The Business of Sport

                                                                       

The Question: as the gap between elite sport and its fans grows ever-wider, should those who pay for the sport (its fans) expect to have a say, should the communities on which the clubs and associations depend be better treated by those at the top and, if so, how?

Many of us have a love affair with sport – many play it directly and millions watch sport and maybe actively or passively support a team. Sport underpins many of our lives – it makes us fit and provides excitement, motivations, inspiration, team-building and social cohesion.

As the 20th Century went on, professional sport was progressively distanced from the amateur and the fan by its takeover by business interests – initially, the local businessman but later, by international business.

This provides a distancing of ownership from the mass of people that generate the income in an industry that is unlike so many others: where the customers are so involved, often so passionate, often players.

This means that sports authorities (and especially businesses that own the major teams) have a responsibility that is different to other businesses or business organisations. They have a duty of care to their customers around the “game” and how it is played. This opens up the issue of how individuals (or groups of individuals) who are customers can be “played” because of their commitment and what can be done to protect them. There may be lessons for all industries from the examples available.

Business Governance and Sport

Governance in sport impacts many beyond the teams themselves. That is why Deloittes show their involvement in all the following areas :

  • licensing systems for sporting competitions;
  • cost control mechanisms;
  • transparency measures and anti-money laundering;
  • events and/or membership application and selection processes;
  • sporting calendar matters (national and international);
  • regulations in respect of players’ agents;
  • measures to protect the integrity of the competition;
  • independence of clubs – ownership rules and other means of influence;
  • player transfer rules; and
  • ‘football creditors’ rules.

Governance is much wider than this in regard to sport and its impact in  and on society can be shown by three articles in The Independent (Saturday, 18th May) that highlight the difficult interconnections between business and sport (here, England football teams) and the intertwining connection between sport and the community.

·      The first by Chris McGrath attempts to show the worst side (Manchester City’s owners sacking of Roberto Mancini) and the best side (the Portland Timbers superb response to a charity – Make a Wish – for help for an eight-year-old cancer victim).

·      The second (in the business section – Jim Armitage) reflects on the Arsenal blog that shows the support of Doan Nguyen Duc (a wealthy timber merchant from Viet Nam) for Arsenal and questions whether they should take the support (financial and otherwise) from someone that Global Witness (an anti-corruption NGO) says was responsible for much of Viet Nam’s destruction of its forests and the displacement of many people that lived there. He is said to have made the comment: “I think natural resources are limited, and I need to take them before they’re gone”.

·      The third (also in the business section by Simon Read) reports on how Sheffield Wednesday turned down a deal with a “payday lender” which it refuses to name but was said to have offered 25% more than anyone else.

The three articles (I assume “coincidentally” in the same newspaper on the same day) highlight the mistrust of journalists for the businesses behind the clubs but also for the type of ethical questions that the clubs have to consider at this time.  “This time” means at a time when business and the community is undergoing strains and, in football, when the position of a team as part of the community it serves is strained to the full. In the USA, big teams moves State; in the UK, only smaller teams like Wimbledon (now Milton Keynes based) have tried it as fan bases are crucial to the business (even if more revenue than ever is via TV and international support).

Whose business is sport?

It is a long time since amateur sport ruled anywhere (the top tennis players rarely joined the professional circuit until well into the 1960’s; athletics was similar and rugby became professional in the UK in the late 1990’s). In the UK, football was severely structured with maximum wages well into the 1960’s as well and even if clubs were limited liability companies, they were owned by local families who kept them private.

In those days of amateurism, sport was for the community. Players were not paid much (outside the USA) and players were close to those they played in front of, living in the same streets and drinking in the same pubs and clubs.

In the USA, football, basketball and baseball (and ice hockey and the rest) became business pursuits earlier. Europe and the rest of the world (and most sports) have followed. It is now the normal way of life that business had taken over professional sport to the financial benefit of players and (mainly through TV) the income for sport worldwide is now massive.

Whether the Olympics, football (through FIFA and its major tournaments such as the Champions League and World Cup), the Superbowl, 20:20 cricket in India and so many more, sport now generates massive income through its massive fan base and the ability of TV to generate that income. So, there has been a rapid shift by large businesses and entrepreneurs to own sports team and have influence over the organisations that manage sports – such as Formula 1 or baseball or football (of all types).

This income has been generated through the opportunity that sports presents over almost anything else – to transmit excitement visually and aurally through radio, TV and the internet to a mass audience that is entranced by the game played – with an excitement and passion rarely found elsewhere. This mass appeal is now available and reach-able worldwide and with that appeal comes massive advertising revenue (and, with the internet) growth is coming faster.

So, sport (something we all get involved in to some extent) has both appeal as participants and observers (although to a greater extent than anything else, the two are mixed with sport). This appeal is then converted into income for companies that are able to transmit sport into the home – via pay per view, rents and advertising.

Sky in the UK has become a dominant operator (although BT are now incurring on their territory).

Owners of sports teams (especially in football in Europe and all the major sports in the USA) benefit wherever they operate.

The Duty of Sport

Because sport is not just another product and because the “customer” is so involved, there is a chance that sport offers something different. The players are celebrities and, in modern culture, people that youngsters look up to (rightly or wrongly). More people know David Beckham than any politician or scientist – it is a (maybe unfortunate) fact.

This means that businesses involved in sport (and that means the sports clubs and managing organisations themselves) have opportunities to involve themselves with society that is not there for other businesses. Not only that, but they have a duty because of the nature of their business and for their own protection.

This duty can be said to be to serve the community that provides them with the income they derive. This is not about BSkyB or BT doing some CSR. They are the middlemen in all this – the means of transmission. No, this means the sports entities themselves working out how much their “community” means to them and how much they should give back to that community. It can be done.

A good example is Arsenal Football Club that has set up the Arsenal Foundation and, in turn, developed real partnerships with Save the Children (its international charity) and Willow Foundation (a national charity). I have an interest here in that I am Chief Executive of Willow Foundation – which provides special days for seriously ill young adults.

Arsenal is an international business these days but has worked out that it also has local roots and its Foundation works in the local community and with Willow on a national scale. With Save the Children, it operates internationally. At its recent Annual Ball, Arsenal Foundation raised over £300,000. That maybe small compared to the Football Club’s annual revenue of £226 million in 2011, but it is a start. Moreover, the time and effort of the club and those within it (like Arsene Wenger – an Ambassador of the Foundation) are worth a lot.

However, the balance sheet is patchy on sport’s involvement with their support base and through them with the community. There is no real driving force that connects through the massive distance that exists between them. While the same distance exists between many businesses and their customers (banking is a very real example, but the same can be said of energy companies and so many others), there is a very real difference in sport that is both for bad and for good.

The Sporting Difference  – and Opportunity

The business sector has been buffeted by recession and, in such a recession, business leaders and their companies are vulnerable to attack from other sections of society. So, the tax avoiders like Apple, Google, Starbucks and others (all under attack by newly-zealous politicians in the UK and the USA along with the tax havens that they employ) are not just seeing their potential tax bills increase. Their relationship with customers is also under attack that can lead to reduced sales. This may not be the case for Google (now so big and dominant that it may no longer care) but others may well feel the pain.

In the sporting arena, it is easy to see a large array of problems: FIFA and football corruption, allegations on racism across the world, NFL alleged behind-the-scenes collusion on player wages (the NFL is a not-for-profit – which may surprise) and the general disbelief that ordinary fans have with the salaries that players “earn”.

Football in the UK is an example of the changes that have taken place in the last forty years where salaries of £100,000 per week are not unusual (Gareth Bale is negotiating £200,000 a week at Tottenham) and the difference between that and the average wage in the UK of around £25,000 per year is stark.

Taking all this together, sport (as epitomized by the 2012 Olympic Games in London) can be magnificent but clubs and sports organisations have to take notice of the communities upon which they rely. The piecemeal CSR and charitable work should be as competitive as their sport rather than resisted or an afterthought – or done just for publicity.

Sport is a collective experience – whether in teams or the association between individual sports stars and their fans. This provides an opportunity to seal the gap between the stars and the fans that small groups of supporters on their own can never fill.

The link between the stars / clubs / associations (the elite) and the fans / amateur groups has always been a struggle. It is for each club to decide how it deals with the community upon which it depends. Some ensure the players get into the community – at Tottenham Hotspur in London, Ledley King and Jermaine Defoe are well-known for the time they spend with young, inner-City kids and clubs. Other set up Foundations and / or develop relationships with charities (usually connected in some way to the work they are doing or the area they are in).

Heading for Rollerball?

Deloittes produce an annual report on the top football teams – with the last issued in January of 2013.

No one (that I can see) assesses annually the contribution that sport and teams make in society or the potential for that contribution – let alone any analysis on the work individual clubs perform.

Business seems now to be the only driver – which is a Rollerball outlook on sport – a dystopian future that may well be here already. Made in 1975, the film showed the world in 2018 as corporate-controlled where sport was the controller – like 1984 with sport instead of three political blocs fighting each other.

So the Question: as the gap between elite sport and its fans grows ever-wider, should those who pay for the sport (its fans) expect to have a say, should the communities on which the clubs and associations depend be better treated by those at the top and, if so, how?

Bodies such as Sport England, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the major associations of all the sports and clubs discuss the wide range of benefits and opportunities that exist. Because it is hard to measure the impact of sport and the part played by big corporations in sport (it is not something easy to measure like GDP), the real impact of large corporations on communities and people in the UK is not assessed.

Like the problems of measuring the benefit of a woodland or a river, our focus on numbers (and scores) misses the potential for large sports organisations to do good – and the result is that newspapers see the Rollerball potential.

The Government has set up a Natural Capital Committee to measure the value of natural capital in the UK. It  just published its first Annual Report

Because of its enormous impact on society and people, one response may be to set up an equivalent in the area of Sport – to assess the benefits and problems associated with the business of sport and the benefits to society, people and communities in ensuring that Sport is well managed for the benefit of as many as possible and that Businesses in Sport gives back to society sufficient of the benefits it derives from those communities and show how they take those communities into account. We would then get to see an Annual Report on the state of sport in the UK.

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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.

Waking from our tax stupor

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

Earlier this year, Global Witness issued a report – Grave Secrecy that highlighted the following:

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.

The Moral Tax Maze – What Does Society Want ……

…..and General Anti-Avoidance Rules (GAAR)

Following on from the Aaronson report in November, 2011, George Osborne stated in his budget speech to Parliament this week that he has decided (no doubt after Liberal Democrat pressure) to adopt General Anti-Avoidance Tax Rules (GAAR) after due consultation. This is a major departure for the UK and has potentially huge benefits on a world-wide scale.

 

Osborne stated his abhorrence to excessive tax avoidance and this repeated, in effect, the Aaronson dictum that only excessive tax avoidance should be the subject of any GAAR. Any law should focus, it said, on excesses – where schemes were devised that provided for a “moderate rule” that does not penalize proper tax planning. This would, Aaronson said in November, 2011, not need elaborate clearance systems because it would be clear that centre ground tax avoidance was not likely to be the subject of HMRC wrath. Guidance (rather like that provided with the 2010 Bribery Act, no doubt) could be provided.

 

Tax and avoiding commitment

 

Taxation is not an exact science. In the rush to comment on George Osborne’s 2012 budget, the focus has been on how the proceeds of taxation are used by the State. The Moral Maze on Radio 4 this week highlighted this issue. The discussion was not that illuminating but revealed the continuing problem that society has in determining the mix between public and private sector, taxation and philanthropy in a democratic state.  The extremes were in good evidence – at least in the ‘conversation” between Richard Murphy (of Tax Research UK) and Melanie Phillips (Daily Mail).

 

In the US, the Tea Party and similar Republican and libertarian factions have called for minimum state intrusion in the private affairs of individuals and corporations: to allow them to make their profits and earn their income and spend it however they wish.  Reagan’s opinion that the State was “the problem” is reflected in rightist policy in the US. Here, entrepreneurial spirit takes precedence over the “so-called” needs of those who can’t make it economically or fail through ill-health (or, it is assumed, lack of opportunity – opportunity is what you make yourself). State spending should be for defence (and maybe policing) and little else. The private sector should be responsible for everything and pricing through demand and supply should be responsible for sharing out the needs of the population.

 

Opposite to this are state run economies – the failed economies of the Soviet Union, for example – which proved that state monopoly failed. The attempt to centralize pricing when the number of SKU’s (stock keeping units) may run into billions was seen to be a huge error. China has awoken to that reality and the market economy is now much more the norm.

 

So, market economics rules and pricing is, wherever possible, market driven by supply and demand.

 

The problem is that the “market” (Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”) is not always right and the drive of many individuals and other organisations (the market) coming together is often imperfect on timing, often leading to monopolies of supply and often the result of market imperfections. Of course, there are also wider social issues on which government develops obligations to intervene. Global Warming may be one; re-armament in the UK in 1939 is another – no market would supply the needed response (at least in the latter).

 

This leads to the need for some societal intervention beyond the market. However, as soon as one section is taken outside the market economy, then the economy is further driven in directions that are imperfect. The requirement for a nation (or city-state or whatever) to defend itself from potential invasion has, throughout civilization, meant that central government has needed to collect tithes or taxes from the population it is defending. Of course, ancient monarchies were defending the monarch rather than the people, but newer, democracies have a similar aspect. Until we reach the perfect state where no-one needs to defend themselves, defence spending will be “allowed” through taxation. This is a basic need and taxation results. Governments (that take on the responsibilities that society gives them through the democratic process) then extend that remit to tax and supply “needs” such as policing, a legal system, health, social security and market intervention. It also has the power to alter the direction that markets take through taxation or incentivisation – e.g. 100% capital allowances or allowances for R&D and geographical location.

 

The question is no longer whether market economies should exist but the degree of state (on behalf of society) intervention through taxation and the ability of society to accept that taxation and / or devise ways to minimize individual and corporate tax burdens (in the same way that computer hackers attempt to break down IT security defences).

 

The Moral Taxation Maze

 

If we believe that democratically elected governments have the right to raise finance through taxation based on the mandate they have been given by society, then it cannot be too far a push to agree that the collection of tax receipts should not be stymied. Tax evasion is a criminal activity; tax avoidance has long been seen as the right of the clever (and the wealthy) to find ways to minimize the tax they (individuals and companies) pay.

 

This “right” has pitched the seemingly able and spirited against  government bureaucrats and tax inspectors in a battle that the public seemed to want the former to win. After the banking and credit-induced damage inflicted in 2007/8, the “spin” has changed direction. It is no longer just bankers that have questionable business ethics. We are now engaged (world-wide) on a deleveraging project of austerity and public sector cut-backs. This is made much more difficult by those individuals / organisations who are engaged in tax avoidance and try to minimize the tax-take made by government. This impacts directly on the need to save even more public sector spending – impacting directly on those sectors of society that can least afford it.

 

The fact that tax avoiders inhabit the same off-shore jurisdictions as drug dealers, kleptocrats sending oil and energy wealth into their own accounts and organized crime is maybe a clue  that tax avoidance is not a wholly respectable activity – whether done by individuals or corporations. The debate seems to be changing and the world is now waking up to the debilitating impact of the “legal” flouting of tax laws through manipulative mechanisms and offshore tax havens. Ethical considerations are now allied to the deleveraging process.

 

Tax: Society’s writ, Government implementation

 

The moral tax maze may becoming a lot simpler to navigate. Taxation in each country should now be  based on a wide-ranging general anti-avoidance law, which should go further than the Aaronson proposals. While tax will continue to be a competitive issue between nations (within broad guidelines set by trading agreements), tax havens located where value does not arise should be outlawed and value-adding nations (where goods and services are produced, designed and /or sold) should have the sole rights to levy taxes and, through a broad-based anti-avoidance rule, collect those taxes from those operating there (with double taxation only operating between those signing up to the general provisions in operation).

 

George Osborne’s discomfort with the worst excesses of tax avoidance (based on Aaronson’s GAAR proposals) is a start. But, in a world, which will take a decade or more to rid itself of the excesses that began to unravel in 2007/8 and where economic strength will continue to be more broadly based internationally, governments (where properly representative of society and elected by that society) will need to ensure that society’s wishes are carried out. Taxation is a key to that (as it has always been).  As transparency grows and we know more about tax take and where it is spent (as Osborne is keen to provide information on – or so he stated in his budget speech), the ability of the wealthier and most powerful to manipulate their taxation burden must diminish or the outcry from society will become too loud. In the same budget that reduced the top income tax rate from 50% to 45% (because earners had been able to manipulate the tax take from an estimated £3bn to just £100m!), we are given some hope that the fight back is taking hold.

 

A few weeks ago, retrospective action was taken against Barclays Bank. Now the consultation is under way on general anti-avoidance rules on tax. Modern economies should not shy away from the essential need of society to see that the governments it elects carries out its wishes. Tax laws (and the ethics behind them) should be implemented and be seen to be implemented. This is an international requirement – the UK may be at the forefront of something transformational – if it does not get too scared by being out in front.