When, at 3 o’clock on the morning of September 30 , I flopped, bleary-eyed, into a chair in a Berlin hotel room, activated my laptop and started to write about John Le Carre’s Cold War Trilogy, it did not occur to me that the ensuing post was to be the beginning of my (first) trilogy.
The story so far: A frightening woman chairing a British Parliamentary Committee in November 2012 breathes fire on representatives of Starbucks, Google and Amazon for planning their UK tax bills out of existence. She accuses them of immorality which, since cross-dressing and other fun activities are rumoured to be a staple of Westminster life, is a bit ironic.
In June, the G8 leaders, bored out of their minds in some windswept corner of Northern Ireland, decide to call International Rescue but, instead of Scott and Virgil Tracy touching down on the adjoining golf course, they get Pascal Saint-Amans (pictured above), the sexy no-strings-attached French Head of Tax Policy at the OECD (he replaced a not-very-sexy Welshman last year).
By the time of the G20 summit in St Petersburg in July there is a 15 point OECD Action Plan in place, comprehensive enough to thwart the amoral designs of the most perverted of tax planners. What is more, just in case somebody manages to make it out of the killing fields alive, there is a rushed new draft on the transfer pricing treatment of intangibles as well as a plan for the automatic exchange of information, finally agreed to by the People’s Republic of China (that great champion of the right to privacy) on the eve of the subsequent September G20 summit. Meanwhile, the mob screams for the blood of multinationals and their advisors, most of whom do not look like heart-throb Saint-Amans. These days, life is good if you are a tax advisor with a death wish.
The big question is: What is going to happen next? This is a good question. Twenty years ago I would probably have ventured a straight answer; nowadays I am more reticent, which I suppose, by inference, means I am more stupid.
Some time ago a Dutch colleague sent me a copy of a fascinating book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – The Black Swan. The basic premise of the book is that there are totally unpredictable events that have a massive impact on society and which are subsequently rationalised by that same society (why didn’t the useless US security services predict 9/11?). As a result predictions are nauseatingly inaccurate and using a broker for your investments is strikingly similar to paying the lady in the halter-neck evening dress sitting next to you to place all your chips on 21Rouge.
Predicting the future of the international tax world, therefore, comes with the disclaimer that none of what I am going to say will apply if: Rand Paul (son of Ron Paul, the serial presidential candidate who wants to turn the Fed and IRS buildings into luxury condos) is elected President in 2016; aliens build an intergalactic superhighway through the bit of Space currently occupied by Earth; the People’s Republic of China becomes the No.1 economic superpower and insists on corporate and individual privacy in line with Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book (totally upended edition); or the Messiah comes (it will only then be empirically clear whether for the first or second time).
The plans, if successfully implemented in their entirety, will lead to a fundamental realignment of the international tax area. The BEPS Action Plan, by targeting digital businesses, hybrid instruments, interest deductibility and transfer pricing at the same time as ensuring that tax planning, warts and all, is on public display at the local Tesco’s, will put paid to the magical sleight-of-hand international tax planning that attracted us all into this rural corner of the profession in the first place. The Revised Discussion Draft on Transfer Pricing Aspects of Intangibles will, by insisting on examining where value is created, substantially exclude all but serious MNE’s from shifting profits to lower taxed jurisdictions – such planning requiring the transfer of physical, living people who are actually going to carry out the functions to which they are assigned (shock, horror), as well as volume tax savings where the delta in tax rates may not be that great.
International Tax Advisors will continue to flourish – but in a much less exciting fashion. They will concentrate on tax efficiency rather than tax elimination – to the extent companies can move people, assets and risk between jurisdictions there may be genuine tax savings or deferral but, otherwise, planning will concentrate on not paying excess or double tax through inefficient structures. There will always be a need for companies to understand their tax positions in new foreign jurisdictions and all the signs are that compliance issues will continue to increase geometrically. In addition, there will always be Transfer Pricing (although, despite current protestations to the contrary, simple formulary apportionment will be used in all less material transactions).
The question that remains is how likely it is that the plans will be implemented in their entirety. The OECD and G20 have set ambitious deadlines for just about everything being complete by the end of 2015. While a lot of the issues have, in practice, been under consideration for some years, most of the deadlines appear ridiculous. Grown-up nations like Britain and France, while publicly sponsoring and supporting the reforms, themselves offer tax incentives that will need to go; not all developing countries are on board; and, most significantly, unless they can substantially convince every sovereign country to agree to a Multinational Instrument that would change international tax relations without the need for the renegotiation of bilateral tax treaties, the whole thing could take decades. On the other hand, it is unlikely that public awareness of the issue will now evaporate and that governments will take it off the agenda. To get this to work some time in the next decade it needs thought (the OECD), goodwill (the G20) and brute force (the United States).
At the end of the day, as in so many difficult situations, it will be up to Uncle Sam to speak softly and carry a big stick. My money is on that. Croupier, spin the wheel.