From Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Adolf Hitler to Conchita Wurst, little Austria has always punched above its weight. It is ironic that the country that gave the world half its great classical music and, so far, all its World Wars, should be almost exclusively associated today with one kitch movie.Fifty years ago this week, a British actress appeared over a grassy horizon and, after the umpteenth take, belted out ‘The Sound of Music’. And the rest, as they say, is (highly distorted) history.
Well, all the fuss over the Von Trapps this month – including the excellent impersonation of Ms Andrews at the Oscars by Lady Gaga (an aspiring novice nun if ever there was one) – brought back nostalgic memories of Austria and tax planning.
Austria’s tax system is quite a boring one – as one might expect. An off-the-peg 25% corporate tax rate and 50% individual top rate send the tax consultant skipping on through the alphabet for greener pastures.
Nevertheless, Austria does have one point of interest that, amid the ennui, deserves not to be ignored.
Like most tax-enlightened countries these days (ie those not called the United States of America), Austria operates a Participation Exemption regime. For the uninitiated, that means that most dividends from affiliated companies and capital gains on their sale are not liable to corporation tax in the hands of the Austrian holding company. When an exemption to tax from profits from foreign branches is added, the overall result is that Austria taxes the profits of a corporate group on a territorial basis.
The jewel in the Habsburg crown however is that, whereas most countries with territorial corporate tax reporting insure themselves with Controlled Foreign Corporation legislation (CFC), Austria has a very watered down alternative. CFC rules in their various forms, first introduced to the world by John F Kennedy on the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, are designed to ensure that companies do not resort to chutzpa in their foreign operations. Although also applied to worldwide tax systems, they are of particular importance to territorial based systems where there is an enhanced temptation to drive income offshore to low tax jurisdictions, thus depriving the home country Treasury of its life-blood for ever and ever. CFC permits the immediate taxation of certain foreign profits.
Austria is one of the few countries that does not have a CFC regime, encouraging night-trips from nearby Transylvania by tax vampires (aka Advisors) to drink its life-blood. To stem the flow, the Austrians have replaced the exemption on dividends with a credit system for foreign income that was clearly diverted for tax purposes. The big difference with CFC, however, is that the tax is not payable until the income is remitted. Depending on the rules in the ultimate jurisdiction of a corporate group, this can facilitate indefinite tax deferral – which, in these BEPS-induced, substantially-reduced times for tax gurus, is a very big deal.
Having seen the Sound of Music when it first hit the screens in 1965, I have been an unashamed fan ever since. Back in 1995, on a trip to England, I dragged my then 9 year-old son to a 30th anniversary showing in the West End. Any illusions I had of passing on my enthusiasm to the next generation were shattered when, similar to a Rocky Horror Show Redux, the freak audience jokingly recited all the lines along with the cast. Well, to celebrate fifty years, I have decided to have a second go, this time with HIS children. It will be a Home Viewing, and all parents and uncles will be commanded to shut their trapps. Where is the Captain when we need him?