A hundred years after the countries of Europe drew their battle lines in France and promptly got stuck in the mud, the Paris-based OECD looks like it is facing a long period of trench warfare. Originally predicted to be half-finished by Christmas, the BEPS plan – if it is to be instituted at all – will almost certainly be wrangled over for months and years ahead.
Base Erosion and Profit Shifting was always going to be an ambitious project, but when the G8 (since deflated to the G7) and, subsequently, the G20 (G19) put their weight behind it in 2013, its prospects started to look up. At a time when major western nations were hemorrhaging taxable profits to offshore and cheeky onshore jurisdictions, there was unanimous support for clobbering tax avoidance. Although Dave ‘Selfie’ Cameron and Vlad ‘The Impaler’ Putin led the charge (Putin displaying his famed respect for international law and order), it looked clear that the Americans, fresh from their FATCA foreign account disclosure victory, would quickly take over.
There is naive, and there is naive with knobs on.
The Americans, in the persons of Rep. Dave Camp and Senator Orrin Hatch, soon realized that the companies making the most bucks around the globe owe ultimate allegiance to Uncle Sam. Some, like Apple and Google, might have successfully sheltered much of their income offshore pending repatriation to the mainland, but that could be dealt with by Congress and the IRS without recourse to all those Europeans who were not even capable of winning or losing their World Wars on their own. BEPS, while having some strong points, was ultimately an attempt to wrench taxable profits out of the hands of the Americans.
Battling furiously to meet the September 2014 deadline for the first part of the 15 point project, OECD apparatchiks slogged overtime to produce heaps of words on transfer pricing and country-by-country reporting, treaty abuse, hybrids and the digital economy. While the transfer pricing recommendations were greeted with derision, the hybrid proposals were so complicated that they would require more acumen to implement than went into all the previous hybrid planning. And, as for the digital economy, the OECD more or less came out with its hands up – apart from a recommendation about raising taxation through VAT (which many of us could have happily told Dave and Vlad back at their first meeting and saved them the money). If none of this gets off the ground, one good thing that will have come out of it all is that the Hybrid Mismatch document includes some great ideas for future tax avoidance. Somebody at the OECD also, rather belatedly, woke up to the fact that developing countries may have specific problems implementing BEPS; the technical guys have picked up their pens once more.
The proposals are now at various stages of public consultation – for ‘public consultation’ read ‘being rubbished’.
Meanwhile, thanks to FATCA, the Automatic Exchange of Information project , which is running parallel to BEPS, continues to advance rapidly through the battlefield. It may well be that, taken together with enhanced domestic anti-avoidance legislation by individual countries, this will bring a real solution to much of the tax avoidance and profit shifting that BEPS aims to stop – in addition to dealing with tax evasion which is its raison d’être. As we have already seen in the wake of the British Parliamentary inquisition of Google, Amazon and Starbucks, although their practices were totally legal, the ability to ascertain and publicise their financial information led to a public backlash. Modern multinationals cannot afford the bad publicity – times they are a changin’.
Will the coming months herald the Battle of the BEPS, as the OECD Task Force breaks through enemy lines on its way to victory? Or, will they usher in the Great Phut (one day, when the OECD tries the same gambit again, to be known as the First World Phut)? Without the Americans joining in the war, and with professionals engaging it in hand-to-hand combat, the prospects are not high that the OECD staff will be home for any Christmas soon.