Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the month “June, 2013”

The ultimate illegal alien

Thought-provoking literature

Thought-provoking literature

While Shuster, Siegel and Kane were, without doubt, the Olympians of Action Hero Comics,  the creators of Superman and Batman – each the 24 year-old  son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe – were never going to be the  heirs of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Man of Steel, the latest Superman blockbuster that I ran faster than a speeding bullet to see last week, is best described as schizophrenic. The first 90 minutes – the average length of a 21st century movie – is cerebral beyond anything Clark Kent’s creative young gods could have possibly imagined, while the 53 minutes of extra time are pure, unadulterated violence, which is what they very probably did imagine. Violence and one single hell of a kiss. (Spoiler Alert – if you don’t know the Superman story by now, go back to Krypton). As our Superhero and Lois Lane embrace amid the ruins of Metropolis they are  watched admiringly by a group of misty-eyed US army officers while General Zod still lurks in the shadows ready to end any chance the studio has of making Man of Steel – The Sequel. The scene is the watermark that proves the movie is genuine, infantile Hollywood.

Whatever Shuster and Siegel were thinking of when they were penning and inking the first adventure in 1938 (whoosh, pow, thwack?) they may have subconsciously been delving into their immigrant roots. They would likely have faced discrimination as kids and young men and this alienation does come out quite starkly in this latest cinematic offering – even if Clark Kent did not sail Steerage Class from Hamburg to Metropolis.

Earlier this month the OECD (the club of rich nations except the rich nations that are not members) published the latest edition of its International Migration Outlook report. 400+ pages of taxpayers money to come to the conclusion that the fiscal impact of migration is broadly neutral – that is to say, immigrants normally pay more in taxes than they claim in welfare.

With xenophobia spreading faster across the globe than  Middle-Eastern  immigrants to Europe, that money may be well spent. Enlightened politicians of developed nations, no longer able to use anti-immigrant arguments based on the lengths of noses or racial inferiority, have in recent years  opted for the economic argument  – immigrants are a drain on social services while not contributing enough to the national coffers. This latest report deflects that contention: while there are pockets where it is true such as Germany, in the main immigration neither adds not subtracts. Having said that,  young educated immigrants are deemed a definite boon.

He presumably robbed an American of his job

He presumably robbed an American of his job

Despite being the grandson of immigrants (and, indeed, an immigrant myself) I am not sure this 400+ page of apologetics quite hits the nail on the council house door. Stating that immigration is a substantially zero-sum fiscal game does not  take into account the effect on unemployment among the indigenous population crowded out of the job market (which was the ubiquitous gripe when I was a young man and should come round once more on the xenophobic carousel sometime soon).

The immigrants a country does need are those that add value to the economy – those that bring skills and diversity of thought (and hence innovation). In addition, unskilled labour is required for the functions the indigenous population are no longer prepared to undertake. Of course, the social consequences must be considered together with the fiscal ones. While cultural diversity is without question a boon to petrified- fossil  countries, any attempt at minority cultural hegemony  must be unceremoniously rebuffed.

And while we are on the subject of the advantages of diversity....

And while we are on the subject of the advantages of diversity….

Michael Chabon’s award-winnning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay tells the tale of a refugee from Nazi Europe who creates a comic strip character that fights Fascism – the immigrant’s superhero. Superman was the ultimate immigrant with  strange, suspect powers  and weird clothes – but he was also the All-American boy who paid his way and devoted himself to his adopted nation. That is what immigration should be all about. Maybe, after all,  there was more to Shuster and Siegel than meets the non X-ray eye.

Bend it for Messi

Bonzo, is that you?

Bonzo, is that you?

Having reached my majority in an era that nowadays pops up in my kids’ History exams, I am today at a stage in life where names and faces are prone to be mixed-and-matched. Every time I hear mention of Lionel Messi I invariably see Lionel Richie’s mustachioed head protruding from an FC Barcelona shirt. It was, therefore, no surprise that when the world was confronted with the shocking news last week that Mr Messi and his father (Mr Messi) are facing criminal investigation in Spain for tax evasion, my first reaction was: “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?”

Top sportsmen really do have complicated financial lives and I admit a little sympathy for the World’s Greatest Footballer if he did (and he vigorously denies it) get caught up in a bit of over-zealous tax dribbling. If convicted, we are told he faces an undisclosed fine and up to 6 years in a Spanish lock-up.

Now, unless you are one of those people with piles of cash stashed away in increasingly less remote tax havens waiting for a knock at the door, your reaction to this is probably: “Nobody is above the law and if he broke the law he should be punished and if that means depriving him of his liberty so-be-it”. I should have added, you are probably also not a Barcelona fan. Nor am I, but I am afraid I don’t think I agree with you. So there.

Only 6 years? Are they crazy?!?

Only 6 years? Are they crazy?!?

Apart from the fact that the Spanish legal system is probably too incompetent for him to be brought to trial before the end of his natural life (he is currently 25 years old) and they will need to find a rabid Real Madrid supporting judge with a fanatical death wish to convict him, the modern world thankfully operates under a system of Moral Relativism. And modern (as well as not-so-modern) governments know how to cleverly render  Absolute Immorality relative for the better good of the world and for the even better good of their poll ratings.

Earlier this month I gave my teenage son a night tour of South-East London where I spent much of my childhood. Driving up Denmark Hill (around the spot where Pip attends a wedding at the end of Great Expectations) I told him that, but for the quick reactions of an anonymous bus passenger thereabouts in 1944, neither I nor he would have ever seen the light of day. My mother was standing on the bus as a V2 rocket exploded nearby (it was probably a V1 doodlebug which told you it was coming – but that would ruin the story). The gentleman threw her to the floor just as all the windows imploded.

Well, you might have thought that, as the war came to an end and prominent Nazis and their prominent assistants came up for trial,   the genius who developed the deadly V2 would have found himself dangling at the end of a rope. What actually happened was that Werner von Braun was spirited off to America where he was the “One giant leap for mankind” to Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man”. He developed the Saturn V rocket that powered the Apollo missions. With that, America won the space race, countless lives were enriched and the Allies saved a perfectly good piece of rope.

On the other hand, look what happened to poor Oscar Wilde. The author of some of the most important literary works to do the rounds in the 20th century, as well as one of the greatest wits in history, lay dead in a cheap Paris Hotel in 1900 only 46 years into a hyper-productive life. Already bankrupted by an ill-advised libel case that backfired, in 1895 he was sentenced to two years hard labour for being gay (for which a growing number of countries now condemn offenders to get married).  On release from prison he went steadily downhill. While, without that prison sentence, we would never have had the haunting Ballad of Reading Gaol (that is Jail in potty English) or De Profundis, we would have surely had a colossal output that was lost to the world before it was even created.

If Lionel Messi is found guilty, he may well deserve his fate – but the world does not. Here is a genius with a limited number of years to work his magic. If the world reacted with justified outrage at the destruction of World Heritage sites in Timbuktu by the Taleban – even though Timbuktu is the traditional end of the world and most of us will never go there – the destruction of the career of a temporary World Heritage site with a planet-wide following must surely be considered all the more outrageous.

Trial jury?

Trial jury?

Nevertheless, for the indignant righteous, there is a compromise.  The Spanish could hurry through the trial, find the Argentinian guilty and then offer him two alternatives – a lengthy prison sentence OR an application for Spanish nationality so that he could play for Spain in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. However morally relative all this would be, it would be worth it just to see the faces of those Argies as they crash out in the group stage.

The lion that squeaked

How doting parents view the school play

How doting parents view the school play

We all remember those excruciatingly painful dance sequences in end of year school plays. As a long-in-the-tooth tweed jacketed teacher attacked the untuned keys of the upright piano while simultaneously pumping furiously at the worn pedals, budding Nureyevs and Fonteyns would take to the stage. With eyes adamantly fixed on their neighbours the children would twirl to the right and swing their arms to the left in accidentally syncopated time with the music. One of the incontrovertible Laws of Motion was that there was always one  twit lacking rhythm who would insist on twirling to the left and swinging his arms to the right; he couldn’t help himself – the act was as involuntary as breaking wind in the headmaster’s study.

I have waited 40 years to observe similar ineptitude on the world stage. Thank you France. Or should I say, Andorra?

Last week, the Co-Monarch of Andorra met with his joint and several Prime Minister. It was a cordial meeting. Because there are only 85,000 citizens of Andorra,the microstate stuck in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, there is no need for a full-time monarch  let alone two full-time monarchs (the other is a Bishop, confirming the Combination of Church and State). In his spare time  the non-ecclesiastical one is President of France. As everyone who reads a newspaper with more words than pictures knows, there is a worldwide move spearheaded by the EU, G8, G20, OECD United Nations and every other populist organization in the world  to force greater transparency (exchange of information, withholding tax on deposits etc.) in traditional tax havens. This is a logical approach to ensuring that the governments of home countries are able to catch and tax earnings that would probably otherwise escape their grip (unless, as if often the case, it is members of the governments themselves that are depositing the money offshore).

Where's Wally?

Where’s Wally?

It was, therefore, yet another out-of-step move for President Wally (unfortunately we know where HE is) when he proudly announced that the Prime Minister had agreed to institute a personal income tax. Duh? There were no details of the extent of the tax (surprise, surprise) and similarly no mention what the tax would be used for – tiny Andorra has generally been doing quite nicely from tourism, duty-free and “financial services”. There is no moral obligation on any country to impose an income tax unless it needs to – and Andorra patently doesn’t need to.

I admit (proudly) that I have never had any dealings with Andorra – until a few years ago I thought it was a fictitious state in a black-and-white movie, but when I saw that they had instituted company tax in 2012, I knew that I could have written the script for them.  The company tax was set at 10%, a low but no longer crazy rate. However, if the company is in the finance industry or holds IP or is involved in international trade (in practice, almost every company except for the Candy Store in Andorra High Street), there is an 80% reduction. I truly admire those adherents of “you can fool all of the people some of the time” who genuinely believe that the average OECD economist doesn’t understand that an 80% reduction on 10% is ALWAYS 2% . But what a tragedy it would be if everybody had to pay a horrific 2% tax – so they instituted Holding Company status, which pays no tax at all. To all intents and purposes they managed to get back to where they started – plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

So what is the, as yet unannounced, income tax rate likely to be?

From Half-Prince-President Wombat’s point of view, if the aim is to prevent wealthy French from hiking it over the Pyrenees, the number to beat is 75% which, despite being stubbed out by the Supreme Court, is still on his agenda. But Andorra is one of those countries that likes to fall below the radar. Indeed, after declaring war on Germany in World War I, it was forgotten in the Treaty of Versailles and continued in a state of belligerency with Germany until 1958 – despite having declared neutrality in World War II (Hitler was never one for the intricacies of international law so he didn’t have the place turned into a car park for a Panza Division). So my guess is that when the Prime Minister gets back to his mountain lair he will give himself a few months to return to anonymity and then quietly come up with a rate that warmly hugs a Very Round Number.

Half-mad King?

Half-mad King?

Meanwhile the Royal President is presumably very proud of his day’s work last week and hoping his decisive action will lift his ratings in the polls. At the last count his popularity rating was 24% (even Louis XVI would have beaten that) – proving beyond all reasonable doubt that nearly a quarter of all French are stupid. Methinks the man is  Half-Prince and  Half-Wit. I wonder what he would have  looked like 40 years ago in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy?

Letter to America

Minister For (sic) Finance, Republic of Ireland

June 1, 2013

Mr Seamus Noonan, Boston MA, USA

Dear Seamus,

Mother Ireland is being crucified once again and she is hurting, to be sure. I was walking past the General Post Office on O’Connell Street yesterday when old Stephen Megan accosted me: ” What’s all this about Apples, young Michael?” he growled, he did. “Were not the good old earth apples our ancestors died for in the famine good enough for the likes of you? Don’t you remember what the Church says about the Forbidden Fruit and the  Fall of  Man?  If poor Patrick Pearse had been standing over there in 1916 (he waved a finger at the entrance to the Post Office) reading out loud the Easter Proclamation, and he had known what you were going to do, he would have folded it up – he would truly – and gone back inside to post it to his mother. Then the British wouldn’t  have executed him and all our beloved martyrs.”

And just last Sunday I was queuing up after Mass to speak to Father O’Leary (he is new to the Parish since Father Callaghan had to go away because of something we don’t talk about), when Mam and Da’s friend Mrs Flaherty started bawling at me at the top of her voice: “Michael Noonan. You are a disgrace to our country. Why did we have to lend all that money from the Yooropeeans? You were an Altar Boy, Michael Noonan (at this point Father O’Leary shuffled uneasily from one foot to the other). You know that the  Church loves thrift – but you had to try to be like the Yooropeeans. That poor De Valera will be turning in his grave”. I thought of telling her that I had not been in the Government when the crisis hit, but she was looking like our mother used to look when our father came home from the pub, so I held my peace.

Talking of pubs (which is always a comfort, so it is), last month the barmaid was just pulling me my first pint at a nice little establishment in the centre of the City when a leprachaun-sized fella in a grey suit and coiffed hair holding a glass of red wine, tapped me on my arm and asked in an accent not from around these parts : “Qu’est que vous doing with a 12.5% tax rate, screwing the rest of us in L’Europe, cochon?”. I politely explained how a wine suppository could cure the little reptile’s  constipation and went to join friends – but it was disconcerting, that it was.

Seamus, it’s just not fair. We are being made to suffer for all mankind. Well brother, I have decided that we are going to take action. You are going to be St Paul  spreading the gospel and putting the record straight once and for all. Next time you are in Paddy O’s in Boston’s fair city,  buy a round for all our brothers and cousins  (I enclose a 50 Punt  note as a Government contribution to the cause) and then sit them down by the fire and tell them Ireland’s  tale of woe. Add a bit o’ the ol’ blarney and, if any of the Kennedys, Connellys or O’Neils are listening you can tell them that the next time they are running Washington, they should tell our story to the world:

When Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973 together with Britain and Denmark she had an economy that was worth bugger all. Her biggest export was people, who built the whole world except the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids in Egypt. One day someone had a great idea to lower the corporate tax rate to 12.5%. American companies  competed with each other to swim across the Atlantic and set up operations here. Nobody could nail us on the tax rate because we offered it to everyone – Irish and others alike. We were willing to pay the price of less welfare payments because we had been raised by the Fathers and Sisters  not to expect much. Of course, there were other reasons those companies chose Ireland. There were lots of the Irish in America and, when we were sober, we spoke something resembling the same language. This got up everybody’s nose in Europe but the only concrete response was the French building Euro Disney.

In 2008, when the financial crisis hit, the Irish government’s finances were healthy. Our Budget Deficit was manageable as was the Debt – GDP Ratio. What was not healthy was the private housing market where the banks were overexposed. We should have remembered our Bible lessons and what happened to the tables of the money changers in the Temple. Not wanting to leave the banks to tumble,the government rescued them – and that left the government totally buggered. So they had to take a loan from the EU (usury is, I confess, a dreadful sin) and impose austerity – which was the nostalgic fun part for most of the population. Unlike other crisis countries, within 2 years Ireland was proudly back on track.

So everything was starting to chug along beautifully when, last week, some  brightsparks in Washington started asking Apple questions. In fact, the gentlemen were very polite to Apple, praising it for its iconic status in the US economy. But, their largesse did not extend to poor Ireland. We were flayed mercilessly for tempting the little Innocent with Government-backed tax schemes that brought the tax rate down from the lofty 12.5% to 2%. There was talk of Double-Irish structures (believe me Seamus, the only Double-Irish I know is a 12 year Bushmill’s Single Malt – and very good it is too) with companies registered in Ireland but not resident there and subsidiaries that shared American research and development costs.

Tell me, Seamus, was this not the hypocrisy that the Church tried to exorcise from God’s Earth? Ireland, a country with a legitimate 12.5% tax rate being used by Americans taking advantage of all the vagaries of  OECD guidelines and idiotic US tax law – and it was our fault! Look across Europe at their special R&D rates and Finance Company rates and Heaven knows what else.

Seamus, it is time for us to act. Starting spreading the pints. The spirit of 1916 is back!

Your loving brother


P.S. You couldn’t see your way to picking me up a new iPhone from the local Apple Store the next time you’re there, could you?

P.P.S. The characters and events in this letter are fictitious. I do not have a clue if the Minister For (sic) Finance has a brother, had parents or, most notably, what (if anything) he actually said to that  Sarkozy look-a-like  in the pub.

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