Do Companies Exist???

David Cameron is an astute politician and he understands that, at last, there is a popular movement for equity in taxation. This equity includes companies paying a reasonable share of profits. Ian Birrell in The Independent sees this as the start of a movement but this is a campaign that people like Richard Murphy have waged for many years.

True, much of the publicity around his work and that of organisations like the Tax Justice Network and Action Aid have revolved around tax and the developing world. This is where multinationals – especially in the energy and mining sectors – have often connived with governments with a corrupt result that siphoned off hundreds of billions of dollars from the state into the pockets of individuals, elite groups and corporates.

The Dodd-Frank Act – and its focus on country-by-country reporting of tax in such areas – was aimed at opening up governments and companies payments.

However, the taxation effects of tax havens, low tax jurisdictions and multinationals with expertise in moving their tax affairs wherever they want has also created the opportunity for such multinationals to pay if they want, where they want. Organisations like the Institute of Directors, whose members are mainly smaller companies with less multinational options, have recently come out in favour of zero corporate tax rates – on the basis that it is people that should pay tax, not companies.

What’s a Company for?

There are many who believe that a company should not pay taxes – that the market economy needs to ensure that companies are free (within the law) to grow and prosper and that their assumption of human qualities (they are seen as entities under the law) is a fiction. It is people that need to be taxed – not companies and the IoD, for example, in its paper “How to get rid of Corporation Tax” (written following a similar paper from the 2020 Tax Commission) strongly advocates the elimination of all corporation tax as the company is a mere conduit for shareholders, staff etc who should pay all the tax on disbursements from the company.

This begs the question about the essential qualities of a company in a market economy – what is it that makes a company different from an individual – why shouldn’t it pay tax?

Limited liability provides individuals with the scope to take risks. It is a formula from which individuals seeking to build a business can bring in investment knowing that the only requirement to repay (if managing a legally proper business) is limited to the value of the shares as well as any loans taken out. It is limited liability that was fully developed in the Netherlands in1602 when stock was tradable on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange that gave the push to enterprise in Europe. Taken up by the British, it heralded the industrial revolution.

Joint stock companies (having limited liability) were the original, defining force that differentiated companies from individuals pursuing business opportunities. Now, most business is done with limited liability.  Governments have lost track of the ability of such joint stock companies to register in whatever jurisdiction they want and to appoint Directors that have nothing to do with the business – often purely there to hide ownership.

Clearly, companies have a huge presence. Their marketing ability is as the company – not the individuals that are behind it. Advertising and brand management is aimed at providing the public with an identifiable face. A company relies on its customers seeing it as a tangible and identifiable organization with which customers can do business. It has a legal basis (and can take action as such and be actioned against as a result) as well as a moral requirement – the advent of CSR is merely a tangible outcome of the way that companies are seen to be real and impact the environment and society in many ways.

If it quacks…..

We all know that companies are the centre of entrepreneurship and product and service creativity. In a market economy, the rise of joint stock corporations have worked to de-risk investments so that competition has been developed and economic growth maintained since the early 1800’s. This growth has developed some enormous corporations in businesses as wide as energy, food, utilities, construction, defence and aerospace, pharmaceuticals and beyond. Every area of opportunity is mined by the evolution of companies across the globe. Governments have progressively sought to assist business but, under pressure from society (people) laws have been passed which inhibit them to what society believes are proper norms.

These laws include health and safety and employment laws but also include tax laws. As a result, companies make decisions on where to locate – although this often includes where it needs to sell as much as where it can find skilled staff or suppliers.

Apart from rogue traders, set up with the need to hide its affairs within foreign jurisdictions and behind false Directors, many MNC’s (multinational corporations) are able to move their profits around by manipulation of licensing and other features. Rather than pay tax on profits in the areas in which they make the money, accountants can provide companies with boltholes in which the rates of tax are very low.

The IoD and others believe that companies are not real – that Governments should give up on them and rely on the payments they make to people on which tax should be paid.

The question arises: if a company is a distinct entity in law; if it can be held responsible for its impact on the environment, its impact on people, its duty of care to customers – why, oh why, should it not pay taxes? Why should society not look to some repayment from the company itself – which benefits hugely from joint stock activities as well and huge benefits that are introduced for companies such in terms of infrastructure, government regulations, and a myriad of other incentives – rather than (in this instance only) having to seek tax purely from receivers of income from companies. Taxing companies is, in principle, correct as it is the company that derives the income from a location.

If tax is to be separated, then the long-term outcome for companies would be potentially the loss of other benefits (such as joint-stock arrangements) as the legal distinction becomes blurred. Not just the thin end of the wedge – but a potentially disastrous change.

Companies have to play their part

If companies exist in law as distinct entities, which they do worldwide, then it is reasonable that they face up to the reasonable demands of the society in which they operate. Company law, however, may set up companies as distinct but the reality is that the company has no moral code except that which society imposes. People have moral codes, companies (which are organisations of people) do not. CSR is reactive to society, not pro-active and while companies have a need to become sustainable (in terms not just of resources but sustainable in terms of the relationship with its customers and the societies in which they operate) it is extremely rare for them to lead – to take such societal risks.

This is true in most areas. Health and safety leaders in companies were years ahead of the legal changes in places such as California but were reacting, quite properly, to likely long-term changes. Those that did so were ahead of the game when laws changed in areas such as environmental restrictions.

This reactive ability (changing as the environment changes in an evolutionary way) makes the best companies resilient – sustainable. It shows they are real entities as much of society as any other organizational form or the individuals that self-organise around them and within them. Companies are a part of society and should contribute to society as a key part of it. This means that opting out of a crucial element of the system – taxation – is ludicrous on grounds of the companies’ relationship with society – whether that opting out is legal or not.

The dangers are obvious. The crack in society would be potentially dramatic – companies would be seen to have no fiscal contract with society. This may well be the case for MNC’s now but the public backlash is starting to inhibit their ability to prosper in this environment. Companies that properly pay their tax are now selling this proposition to their customers – companies such as J Sainsbury whose pride in paying proper company tax in the UK is seen in distinct contrast to those MNC’s like Amazon, Starbucks and similar. The latter is threatening to disentangle itself from future investment in the UK if David Cameron (and his “time to smell the coffee remarks”) persists in trying to get them to pay tax where they trade rather than using licensing and royalties to hid their true profits.

Companies are a key part of society. They have to act as such and not just contribute to society solely through CSR documents. They have to be seen to contribute and tax is one of the most obvious manifestations of that contribution.

Let tax be paid where the trade is made

Let’s end the notion that companies should not pay corporation tax and let’s get on to the next step of the ladder – working out how to ensure that royalties, tax havens, tax schemes, fake Directors and the like are no longer tolerated and that tax is paid where the trade is made.


See: Do Companies Exist – Part II


See-through Society – transparency

Cleaning Up

Chuka Umuna, the Shadow Business Secretary, recently called for companies in the UK to declare their tax payments to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This followed the widely reported, bad publicity surrounding the minimal tax payments made in the UK by Amazon, Google, Starbucks and many others. Whilst not wishing to name and shame, he believes that all companies should glory in the tax they pay. Justin King, head of Sainsbury’s, one of the big four food retailers in the UK, made a similar statement, suggesting that consumers could make change happen through their custom. International Corporations have been cleaning up by transferring their tax liabilities to low tax regimes and tax havens – they can virtually choose where to pay tax.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, states in his most recent letter to LibDem members: “The idea of combining a strong economy with a fair and transparent society is something that will also be seen in an international context this year when we host the G8 in Northern Ireland.”

Transparency is becoming the mantra of the well-meaning in society and many would say “about time, too”. While not the answer to all of societies’ ills, it is a precursor to re-directing society towards solving some of the greatest problems we have – because transparency of key information allows people (civil society) to make informed decisions – either on their own (through the marketplace) or through their government.

Sweeping away the leaves

For years, organisations like Transparency International have campaigned for dramatic improvements in the way governments, publicly owned organisations and companies provide important information. The danger with secrecy (and the UK remains a very secretive country) is that beneath the opacity of information lie secrets that those with vested interests wish to keep hidden. Whilst secrecy is always claimed by Governments to benefit all of us where they wish to enforce it, the evidence is usually to the contrary. The benefits of secrecy accrue to vested interests and results in economic mismanagement at best – at worst, in countries which are, for example, resource-rich and economically poor, it leads to mass corruption, impoverishment of the mass of people, illness and suffering.

Economics and economies thrive on the open availability of good information and only monopolies thrive on secrecy. It is only when information is made available that proper judgments can be made by the mass of participants in the marketplace.  In a world population of billions, markets can only work where information is not controlled from the top down. Stockmarkets and financial markets depend on the freest possible flow of information to the widest audience and there has been a progressive move towards freer access to information along with the spread of technology that enables it to be used. The driving force is the same human one that drives freedom and democracy. There is an inherent motor behind individual freedom and the right to self-govern and the same motor drives transparency because it is with transparency that the potential can be seen and with transparency that informed decisions can be made.

Transparency is not closing your eyes when the wind blows

In the UK, a nation that always appears to be governed by a conservative mindset where change is difficult, where the Official Secrets Act dominates, where GCHQ and CCTV appear ubiquitous, where the challenge to maintain a fairness between an open society and a society that bears down on terrorism often seems so far weighed in the latter’s direction, the motor for transparency often seems to be running in neutral. Conservatism (especially in England) means keeping things the same and with direction from the centre. This often means that vested interests operating from the centre or with the centre will disallow the move towards more openness. The Labour government provided a Freedom of Information Act, for example, to the chagrin of its then leader, Tony Blair., who was and remains a centrist. In a sense the provision of the Act was odd, because Labour remains as much a centrist party as the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the human motor for more transparency was stronger than the urge to opacity in this case – even if the Act is not itself allowing the freedoms desired.

Yet, it was a step towards a more open society and towards transparency that many countries would relish. A free press (the subject of so much discussion following and before Leveson) has helped to unearth the secrecy in banking, for example, that has plagued the UK for centuries. Manipulation of LIBOR, money laundering, sub-prime casino banking and support for tax havens may have helped to make London a key banking centre but it did not insulate the UK from the collapse in 2007 – it made it far worse – and “only when the tide goes out do you discover who was swimming naked” (Warren Buffet commenting on naked transparency). Sometimes, opening our eyes hurts.

Nothing to Hide?

One example of eye strain concerns the opacity of the banks and their cozy relationship with Government (not just in the UK). The secrecy allied to the special relationship has hindered the UK to an intolerable degree. Under Nigel Lawson (one of Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellors) the post-manufacturing society was hailed as the future as banks gained more freedoms and we all kept our eyes closed. Yet, we now see Germany as Europe’s economic motor because of its manufacturing prowess and the revitalization of the British motor industry (although hardly any it owned by Brits) is now lauded much louder than our “success” in financial services. The illusion of banking remains, though – as a key driver of the economy rather than what it really is – a provider of services that should assist the real economy. And the illusion has been propped up by a lack of real transparency which enables banking to remain a secret society.

Transparency is the ability to be strong enough to reveal information because there is nothing to hide. The true strength of transparency is the confidence that it portrays. So, the opportunity for companies and Governments to be open, to be transparent, only exists where there is not much to hide. Clearly, international companies that are paying virtually no corporation tax on sizeable UK earnings have something to hide; clearly, those (companies and individuals) who put money into offshore tax havens or to secrecy jurisdictions may have something to hide.

If banks and individuals had nothing to hide, Wegelin, the oldest Swiss bank, which is closing as a result of its plan to take on all the clients of Swiss banks that had decided to be more transparent with the US authorities over tax evasion would still be open for business. Their clients, who wished anonymity, made their way to Wegelin – which had been founded in 1741. They knew they were doing wrong and Wegelin knew the same – and the bank is closing after a hefty fine from US regulators and after 271 years. Secrecy was in the bank’s DNA – it could not evolve to the realities just beginning to dawn in the 21st Century. It became extinct.

So, lack of transparency in a world with eyes opening can be also hurt and be expensive and the US executive is now proving to be vigilant on  behalf of transparency on a world-wide basis – as is the US Congress which passed legislation in 2010 called Dodd-Frank. Part of this related to section 1504 which requires extractive industry companies registered with the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) to disclose their revenues and taxes paid on a country by country basis worldwide. This includes all companies registered on the NYSE no matter where they are based. The EU looks to be following this example so that the people of resource-rich, economically poor countries will know how much money their precious natural resources raise in annual income and then can follow through what their Governments do with that money.

However, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chambers of Commerce (vested interests if ever there were) are trying to fight back and have initiated a law suit in the US to nullify section 1504

How curious that libertarians fight on behalf of secrecy – the proponents of a free market arguing against a main tenet of economics – free information.

Battle lines are being drawn – the light and the dark.

21st Century Schizoid Man, King Crimson’s take on Spiro Agnew, was written in 1969 but the 21st Century does even now witness such schizoid tendencies characterized by corporate and governmental secretiveness, emotional coldness and apathy that typifies the illness. The lack of openness is world-wide and exhibited by the Chinese authorities’ suppression of its Southern Weekly newspaper when an editorial criticizing Chinese leadership was thrown out and one supporting the leadership was superimposed. Anyone reading Martin Jacques book “When China Rules the World” would not be surprised at the suppression. It characterizes the central leadership of this “civilization state” but Jacques argues that we see it too much with western eyes. But, what if we in the West are right and democratic freedom and openness are the motors that drive our human endeavours? What if the Chinese have, for 2,000 years, actually got it wrong. As China grows stronger, the move away from freedom for information will intensify and Chambers of Commerce will battle against laws for transparency that they will argue provides Chinese firms with advantages. This is a battle that has to be fought world-wide.

Our pursuit of progressively greater freedom (whether press freedom, open markets, democracies, freedom of speech) and equality (of race, religion (or non-religion, sex, sexual orientation and more) appears to be the real motor rather than the schizoid tendencies of the centrist control of monopolies, dictators, and vested interests. Transparency is a hugely important base upon which this basic human drive can persist. In a post-2007 world where the risk is that wealth is being driven to the top 1%, the drive for transparency is fundamental.

Hard Times – from 1854 to 1504 (Dodd-Frank)

Masters and “Quiet Servants”

Charles Dickens wrote “Hard Times – For These Times” (usually known as “Hard Times”) in 1854. This was a bleak analysis of mid-19th Century factories and the mechanistic drive for material reward.

The world of the Industrial Revolution saw immense material improvement within a 19th Century mindset that saw business develop on the back of “resources” – whether they were natural resources (like coal) or human resources – Dickens’s “quiet servants”. Resources were resources and how they were discovered, whose they were, the conditions under which they were mined, how they were shipped or the conditions under which they were placed into the manufacturing process were not much of a consideration.

Britain and other developing nations of the time grew wealthy on their own drive, ingenuities, financing and trading and manufacturing instincts but the whole process would have collapsed if access was not obtained to raw materials from the rest of the world and the use of “human materials” from all over (including their own countries). The terms “human resources” is still with us along with natural resources – but the “quiet servants” grew louder.

Gradually, from 1833 when Britain enacted laws that children under nine should not work in factories, throughout the second half of the 19th Century and into the 20th, our human resources (people working in factories and mining, for example, in the industrializing nations) campaigned and secured rights over income, health and safety, length of the working day and age restrictions.

Developed countries worked out that, to work well and succeed, we had to develop ways that we all could share to some extent in the benefits that material gain provided. This is the basis of free and fair societies based on successful economies.

From nation to global

The last thirty years has seen a vast shift from developed nations using the rest of the world merely to buy from and sell to, to a shift to manufacturing and now development and R&D throughout the world. Trade has grown internationally and the so-called integrated “global economy” is in place. We are no longer merely the industrialised west and the under-developed rest, but an inter-connected web of nations within one, world economy.

Yet, the strains are clearly showing. Allied to the vast changes in internet communications (similar to the vast increase of communications that shaped 18th Century politics and the 19th Century – the telegraph and the phone), all peoples of the world now see themselves as part of this world (or global) economy in the same way that 19th and early 20th Century factory workers saw themselves vis a vis factory owners. They then, understandably, demand rights and safeguards.

This is now happening on a world scale as we develop our global nation (economically).  The changes are profound and, if done properly, will be of enormous benefit.

21st Century Responses

This week saw the approval after two years of the US SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) of articles 1502 and 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The two measures could have major implications for all of us in that (properly implemented) they set a real standard for the globalized economy in two, crucial areas:

  1. the willingness of all of us to buy items cheaply no matter how the raw materials were obtained
  2. the willingness of all of us to buy items from wherever in the world, no matter what corruption was employed in their provision.

Article 1502 refers to the mining of key raw materials in Africa such as tantalum, tungsten, gold and tin. It will (after an implementation period) require all suppliers and manufacturers to state that their products do not contain raw materials that financed war or bloody conflict. So many years after blood diamonds were headlined, there is now a statute that demands that companies step back and consider what they are buying. Manufacturers that buy such raw materials have had to count the cost of reputational disaster if they continue to sidestep basic human responsibilities in this global market. Now, there will be a legal imperative in the USA.

Article 1504 is the Cardin-Lugar rule which sets rules for country-by-country reporting of companies in the extractive industries concerning the revenues and profits they make in all countries where they do business (on a project by project basis).

Both articles require all companies that are listed in the USA to comply (although not immediately), wherever those countries are based. The European Union is expected to pass similar laws.

The implementation of the two articles will help to drive change on a global scale, where individual nations (e.g. where the resources are extracted) are unable to do so. Why? For several reasons:

  1. Developing nations (especially resource-rich and economically poor) are prone to corruption and often unable or unwilling to enact these laws themselves;
  2. Developing nations (especially in parts of Africa) use resource revenues to fund conflicts and wars;
  3. Corporations operating in those areas need to show global sensibilities – where treatment in their overseas subsidiaries and employees is brought up to levels that we believe are credible and reasonable. It is hard to do that without legal change as competition is too high to expect corporate ethics (whatever that means) to work on its own.

To Ayn Rand libertarians Dodd-Frank is an economic travesty and many in the US are waiting for Romney and Ryan to get elected and reverse these laws. That would be the travesty. It is enough that in developing nations, the gaps between the rich and the rest are widening; it is enough that nations like Greece are now collapsing economically. There is potential for real strife in nations where inequality is too widespread.

But, we now live in a global economy where we are all dependent on each other. That means simply that best practice (that works on a national scale) has to be introduced globally wherever feasible. The intricate balance of trade, manufacturing, design and the need for natural resources (as well as the need to work together on climate change issues or disease control, for example) dramatically increase the need to treat the global economy as one economy – which it is. This means that national rights have to be respected but that is not enough.

Article 1504, for example, takes the trust element away from many nations like Equatorial Guinea, where the leadership is a kleptocracy and where riches from oil revenues do not go to the people in any meaningful form. Country by country reporting will, eventually, put an end to opaque deals between companies and those who have taken over the ownership of natural resources in those countries by showing transparently what profits are made and revenues generated on a project by project basis. Citizens in those countries will begin to be able to see how those revenues are used or not. Information is valuable and a first step to more equitable conditions.

21st Century Ethics

As we enter the fifth year of the post-sub prime recession (with economic collapse in Greece and high youth unemployment in Spain), we remain much more concerned with ourselves than with people and nations thousands of miles away. The change that global economics has wrought, however, is that we can no longer ignore the plight of those so far away even if we (wrongly) wish to do so. Their plight is ours just as the impoverishment (economically and educationally) of our inner cities is a blight and our plight.

The Chinese view things differently, of course. A thousand years of relative impoverishment has left it hungry for economic growth and its hunger leads it to plunder the natural resources of Africa. China’s legalist centre, its Confucian heart and its loathing of western imperialism means that it is content to leave governance issues aside. Its own internal corruption (the corruption of a centrist and legalist government, where bribes are the common currency of the status quo) means that it is unlikely to require good governance in return for its acquisition of raw materials. In fact, its non-linkage of governance requirements gives China a distinct trading advantage in Africa.

It is to be hoped that this is a short-term business expedient and a long-term mistake for the Chinese. Just as the best manufacturers in the 19th and early 20th Century were leaders in improving conditions for their employees (notably, Henry Ford who wanted his own staff to be able to afford to buy his cars) and just as the US spearheaded safety rules in the 20th Century, it is likely that the best companies will understand that improving the safeguards overseas (whether in their own companies or those of suppliers) will be important, medium-term investments.

Reputational loss is now potentially huge (as Apple realized when suicides at one of its biggest suppliers in China, Foxconn, began to rise and changes in working practices were required by Apple). The raw materials that we require for so many of the goods that we buy are obtained under horrendous conditions in Africa. It is not just blood diamonds but all those naturally occurring elements that the SEC has just regulated into law.

In addition, the country-by-country reporting will shine a light on the regimes that take in billions of dollars of income and disburse so little to their people. Pressure will mount from outside and inside.

Organisations like One, Transparency International, Global Witness and Enough and the Publish What You Pay coalition deserve huge credit for a relentless drive over many years to enact such positive changes. The US Congress deserves huge credit for bringing it into law in the powerhouse of the US economy. The EU should follow and they should all work within the OECD and elsewhere to ensure that these measures, providing an ethical underpinning to the global economy, are made global.

We live in a globalized economy and comparative advantages should be developed through intelligence, hard work and ingenuity – not via the impoverishment or hardship of our global neighbours.  The bringing into implementation of Dodd-Frank’s articles 1502 and 1504 suggests that the global economy is waking up to the fact that our “quiet servants” deserve respect wherever they are – close to home or further away. The global economy (and climate change and air travel and the internet….) means we are all neighbours now.