TAX, SOCIETY & CULTURE

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Does a country's willingness to exchange tax info alter the character of its trade in services?

Published Oct 21, 2017 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Delimatsis and Hoekman have posted National Tax Regulation, International Standards and the GATS: Argentina—Financial Services, of interest especially in light of ongoing discourse about what kinds of tax competition are approved versus harmful in OECD terms. Here is the abstract:

Can a WTO Member discriminate against foreign suppliers of services located in jurisdictions that refuse to share information with a government to permit it to determine if its nationals engage in tax evasion? Does it matter if the Member uses standards developed by an international body as the criterion for deciding whether to impose measures? In Argentina—Financial Services the WTO Appellate Body held that services from jurisdictions that share financial tax information may be different from services provided by jurisdictions that do not cooperate in supplying such information. It overruled a Panel finding that measures to increase taxes on financial transactions with non-cooperative jurisdictions were discriminatory. We argue that the AB reached the right conclusion but that an important opportunity was missed to clarify what WTO Members are permitted to do to enforce their domestic regulatory regimes, and how international standards could have a bearing on this question. By giving consideration to arguments that the likeness of services and service suppliers may be a function of prevailing domestic regulatory regimes, the AB increased the scope for confusion and future litigation.

Tagged as: scholarship tax policy WTO

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Cockfield on Information Exchange

Published Jan 17, 2017 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Arthur Cockfield has posted a paper of interest, entitled How Countries Should Share Tax Information. Here is the abstract:

There are increasing policy concerns that aggressive international tax avoidance and offshore tax evasion significantly reduce government revenues. In particular, for some low income countries the amount of capital flight (where elites move and hide monies offshore in tax havens) exceeds foreign aid. Governments struggle to enforce their tax laws to constrain these actions, but are inhibited by a lack of information concerning international capital flows. The main international policy response to these developments has been to promote global financial transparency through heightened cross-border exchanges of tax information. The paper discusses elements of optimal cross-border tax information exchange laws and policies by focusing on three key challenges: information quality, taxpayer privacy, and enforcement. Relatedly, the paper discusses how the exchange of automatic ‘big tax data’ combined with data analytics can help address the challenges.
Cockfield seeks to find a solution that balances the need of the state for extensive information in order to protect the integrity of the income tax system against the need of the individual for protection from abuse by the state. That is no easy balance to strike. From the paper:
All of [the recent information gathering and exchange] efforts seek to provide governments with more and better tax information, and reduce costs through agreement on underlying EOI rules and principles. The reforms, however, largely do not address how financial secrecy laws subvert global financial transparency initiatives. Nor do they address legal technical complexity that raises transaction costs, and makes it even harder for low and middle income countries to implement and enforce EOI. While the EOI reforms are positive steps, given an environment of high transaction costs it may be difficult to make progress in addressing key policy challenges.... 
Data availability, usefulness and verifiability are three components of high quality information that can help governments pursue their cross-border investigations and audits. In particular, transferred information should be relatable to domestic tax identification measures, and checked against third party reporting, and withholding tax disclosures. Once this is done, governments can conduct analysis to determine audit risk by focusing on issues such as taxpayer segmentation, dealings between the taxpayer and offshore service providers, and cross-indexing tax and financial information against non-tax data (e.g., insurance policy disclosures). 
Against this desire for high quality tax information stands (shrugs?) taxpayer privacy concerns. The apprehensions arise from the varied levels of domestic legal protection afforded to privacy rights, along with the risk of abuse or misuse of transferred information. Accordingly, broader multilateral agreement on privacy protections is likely a prerequisite to effective EOI. This hoped-for cooperation is hindered by the fact that many countries refuse to abolish their financial secrecy laws, which stands as one of the main barriers to optimal reform.
My view is that maintaining the integrity of the income tax system appears to require building the panopticon, and much more besides. The steady decline of support for coherent corporate income taxation makes greater and greater individual surveillance necessary, while also making personal income taxation harder. I am not sure where the point lies at which the costs and risks attendant to building the necessary compliance and enforcement infrastructure exceed the benefits of maintaining personal taxes based on income.

Tagged as: information institutions rule of law scholarship

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Analysis of Canada's Tax Gap Pre-Study

Published Jul 26, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Further to my last post on the newly released Tax Gap study by the Canada Revenue Agency, the following comes from guest blogger Iain Campbell (ARC, UK):

I hope this comment is not too long but I’ve been following Tax Gap discussions for so long that it’s hard to pass by the chance to comment!

Background
This is an interesting development. Writing from the UK I’m not in regular contact with developments in Canadian tax administration. But I do recall there has been some entertainment over the Tax Gap, with the Parliamentary Budget Officer asking for the CRA to do some work on it - and being rebuffed.

In fact, the CRA has not been keen on preparing a Tax Gap analysis. In 2002 it reported that attempting to estimate overall levels of reporting non-compliance such as the ‘tax gap’ or the total amount of smuggling activity was fraught with difficulty. (CRCA Performance report for the period ending 31 March 2002.) Ten years later the CRA were still not convinced. At the start of 2013 they told the PBO:

The CRA later pointed out “the significant debate about the precision, accuracy and utility of any methodology to calculate the tax gap”. It drew attention to critical comments from the UK Treasury Select Committee, as well as the fact of 52 tax administrations surveyed by the IRS, 33 did not produce one, and the high costs of doing so. (CRA, PBO Information Request IR0102: tax gap estimates, letter 20 March 2013,] and PBO Information Request IR0102: tax gap estimates, letter 1 August 2013.) In 2014 the PBO even threatened to take legal action in order to compel production.
But in the recent election there was a promise to undertake such a study, ending this long standing reluctance to follow the example of other countries, including the USA and UK.  And following the Panama Papers the Revenue Minister said in January a tax gap study would be done. The new Canadian study comprises a 31pp paper on a conceptual study of the Canadian tax gap and an 11pp study on the Canadian GST/HST, which gives a gap of 5.5% in 2000 and 6.5% in 2014. (It explicitly references the decision announced by the Minister of National on 11 April.)

Basis of study – what’s in and what’s out
The conceptual study does, to an outsider, seem to spend a lot of time in not saying a great deal. It seems to add qualification to qualification, caveat after caveat, so that at times I wondered if the CRA really wanted to publish anything at all. Gus O’Donnell is the UK civil servant who wrote the Report that led to the UK Customs and Excise combining with the Inland Revenue to form HM Revenue and Customs. In that Report he surely got it down to a few words: “Making estimates of the tax gap is methodologically and empirically difficult, although easier for indirect taxes where tax can typically be related to consumption. Direct tax gaps are particularly difficult to estimate because the aggregate figures for income, for example, are built on tax data.”

The CRA's conceptual study refers a lot to the HMRC papers and policies on calculating the Tax Gap. But in some of the key areas it dances around what might be difficult decisions e.g., whether to report the gross tax gap, or, as in the UK, the gap after action to tackle non-compliance.

Avoidance
More controversially, the UK includes tax avoidance.  This is a good illustration of its overall approach.


On the other hand, academics and members of the accountancy profession have argued the opposite, that any estimate should not include avoidance as referenced by the “spirit of the law”. For example, during a Treasury Select Committee Hearing on The Administration and Effectiveness of HMRC, Judith Freedman (Professor of Tax Law, Oxford University) commented “I really take issue with the spirit of the law part, because either you have law or you don’t have law and the law has to state what it is.”

The Canadian paper discusses this option and concludes “the appropriate treatment of tax avoidance is less clear”. It seems Canada has decided to not include avoidance in its definition: “In general the CRA’s approach to the tax gap encompasses non-compliance related to non-filing, non-registration (in the case of GST/HST), errors, under-payment, non-payment, and unlawful tax evasion” (p29).  There seems to be no explicit position on avoidance but, although I doubt it will happen, “under-payment” is potentially broad enough to include under-payment via avoidance.

Other “Gaps”
Another area the study did not address is what the IMF and EU call the “tax policy gap”. I agree with this decision (which mirrors the UK). The IMF would widen the definition and use of the Tax Gap approach. It suggests including the effects of policy choices that lead to reduced revenues. In a study on the UK Tax Gap it refers to the impact of compliance issues on revenue as “the compliance gap” and the revenue loss attributable to provisions in tax laws that allow an exemption, a special credit, a preferential rate of tax, or a deferral of tax liability, as the “policy gap” (para 68).  As part of this they recommend tax avoidance schemes deemed legal through litigation should be considered part of the policy gap, not the compliance gap, and this distinction should be made clear.

A similar point was made by an EU report on VAT. They suggested that a possible link between the policy and the compliance gaps, since using the reliefs and allowances intended by policy could make compliance more difficult. “Reducing the policy gap may often be the simplest and most effective way to reduce the compliance gap. “ (p21)

In my view these kinds of proposals are likely to be very complex, perhaps contentious, and hard to administer. It seems a sensible decision to not refer to them or suggest their inclusion.

Then there are the base erosion issues where tax is avoided through the use of legal structures that make use of mismatches between domestic and international tax, e.g. permanent establishments. The Canadian study nods in the direction of BEPS and then passes by.

What’s the point of working out a Tax Gap?
But putting aside these sorts of issues, or whether “top-down” targeting is better than “bottom-up”, does the size of the hidden or “informal” economy predict the level of GST/VAT underpayment (or is it the other way around?), perhaps the  big $64K question is whether any of this means anything. If there is no clear agreement on the numbers, how they are calculated and their reliability, then is there are any point in preparing them?

The very concept of the tax gap is not universally agreed to be a useful analytical or strategic lever. Apart from the earlier Canadian reluctance, the Australians were slow to go down this road. UK Parliamentarians have been less than keen. In 2012 the Treasury Select Committee said they thought it was essentially a waste of time and resources. Worse, they feared it would misdirect HMRC away from ensuring every taxpayer paid the right amount of tax. Such fears have not died. The current TSC is examining UK corporation tax. Their early work involved scoping the problem and they heard some evidence on the tax gap. Andrew Tyrie (the Chair) seemed less than enthused at the very concept.

I think it has merits. But it ought not to be elevated to some shibboleth. It is one high-level measure of how successfully legislation is being applied, use of resources, etc.  The UK Government’s official position is that that “thinking about the tax gap forces the department to focus attention on the need to understand how non-compliance occurs and how the causes can be addressed—whether through tailored assistance, simpler legislation, redesigned processes or targeted interventions. Measuring the tax gap helps us to understand whether increasing returns from compliance activity reflect improved effectiveness or merely a decrease in voluntary compliance.”

The Canadian paper says broadly the same things (pp22-24). It talks of providing insight into the overall health of the tax system, of understanding the composition and scale of non-compliance, but warns of their limitations.

If that is how it used then I think it is a useful aid to policy making and how robust is the assurance being provided by the tax administration.


Tagged as: Canada tax gap tax policy

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Canada "Tax Gap" Study Released

Published Jul 05, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

The Government of Canada has released its first study of the "tax gap," which the Government defines as "the difference between the tax that would be paid if all obligations were fully met in all instances, and the tax actually paid and collected." The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has not completed a study of the income tax, but has released this paper on the concept and methodology. It has presented a report for GST/HST (Canada's VAT), estimating the tax gap to average about 5.6% per year over the period 2000-2014. For 2014, this produced an estimated tax gap of about $4.9 billion:



This study has been undertaken after many calls from academics and nongovernment organizations, including Canadians for Tax Fairness, which according to the CRA will be involved in consultations regarding the ongoing study. Canadians for Tax Fairness estimate that Canada loses $7.8 billion in income tax revenues to "tax haven" use, a number they constructed using Statistics Canada's foreign direct investment data.

The Government acknowledges that there is no reliable method for measuring the tax gap, and that the exercise is one in speculation based on imperfect information:
There are a number of challenges facing tax administrations undertaking tax gap estimation. The key challenge is access to the comprehensive and good-quality data necessary to produce estimates. A significant proportion of the tax gap involves unreported or under-reported income and assets and economic activity that are deliberately hidden from the government. As a result, many countries that publish tax gap estimates highlight their uncertainty.
Expect more to come from this exercise as the tax gap study is a key component of the Government's pledge to spend $444 million over five years "to enhance [CRA] efforts to crack down on tax evasion and combat tax avoidance."

Tagged as: budget Canada compliance CRA evasion governance

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This Friday in London: Conference on The Changing Shape of Tax Avoidance

Published May 04, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

This Friday, I'll be in London participating in a conference on tax avoidance and evasion, hosted by the Journal of Tax Administration. Here is the program:


11.00 – 11.15 Welcome and Introduction

11.15 – 11.50 Matthew Rablen: Optimal Income Tax Enforcement in the Presence of Tax Avoidance

11.50 – 12.25 Maya Forstater: Can Stopping ‘Tax Dodging’ by Multinational Enterprises Close the Gap in Development Finance?

12.25 – 13.00 Allison Christians: Tax Avoidance in a World of Aggressive Tax States

13.00 – 13.45 Lunch

13.45 – 14.15 Federica Bardini: The “Ius Commune Europeum” on Tax Avoidance

14.15 - 14.45 Shu-Chien Chen: The Common Pattern of the “Tax Avoidance Concept” in the EU and USA

14.45 – 15.00 Discussion

15.00 – 15.20 Break

15.20 – 15.55 David Duff: Tax Avoidance – Causes, Consequences and Responses

15.55 – 16.30 David Quentin: Tax Risk Mining and Corporate Responsibility for Human Rights

The venue for this conference is Friends House, 173 – 177 Euston Road, London.

Here is the abstract for my presentation:
Tax Avoidance in a World of Aggressive Tax States 
Media coverage of tax “dodging” by high profile elites and multinational companies leads the public to believe that tax avoidance happens when individuals act to thwart the efforts of the state. Confined to the domestic arena this may be an apt description, and a problem anti-avoidance regimes are designed to solve. But on an international scale, tax avoidance is not a one-person show. Instead, it involves interactions among four types of actors: individuals, home states, host states, and intermediary states. International tax avoidance persists largely because home, host, and intermediary states intentionally use their tax systems to lure investment away from other jurisdictions that impose higher tax burdens, and individuals do their best to exploit available opportunities to the fullest. In deciding whether and how law should be used to prevent international tax avoidance, the goals and interests of each of the four actors must be examined.



Tagged as: conference fiscal state aid institutions Tax law tax policy

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Evasion, Avoidance, and Bashing Panama in a World of Aggressive Tax States

Published Apr 19, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

I've talked to a few journalists and commented a bit on the Panama Papers (e.g. here at 6:09 and here) but I've refrained from writing much to date because I am uneasy about a couple of central themes in this story: first, the constant confluence of tax evasion and tax avoidance, which are two completely different phenomena that require two very different responses in my view, and second the bashing of Panama as if only bad things can be done there, so anyone who does anything there from anywhere else must be doing a bad thing.

I am uneasy about this bashing because, although I think there are bad guys doing bad things in Panama, I also think there are bad guys doing bad things all over the world and I don't like Panama being singled out; I am also wary of suggesting that in a world of global trade and investment flows, anything and everything done through or with Panama must eternally be tinged with a sense of wrongdoing. This sense seems to imbue the imagination in the campaigns to "shut down the tax havens." What, exactly, does that mean? Does it mean that some countries, because someone decides they are mostly bad actors, must be effectively cut off from the global financial system and no one must be allowed to transact with or in these countries from the outside? What if most of the world are actually bad actors, each scheming to use its tax system to undermine and undercut the others? That's essentially the vision drawn by the OECD in countering BEPS, so we will run into some problems if we take this reasoning to its logical conclusion. But if this is not the idea behind shutting down tax havens, then what is envisioned, exactly?

Tax justice advocates seem to envision an invasive global regulatory regime in which every person in the world will have all of their assets and financial information catalogued and tagged and made public to everyone else, in order to make sure no one can break any tax rules. If this is being done just for tax--that is, if this is what it takes to make the income tax "work," I am not sure that the income tax is worth all of that trouble and everything given up to achieve it. That includes privacy, which appears to itself have become a suspicious word in certain circles, as if only those doing bad things have a desire to keep anything about their lives private. Let us recall Glenn Greenwald's words on why privacy should not come to be seen as a sinister desire. It is possible to break the tax law like it is possible to break any other law. But is requiring everyone to show all of their assets to everyone else in order to prove no laws have been broken a valid response to this enduring problem? I cannot agree with this Orwellian vision of the world. I also do not think this view is sensible if the issue is really driven by tax. If it is, then surely we can find a less invasive way to fund public goods and services.

This brings me to the evasion/avoidance point, which I find being abused just as much by lawmakers and policy advocates as it is by journalists who don't know any better.

Tax evasion is a crime that involves hiding things from a legal authority. Tax avoidance is not a crime that involves hiding: it is achieved in full view of the legal authorities. The former is a very very difficult problem but is not primarily a tax policy problem. Instead it is primarily a global financial system problem that is created, like most global financial system problems, by virtue of the difficulty of regulating behaviours in a world in which technology has moved us far beyond the frontiers of the nation state.

On the other hand, 'aggressive" tax avoidance (loosely speaking; more analysis here)--that is, avoidance not intentionally allowed by rules such as those to defer tax on retirement savings--is a tax policy issue. Taxpayers and their advisers are always going to cook up new schemes to get around inconvenient tax rules. Knowing this, regulators must decide whether and how to react. They may react with any number of tools that create an infinite call and response loop among regulators, taxpayers, administrators, and judges. These include such things as general and specific anti-avoidance rules, uncertain tax position disclosure, and random audit strategies. None of these things has the first thing to say about how to deal with a corrupt government official who steals money from the public fisc and invests it in US and European stocks and bonds through a maze of trusts and companies formed in other jurisdictions. It's just a totally different problem.

I know and understand that bad guys are always lurking around to defeat the tax law, as they are in any regulatory field. I don't have any special insights about how to deal with corruption and criminality. But in my experience with tax, when a government moves to "crack down" on bad guys, the really serious criminals--including government officials themselves--all too often escape while everyone else finds themselves increasingly tracked, surveilled, and treated like criminals even as the resources to cope with fixable tax policy flaws diminish. I don't have any answers for these worries.

Tagged as: evasion governance offshore tax policy

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New US Model Income Tax Treaty: Now With Kill-Switches!

Published Feb 17, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Treasury issued the new US Model Tax Treaty, via press release
​WASHINGTON - Today, the Treasury Department issued a newly revised U.S. Model Income Tax Convention (the “2016 Model”), which is the baseline text the Treasury Department uses when it negotiates tax treaties.  The U.S. Model Income Tax Convention was last updated in 2006.   
“The 2016 Model is the result of a concerted effort by the Treasury Department to further our policy commitment to provide relief from double taxation and ensure certainty and stability in the tax treatment of treaty residents,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Tax Affairs Robert B. Stack.  “The 2016 Model includes a number of provisions intended to eliminate double taxation without creating opportunities for non-taxation or reduced taxation through tax evasion or avoidance,” he added. 
Many of the 2016 Model updates reflect technical improvements developed in the context of bilateral tax treaty negotiations and do not represent substantive changes to the prior model.  The 2016 Model also includes a number of new provisions intended to more effectively implement the Treasury Department’s longstanding policy that tax treaties should eliminate double taxation without creating opportunities for non-taxation or reduced taxation through tax evasion or avoidance.  For example, the 2016 Model does not reduce withholding taxes on payments of highly mobile income—income that taxpayers can easily shift around the globe through deductible payments such as royalties and interest—that are made to related persons that enjoy low or no taxation with respect to that income under a preferential tax regime.  In addition, a new article obligates the treaty partners to consult with a view to amending the treaty as necessary when changes in the domestic law of a treaty partner draw into question the treaty’s original balance of negotiated benefits and the need for the treaty to reduce double taxation.  The 2016 Model also includes measures to reduce the tax benefits of corporate inversions.  Specifically, it denies reduced withholding taxes on U.S. source payments made by companies that engage in inversions to related foreign persons.   
The Treasury Department has been a strong proponent of facilitating the resolution of disputes between tax authorities regarding the application of tax treaties.  Accordingly, the 2016 Model contains rules requiring that such disputes be resolved through mandatory binding arbitration.  The “last best offer” approach to arbitration in the 2016 Model is substantively the same as the arbitration provision in four U.S. tax treaties in force and three U.S. tax treaties that are awaiting the advice and consent of the Senate.  
The 2016 Model reflects comments that the Treasury Department received in response to the proposed model treaty provisions it released on May 20, 2015.  The Treasury Department carefully considered all the comments it received and made a number of modifications to the proposed model treaty provisions in response to those comments.
The Treasury Department is preparing a detailed technical explanation of the 2016 Model, which it plans to release this spring.  The preamble to the 2016 Model invites comments regarding certain situations that should be addressed in the technical explanation for the so-called “active trade or business” test of Article 22 (Limitation on Benefits).  See the preamble page 5.  The deadline for public comments on this subject is April 18, 2016.
Highlights mine. There is much to be discussed in this of course and I will make no attempt to be comprehensive here, but I made a quick comparison doc that might be useful; download here. Just at first glance: can you spot the BEPS? Action 6 is plainly at work, and probably others.

My current interest is in what I am calling the new "kill-switch" provisions, the special tax regime (art 3, 11, 12, 21, 22) and subsequent law changes (art 28) provisions alluded to in the bold highlighted text above. I'm working on a paper on this subject and will have more analysis soon.



Tagged as: international law soft law tax policy treaties US

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Cockfield: Big Data and Tax Haven Secrecy

Published Oct 14, 2015 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Art Cockfield has posted a new paper on SSRN, Big Data and Tax Haven Secrecy, forthcoming Florida Tax Review. The article sets out research he did with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and is of interest. Here is the abstract:

While there is now a significant literature in law, politics, economics, and other disciplines that examines tax havens, there is little information on what tax haven intermediaries — so-called offshore service providers — actually do to facilitate offshore evasion, international money laundering and the financing of global terrorism. To provide insight into this secret world of tax havens, this Article relies on the author’s study of big data derived from the financial data leak obtained by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). A hypothetical involving Breaking Bad’s Walter White is used to explain how offshore service providers facilitate global financial crimes. The Article deploys a transaction cost perspective to assist in understanding the information and incentive problems revealed by the ICIJ data leak, including how tax haven secrecy enables elites in non-democratic countries to transfer their monies for ultimate investment in stable democratic countries. The approach also emphasizes how, even in a world of perfect information, political incentives persist that thwart cooperative efforts to inhibit global financial crimes.

Tagged as: evasion information scholarship tax policy

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Should Corporate Tax Returns be Public?

Published Mar 05, 2015 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Last year, I participated in a symposium at NYU on the topic of tax and corporate social responsibility, on a panel with the above title. The NYU Journal of Law and Business has published the symposium issue, including a transcript of the discussions. You can view the entire symposium issue here,. Below I excerpt from my contribution but the entire exchange is worth a read.

... I think the story Josh is telling is that using transparency as a means to generate the political will for corporate tax reform poses some risk, real risk, to the tax system administration. I think we'll have some discussion about how genuine that risk is and how it should be measured against other risks, like firm competitiveness and proprietary information and so on. But I'll leave that discussion aside for now to focus on the first part of the proposition, and that is that what we're trying to do with corporate tax transparency is generate the political will for reform. 
Now I should preface this by saying that I am by nature and profession a curious type of person, and I would love nothing more than to be able to pore over the 57,000 pages of some corporation's tax return ... I think if you've read some of my prior work on the subject, you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear me say let's raise the curtain and have a look. Let's call it an issue of accountability and governance, and let's keep lawmakers on their toes by letting folks at this data that lawmakers are so jealously gardening for their own reasons. We humans don't seem to have too much privacy from the government, so let's us get to the business of crowdsourcing, the monitoring of the artificial people among us. 
But I keep coming back to the problem of what are we trying to solve here. If the goal is to generate political will for change, then I'm actually not so optimistic that corporate tax return disclosures is going to get us there. Instead I think it will lead us to continue having interesting discussions about whether or not we should be taxing corporations at all, or the variation that we had earlier today, which is how to draw the line between avoidance and evasion. 
That's to say we've already been taught, even without corporate tax disclosure, to expect that most American companies, especially those with a global footprint, aren't paying much tax anywhere. The jig is already up. This is not a secret. We're not rioting in the streets about it for the most part. Sure, corporate tax disclosure will confirm what we already know, but I'm not sure if getting all the gory details is going to push the political picture that much further. Maybe it will, because we clearly have an "Overton Window" in which really taxing American corporations is not thinkable. And maybe widespread naming and shaming, or just naming, will move that window. I think it's also possible that the sheer enormity of everything that you're going to see laid bare is going to very quickly lead to resignation and more handwringing, and not so quickly to actual reform. 
But if we're already at that stage now, we already have the stories - we already know the story. If we're already there, then we don't have to wait for corporate tax disclosure, do we? We can already accept the notion that if we're going to collect more from any taxpayer, corporate or not, what we need is not more public information, but more withholding and more third-party reporting. 
So let's see if I can unpack that a bit because I know that's to say a lot. I think it's worth noting that for the vast majority of people, it is not the case that the income tax system is voluntary. And why is that not the case? It is because for that vast majority, every dollar they earn is reported to the IRS by someone else. And most of these dollars are also subject to withholding, and so you have to work some to get any of it back at the end of the year. And if you are an employee, you won't get much opportunity in terms of base erosion at all; you're basically paying a gross receipts tax. We have made wage earners easy to tax with withholding and third-party reporting. And more or less, gross basis taxation with a few exceptions. 
But corporations are different. They are really hard to tax, especially when they are crossing borders. We give them lots of opportunities to carve away their gross and get to a very small net. Withholding and third-party reporting and filing for refunds is generally not the way we get corporations to pay tax. For them, as Reuven said earlier today, the income tax system really is voluntary, and lawmakers have given them a lot of discretion. Transfer pricing is just one very prominent example of this. 
... maybe disclosure is a way to have more informed public debate about the income tax system. But if we're having that discussion, then it seems not at all clear to me why we would be limiting the conversation to publicly traded corporations at all, when we are as or more interested in Cargill or SC Johnson or your local mom and pop cash flow all-cash business as we are in Google or Apple, who have at least to tell us a few stories about their tax affairs. 
And if we have that conversation, you must admit we are limiting ourselves to corporations ... and not looking at other untold billions of dollars that go untaxed because they're not subject to reporting or withholding. 
So now we come to the punch line, and that is that it is possible that corporate tax transparency is going to throw back the curtain on one sector of society - publicly traded corporations - but the irony is these are the people, this is the very sector about whom we actually have more information about tax than any other, precisely because they already have disclosure rules. That disclosure is exactly why we already know there's a problem, and yet we have not mustered the will to solve it. 
GE has been in the news with its zero corporate tax rate for years. ... I think little is likely to change with more info ... the conclusion, I think, we will be eventually forced to draw is that we, the public, haven't really mustered the political will for reform that would lead to more taxation of American companies. And we really can't help the IRS administer or enforce the tax system. In fact, as Josh suggests, we run the risk of undermining that effort, so disclosure might not get us very far at all. 
What we're going to have to do is start figuring out ways to do a lot more withholding and a lot more third-party reporting, and we are going to have to do that for all of our taxpayers, corporate or not, publicly traded or not. Maybe some or most of us already know that. We didn't need to read the corporate tax returns to tell us that, and we won't know anything new about the corporate tax system when we get that opportunity. 
Now I hate to end with the topic of FATCA. For those of you who don't know, FATCA is a global third-party reporting and preemptory withholding regime designed to make sure Americans declare and pay their taxes on income and assets held overseas. It is not a workable system, it's a mess, but think about the design. In theory, it says the IRS could eventually, once all the kinks are worked out and everybody gets onboard, track every dollar ever paid to any American anytime, anywhere. If that's true, if that's even partially possible, we can see the problem here is not at all about capacity. It is purely a question of political will and nothing more, and it never has been. 
A parade of stories about offshore tax evaders got the U.S. to adopt FATCA. Yet a parade of stories about GE, Google, and Apple avoiding their taxes has not got the U.S. to embrace corporate taxation. 
In fact, we seem to be seeing the opposite response in the base erosion and profit shifting initiative, but that's another story altogether. I'm not convinced, therefore, that corporate tax transparency will lead to more corporate tax. However, I would still love to get my hands on GE's tax return. Thank you.

Tagged as: corporate tax disclosure governance politics scholarship

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Why is the OECD so afraid of formulary apportionment?

Published Feb 09, 2015 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

The OECD has been rolling out a very modest version of country-by-country reporting --only really, really big companies will have to report, the info must be kept strictly hidden from public view, the info mostly won't flow to the world's poorest jurisdictions--and now, from its Feb 6 report, I see that governments must use the info they obtain only to further arms' length transfer pricing, and not to try switching to formulary apportionment:

"Jurisdictions should not propose adjustments to the income of any taxpayer on the basis of an income allocation formula based on the data from the CbC Report"
Formulary apportionment must be a pretty effective way to tax multinationals at source, if the OECD is conditioning government-to-government data flows on not using it.

The picture I am drawing from the OECD's guidelines for CBC is very troubling. If I understand this correctly, the OECD wants info to flow from all jurisdictions to the ultimate parent jurisdiction, which will then dispense info to other jurisdictions provided they have tax information exchange agreements (TIEAs) with the parent jurisdiction, and provided they keep the secrets and don't use the information to switch to formulary apportionment, even if that is a better system for them than arm's length transfer pricing.

Since most multinationals are based in OECD countries, it starts to really matter which jurisdictions have TIEAs with these countries. Indeed, these TIEAs are starting to be the world's answer to everything tax cooperation-related. This means that a country without TIEAs is very quickly finding itself out in the cold when it comes to the brave new world of tax transparency being built by the USA and the OECD.

Just taking a quick zoom in to this world, it should be noted that the United States, home to many of the world's biggest and most profitable multinationals, has very few tax agreements with countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is not necessarily that these countries do not want tax agreements with the United States. Many of them have requested tax agreements for many years. But only the US decides who has a tax agreement with the US.

What does this mean for a country in Sub-Saharan Africa that is the destination for a US multinational's direct investment dollars? I am afraid it means that most will continue to struggle to impose income taxes on these multinationals. They will in effect be forced to continue using arm's length transfer pricing even if it is too expensive for them to administer effectively, and even if they would prefer to use formulary apportionment. Meanwhile, they will be forced to set up complex financial asset monitoring and reporting systems to ensure they are not locked out of the global financial system by the US via FATCA or the OECD via the common reporting standard.

Yet even after doing all of that, without the requisite tax agreements in place, these countries seem increasingly likely to receive no tax information from the US or the OECD. That leaves them virtually powerless to stop tax evasion by their own residents, who may freely continue to hide their financial assets in the United States and elsewhere. It also leaves them at a serious disadvantage in addressing complex tax avoidance by US and other OECD-based multinationals.

So much for that quaint notion of "tax sovereignty" the US and the OECD are always so worried about. And so much, I think, for the notion that developing countries have an effective voice in OECD decision-making. The OECD has been very clear that it did not want to even discuss formulary apportionment, even as it purported to review the fundamental international tax structure in its BEPS project. With this latest guidance, it seems the OECD is intent on building a framework that will eliminate any possibility for future discussion for formulary apportionment, as well.










Tagged as: institutions OECD sovereignty tax policy transfer pricing

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