Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the month “July, 2019”

English as a very foreign language

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One word would have been a start.

Several years ago, I returned from a quick trip to Paris on El Al Business Class. As everybody knows, El Al’s security measures are peerless, but just before the gate at Orly airport, the French insisted on putting us all through a second metal detector. I buzzed. Now, I am a big believer that there can’t be too much security, and would normally have been happily compliant as they played hide and seek with my belt and shoe heels (this was before shoe heels were a real security item). But this was France. And this was a security officer pulling on white gloves. And he was French. He barked at me in his Gallic tongue, and – despite five wasted years at school doing my bit for the Entente Cordiale – I just looked at him like a gentleman would look at a barking puppy. He barked again – and that was it; I flipped:

‘Speak to me in English! There is only one international language today, and you will speak to me in it!’

He barked again, this time signaling I should turn around. Not likely with those damned white gloves, Pierre!

I then did something rather disingenuous for the first and only time in my life:

‘I am an Israeli. I speak English. Why don’t you?’

At this point, the El Al security officer who had interviewed me earlier, and had suffered my heavily accented Hebrew, together with her two colleagues who were standing nearby, actually burst out laughing.  Suffice to say, not wishing to spend the weekend in the Bastille, I did ultimately comply. I have no idea why he wore the white gloves – he went nowhere near my Maginot Line.

What made me raise this now in a tax blog? A few weeks ago, the OECD uploaded the latest version of Israel’s Transfer Pricing Country Profile. The document involves, in the main, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers with a space for the reference in statute law. So far, so good. But, here and there, a few short sentences are necessary. Aye, and there’s the rub.

lets_eat_grandmaHardly any of it was in grammatical English. I had difficulty even understanding some of the sentences.

This is a disgrace, and I don’t think it is restricted to Israel.

One of the principal reasons the OECD has been able to advance its BEPS international tax agenda so efficiently is that the world has learnt to communicate in a common language. This is not about triumph or ego. It is about efficiency.

And, of course, the advantages go far, far beyond tax. There really is no reason today why the sine qua non for any function in the international sphere should not be relative fluency in English. The only exception would be a prime minister or president who is elected by the people (mind you, the current president of France seems to have a better command of English than the current president of the United States.)

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My fecund imagination is starting to run away with itself

And, as for the written word, if I were the OECD, I would put red ink all over the Israeli (and any other unacceptable) entry and send it back marked; ‘Not good enough. Try again’. That is how we learnt English in school.  The stick also helped – but I wouldn’t put that in the hands of any organization based in Paris.

The long and winding road

They even had a fab song called ‘Taxman’.

Given the plot of the recently released movie ‘Yesterday’, it is ironic that I can’t get the Beatles out of my mind. A ruling published by the Israeli tax authority around the time the latest blockbuster hit the screens sent me on my own magical mystery tour.

What, I hear you ask, could tax have to do with ‘magic’ or ‘mystery’, or anything anybody ever associates with ‘interesting’? Hold onto your seats.

The ruling was basic to the point of bland – in other words, the sort of thing you knew all along, you wondered why it was published, and you self-flagellated for wasting the time reading it twice to try and find the catch.

An Israeli resident individual set up a foreign company in 2000 which held all of the shares of an Israeli company. He now requested a tax-free transfer of the Israeli company from under the foreign company to a new Israeli company fully owned by him. There is a provision in the law that allows such transfer, subject to a request to the tax commissioner and a myriad conditions to ensure the Israeli tax authority is not deprived of tax. Big deal (Google translate: no big deal).

The dividends boomeranged back to Israel

Then, all of a sudden, it hit me between the ears. The big deal was in what was not written. There was no mention of the tax saving on the ‘circular’ dividend. Until the reorganization, dividends paid by the Israeli company to the foreign company would have been liable to withholding tax.  Leaving aside any foreign tax, when the foreign company distributed dividends to the Israeli resident individual – according to statute law – he would have been liable to tax on receipt of the dividend without credit for the tax previously withheld to the foreign company. The reorganization meant that, going forward, he would receive dividends direct from the new  Israeli company, tax being paid once on the dividend (no tax would apply on the  dividend between the old  Israeli company and the new one according to Israeli law).

The fact that the tax authority did not even mention it as a back-patting gesture signaled that – in keeping with a long tradition, and despite the deficiencies of the law – they appear to take it for granted that a ‘circular’ dividend should not be liable to double tax, giving a credit to the individual receiving a dividend from the foreign company for the tax withheld originally by the Israeli company.

The history of this is quite remarkable.

Since the beginning of time – 1 YTO (Year of our Tax Ordinance), corresponding to 1961 CE – there has been a clause (s163) that solved the problem of double taxation on ‘circular’ dividends in the manner described above. The only problem is that it deals with a tax that, since 32YTO, no longer exists. For reasons possibly best known to somebody, it was never knocked out of the Ordinance. Indeed, at the time of the Great Reforming Flood in 43 YTO (2003 CE), when so much was destroyed and replaced, I discussed the matter with a senior tax official who couldn’t explain its survival.

Arks were a bit passe by the third millennium

Meanwhile, in 42YTO (2002CE), when the rising water of the reform was already at the door and Israelis investing abroad were praying for salvation, the tax authority surprisingly issued a non-legally binding  circular dealing with foreign tax credits under the soon to be drowned system (they even stated clearly that another circular would be issued dealing with the postdiluvian  situation). That circular included a reference to s163 implying, in circular fashion, that credit on a circular dividend could be claimed. There was no reference to the fact that s163 clearly no longer applied. Somebody was sleeping in the biblical Land of Nod. Interestingly, when the new circular was finally issued in 44 YTO, there was no mention of s163. We were back on dry land.

As the years passed, the tax authority was known to give private rulings solving the double dividend tax on the basis that it just wasn’t fair in a two-tier system (corporate tax plus tax on dividend) to hit people with a triple-tax. But, as advisors we were always reticent – one never knew when the spring would go in a tax official’s head.

Then, in 54 YTO (corresponding to 2014 CE) a case concerning a sister provision in s163 came before the courts in the form of an appeal against the tax authority’s decision. The judge threw the appellant out on his ear – and that was what was widely reported at the time. But,  there was incredibly important ‘obiter’ in the case. Part of the appellant’s argument had been that the tax authority should be consistent in allowing a credit according to the  semi-relevant circular mentioned above from before the Flood. His honour made a few things clear. Firstly, despite the language of the law clearly not applying any longer, the intention of the original law was to avoid triple-tax in a two-tier tax system. Hence, interpreting the current law widely in that vein, was appropriate. Furthermore, even if the authorities were working ‘beyond the letter of the law’ in their circular it would only apply where there was triple tax – which was not the case before the court.

Unpredictable

So, where does that leave the matter? The tax authorities appear consistent in their approach, and there is obiter in a District Court case. But, that does not mean that the situation is closed  hermetically. There could always be an official  who wakes up one morning and conveniently forgets ‘Yesterday’. So, it appears that anybody contemplating circular dividends still needs to work it out with a little help from their friend the professional tax advisor. The advisor, hopefully, won’t let them down.

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