‘In the beginning was the word’ might have been the take on things in the Gospel according to John, but by my calculation, the oldest profession has never had much use for words (other than when haggling over price), and the second oldest profession (mine) has always relied on numbers; in any event, some years ago we merged.
The first international tax conference I ever attended was in Florida around twenty years ago. It was one of the highlights of my (now) long career. Closeted for three days in a glorious hotel with some of the best tax brains I have ever met, it was an orgy of diagrammatic flip-charts, 1929 Luxembourg Holding Companies, Belgian Coordination Centres, and ridiculously aggressive globe-embracing tax structures. Numbers and boxes. Heaven.
Of course there was a price. Tax advisors were universally viewed as geeks with psychopathic tendencies who should only be allowed to meet clients if accompanied by a responsible, audit practicing adult.
What a difference twenty years can make.
I am writing this post at 35,000 feet, on the way home from the latest conference in a very wet Barcelona. Nowadays, not only are we allowed to consort with clients, we invite them to join us, unaccompanied, at our get-togethers.
And what events they have become . It was a gradual process. Out went the numbers and flip-charts. In came the sharp spot-lights on a background of blue-haze; and words,words, words. I don’t think I saw a single number over the whole two and a half days except the occasional heart- warming statistic. It seems we have joined polite society.
Our gurus talked in sound-bytes worthy of a British news anchor, about the rise of ‘compliance’. Compliance! When did the Detroit of the international tax world become sexy? Any color as long as it’s black! Boring! Not anymore. We listened to the Tax Emperor of one of the world’s very largest companies explain that his compensation algorithm no longer includes the effective tax rate, but instead is weighted towards his level of success in meeting all the group’s international reporting requirements. To put it more succinctly – promiscuity is a thing of the past. Today is all about Safe Tax.
An issue that had a lot of traction was BEPS (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting), about which I wrote a few weeks ago. The latest OECD update had been fortuitously issued a few days previously and this was a chance for sound-byting about the 15 constituent topics. After a panel of talking heads had compromised their integrity to impress the super-intelligent moderator (who is also a genuine ITV News Anchor), it was left, implausibly, to the Chinese participant to remind everyone that BEPS was not going anywhere without the Americans. And the Americans are not going anywhere. Period. Good night, and good luck.
There was a spellbinding lecture on the mushrooming effect of Big (stored digital) Data on our lives, delivered by a remarkably competent stand-up comedian who triples up as a successful author and university professor. He, too – in what was starting to look like a conspiracy – incredibly avoided numbers, other than those that were so big the conference participants were unable to comprehend them ( a place in their heads previously occupied by lawyers’ fees).
Overall, it was a very successful few days – another strip of asphalt in the long road to acceptance by Society.
When I get home, I shall put my best suit back in mothballs and hang up my silk ties. Like Cinderella after the ball, it will be back to the daily drudge. No spotlights. No blue-haze. No News At Ten anchor. But lots and lots of numbers. Yippee.