Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the month “October, 2019”

Lost before translation

Balfour was Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary AND looked like John Cleese

At a conference in Lisbon a few years back, I listened to a delightfully amusing talk by a former British Foreign Secretary (who is NOT now Prime Minister). He mentioned a near diplomatic incident some years earlier when he was speaking at a dinner in Japan. His quote from Matthew: ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’ was translated as: ‘The whisky is good, but the meat is terrible’.

We have all smirked at some time or other over images of South East Asian signs ostensibly in English. The funny side is, however, sometimes lost when it comes to assembly instructions for cheap goods ordered over the internet from faraway lands, when we toil into the night trying to assemble them. The frustration is only exacerbated when we realize that some of the parts are missing or don’t fit, and there is nowhere to turn this side of Suez. (I would point out that last comment is not strictly true in my personal case). The High Street store has life in it yet.

Israel – the Start-Up Nation – prides itself on very expensive exports with excellent instructions (often an expert team sent abroad to install the very latest technology). On the other hand, we are still East of Suez, so something has to give in our relations with foreigners, the people who happen to make up most of the world.

An excellent example is Israeli trusts and their reporting requirements. The only thing the forms are missing is a label on the back stating: ‘Mad in Bangladesh’.

In case you’ve never seen it

By now, everybody knows that Israel’s fairly new trust tax law doesn’t fit reality. Gallant efforts by the tax authorities (and I mean that most sincerely, folks) to try and produce sensible practice out of it, most clearly resembles attempting to  sew Mama Cass into Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ slinky dress.

In the last week alone, I was faced with two reporting howlers.

A trustee needed to report the formation of an Israeli resident trust. This would – according to the forms – inexplicably normally be done by the settlor. But, in accordance with the law, a trust that has been decanted from an existing trust looks to the settlor of the parent trust as the settlor. As is often the case in these circumstances, the settlor was in no position to file the forms because he was already dead. Choosing between a number of irrelevant options, the reporting accountant took a bash and ticked a vaguely relevant box. I was amazed when the trust’s  foreign advisor told me they were wrong, and pointed me to the ‘right’ box. And – in the world of wonky instructions for third world products – he was right. The English translation fitted the trust precisely. The only problem was – it was not a faithful translation of the official Hebrew which unfitted the trust precisely.

And then, I had to break the news to someone else that there is no form (I also thought there was, until I read them all in detail) for beneficiaries receiving cash distributions from a relatives’ trust on the 30% tax on distribution route. It isn’t really surprising – logic and intelligent interpretation of the law require tax on such distributions to be paid by the trustee, but the tax authority’s explanatory circular, as well as forms to be completed by the trustee, places the payment obligation on the beneficiary. On that basis, the reporting by the trustee is purely informative and no active tax file is opened. In the absence of access to the financial data of the trust (which is in the hands of the trustees), the beneficiaries cannot challenge the full 30% taxation on their distribution (the tax authorities talk loosely of the trustee convincing them – but, in their official eyes, what has he go to do with the price of cheese?), so there is already a mess. This is exacerbated by the fact that the line on the actual tax return for distributions from trusts is for both ‘liable’ and ‘exempt’ trusts. These terms have no meaning in Israeli trust tax law – but whatever they do mean (and I have my suspicions), without an accompanying form the tax authority cannot know who should be paying the tax (the trustee or the beneficiary). AND THERE IS NO FORM!

Tax returns in Israel are filed electronically. The days of the nice letter from Mrs Trellis of North Tel Aviv  to the nice tax clerk explaining the situation are over.

At a dinner in Tel Aviv a couple of years back, I listened to a delightfully amusing talk by a former British Foreign Secretary (who IS now Prime Minister). He referred to the residents of Bromley being a credit to their favourite son (or words to that effect). I turned to the British expatriate next to me and pointed out that Bromley’s favourite son was Charles Darwin. Reminds me of something, but I can’t (or should I say won’t?) put my finger on it.

…for the people?

And a system of government…

‘Plutocracy’ is viewed generally as a dirty word. The idea (if not the practice) of government by the wealthy is anathema to those who treasure democracy.

At first whiff the OECD Secretariat’s proposal for a unified worldwide approach to the taxation of the digital economy, issued for consultation earlier this month, failed the plutocratic smell test. The second whiff was, perhaps, less pungent.

The OECD-led BEPS initiative has, since 2015, produced some impressive solutions to many of the problems of the international tax system – most would agree far beyond initial expectations. Predictably, however, the biggest sticking point has been the taxation of the digital economy – Action 1 on the 15 point list. And it has not been for want of trying. The OECD and G20 gradually coaxed into the BEPS decision process no less than 134 countries, in what came to be known as the Inclusive Framework, each jurisdiction entitled to an equal vote.  The Inclusive Framework has been busy during 2018 and 2019 issuing an interim report, a policy note, a public consultation document and a programme of work. The aim is to have everything in place (the remaining BEPS issues are also dealt with, but separately compartmentalized) by the end of 2020.

Another example of one nation one vote

The work of the 134 member countries sounds very impressive; there is only one fundamental problem – they are split into three factions with significantly differing views as to what needs to be done (see Taxbreak November 5, 2018). In good democratic fashion, they were instructed to achieve consensus before the ball falls on  December 31, 2020.

O ye of little faith!

The OECD Secretariat – the executive branch of that venerable club of 36 rich nations – saw chaos on the way, and has now ‘gently’ suggested its own solution, taking into account the three differing views. Although the 134 can ignore the ‘suggestion’ (or should that be the 98?), the clout of the wealthy has surely been enhanced. So, at first whiff, plutocrats rule, OK?

The proposal is, as might be expected, eminently sensible. The definition of ‘Nexus’, around since the 1920s, would – in certain circumstances – be modified to include in the tax net of a country situations where no physical presence (permanent establishment) exists. There would also be a new profit allocation rule that diverges from the traditional arms-length transfer pricing. Profits would be split into Amounts A, B and C. Amounts B and C would be fairly traditional in approach – a fixed return for marketing and distribution activities (B) with the option for a jurisdiction to claim a greater return for enhanced activities if warranted (C). Amount A is the magic ingredient, allocating a portion of the deemed residual profit of a multinational group – the non-routine profits – to the market jurisdictions after stripping out that element attributable to other factors such as trade intangibles, capital and risk. The concept is only to apply the rules to large multinationals using a suitable key – probably revenue, and to try and keep the allocation of residual profit as simple as possible.

Taking a second whiff, It is just possible that the OECD Secretariat’s motive in issuing the proposal is entirely anti-Plutocratic. The jurisdiction with the most to lose from the digital tax reform is the US which has nurtured the likes of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google (the FAANGS). Realization of that fact has been reflected in that great nation’s approach to countries going it alone (eg France with its Digital Tax). The support of the No 1 international tax body is likely to give smaller nations (not to mention the not-so-smaller ones) the courage to resist pressure and ensure there is ultimately compromise rather than steamrolling. The alternative would be no agreement, and further spreading of the unilateral  taxes that have been popping up recently, undermining the underbelly of the entire system.

2020 should be an interesting year.

Red Scotch Tape

And then came the 1970s

When Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition in 1851, Britain was the world’s leading industrial power, producing more than half its iron, coal and cotton cloth.

 Well, I don’t think Her Late Majesty would be very amused to hear from her great-great granddaughter how the country she bequeathed to her descendants in perpetuity is currently faring in that field (mind you, her grandson Kaiser Bill did a far bigger hatchet job on Germany).

Nothing highlights the shifting sands more starkly than the announcement the other day that, following World Trade Organization approval, the US is to apply ‘the biggest ever’ new tariffs to imports from the EU – and specifically the UK, France, Germany and Spain.

The British air industry knew when to be competitive

The issue has been brewing for 15 years, ever since the US first complained to the WTO that the EU was subsidizing Airbus and others to assist in their competition with Boeing and others. The EU was indeed found to have overshot the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and given until late 2011 to comply. The EU did take measures, but in 2012 the US requested the review of a compliance panel, and in 2018 the WTO determined there had been further violations. The WTO finally ruled last week in the US’s favor and the US Trade Representative was quick to issue a list of products to have their wings clipped through new import tariffs.

The list of products to be punished, represented by their Harmonized Tariff Schedule Codes, is long. The first item is, unsurprisingly, aircraft – the prices of which are to be hiked by 10% from later this month.

It is the next item – designed to hit Britain – that is gobsmackingly strange. You would have thought that it would be heavy turbines, trains or ships. No. It is single malt (and only single malt) scotch whisky – together with single malt Irish whiskey distilled in Northern Ireland, if there is such a thing. And no friendly 10% for them. 25% slapped drunkenly on the price.

It turns out that the most effective way to get at what was once ‘the workshop of the world’ is through premium brand whisky. But, it is all so unfair. Check on Wikipedia for ‘Aircraft Manufacturers of Scotland’, and you will be greeted by ‘Defunct Aircraft Manufacturers of Scotland’. In fact, tragically, Scotland’s biggest claim ever to aviation fame was probably the 1988 Lockerbie Disaster, for which they suffered more than enough.

So, sadly, the good people of Scotland (in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I am half Scot) are being made to pay for the shenanigans of their southern partners (who themselves are probably far less guilty than the Germans and French , both of whose record on air wars is abysmal).

Who are the Americans trying to kid?

I don’t know what hurts more – Britain’s descent from the industrial world to the spirit world, or the gross unfairness of trade wars. Not much can be done about the former, but the latter should be exorcised before the new mercantilism takes an unbreakable hold.

We are not amused.

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