Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the month “August, 2019”

How right is the price?

It’s easier to sneak into an exam these days

The trouble with studying for an Economics degree was that every Tom, Dick and Maths geek relegated the perceived syllabus to three years of reading the Economist and watching the Money Programme. They reckoned they understood everything much better than I did, while (they thought) I had no idea how to prove zero (they thought right).

It’s a long time since I studied Economics, but I was reminded by a curious release of the tax authorities earlier this month that nothing has really changed in 40 years.

As everyone (even a Maths geek) knows, one of the pillars of progress in international taxation since the twentieth century started to wind down, is transfer pricing. It isn’t Tax, it isn’t Accounting and it isn’t International Law. It is Economics. And, because it is Economics, people tend to think that, while they wouldn’t dream of trying out brain surgery on their snotty-nosed younger brother (well, some wouldn’t), they have no problem with deciding how to allocate profit between entities in different jurisdictions. Piece of cake. I remember once being asked by a client’s CFO to read through their transfer pricing documentation. Unsurprisingly, it was like a sweater knitted without a pattern. The only thing it was good for was self-publishing as bad fiction on Amazon.

In the good old days, you could run a multinational group from here

Whatever one’s criticism of transfer pricing methods – and the dismal science ensures there is nothing like the precision of taxation and accounting – the international tax community has largely succeeded in creating a series of mutually agreed rules that, at least, ensure some level of consistency across borders. Thanks to the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting rules of the OECD that have been engulfing the world’s tax systems over the last four years, we tax planners are finding it increasingly difficult to isolate most of the profit of a group on a one-tree desert island in the Pacific with no working lavatories.

Just as barbers ceased to be surgeons, and aristocrats ceased to be relevant, the time came long ago for boardroom philosophers to hang up their “I’m not paying for this rubbish” attitude and go with the flow.

And, in my naivety (and Big 4 experience), that is where I thought we had arrived about a decade ago.

Not so fast.  In July the tax authority issued a new ‘International Transaction Declaration’, replacing the previous one. The form is designed to accompany a company’s tax return on its perilous journey through the corridors of the tax authority. While I sometimes think the tax authority has a long way to go to get anything right – and this form is no exception – it is a major advance on its predecessor. While the old form asked the assessee to ‘tell us what you’ve got’ by way of international transactions and provide a vague declaration of compliance with the relevant section of the law, the new form cheekily wants to know which transfer pricing method was used. And no amount of Economist reading or watching the Money Programme is going to provide the answer to that one.

So far so good.

Choose a form, any form

Then the fun started. Within a month (or so) of the form’s appearance, the tax authority put out a statement that, ‘due to an approach’, companies could choose which form to use for 2018, but would be required to adopt the new one for 2019.

What approach? And only one? The mind boggles as to what could have led the tax authorities to agree to pass up on the opportunity to catch all those companies still not using formal transfer pricing methods after all these years.

There will doubtless be many a small-company CFO sipping his Horlicks of an evening next to the fire, holding forth on the state of the world economy, and the universe in general,  while he knits away at his last amateur transfer pricing monstrosity.

The big bad wolf is waiting at 2019’s door.

When tax legislation bombs

Why did the RAF bother?

In his bestelling book, ‘Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’, Giles Milton tells the story of the destruction of Peugeot’s factory in Occupied France. The facility had been commandeered for German military production. One night, Bomber Command ordered the dropping of a massive amount of ordnance on the plant, only to discover the following day that they had missed their target completely and, instead, razed a number of French villages with several hundred innocent civilians providing a tragic statistic of ‘collateral damage’. The next attempt, which was as successful as the bombing raid had been a disaster, involved a handful of saboteurs placing plastic explosive at key points in the building.

Israel’s trust tax provisions, that largely took effect in 2006, could have been orchestrated by Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris himself. They are so far from perfect that they look like   the Knesset Finance Committee opened its bomb hatches and peppered them over the taxpaying public. It is well known that the authorities were so concerned about the capacity to use trusts to evade taxes, that they legislated to nab the heinous few, while causing collateral damage across the local and international economy.

Sifting through the debris, an example of legislation that appears to have been totally lacking in precision is the instruction that ‘the provisions of the third chapter of Section III’ will not apply to trusts. References like that are what Churchill might have called, ‘ A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ – obscure enough to be missed by anyone but the most obsessive tax wallah. Well, lo and behold, the chapter’s sections deal with the very human provisions of deductions and credits, such as those applying to pensions and the personal status of the individual – the stuff that amorphous trusts should be rightly excluded from. Indeed, the tax authority’s explanatory circular gives such items as the examples.

Bah humbug

However, somebody at the drafting stage obviously became bored, and didn’t notice the tax credit for charitable donations tucked away in the chapter. An individual is entitled to a 35% tax credit for donations to Israeli recognized institutions up to the lower of 30% of taxable income and around 9.2 million shekels. That is quite an incentive to donate. The trouble is that, according to the law, a trust (technically, the trustee) – that pays tax in Israel like an individual – cannot avail itself of that credit.

There is collateral damage, and there is collateral damage. Trusts , by character if not by definition, make charitable donations. In countries where tax efficient, those donations might be by way of making the charitable body a beneficiary. But, in Israel there is generally no tax on distributions anyway – the tax is on the annually earned income. So, by denying benefits at the trust’s taxable income level, they are being denied absolutely.

The bottom line is that it is not tax efficient for trusts to make charitable donations. That smacks less of collateral damage, and more of insane carpet bombing. It is almost as crazy as the Germans deciding to make their vehicles in France, and putting a man by the name of Porsche in charge of  the Peugeot factory.

Succinct summary

As WWII proved, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

Trust the taxman?

Perhaps not as bumbling an idiot as he looked…

My first suspicion that authority wasn’t all it was cracked up to be was at the age of 10, when I saw Lionel Bart’s newly released Oliver! Between the catchy numbers and faux-dirty actors there were two clear messages – the inhumanity of the workhouse system and Mr Bumble’s ‘The law is a ass, a idiot.’

Workhouses had blessedly long gone even then, but I have had many occasions in my long career to echo Mr Bumble’s sentiment. And if Dickens meant the term ‘ass’ in its asinine sense,  I am sometimes tempted to go with the American usage.

There have been many occasions when a sloppily drafted law has been saved by the tax authority, with liberal and, sometimes, downright anarchical interpretations that could only be strictly justified by a completely new interpretation of the letters of the alphabet used in the drafting.

There are often a lot more forms than substance

But, more often than not, it is not the case. While they will invoke ‘substance over form’ in incidences to their advantage – fairly confident that the courts will back them up if matters get that far – the authorities will fight hammer and nail to impose the letter of the law, hiding (possibly fairly) behind the excuse that they cannot ignore the written word.

And, just occasionally, they go a step too far.

If we are to believe the myriad reports of a case at the end of July, one of those steps is on the way.

I won’t dwell on the details of the case which has already been reported to saturation point, but suffice it so say, trust tax law – largely legislated with effect from 2006 – generally considers the contribution of an asset to a trust as a non-taxable event (a gross oversimplification, if ever there were one). The problem is that, for purely anachronistic reasons, Israel has a separate law for the capital gains from local real estate transactions. It, and its predecessor, simply predated Israel’s taxation of capital gains and for reasons I sadly suspect many of us understand, the situation has never been put right. The real estate law stayed silent beyond some existing archaic provisions that were essential for real estate transactions. The taxpayer argued that the transfer of real estate to a trust should not be a tax event – in logical line with the treatment of all other assets, as must have been the clear intention of the legislator – and the tax authority disagreed.

Blessedly, the committee appointed under the law  to hear the appeal of the taxpayer, comprising two respected accountants and a senior judge, found in favour of the appellant. The ruling was reasoned and well-presented doing what I, in my recurring naivety, thought  was what the tax authorities found difficulty with – filling in by stealth the missing bits of the law that should have been, but were not, there.

I assumed that would be it. The tax authorities were given a peg on which to hang their coat, and the world could carry on. The judge even recommended that the legislature add the relevant provisions to the statute so as not to permanently be required to rely on case law.

Dickens was quite obsessed with the failings of the legal system

Well, according to the professional ‘press’, I got it wrong. The tax authority is expected to blow a raspberry at the decision and pursue an appeal in the High Court.  Apart from the relative certainty that they won’t win, I don’t begin to understand what they are reported to be contemplating.

It would simply not be fair.

Those lazy-hazy-crazy days of summer

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