Sleeping with Royalties
So Amazon, Starbucks and Google avoid tax and British politicians are surprised! So the big accounting firms (KPMG, Ernst and Young, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Deloittes) follow the banks in Margaret Hodge’s and her committee’s sights.
It is pretty incredible that in 2012, after hundreds of years of banking and secrecy in financial dealings that politicians seem to suddenly wake up to the fact that multinational companies move money around the world to save on tax and that wealthy individuals do the same.
Have the sleeping pills run out? Is the dreamlike state that they were in for so long worn off like a modern-day Rip van Winkle?
All this time, companies have paid large royalties to themselves in low tax jurisdictions, changed prices to do the same, set up secret companies in secrecy-oriented tax havens alongside wealthy individuals and others from the criminal and terrorist fraternity who make the tax havens their home.
As wealthy nations like the UK have slept while such as royalties escape our shores (and our tax revenues with them) to the tax havens, we have allowed even more serious crimes to take place – the looting of the developing world of their natural resources through the illegal and morally repugnant ocean of money that gets sent to such secret jurisdictions. Far more money is transferred out of the third world into such jurisdictions annually than we in the so-called developed world push back in through aid programmes: all because we allow the secrecy to continue while we sleep.
Tax evasion / avoidance and secrecy – lifelong bedfellows
The talk is about how we extract more tax from corporations and the focus has been on HMRC to review the levels of royalties it allows companies like Starbucks to pay to what appear to be false set-ups in countries like Luxemburg. Starbucks solution is to keep on doing this but to pay HMRC £10m for a couple of years as a gift.
Tax avoidance on the scale that we are seeing – tens of billions a year according to experts like Richard Murphy. He shows how little companies are paying (compared to some like Costa Coffee who appear to be paying amounts that equate to their sales and real profits). The problem is that corporation tax is based on profits and, as any good accountant knows, profits are an art form not a science. If there were no secret jurisdictions, then companies would show their total sales and profits (as shifting money inside a company cannot lose it overall – so overall profits stay the same over time) and it would be possible to tax profits based on where the sales were made. Agreements could be made between the nations in which such sales were made on a national scale and by company. So, if Google makes $1bn in profits and 10% of its worldwide sales were in the UK, then it could be taxed on $100m of its profits in the UK at UK rates unless there were good reasons not to – e.g. evidence of excess investments. Of course, the simplest method would be to completely ban royalty payments within a company or connected companies. This would ensure (at least improve the chance that) that real activity and profitability were taxed where they should be. Royalties charged outside the company to another one would continue.
Before such a solution takes hold (or something similar – making real change to dual-tax treaties), the tax authorities have to struggle with long-term negotiation with companies on esoteric and mind-numbing issues and governments have to work to destroy tax havens and secret jurisdictions. HMRC are involved in the first but the progress on the second seems to take place on a geological timescale.
Secrecy is the friend of tax evaders and avoiders. Being able to hide the actual transactions that take place is often the cornerstone of tax minimization. This is why it is so important that the current discussions between the Isle of Man and the British government on opening up all the former’s bank account to UK investigation is so significant – even if just a start. Richard Murphy estimates that this will open up 99% of such accounts.
Good start but hardly the whole picture. As Nicholas Shaxson has written in his book Treasure Islands there are many tax havens in the world from the Channel Islands to Delaware and from Cyprus to the Virgin Islands. Each one enables secrecy of accounts and company ownership that does not just delay the ability of tax authorities to open up the information but stymies it completely in many cases.
Transparency – letting the light in
Global Witness believes a further dramatic change is required: the identities of the real, ‘beneficial’ owners of all companies should be publicly available in the country they are incorporated, and nominee directors and shareholders should be held liable for their clients’ actions. The EU has the opportunity to take the lead on this over the next 18 months as it updates its anti-money laundering laws.
This matters because ‘shell’ companies – entities that are little more than just a name on a piece of paper – are key to the outflow of corrupt money that keeps poor countries poor. Those who loot state funds through corruption or deprive their state of revenues through tax evasion need more than a bank: they need to hide their identity behind a corporate front. Countries such as the UK might have a company registry and consider themselves ‘onshore’, but as long as they only collect shareholder information, they are effectively permitting hidden company ownership – which means they are as offshore as any palm-fringed island and will continue to facilitate corruption, tax evasion and other crimes. This needs to change.
Their investigations showed how easy is was to set up false companies (in one case with a director who was no longer alive) which would often not operate but to which financial transactions would be placed – disguising the remittance of funds from one jurisdiction to another. Money laundering of this type is thus rampant internationally.
This is not much different from the tax avoidance of legitimate companies who, arm in arm with politicians and tax authorities, have been sleep walking to the current position. Now, with so many countries deep in recession and with Governments indebted and working hard to stay financially afloat, the general public is angered at what seems to be the slanting of tax benefits away from those who are working hardest to those who manage money and financial flows.
Robert Peston (BBC financial commentator) writes today (December 8th):
“Companies perceived by people, politicians and media as, in some sense, not making a proper contribution to the societies from which they extract their revenues and profits, will over time become marginalized within those societies”
Secrecy has bred tax opportunism and money laundering and it is right to conjoin those terms even if in law they differ. While the recession keeps its grip on the western world, there will be no let up on the public’s desire for some better form of equality whether against the wealthiest 1% or the top companies who control most of society. This equality of outcome – paying the right tax for the benefits that accrue from the nation that houses that company (such as roads, police, defence forces, education and the like) – is a central theme for this recession.
To become transparent is the requirement for the 21st Century and especially during the economic downturn. The internet has given us all the ability to learn what is happening within seconds and to act on it. So, Starbucks is today hit by demonstrations despite its ploy of giving a charitable donation to HMRC.
However, real transparency will require the ending of tax havens, the ending of impunity for those who are guilty of money laundering and for those who enable it (whether lawyers, firms of accountants or banks – many of whom are now facing corporate fines but few individuals are facing prison).
We should have a transparency law operating in all jurisdictions (similar to the country-by-country reporting) which would require multi-nationals to declare their sales in every country in which they do business, an end to tax havens and secrecy, real Directors allowed to operate companies, an end to the transfer of funds of PEP’s (politically exposed persons who operate with impunity and take billions out of countries desperate for the money they transfer into their own accounts) and a general set of legal requirements which ban artificial tax avoidance schemes.