Kluwer law has recently published Tax Sovereignty in the BEPS Era, a collection of contributions I co-edited with Sergio Rocha, in which we and a slate of authors from a range of countries explore the impact of the BEPS initiative on "tax sovereignty"--which I take to mean the autonomy that nations seek to exercise over tax policy. Here is the description:
Tax Sovereignty in the BEPS Era focuses on how national tax sovereignty has been impacted by recent developments in international taxation, notably following the OECD/G-20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) Project. The power of a country to freely design its tax system is generally understood to be an integral feature of sovereignty. However, as an inevitable result of globalization and income mobility, one country’s exercise of tax sovereignty often overlaps, interferes with or even impedes that of another. In this collection of chapters, internationally respected practitioners and academics reveal how the OECD’s BEPS initiative, although a major step in the right direction, is insufficient in resolving the tax sovereignty paradox. Each contribution deals with different facets of a single topic: How tax sovereignty is shaped in a post-BEPS world.And here is the table of contents:
Part I The Essential Paradox of Tax SovereigntyAnd finally, here is a brief description:
- CH 1: BEPS and the Power to Tax, Allison Christians
- CH 2: Tax Sovereignty and Digital Economy in Post-BEPS Times, Ramon Tomazela Santos & Sergio André Rocha
- CH 3: Justification and Implementation of the International Allocation of Taxing Rights: Can We Take One Thing at a Time?, Luís Eduardo Schoueri & Ricardo André Galendi Júnior
- CH 4: An Essay on BEPS, Sovereignty, and Taxation, Yariv Brauner
Part II Challenge to the Foundational Principles of Source and Residence
- CH 5: Evaluating BEPS, Reuven S. Avi-Yonah & Haiyan Xu
- CH 6: Jurisdictional Excesses in BEPS’ Times: National Appropriation of an Enhanced Global Tax Basis, Guillermo O. Teijeiro
- CH 7: Taxing the Consumption of Digital Goods, Aleksandra Bal
Part III Acceptance and Implementation of Consensus by Differently-Situated States
- CH 8: The Birth of a New International Tax Framework and the Role of Developing Countries, Natalia Quiñones
- CH 9: The Other Side of BEPS: “Imperial Taxation” and “International Tax Imperialism”, Sergio André Rocha
- CH 10: Country-by-Country Over-Reporting? National Sovereignty, International Tax Transparency, and the Inclusive Framework on BEPS, Romero J.S. Tavares
- CH 11; How Are We Doing with BEPS Recommendations in the EU?, Tomas Balco & Xeniya Yeroshenko
- CH 12: U.S. Tax Sovereignty and the BEPS Project, Tracy A. Kaye
The book unfolds in three parts. The first, The Essential Paradox of Tax Sovereignty, features four chapters.
- In chapter 1, Christians introduces the topic by demonstrating how BEPS arose from the paradox of tax sovereignty and analyzing why multilateral cooperation and soft law consensus became the preferred solutions to a loss of autonomy over national tax policy. The chapter concludes that without meaningful multilateralism in the development of global tax norms, the paradox of tax sovereignty will necessarily continue and worsen, preventing resolution of identified problems for the foreseeable future.
- Tomazela &; Rocha pick up this thread in chapter 2, where they demonstrate that BEPS addresses the symptoms, but not the problems, of the sovereignty paradox. In their view, the central defining problem of this paradox is an ill-defined jurisdiction concept. The chapter demonstrates why tax policymakers need to change the conventional wisdom on sovereignty in order to incorporate new nexus connections due to the changing nature of trade and commerce.
- In chapter 3, Schoueri & Galendi further the inquiry by providing a detailed analysis of the interaction of contemporary cooperation efforts with the sovereignty of states in light of historical claims in economic allegiance, economic neutrality and now cooperation against abusive behaviour.
- Brauner rounds out this first part in chapter 4, which establishes the evolution of the concept of tax sovereignty. The chapter proposes an instrumental role for sovereignty in the process of improving cooperation and coordination of tax policies among productive (non-tax haven) countries, to balance claims and serve as a safeguard against political (in this case international) chaos. Brauner concludes that such a change to the business of international tax law would ensure at least an opportunity for all participants to succeed on their own terms.
Part Two of the book, Challenge to the Foundational Principles of Source and Residence, takes an in depth look at why residence and source continue to be the two essential building blocks of tax sovereignty and the backbone of the international tax system, surviving BEPS but still subject to multiple challenges in theory and practice.
- In chapter 5, Avi-Yonah & Xu argue that BEPS simply cannot succeed in solving the sovereignty paradox because BEPS follows the flawed theory of the benefits principle in assigning the jurisdiction to tax. Avi-Yonah and Xu therefore make a compelling argument that for the international tax regime to flourish in the face of sovereign and autonomous states, countries must commit to full residence-based taxation of active income with a foreign tax credit granted for source-based taxation.
- In chapter 6, Tejeiro continues the analysis of the fundamental jurisdictional building blocks, demonstrating that by resorting to legal fictions within BEPS and beyond it, states are attempting to enlarge the scope of their personal or economic nexus, or to grasp taxable events and bases beyond their proper reach under well-settled international law rules and principles.
- Bal furthers the discussion in chapter 7, with an analysis of how digital commerce has upended traditional notions of source and residence. Bal advocates the consumer's usual residence as a good approximation of the place of actual consumption and therefore the best-justified place of taxation.
Part Three of the book, Acceptance and Implementation by Differently-Situated States, considers tax sovereignty after BEPS from a range of perspectives. Chapters 8 through 10 focus on perspectives from lower income or developing countries, while chapters 11 and 12 review the landscape from the perspective of Europe and the United States, respectively.
- In chapter 8, Quinones explores how developing countries might take advantage of the new international tax architecture, developed for purposes of coordinating the BEPS action plans, to ensure that their voices are truly shaping the standards. She argues that the knowledge gap between developing and developed is getting narrower instead of wider, with major negative impacts expected for the international tax order.
- Rocha continues this discussion in chapter 9, with a proposal: instead of simply accepting the BEPS Project’s recommendations and their reliance on historical decisions about what constitutes a country’s “fair share of tax”, developing countries should join in the formation of a Developing Countries’ International Tax Regime to focus discourse on the rightful limits of states’ taxing powers.
- Furthering the theme of autonomous priority-setting, in chapter 10 Tavares focuses in on a key part of the BEPS consensus, exploring whether implementing the CBCR standard, without a deeper transfer pricing reform, should be viewed as a priority in every country. He further questions whether this particular initiative, even if important, is worthy of mobilization of the scarce resources of developing countries. Tavares concludes with an incisive review of the role of the inclusive framework in prioritizing some needs over others.
- Balco & Yeroshenko then consider BEPS implementation from the very different perspective of the EU in chapter 11. The chapter demonstrates that even within the EU, BEPS implementation is not straightforward, as the interests of member states sometimes conflict and the basic notion of tax sovereignty remains fundamental even while tax coordination and harmonization across the EU expands. However, the authors note that the progress made in the last several years on key cooperation norms, which was largely inspired by BEPS, has been unprecedented.
- Finally, Kaye provides a capstone to the book in chapter 12, where she makes the convincing case that although some in the United States saw the BEPS Project as a threat to US tax sovereignty, this project was in fact necessary in order for the United States to effectively wield its tax sovereignty. Kaye’s chapter thus ends the book with a clear picture of the ongoing paradox of tax sovereignty in the world after BEPS.
Tagged as: BEPS scholarship sovereignty tax competition tax policy
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
Next week, I will be participating in a workshop at Tilburg University in the Netherlands on the topic of International Tax Governance, a timely topic especially given the recent developments in the coordination of the international organizations, the expansion of the OECD's global forum idea to monitor BEPS, the impact of the state aid cases within and beyond Europe, and the increasing role of NGOs in shaping international tax policy. Here is the program:
|10:00- 10:30||Welcome and registration|
|Cees Peters (Tilburg University): International Tax Governance in Action|
|11:00- 12:30||Session 1 - Transparency|
|Edwin Visser (PwC): reaction of MNC's to transparency pressure: CbCR and CSR discussion (30 minutes + 15 minutes discussion)|
|Maaike van Diepen (Tax Justice Network): The perspective of an NGO (30 minutes + 15 minutes discussion)|
|12:30- 13:30||Lunch break|
|13:30- 15:00||Session 2 - EU State Aid|
|Allison Christians (McGill University): a US perspective - the reaction of the US government and US MNC's|
|Anna Gunn (Leiden University): an EU perspective - the reaction of the EU Member States and EU MNC's|
|15:30- 17:00||Session 3 - Compliance of states with new norms of international taxation|
|Carla De Pietro (Tilburg University and University of Bologna): Implementation of the OECD BEPS measures (Action 6) in the light of the relationship between international and EU law.|
Tagged as: conference governance institutions international law tax policy
As observers of global tax policy know, international tax issues are dealt with in bilateral treaties that more or less adhere to a 'model' tax treaty developed and periodically updated by the OECD (provisions in a rival UN Model are occasionally invoked, and the US has its own model with its own distinctions and idiosyncrasies). There are those who have long lamented the problem of having thousands of bilateral agreements that can't be easily or quickly updated when the OECD revises the model (thus curbing the impact of OECD soft law).
As part of the base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) initiative, the OECD is currently developing a
"Multilateral instrument on tax treaty measures to tackle BEPS" which would be used to 'modify' all existing tax treaties in force among signatory countries. The OECD says this mechanism (which it calls an 'innovative approach') 'would preserve the bilateral nature of tax treaties' even as it modified all existing bilateral treaties 'in a synchronized way'. The OECD says there are "limited precedents" for modifying bilateral treaties with a multilateral instrument.
But are there really any precedents at all? I couldn't think of any off-hand. A quick check with a few international law colleagues yielded few comparators. Tim Meyer suggested the EU harmonizing efforts on Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) as a candidate, albeit noting that this does not contemplate directly overriding existing BITs but requires EU members to change their bilateral arrangements to conform with EU investment policy.
Tim also made the interesting observation that"treaties that reference customary international law standards, such as BITs’ reference to the minimum standard of treatment" could be overridden in a somewhat similar fashion. He explained that "[i]f custom changed, such as through the promulgation of soft law documents or multilateral treaties, it would change the BITs that incorporate the customary standard. That isn’t exactly the same thing [as the new OECD multilateral instrument], but similar."
The OECD's work in developing "global consensus" has in the past led some to describe OECD standards as "soft law" and others to suggest that the OECD may be understood to articulate customary international tax law; moreover the OECD has itself now taken to describing its model as soft law (including in its 2014 report on the multilateral instrument). I have urged caution in defining OECD proclamations as soft law or customary law given the OECD's exclusive membership of mainly rich countries, which excludes all of the BRICs and most of the rest of the world, as I think the nomenclature lends an imprimatur of legitimacy to OECD proclamations that may not be deserved. But it seems clear that the BEPS action items, and the new global forum to "monitor compliance" with them, are intended to overcome the exclusivity problem while endowing OECD norms with ever-greater law-like effect (without offending the unicorn that is "tax sovereignty").
It seems likely to me that a multilateral agreement that modifies existing tax treaties is actually intended to ultimately replace those treaties, making small and incremental modifications until the underlying bilateral treaties become superfluous or extinct. Accordingly I view the OECD's multilateral 'modification' function to be an exercise in creeping harmonization as well as "ossification" (or maybe transformation) of soft law into hard law.
Adding together the other elements of BEPS, including the new global forum to compel national compliance with 'minimum standards' as they develop, I recently suggested that the OECD's tax folks are giving birth to a new global tax order complete with rules, audits, and reform processes. This is perhaps not the order envisioned by those who have in the past called for global tax coordination in a supranational body for the sake of pursuing global tax justice. If the OECD-based regime is not fully supranational yet, it is close, and it looks increasingly inevitable once it sets a multilateral agreement in place.
There are many fascinating threads of soft law and public international law are at work in these developments. I recently came across an article by Jung-Hong Kim on the topic, entitled A New Age of Multilateralism in International Taxation?, abstract:
With the OECD/G20 BEPS project, the current international tax landscape is facing challenges and changes unprecedented for the past several decades. This paper looks at the development of bilateralism and multilateralism in the current international tax regime, takes stock of the BEPS works and analyzes the proposed Multilateral Instrument. Then, the paper discusses the emerging multilateral tax order in international taxation.
Historically, bilateralism has been the constant trend of tax treaties, and later multilateral tax treaties have emerged in some regional areas. There being some deficiencies with bilateral treaties such as dilapidation, delay in entry into force and vulnerability to treaty shopping, the experience of multilateral tax treaties can help build a foundation for future development of a multilateral tax treaty to complement the bilateral tax treaty network.
With a caveat that BEPS output is fluid at this stage, drawing on the various examples of existing non-tax multilateral treaties, the Multilateral Instrument will be a desirable and feasible tool to reflect the necessary changes resulting from BEPS project. For Korea whose tax treaties need a systematic upgrade after a noticeable growth in quantity, the negotiation on the Multilateral Instrument of the BEPS project will be a great opportunity to revisit the existing bilateral tax treaties and to make appropriate amendments with bilateral treaty partners in multilateral format.
Beyond BEPS, supposing that the work on the Multilateral Instrument results in a multilateral convention, the inevitable question is the emergence of a multilateral tax order. In terms of feasibility of such a multilateral tax order, there are both positive and negative sides. The positive side is that the relative success of Global Forum on Tax Transparency can be a guidance on the post-BEPS multilateral tax order. On the other hand, the phenomenon of diminishing multilateral trade regime and bilateral investment treaty regime seem to be a negative evidence. Another point to consider is the appropriate forum to manage the multilateral tax order. For this, there are two competing organizations, i.e., the OECD CFA and UN tax committee, each of which having some limit to be developed into an intergovernmental forum.
After all, the essential question will be how those major players such as the U.S., EU, China, India etc. could build a consensus by compromising on the institutional and substantive aspects of the multilateral tax order. For now, for the emerging multilateral tax order to proceed on a sound basis, the work of the BEPS project should bear substantive and meaningful fruits.
Sergio André Rocha recently posted a discussion on information, transparency, and the rights of taxpayer versus those of states, of interest. He argues that hard-fought rights needed to balance the unequal power between state and individual are being abandoned in the populist rush to protect the state against multinational tax dodging. Central to this argument is the claim that states are not hapless victims of ruthless tax managers and CEOs, rather they are the very architects of the system. He worries, I think, that suspending taxpayer rights to get at the big bad corporations will ultimately result in suspending rights for individuals, setting up the conditions for states to abuse their power. Here are a few excerpts (footnotes omitted):
There is no doubt that taxation is one of the areas where the balance between the legitimate exercise of Government power and the illegitimate violation of citizens’ rights is most challenging.
...The transformation of the majority of modern States into Fiscal States – i.e., States that depend on tax collection to obtain the resources to fund all its activities – has changed the nature of the obligation to pay taxes. Some authors have begun to argue that there is a fundamental or constitutional obligation to pay taxes.
However, this line of thought, to which we subscribe, has been used to support an inversion of the whole structure of tax systems. Legal principles that are, at their core, protections of taxpayers against the State have been transformed into protections for the State against taxpayers.
Let’s consider, for instance, the principle of transparency, which is at the center of modern constitutional, administrative, financial, and tax law. It is, first and foremost, a protection for the citizens against the State, establishing as a goal a state of affairs that guarantees full disclosure of a government’s actions to its citizens.
The principle of transparency is not a one-way street. It also applies to citizens, requiring disclosure and combating opaque situations that prevent the due application of laws in general. Nevertheless, one should not forget: State and Government transparency come first.
This maxim seems to have been forgotten by those now in charge of reshaping the international tax regime.
...[OECD Director Pascal Saint-Amans recently] stated that, "Transparency, from my perspective, is transparency from the taxpayer to the Tax Administration, and maybe the other way around as well. ..."
We should make no mistake: once legal principles have been mutilated and taxpayers’ rights overturned, effects will be felt by all taxpayers – individuals and legal entities alike.
...Both the Global Forum’s and BEPS’ work share a common feature: they are aimed at optimizing States’ tax collection. The taxpayer – the citizen – is not in their focus. This is unacceptable. There is nothing more urgent than recovering the protagonist role of the taxpayer in taxation, where he rightfully belongs. This does not mean that their focus is completely misguided. It means that they need to find a way to achieve their rightful objectives without leaving taxpayers’ rights behind.More at the link above; worth the read.
Tagged as: human rights institutions rule of law tax culture tax policy
Leopoldo Parada has recently posted on SSRN an article published last summer in the World Tax Journal, entitled Intergovernmental Agreements and the Implementation of FATCA in Europe, of interest. Here is the abstract:
FATCA is a US domestic tax policy that requires Foreign Financial Institutions around the world to provide the IRS information regarding their US clients. Recognizing this extraterritorial characteristic and the troubles associated with it, the US Treasury Department developed the Intergovernmental Agreements (IGAs), which have served the double purpose of coordinating FATCA at an international level and influencing the new international standards on automatic exchange of information. Nevertheless, the IGAs are instruments that still need to be improved, at least in order to guarantee their successful implementation in Europe. The first part of this article explores the legal nature and the characteristic of the IGAs, concluding that they possess an asymmetriclegal nature that can lead to conflicts of interpretation. Likewise, it concludes that their contribution toward international transparency is incompatible with the existence of other instruments in Europe that seek the opposite goal of protecting bank secrecy, although it recognizes the importance of the most recent achievements at the European level in order to ensure a coherent and consistent system of automatic exchange of information. The second part of this article analyses three grey areas in the IGAs implementation process in Europe (i.e., “quoted Eurobonds” in the United Kingdom; group requests under the Switzerland-United States IGA, and the “coordination timing” provision of the IGA Model 1A), concluding that there is still work to be done in order for the IGAs to grant an acceptable level of reciprocity in practice.I was not aware of this article when I wrote on a column last fall on this very same topic, in which I called the IGAs "Hybrid Tax Agreements" and pointed out the mess created by their unprecedented legal form as treaties to the rest of the world but administrative guidance in the United States. Parada's article goes further in the analysis and lays out a number of enduring difficulties. It seems to me that governments are simply ignoring these difficult issues as inconvenient barriers to desired outcomes and courts will face the same temptation. But I don't think these issues go away with time and gradual acceptance of FATCA as an institution. Instead, I think the issue will cause systemic problems going forward, both in terms of raising endless conflicts of law, and in terms of the precedent set for international tax relations by the failure of states to challenge US exceptionalism even as it tramples on law and legal process throughout the world.
Tagged as: FATCA IGAs international law scholarship
The Spiegel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium at McGill University continues today with a presentation by Richard Murphy of Tax Research LLP and the Tax Justice Network, on the Fair Tax Mark. This event is presented in conjunction with a collaborative project between the Stikeman Chair in Taxation and the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy at McGill Law on the topic of how regulation impacts innovation.
The Fair Tax Mark is a self-regulation project that seeks to intervene in the ongoing relationship between corporations, society, and the state. Like other certifications such as Fair Trade, the Fair Tax Mark is a voluntary program intended to project an image of openness, honesty and trustworthiness in tax matters to consumers and investors. The Mark is about paying taxes, but it is also about dramatically increasing transparency about how multinationals undertake tax planning as a business strategy. This places the payment of tax and the attendant planning and scheming squarely within the realm of corporate social responsibility. The Mark suggests that demonstrating some level of compliance with NGO expectations about global tax justice is becoming a cost of doing business, thus comprising a (or contributing to an existing) social license to operate.
This year's colloquium focuses on the fundamentals of corporate tax policy by critically examining issues in national and international tax policy; more information about the colloquium here. Today's talk will take place from 14:30-17:30pm in Room 202 of New Chancellor Day Hall, 3644 Peel Ave, Montreal. Students, faculty and the McGill community in Montreal are welcome to attend.
Tagged as: activism colloquium corporate tax CSR governance McGill tax culture Tax law
Canada's federal election unfolded last night with a decisive victory for the Liberal Party under the leadership of Justin Trudeau. Campaign promises include a much needed commitment to transparency, including budgetary "honesty" as outlined in the party's Fiscal Plan. Here are the main promises:
- cancel child benefit cheques for millionaires, increase child benefits for the middle class & below
- increase the marginal tax rate on Canada’s 1%, cut taxes for the middle class
- review tax expenditures, target tax loopholes that particularly benefit Canada’s 1%.
- be honest about the government of Canada’s fiscal position, base projections on Parliamentary Budget Officer report.
- run modest deficits for three years, invest in growth for the middle class.
- offer a plan to balance the budget in 2019.
Tagged as: Canada tax culture tax policy
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
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.