Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the month “March, 2019”

Tell it like it is

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Not a robot? Spot the quotes

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. That quote from Romeo and Juliet has occupied my thoughts this last week. As an Israeli judge found recently, the concept is only a ‘truth universally acknowledged’ to the extent the rose is inarguably a rose. And, in the process, the learned gentleman took pains and, dare I say liberties with the law, to rub compost in the face of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

Israel has had a Law for the Encouragement of Capital Investment for the last 60 years. Primarily a treasure chest of tax and monetary incentives to further the needs of the economy, it has been touched up and renovated periodically as the needs of the State changed and matured. In 2005, in an attempt to simplify a cumbersome process befitting a formerly socialist country,  a boost was given to those industrial enterprises that exported a pre-ordained percentage of their production.

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Not a robot? You don’t need the word ‘export’ to understand ‘export’.

However, the word ‘export’ had to be expunged from the Law’s lexicon. Offering export incentives threatened a shower of fire and brimstone from the World Trade Organization and, specifically, those with whom Israel had free trade agreements (including the US and EU). So, the sophists engaged to draft the law came up with a need to meet one of the following requirements:

  • Income from a specific market must not be more than 75% of total income;
  • 25% or more of total income must be  from a specific market numbering at least 12 million residents.

That would avoid detection in a word search by nosy foreign governments,  while anyone with a brain that worked in accordance with evolutionary theory could interpret the law as demanding  at least 25% export, with no restrictions on the level of exports to any major foreign country. Why 12 million? Probably because it was a lot more than the population of Israel in 2005 (the number was updated a few years back to 14 million with an annual automatic increase).

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How can we be sure anymore that the number of residents of New Zealand doesn’t include the sheep?

Well, populations have a habit of growing, and by sometime in 2012  Israel’s market, which included the residents of  Judea and Samaria aka the West Bank had grown to more than 12 million, and companies that sold exclusively to Israel decided to claim the benefits of the Law. The tax authorities told them, in no uncertain terms, to go fly a kite.

The courts got involved and agreed with the tax authorities (the tax authorities’ argument had layers not elucidated here). The appeal was heard this month.

Although, at bottom line, the appeal was thrown out, the judge disagreed with the tax authorities that Israel could not, in principle, be included in the second condition, offering a long and reasoned argument. The upshot would be that no exports were required at all – a surprising conclusion. Interestingly, in addition to arguing that exporting was not the clear intention of the law, he completely ignored the first (alternative) condition which, although not negating entirely the Israel-only possibility, made the whole thing Monty Pythonesque.

Benjamin Netanyahu, David Bitan, Oren Hazan

They are going to take the judge’s comments very seriously.

Faith in the judge was restored, however, towards the end of the 39 page judgement. Quoting from some of the committee discussions surrounding the 2005 amendment, he lambasted the parliamentarians for the underhand way in which they had sought to hide the export incentive from Israel’s trading partners, making clear that white man mustn’t speak with forked tongue. If, as a result, they got their wording in a twist, they deserved to be punished. He forcefully suggested that the legislature should update the wording of the law.

There is nothing new, or unique to Israel, about actively confusing laws. Back in the 1850s, the author of Little Dorrit invented a whole government department to promote the idea – the Office of Circumlocution. But, perhaps, times they are a changin.

Dead Wrong

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April fool!

It’s bad enough that, thanks to the controversy surrounding Brexit, the average Briton no longer lives with peace of mind. From April 1 they will no longer die with peace of mind.

A headline-grabbing exaggeration perhaps, but probate fees for opening a file to deal with a deceased person’s estate are due to jump from £155 to, in some cases, £6000 from next week. While the government insists it is a fee – in order to avoid a legal requirement to include it in the annual Finance Act – the Office for Budget Responsibility announced on March 15 that it would be included, alongside Inheritance Tax, as a tax for statistical purposes.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs  has been administering the controversial – and widely hated – Inheritance Tax since its inception in 1986.

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The Twilight Zone?

As in other countries imposing an Estate Tax or Inheritance Tax (there are many that have either cancelled or never adopted either) UK Inheritance Tax is  controversial for the wrong reasons. It is argued that it represents a double tax on already-taxed income, while at the same time not bringing in much revenue (other than from the good dead people of Guildford, the recently crowned inheritance tax capital of Britain). The first argument cries out for a different spin, and the second (it represents around 1% of tax-take) may anyway cease to be valid in the years ahead.

As taxes go, an Inheritance Tax makes a lot more sense than an Estate Tax.

An Estate Tax imposes tax on the estate of a dead person – beneficiaries receive what is due to them out of the post-tax value of the estate. There is, unquestionably, an element of double tax (although the likes of Thomas Jefferson and liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill gave the finger to that), and the fact that estate tax planning is entirely within the bailiwick of the donor (subsequently the ‘dead person’) such tax can often be minimized.

An Inheritance Tax imposes tax on the beneficiaries. In that case, the double tax argument is weakened – the dead person passes on their estate free of tax (but without a tax deduction for the transfer as they, rather than society, decide who is to receive it) and the beneficiaries – similar to the winner of a lottery – pay taxes on their windfall. As regards the level of collections, imposing tax on the beneficiaries also puts something of a spanner in the works of aggressive tax planning during the donor’s lifetime.

There are two types of inheritance tax  – accessions and inclusion. An accessions tax system provides the beneficiary with their lifetime tax-free inheritance threshold, and hits them with the prescribed rate of inheritance tax on  the balance of what they receive from any number of donors, while an inclusion tax  charges beneficiaries according to their marginal income tax rates  (plus an inheritance surcharge). While inheritance tax is always fairer than estate tax, the inclusion tax system is the fairest of them all – as it clearly works in favour of beneficiaries of smaller amounts and/or lower income.

Furthermore, in all cases (Estate Tax and both types of Inheritance Tax), the increased exchange of information between tax authorities mean it is increasingly difficult to hide assets ‘abroad’ – which should also substantially serve to increase the revenue collection.

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‘More tea, guv?’

Britain claims to have an Inheritance Tax. The problem is that – to all intents and purposes – no, it doesn’t. It has an Estate Tax. The government website (Gov.UK sounds like an initiative of the Kray Twins) talks to the donor. Other than in specific circumstances the tax is claimed from the estate. The tax-free threshold is given to the estate – and even in the case where specific gifts are given outside the will in the 7 years prior to death, they get first benefit of the tax-free amount. And the tax rate is fixed.

So, why is it called an Inheritance Tax?  We shouldn’t complain. At least it is called a ‘tax’ as opposed to the Probate Fee, which is a tax but the government can’t afford to call it that. And what about Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?  Isn’t it a tax authority?

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At least they still call it a ‘tax’ return

Perhaps we shouldn’t ask too many difficult questions of a country with a tax year-end of April 5th.

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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