Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the month “March, 2019”

Ain’t no Bonanza

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Let’s face it. The bar was pretty low

Jay Leno once went walkabout in New York asking innocent passers-by if they could name a country beginning with the letter ‘U’. Apart from the usual camera induced deer-in-the-headlights non-responses, a few bright sparks came up with Uganda and Uruguay. At the close of the piece, as the camera faded out, Leno was heard asking: ‘Have you ever heard of the United States of America?’

Judging by the above experience, it can safely be assumed that, had Leno carried on to ask  the name of the alphabetically last of the 50 States, at least one person – having realized there was no State starting with Z – would have thought long and hard about Y and come up with Utah. Alternatively, still on Y, they might have gone for Wyoming. And Wyoming, dear readers,  is actually the correct answer.

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Named ‘The Virginian’, filmed in California, and set in Wyoming. Only in America

Although there is a tendency to think of Wyoming as still set in the 19th century, with characters like Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock, Doc Holliday and Calamity Jane ambling around the state capital, Cheyenne, it was the birthplace – in 1977 – of one of the most important tax sanitizers in US history.

The Limited Liability Company (LLC) – a mongrel of the corporation and partnership with descriptive terminology all of its own – crawled along at cowboy pace until 1988 when the Internal Revenue Service issued a ruling that LLCs were transparent for tax purposes. At the speed of a Colt 45, American taxpayers could suddenly combine the limited liability of a corporation with the personal taxation of a partnership or sole trader. This was particularly important in America where, despite Reagan’s major tax reform two years earlier, there was no correlation between the tax paid by an individual (up to 28%), and that paid by a corporation (up to 34%) followed by 28% individual tax on a subsequent dividend (over 52% in total). Congress failed to recognize that inanimate companies – while being vehicles of tax liability – cannot pay tax. Unlike Shylock, if you prick them, they do not bleed. Human beings pay the tax – either through the higher prices suffered by the consumers, or the lower profits earned by the shareholders. There is little justification economically for wide differences in total rates.

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Companies don’t have anything to cuff, either

As it turned out, it took until 2018 for the tax rates to be aligned. In the meantime, the vast majority of American private businesses organized themselves as either sole-proprietorships (and partnerships) or – thanks to Wyoming’s pioneering spirit – the new fangled LLCs.

And, thereby, hangs a tale. It was all well and good that America – with the biggest economy in the world – knew how to treat her LLCs, but other countries struggled with defining their treatment under their own laws. They ended up one of the major ‘culprits’ in hybrid mismatch tax planning that was so fiercely attacked in the OECD’s BEPS initiative.

 

Put simply, tax transparent companies in Israel are a rare and specific phenomenon. On the principle that, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck, LLCs fit the bill as companies. Therefore, according to statute law, they are not transparent.  However, given the large exposure of Israelis to the American economy, ever since its big 2003 tax reform the Israeli Tax Authority has been finding accommodation for these hybrid beasts. As long ago as 2004 it produced a circular that reiterated the corporate nature of the LLC, but offered solutions to the availability of a foreign tax credit for US individual tax being paid (since the LLC is tax transparent in the US). If the LLC is deemed controlled and managed from Israel, despite being liable to Israeli corporate tax, a credit is given for the US individual tax on profits attributed to the US (up to the level of the corporate tax). Alternatively, the taxpayer can elect at first filing to be taxed on the profits in Israel at the member (Google translate: shareholder) level, with credit for the US taxes. Some have incorrectly interpreted that as complete transparency for the LLC. In fact the circular stresses that the LLC is a body of persons and, in practical terms, that means that losses of  one LLC cannot be offset against those of another. As LLCs are set up at the drop of a cowboy hat in the US, this represents a real problem for many Israeli investors. There are certain planning devices, but advisors have always been aware that the problem exists.

Remarkably, 15 years after the issuing of that circular, essentially an extra-statutory concession, some  jester with nothing  better to do recently inexplicably allowed – not for the first time – a no-hope case to be brought before the courts. The claimant had set off losses between LLCs – in defiance of the circular – basing his claim on (1) Israeli law determining that when a word is stated in the singular, it also means the plural, unless – inter alia – the context does not support that interpretation, and (2) an informal conversation with a senior tax officer who allegedly told him that the problem could have been solved if all the LLCs had been held under a single holding LLC.

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Why have they stopped us handing out the death penalty?

The judge swatted away the first argument – the context clearly didn’t support the multiple LLC claim. But, the second argument was even more off the wall. Whether or not the senior tax officer had been quoted correctly about forming a group of LLCs, THE CLAIMANT HAD NOT DONE SO. Robert Frost wrote a famous poem on the subject, ‘The Road Not Taken’

‘I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.’
His Honour politely demolished this argument, too. Had I been the judge, I would have been tempted to return to the cowboy country roots of the LLC and quote from Clint Eastwood’s 1976 Western, ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’:
‘Don’t p**s down my back and tell me it’s raining.’

Prospecting for tax

Cholera vaccination at Nyaragusu refugee camp in Tanzania

True heroes…

If you hear the term: ‘sans frontieres’, it is odds on that – after ‘French’ – the first thing that will come into your mind is ‘Medicins Sans Frontieres’, that truly remarkable international humanitarian medical NGO founded in 1971 and based in Switzerland. Add to that ‘Avocats Sans Frontieres’, the human rights lawyers, and a plethora other ‘Without Borders’ organizations, and your forehead will probably furrow as your thoughts turn to the altruism of Churchill’s ‘Never in the history of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’, and Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’.

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… and true fools

As proof of my innate cynicism, when for the first time last week I came across  ‘Inspecteurs des Impots Sans Frontieres’ (Google translate: Tax Inspectors Without Borders), my agile memory leapfrogged all those worthy international bodies dating back to the early seventies. ‘Jeux Sans Frontieres’ – known on my TV set as ‘It’s a Knockout’ – was a banal  pan-European TV competition tracing its history to 1965. Similar to a well-funded kids’ birthday party, participants were required to engage in physical contests of the utmost idiocy. Europe had been laid waste twice in the preceding half century by the two most utterly mind-boggling catastrophes in the annals of mankind, and this was the reward.

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Tax inspector in the mind’s eye

Thinking my memory was treating the world’s tax inspectors to the respect only they deserved, I plunged first into an Economist article – the headline of which had introduced me to TIWB – and then the  OECD literature on the topic.

I was wrong.

TIWB was founded by the OECD and UN in 2015 around the time the world’s governments started to take international taxation cooperation seriously. Tax administrations with well-developed international tax audit capabilities, as well as retired tax inspectors, are now targeted to assist less fortunate administrations with developing their own tax audit capabilities.

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It just got harder

It turns out there are dozens of these projects going on around the world (there is even a bi-annual newsletter), and it is estimated that, for every dollar spent, a hundred dollars of tax avoiding revenue is collected.

Along with complex changes in rules, much of the stress over the last half-decade has been on transparency and the exchange of information. But, if a cash-strapped tax administration does not know what to do with all the data it receives on international groups  who exploit the system to the full – albeit within legal limits – little will happen. Projects based in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are closing the gap. According to the IMF, over 20% of tax revenues were still being lost to the legal playing of the system as recently as 2016.

It looks like it is time to take tax inspectors seriously. When American humorist Dave Barry was chosen for audit in an  IRS sample, he wrote a syndicated article of comical unctuousity to the Service: ‘The truth is that I have the deepest respect for the IRS, and for the thousands of fine men and women and Doberman pinschers who work there….IRS are regular people just like you, except that they can destroy your life.’

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I do, honestly

I have decided to  turn over a new leaf and show respect to tax inspectors whether with or without borders. They are good people. Really good people. Really.

Monkey business

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Pass the monkey wrench

In its relentless efforts to clean us all up, the Israeli Tax Authority has just thrown another spanner in the works of the well-greased black market.

Meek householders faced by odd-job men  demanding cash as they flex their bulging muscles, not to mention seasoned mafiosi and disgraced politicians, will be questioning my timing. Surely,  the ‘Law for Restricting the Use of Cash’ was last year’s news, albeit that it only came into effect two months ago? The man with the leaky roof has already hardwired his brain with a little red light that goes off  when he hears – in a plethora of accents and grammatical constructs – the sum of eleven thousand shekels. Although that is not the final word (or number) on the maximum amount that can be paid in cash – it is a good trigger for the sweat glands to open. From October this year, not only those that demand cash, but those who pay it, will be liable to a fine if caught.

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Cheques are so much easier

The reason for mentioning the incursion into the colourful world of banknotes now in particular is the helpful simulator the tax authority has recently uploaded to its website. The idea – it appears – is that Joe Public can check, in the space of less than a minute, whether a cash payment he plans to receive or make is permitted and, if not, the ‘damage’ if he is nabbed by the long arm of the law.

Having carefully read the authority’s professional circular, replete with numerical examples, and then tested the simulator with the same examples, I have – at time of writing – two criticisms. Firstly,  the simulator’s results in respect of penalties are wrong – someone forgot to program the simulator’s programmer with the correct terms of the law. But, what is a little boo-boo among friends? It is the second point that, in my humble opinion, is the real issue, and on which I feel compelled to dwell.

For a deterrent to be effective, those it targets must either live in abject dread of the terrible consequences of breaking the law: death by hanging, prolonged incarceration, financial ruin; OR they must be left to fear the unknown.

The moment taxpayers can punch the numbers into their smartphones and summon up the bad news – which, starting at 15% of the illegally paid amount, is an irritant rather than a life-destroying event – for many the fine simply becomes a refinement of the black market calculation.

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Joe Public

An example will help the explanation. The abovementioned Joe Public, a typically morally unchallenged householder, hires Art Dodger to redecorate  his house. Art gives Joe a price, but tells him that – if he pays 25% in cash, he will knock off the VAT.  Until the recent change, the only thing stopping Joe was his civic responsibility which – given that he is typically morally unchallenged – is probably handsomely outpriced by the discount. Art, on the other hand, has had to make a risk assessment before making his offer. He will not be declaring VAT and income tax. He probably reckons that – even if he is found out – he will get away with a slap on the wrist and paying both taxes with interest. All in all, the income tax saving is appealing.

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Art Dodger

Enter the new law, and the soon-to-be-corrected simulator. Art retains his sunny outlook about not getting caught. Joe, on the other hand, now knows he has a risk – and, thanks to the simulator, knows exactly how much as he sits across from Art at his kitchen table. Joe might – as the law (and its simulator) hopes – tell Art to forget it. On the other hand, he might – depending on the amount at risk – ask Art to improve his offer. If that happens – depending on how Art responds – the black market  just got more sophisticated.

If I were the tax authority, I would bury the penalty part of the simulator, defects and all, in a very deep hole. The black market is a scourge that, deep down and however much our moral compass waivers , we all want to be rid of. The new law is a step in the right direction.

Oh, and they could always reassign that programmer to ‘Tax Refunds’.

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