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.

Where the Wild things are – bribery at the edge of business

The Financial Times (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e12e0efc-0d71-11e2-bfcb-00144feabdc0.html#axzz28VeYteen) reports that one third of Board members would happily bribe to win business despite the introduction and publicity over the Bribery Act that was enacted in 2010 and brought into law last year. FTI Consulting, which did the survey, believes that the Serious Fraud Office is showing no desire to investigate and prosecute low level crime and is only after the big boys (www.fticonsulting.com/…/the-realities-of-the-uk-bribery-act.pdf).

 

This is no surprise to those of us involved in agitating to bring the Act into being – 34 years after the FCPA in the US and years after we signed up to the OECD convention. Jack Straw advised that around 1.1 extra prosecutions a year would ensue from the Act – so, no real surprise.

 

The Grown-ups get it

 

The report from FTI shows that businesses are being divided into those (usually large and quoted) that comply and other who are becoming the “risk takers” – willing to go for business in whatever way and hope they don’t get caught.

 

Like tax evasion and using deep and difficult schemes to evade tax, these organizations are willing to act outside the law and depend on the SFO’s inability to implement the law.

 

The grown-ups get it, the kids don’t – but, we have insufficient numbers of grown-ups in the SFO (many of whom left to go to private industry when the Bribery Act came into effect).

 

Just like Maurice Sendak’s children’s book, our small and medium companies wander into places and get transfixed by the wilder side of business. It wasn’t that long ago that the costs of bribery overseas were tax deductible in the UK and big companies (especially in defence and aerospace, construction and energy routinely bribed to get business and keep business.

 

Now, most large UK-based businesses act like their American and European cousins and have mainly (not completely) forsaken large-scale bribery. The SFO has said it will prosecute those who threaten the stability and reputation of the UK.

 

ITV’s Exposure on Wednesday, 10th March at 10.35 (UK) – “No Bribes Please, We’re British” – takes a look at the UK one year on. I spent some time helping with this documentary made by Ed Harriman and was interviewed for it – http://www.radiotimes.com/episode/sgzfv/exposure–no-bribes-please-were-british and it looks back at how we did business before the Act – and how many still do such business now.

 

 

This leaves the kids – SME’s / SMB’s.

 

Should we worry about the children?

 

Winning business overseas (especially in the BRICs – where methods of business may be different) in any recession is tough. Competition from those who don’t worry about giving bribes (and that is much more of a norm in the rapidly growing nations of Asia, Russia and South America) is enormous and business leaders want a level playing field.

 

The OECD Anti-Bribery Convention was signed by 39 nations – all the OECD countries plus Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, South Africa and Russia (China has not signed) and aims to tackle the “supply-side” of bribery. This is where the money comes from – the wealthy nations that enable bribes to take place. It was on this basis that the UK eventually enacted the Bribery Act.

 

The question asked is now that the Act is in force and most very large businesses comply, does it matter that the smaller ones don’t? Shouldn’t we only concern ourselves with large-scale bribery and corruption?

 

While we don’t want to go back to the 18th Century when you could get sent to Australia for stealing a loaf of bread, the impact of bribery is substantial. From small-scale “facilitation payments” upwards, bribery impoverishes and kills. This sounds overly fraught maybe – but, funds diverted to projects that a country does not need means less is spent where it does – on doctors, hospitals, safety measures and the like. As bad, poor construction of buildings and bridges in China (as an example) causes death each year – the contractors are normally found to have won the work through bribery.

 

In the 21st Century and in our global economy where we are all much closer to each other economically (as customers and suppliers), we need to ratchet up the standards not diminish them. The UK is a wealthy nation that can do without involvement in helping to destroy developing nations. Bribery is a constant threat at any level as Transparency International constantly shows in their annual Corruption Perception Index. Even in industries like Defence which have been subject to anti-bribery investigations for many years, the picture is unclear as TI have recently shown: http://www.transparency.org.uk/news-room/press-releases/13-press-release/375-defence-companies-fail-anti-corruption-test

 

Now countries like Greece, whose economy has been based on corruption, are paying the price. Countries like Mexico are likewise – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/24/world/americas/bribery-tolerated-even-as-it-hurts-mexican-economy.html?_r=0

 

Bribery hurts those countries receiving the bribes. If we let our kids (the SME’s) run amok, then the hurt just grows. We have to keep our neighbours safe.

 

Getting an ASBO

 

In the UK, Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBO’s) are now routinely given out by police to kids who run riot in the streets and disturb neighbours. The UK was close to receiving the equivalent from the OECD before the Bribery Act was enacted. The UK had to be pushed to enact it – although all party support was eventually forthcoming.

 

Now, a year on, we see that lack of implementation (always feared by those most supportive of the Act) looks like it is providing those with more risk attuned attitudes to buck the system here and enter into the system overseas. Our neighbours (our trading partners) often don’t help – bribery takes a long time to eradicate and often governments are implicit in it. But, countries like the UK managed to stop slavery, made drug running illegal (although after we grew rich on both) and campaign to stop child-labour improve safety standards worldwide. Bribery seems a softer crime to many yet studies have continuously shown that the impact can be as horrific.

 

The UK is in recession but a get-rich-quick attitude that admires tax evasion (and tax havens) and tolerates bribery is not a modern society – it is a throwback to the 19th Century. We deserve credit for enacting Bribery legislation and we deserve an ASBO for tolerating bribery and for tolerating the use by foreign businesses especially in the energy sector that use London to raise capital on the stock exchange – and who are notorious for their poor business practices in poor health and safety and corruption.

 

The current UK Government has been mute in its delivery on anti-bribery provisions and the FTI survey – which should be a wake-up call – has received scant reaction. Watch Exposure on Wednesday, 10th October at 10.35 (UK) – No Bribery Please, We’re British. One year on from the Bribery Act, we should not be rolling back the legislation by lack of implementation.

 

 

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.