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!

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!

Now the horse meat scandal has a tax haven angle

This is most definitely a Friday afternoon story. It seems, according to The Guardian, that the owner of one of the companies at the centre of the horse meat scandal is hidden behind the veil of secrecy in the British Virgin Islands.

Draap Trading Ltd delivered meat to the French company Spanghero, which in turn supplied another French company, Comigel. The Findus lasagne products found in Britain containing horsemeat came from a Comigel factory in Luxembourg.

[…]

An investigation by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project revealed yesterday that that Draap Trading Ltd was registered in 2008 in Limassol, Cyprus. Its sole shareholder is Hermes Guardian Ltd, an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands. A Draap representative, Andreas Mercruri, refused to disclose the beneficial ownership of the company.

Speaking from Cyprus, he told OCCRP: “I’m sorry but with everything that is going on at the moment we are not able to comment on anything at this time.” Mercruri answered from the offices of Trident Trust , a Cyprus firm that provides company formation and incorporation services on the island. Trident Trust mentions on its website that beneficial ownership information of the companies it incorporates is not disclosed to any regulatory authority

How Venezuela blacklisted itself as a tax haven

As you might have seen, the European Commission is proposing that EU Member States create a blacklist of countries that do not “apply minimum standards of good governance in tax matters. These countries would be subject to sanctions from EU member states, up to and including the termination of double tax treaties.The blacklisting approach is not new, and a paper by the Australian academic Jason Sharman, “Dysfunctional policy transfer in national blacklists,” offers a note of caution.

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ActionAid on the global fight against tax havens

Well, happy 40th birthday ActionAid. Beginning as a small London-based child sponsorship initiative, my former employer had grown into a truly global federation of development organisations. Form follows function, and the brilliant decision to relegate ActionAid’s UK office from headquarters to one member of a federation with the same number of votes as, say, ActionAid Malawi is indicative of the radical politics that are rare in an organisation of ActionAid’s size.  I don’t think any other organisation could run a campaign quite like it does on tax justice, something that I’m proud to have been part of.

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