Who stole the punch line?
I am rarely amused by the pronouncements of the Israeli tax authority – au contraire, they often rile me. But, last week a public ruling had the effect of diverting my mind to the comedy double acts that had their origins in America’s Vaudeville and Britain’s Music Halls. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies. The list goes on and on.
The ruling concerned an oldie but goodie in the international VAT sphere. It contained absolutely nothing new (I will rant about that shortly – I am still at the amused stage), but did serve as a reminder to international tax advisors everywhere (in Israel) that corporate tax planning cannot be done in isolation. Corporate tax and VAT are a double act, with the direct tax as the funny guy, and the indirect tax as the straight man. If an international tax advisor does not deal with the two in tandem, they might just as well send in the clowns.
There is a peculiarity in Israeli VAT law not shared – to the best of my knowledge – by the EU or other major operators of the tax. Services provided to foreign residents who are outside of Israel generally attract zero-rate VAT (a doublespeak way of saying there is no VAT). However, there are exceptions – particulary where the service agreement benefits, in addition to foreign residents, Israeli residents. And, as the 17% VAT is on the gross amount, and as the foreign residents cannot reclaim the VAT in the absence of a taxable presence in Israel, advisors need to pull their hair out thinking of structuring solutions.
The matter considered by the authorities involved a local company operating a Hebrew website to provide marketing services (and a little bit more) to foreign suppliers of goods. They charged a commission for this service to the foreign suppliers. The authorities were asked to rule that the charge should be zero-rated, as it was a service to a foreign resident. Despite also being to the benefit of the Israeli resident customers, the law has a Get Out of Jail Free card – VAT is zero-rated if the marketing charge is included as part of the customs value of the subsequently imported goods (it wouldn’t work for imported services, and hence the need for careful structural planning in this sphere).
The ruling makes the zero rate conditional on proving, inter alia, that the price of the imported goods is included in the import price. “Nothing wrong with that,’ I hear you mutter. Aye, but there’s the rub. There is a reason the tax authority has a ruling process – it provides certainty where there was doubt. And there is a reason the tax authority publishes condensed and sanitized versions of those rulings – so that the certainty exists across the board. All very noble.
The published ruling provided no information that was not known already. The law – as represented in the ruling – is entirely clear. What has never been clear – and why I read this document with keen interest – is: ‘What constitutes proof that the service is included in the value of the imports?’ ‘Ah! I hear you say; it is obviously included because it is one of the costs directly related to the sales to Israel’. All I can say is, that it is at times like this that you need a sense of humour. In discussions with the authorities over the years, they didn’t necessarily think it was so obvious if there wasn’t a specific reference in the import documentation to that element of cost (‘included in the import price’ – get it?)
So, if – as I suspect – the ruling request was seeking clarity on that issue, either it was provided and then excluded from the published summary, which would be scandalous; or it was not given at all, which would mean the whole process was a waste of taxpayers’ money.
Either way, it’s time for the tax authority’s scriptwriters to have a rethink about their material.