the same experience of MAP negotiations as developed countries is a further reason why they should wait before agreeing to mandatory binding arbitration. If arbitration is designed primarily to increase pressure for a resolution in MAP, then the pressure on a developing country to capitulate at this stage will surely be increased by its inexperience in arbitration as well as MAP.
  2. The current UN model provision does not provide for the possibility of optional arbitration. If arbitration helps solves a structural problem in tax treaties, it is good for developing countries to consider it. But one way for them to take it slow is to sign up for clauses that create the option of arbitration without forcing them into it, such as those in the Italian and Canadian treaties with African countries. With such a provision, developing countries could build up some experience before deciding whether mandatory and binding arbitration is right for them. Unfortunately, this is not the current path taken by the UN committee, and so there’s little chance of developing countries obtaining it in negotiations.
  3. Arbitration enhances the negative impact of negotiation oversights. We know that, as in the case of Vietnam’s early treaties, the present impact was often not anticipated at the time the agreements were signed. While this situation has improved in some developing countries, in others, treaties are still being concluded now without adequate awareness among all parties of how they will bind future governments. There are various reasons for this, including: lack of technical expertise at the time of negotiation; politically driven negotiations in which the content of these treaties is barely considered; changing tax systems and economic conditions, especially the growth of e-commerce and services; new tax planning mechanisms; the relative autonomy of a small set of negotiators; weak or non-existent parliamentary ratification processes. Binding arbitration will further enhance this ‘golden straightjacket’ impact of tax treaties, reducing room to manoeuvre in cases where latter day tax treaties frustrate present day policy goals. This would especially be the case if a multilateral instrument were used retrospectively to add arbitration provisions to existing tax treaties.

A final thought. There are lots of reasons why eliminating all forms of double taxation faced by cross-border investors is a sensible thing to try to do. It is what tax treaties are supposed to be for. But sometimes governments, especially in developing countries, might deliberately choose to prioritise the maximisation of their tax base even when that leads to some double taxation. This is, arguably, what China, India and Brazil have done by adopting their own approaches to transfer pricing. Perhaps it is good if tax treaties leave sufficient space for this, so long as countries take seriously the repercussions of making use of that space.

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?

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!

What is the UN tax committee for, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxfam goes for the full Tanzi…but is that far enough?

“Revenue is the chief preoccupation of the state. Nay more it is the state”
– Edmund Burke

I spent the weekend with some old friends from the development sector. One of them, it now turns out, is working for a public relations consultancy. There was an awkward moment when I explained that I was working on international tax and my friend asked, with a sheepish grin, whether I was following BEPS. We were both following it from, well, different angles.

The most interesting moment in our conversation came when my friend mentioned clients’ fear of the ‘Margaret Hodge effect’. I can understand that, I thought. No company wants to see its executives thrown to the wolves in the Public Accounts Committee. But I had misunderstood.

“What my clients are concerned about,” said my friend, “is political interference in corporate tax policymaking.” I found this quite startling. Is it possible that businesses consider corporate tax policy to be a matter for private negotiations between them and the government, rather than the subject of public (and even parliamentary) debate as part of the government’s budgeting process?

The UK’s corporate tax regime has been dramatically overhauled over the last ten years, with a plummeting corporation tax rate and vast swathes of the multinational tax base exempted. This is a serious structural change in our tax system, yet there’s been barely a peep about it in public debate. And we continue to sign tax treaties, with only a cursory discussion in parliament each time. The public attention is only ever caught by the ex post impact of policy decisions in the tax returns of multinational firms. Hence why Pfizer’s bid for Astrazenica, and not the policy reforms that encouraged it, has been front page news.

I had this in mind as I read Oxfam’s new briefing paper on “Why corporate tax dodgers are not yet losing sleep over global tax reform” and Duncan Green’s blog post discussing it. Oxfam’s entry into the tax justice campaign has brought some fresh and interesting perspectives, and this is no exception. The paper argues that developing countries are unlikely to benefit from BEPS, for two main reasons:

Firstly, the business lobby currently has a disproportionate influence on the process, which it uses to protect its interests. Correcting the rules that allow the tax dodging practices of global giants like Google, Starbucks and others that lead to tax revenue losses in OECD countries will be difficult, given the size of the corporate lobby. But worse, perhaps, is that the interests of non-OECD/G20 countries are not represented at all in these negotiations.

It goes on to analyse the contributions to OECD consultations to demonstrate the overwhelming contribution from wealthy countries and business organisations. The paper calls for a three-pronged solution:

  1. Fully engaging non-G20/non-OECD countries in BEPS decision making
  2. Working towards a World Tax Authority to improve governance of international tax, along the lines proposed many years ago by Victor Tanzi.
  3. Widening the scope of the BEPS Action Plan to incorporate tax competition concerns, the redistribution of taxing rights, and reconsideration of the arm’s length principle

Oxfam, like other development NGOs, is keen to fix the problems it has observed with the OECD’s way of doing things. It is looking to change international institutional arrangements as a way of achieving this. The paper’s only real discussion about what happens at national level concerns “helping developing countries strengthen their fiscal administrations.”

This is all important stuff, but it’s missing something: a strategy to increase political engagement with corporate tax policymaking. International institutions can shape countries’ preferences and strategies, but the decisions they take (and maybe even the ways they work) are still products of the different positions taken by their member states. National politics matters.

If, as Oxfam argues, the business lobby has a disproportionate influence at the OECD, that influence won’t only be exerted at international level: it must also be applied inside the member states, who ultimately make the decisions at the OECD council. Is it wise to open up the source/residence debate within the BEPS process, as Oxfam proposes, when businesses favour reduced source state taxation? There is certainly a case for re-examining the political settlement at the heart of international tax institutions, but the outcome of such a process will surely follow the distribution of power among its participants.

If, as Oxfam also argues, developing countries are not participating in the decisionmaking, that isn’t just because the space for them is limited. It is also because they aren’t making the most of the opportunities available to them. Many of the UN tax committee’s most developing country-friendly initiatives in recent years have been led not by its developing country members but by members from OECD countries putting themselves in developing countries’ shoes, or by members from emerging economies whose interests do not always coincide with developing countries. That’s fine so long as international tax is a technical exercise, but an inclusive political process would cast these conflicts of interest in sharp relief.

Developing countries’ failure to take advantage of the opportunities that are already available to them can be seen in the tax treaties they have negotiated, comprehensively studied in an IBFD report for the UN tax committee [pdf]. Many significant clauses from the UN model treaty, which would confer on developing countries greater taxing rights, are absent from most of the tax treaties signed by developing countries. There are some examples in the chart below. I don’t know (yet) why developing countries often get such poor outcomes, but what happens in bilateral negotiations would surely occur in international negotiations too.

Use of UN model provisions in tax treaties between OECD and non-OECD countries

Source: IBFD for UN tax committee

Duncan Green situates the BEPS process in the later stages of the “Policy Funnel” (below), when “the technical content gets greater, and the chance to mobilize the public declines.” But corporate tax policy has been at that end of the funnel since the 1920s. The aim should be to drag it back towards a public debate.

The Policy Funnel (Source: From Poverty to Power)

The Policy Funnel (Source: From Poverty to Power)

What Oxfam is proposing would lead to an even larger technocratic tax community at international and national levels (a world tax organisation, and more tax authority capacity in developing countries). That may well be necessary. But what we need even more is for politicans and the public in each country to hold the technocrats to account. It seems to me that this can be done more effectively by beginning at the national level, looking at domestic tax rates, tax incentives, and tax treaties. Until that happens, I don’t think that the politicians of developing countries will pay enough attention to BEPS or anything of its ilk to get stuck into the politics and shift the centre of gravity of international corporate tax policy.

BEPS Part 2: international politics and developing countries

sluto | beps

This graffiti is definitely about Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (Photo credit: feck_aRt_post)

I wrote earlier this week with some questions about UK tax policy and the OECD’s Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting. A lot of the areas that it’s looking at are probably not going to affect smaller developing countries very much, but there are a few things worth highlighting. I also recommend Chris Lenon’s comments on the action plan, to which I’ll refer below.

Beyond the arm’s length principle

I thought it very interesting that the action plan concedes that some of the current problem with tax planning derives from the transfer pricing rules themselves:

multinationals have been able to use and/or misapply those rules to separate income from the economic activities that produce that income and to shift it into low-tax environments.

But the more significant rhetorical shift from the OECD is that it now appears to believe that solutions within the arm’s length principle (ALP) may not be enough. The ALP’s self-sufficiency has seemed to me to be an article of faith for the OECD secretariat every since I began working on tax. The action plan says:

special measures, either within or beyond the arm’s length principle, may be required with respect to intangible assets, risk and over-capitalisation to address these flaws.

Some academics are fond of arguing that the OECD abandoned the ALP in all bit name some time ago. So I wonder whether this is really a substantive change or just a rhetorical shift designed to underline that BEPS is a ‘radical rethink’.

Chris thinks that “[t]his is a clear indication that apportionment may be considered as the way to deal with high value intangibles.” It does seem to imply that the OECD may come more into line with the Chinese approach.

Tax reporting

Noting that “timely, comprehensive and relevant information on tax planning strategies is often unavailable to tax administrations”, the action plan proposes to:

Develop rules regarding transfer pricing documentation to enhance transparency for tax administration, taking into consideration the compliance costs for business. The rules to be developed will include a requirement that MNE’s provide all relevant governments with needed information on their global allocation of the income, economic activity and taxes paid among countries according to a common template.

Chris thinks that this is “very significant”, and that “business needs to develop a strategic response to the issue of transparency”. I think that it is worth considering in the context of the report to the OECD task force on tax and development last year [pdf], which outlined the information challenges faced by developing country tax authorities. The main value of a global report as proposed would be to give tax authority in country A some readily available information on a multinational’s operations in country B, if neither country is the head office. At the moment this is difficult to obtain, because the subsidiary in country A can’t be required to provide information on a sister company in country B, despite them being under common control. Tackling this problem through global documentation seems sensible.

A multilateral treaty and mandatory arbitration

I said when the original BEPS report came out that a multilateral treaty designed to update current treaties in one fell swoop has potential dangers for developing countries. They’re mostly excluded form the BEPS process, but a multilateral treaty could gain such momentum that it becomes obligatory for them to sign up, despite the difference of interests acknowledged by the existence of separate UN and OECD model bilateral treaties. The new UN tax committee‘s response to any multilateral treaty will surely be very significant.

As an example, the Action Plan implies that one area for change is in the area of mutual agreement procedures (MAPs) and arbitration:

Develop solutions to address obstacles that prevent countries from solving treaty-related disputes under MAP, including the absence of arbitration provisions in most treaties and the fact that access to MAP and arbitration may be denied in certain cases.

Alison Christians has written about her concerns about this in the past. Experience with investment treaties shows that developing countries should be wary of mandatory arbitration, yet they may find themselves with little choice if this makes it into a multilateral treaty.

G20 versus OECD

The new model of G20-OECD cooperation is intriguing. The Action Plan explains it as follows:

interested G20 countries that are not members of the OECD will be invited to be part of the project as Associates, i.e. on an equal footing with OECD members (including at the level of the subsidiary bodies involved in the work on BEPS), and will be expected to associate themselves with the outcome of the BEPS Project.

The equal footing part is new and unusual, but that last clause means that countries who have got used to stating their difference of opinion with the OECD will presumably want to think carefully. I will be very interested to see which of the non-OECD G20 members take up this invitation.