Starbucks gets roasted
It is a tribute to the emotional power of poetry that, when I think of “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, I remember the single funeral rather than the multiple weddings. “He was my North, my South, my East and West” – Matthew’s rendition of WH Auden’s Funeral Blues as he eulogized Gareth, lent pathos to one of the most memorable scenes of British cinema.
Dame Judi Dench, doyenne of the British stage, was somewhat less convincing quoting Tennyson towards the end of her inquisition at the hands of a Parliamentary Committee in the latest James Bond movie: “That which we are, we are”. But then, in fairness, Bond movies are never really remembered for their dialogue (this one even has the barmaid, at the start of a shot, shaking the vodka martini so Bond doesn’t have to state the obvious). With names like M, Q and 007, far from poetic, the whole experience is not even prosaic but, rather, algebraic.
On November 12th one of those Parliamentary Committees was in action again (this time for real) and its three hour session did not fall short of Skyfall for entertainment value (and, make no mistake, I loved Skyfall).
The Public Accounts Committee invited representatives of Starbucks, Amazon and Google to assist them in their understanding of the tax paid by multinationals in Britain – or, to be more precise, the lack of it.
Amazon and Google were, sensibly, represented by senior Brits who could, at least, bridge the culture gap. Starbucks, evidently thinking that an invitation to appear before the legislature meant tea and cucumber sandwiches with the Queen, sent their global CFO. Poor guy.
The meeting, expertly chaired by Lady Margaret Hodge, an MP in her late sixties who (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT) would have been a far better replacement for M than Lord Voldemort, started with the usual British niceties – smilingly apologising for the poor layout of the room and thanking the three gentlemen for agreeing to come. As I watched the parliamentary broadcast and the three stooges sitting side by side, all I could think of was the upward crawl at the start of a roller-coaster ride with one kid in the cart who has never done this before. You want to warn him of what is coming next but you are so scared yourself that you can’t.
In age-old British tradition, Lady Hodge “suggested” that they start with specific questions to each company and then move to general issues; a bit like “suggesting” to the condemned man that they start the hanging. And – surprise, surprise – she started with the American. Needless to say, it was all downhill and hairpin bends from there.
Hapless Mr Bean was not going to have a chance justifying losses in 14 out of the last 15 years when, a year after they made their only profit (2006) of £6 million on a £4 billion turnover, the UK CEO was promoted to a senior role in the US HQ due to his great performance. “We are not accusing you of being illegal, we are accusing you of being immoral.” ” You are either running the business very badly or there is some sort of fiddle going on”. Apart from trying to invoke the lunacy of accounting differences between the US and Britain, about the best the CFO could come up with was “profitability challenges” which is a beautiful term right up there with “transparent wall technician” as a euphemism for window cleaner.
Google and Amazon, protected to varying degrees by the – impossible to fathom – internet aspects of their business and the fact that they were British and therefore knew how to handle sarcasm, fared somewhat better. However, when the Google CEO asked Lady Hodge to clarify that a series of quotes of senior politicians expressing disgust at the lack of tax paid were not aimed specifically at those around the table, she replied that, no, they were indeed aimed directly at them.
Meanwhile, a widespread populist movement to boycott Starbucks has got underway with some branches requiring police protection. An article in the Guardian, a centre-left quality newspaper, by the improbably named Jemima Kiss put it all down to a “practice known as Transfer Pricing” which sounds like some shady underworld trick. Are Transfer Pricing practitioners now to be sought out and lynched from the nearest palm tree?
The whole thing is a load of populist codswallop. Trying to pin legal and transparent transfer pricing practices (and in that, Ms Kiss was spot-on with the root of the problem) on the question of morality defies belief. It is not that morality has no place in the tax world – it can be strongly argued that the technically legitimate planning of individuals and companies to avoid tax in their countries of residence, where they and their fellow residents and citizens benefit from public expenditure, has elements of morality and conscience. But when it comes to international taxation, it simply has to be down to the legislatures of individual countries and international organizations like the OECD and UN to establish tax rules that ensure fairness as defined by them.
How is the Tax Director of a multinational supposed to decide his or her transfer pricing policy on the basis of morality? After completing an analysis of assets, functions and risks, even if he would send each Transfer Pricing Study to the local Priest, Rabbi, Imam or Witch Doctor for a blessing – who says that the moral authorities of the other countries affected would not take a different view. And what about wonky-minded States who could play their Joker and roll out Nietzsche’s Übermensch to justify steamrolling the rest?
In 2010 the OECD announced the commencement of a project on the transfer pricing aspects of intangibles. A scoping paper was published on the OECD website for public comment. In the interim, three public consultations have been held with interested parties. The writing on the wall suggests that R&D cost-plus operations in the future will require a much higher “plus” justifying the enormous human input and, also, that the parking of IP on desert islands will only be acceptable if a significant number of the IP company’s employees on said island are first sent to Harvard or Oxford to study for an MBA or PhD. Furthermore, individual countries need to ramp up their CFC legislation to make sure they are catching the right foreign income even when, as is the the case with the vast majority of OECD countries, they have adopted a system of territorial taxation.
Poetry may not be Skyfall’s strongpoint but there is one scene that, for people of a particular generation (mine), had all the immediate emotional force of a great poem (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT). Fleeing certain death with the aged M, Bond swaps her state-of-the-art Jaguar for the legendary Aston Martin DB5 used in Goldfinger almost 50 years ago. As aerial shots showed the car wending its way along country roads to the Bond ancestral home, for a brief moment sitting in the darkened cinema I found myself watching the movie through the eyes of a youth (me) dreaming of an exotic Bond-like future. The rest (of course) is boring beancounting history. But I wonder what my two teenage sons sitting next to me were thinking?