Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the month “December, 2019”

Auld Lang Syne

Some cops will do anything not to be kissed on
New Year’s Eve

On New Year’s Eve, a man’s thoughts turn to the year that has just flown by. On the eve of a new decade, a man’s thoughts turn to the decades of his life that are lost. What has happened  since I sat glued to my grandparents’ gogglebox at five to midnight on Hogmanay in 1969? I wonder if that drunk lying on the roof of my car pretending his arms were a pair of windscreen wipers, as I inched away from Trafalgar Square in the first hours of 1980, is still alive? (Come to think of it, I never looked back to see if he was still alive when he fell off.)

Israel got back to agriculture in the end

Nostalgia was not quite the word that came to mind when I noticed the other day that the Israeli Income Tax Authority had once more extended Annex 1 to Instruction 34/93, while renewing a sweetener as a sop to the modern world.

When, early in my international tax career in this country, 34/93 hit the scene, it was something of an eye-opener. The instruction dealt with the requirements for deducting tax at source on payments abroad and, for the first time, included the country’s banks as gatekeepers. The upshot was that, with some specific exceptions, if you wanted to get money out of the country without resorting to a suitcase, it needed a request to the tax authority and, regularly, a long wait. 1993 was before the dotcoms and real estate tycoons lit up Israel’s economy internationally, so the parochial 34/93 was a bearable nuisance. There were two ‘get out of jail free’ cards – the special company (annex 1) which allowed largish companies to handle their own foreign withholding tax, and Certified Public Accountants, who could authorize many types of payment. The trouble was – and the reason special company status was used sparingly, and any sane Certified Public Accountant said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ – was that the responsibility for getting the withholding tax right rested on the payor – if the foreigner in some greasy foreign land did the unthinkable of lying, the noose was round the Israeli’s neck.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and 34/93 is still there. A small, but convincing, international economic superpower has to grapple with a system devised by those who dodged the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. To add insult to injury, the authorities can’t even hide behind the bureaucratic safe harbor of ‘we are just renewing it’, since this year they reconfirmed an earlier change (I suppose we should be impressed that they managed to find a copy of the original instruction – it isn’t on the tax authority’s website). Whereas payments to a foreign resident for services provided abroad (the absolute ‘what the hell do I have to ask permission for this?’ payment) used to be permitted up to $60,000 without the need for approval, the sum was raised to $250,000 a few years back. ‘Not bad, what is he complaining about?’ I hear you mutter. What many companies and banks miss is that the sum is the total of all payments a specific company can make in the year for services abroad. From personal experience, that is about as daft as the original $60,000.

The sane approach, that many of us have been advocating for years, is for the recipient to be required to fill in a form with their details and their claim for treaty benefits etc. The onus would be on them to tell the truth. In the modern world, if they were found to have made a fraudulent statement, the authorities could claim the additional tax and penalties through future payments, or make contact with the tax authority in the recipient’s country of residence.

Where 34/93 belonged

Of course it is not all bad news in the Start Up Nation. Around two years after the Instruction was issued, I was asked to lecture a group of bank clerks on the rules. Around five minutes into my talk, there were fireworks. ‘If we do that, the customers will just trundle off to the bank down the road.’ End of lecture. I spent the rest of the half hour listening to what they actually did. Fascinating.

Happy New Year (God preserve us).

Miracle in the Holy Land

Choose one

Chanukah and Christmas – which coincide this year – are both, in their distinct ways, about miracles that took place within theoretical walking distance of where I am now sitting. Another miracle that took place last week would have needed the car – the Lod District Court ruled against the Israel Tax Authority (ITA) in, what should become, a landmark case.

That doesn’t happen often. The tax authorities are normally clever enough to strong-arm a compromise on issues where they are not steady on their feet, so that a large proportion of the cases that come to court are no-brainers to the detriment of the little man (who was just wasting his money and everybody’s time).

What was doubly miraculous about this case was that it involved a real multinational group (not like the open and shut case a few years ago involving a holding company in Holland that produced directors’ meetings minutes in Hebrew). From experience, multinationals don’t run to court. A combination of maintaining good relations with the government and its offshoots who provide handsome incentives for investment in Israel, the small amounts of money involved looked at globally, and the geographical complications of pursuing a case from thousands of miles away, encourage the good old compromise – paying to make the ‘problem’ go away.

Not this time. The case involved an international business restructuring ie moving activities around within an international group. The group is involved (successfully) in something incomprehensible (to me) to do with Broadband technology. The previously independent Israeli subsidiary licensed its intellectual property to a foreign group company (not strictly corporate restructuring, but the tax authorities thought it was), signed a cost-plus agreement with another group company for marketing services, and signed another cost-plus agreement with its parent company for R&D services. The business had changed.

These are the rules. Don’t argue.

The tax authorities waded in with their hot-off-the-press professional circular from 2018 on Multinational Enterprise Business Restructuring, the 34 pages of which most of the time boil down to a  simple message: if an Israeli company is part of an MNE (multinational enterprise) which enters into  business restructuring, changing the Israeli company’s business model, expect a capital gains tax bill for transferring part of the business abroad.  The ostensible basis for their position was the OECD’s mammoth ongoing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting project, and specifically its ‘Transfer Pricing Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and Tax Administrations 2017’, together with a recent Israeli court case.

If there is one word that comes to mind in all OECD professional announcements it is ‘nuance’. There is seldom an absolute conclusion that applies in all cases. The ITA appeared to miss that point. Fortunately, the judge seems to have had a better grasp of what the OECD was not saying, as well as an infinitely better grasp of the recent court case the ITA was referring to – after all, he was the judge on that case, too.

The MNE won the case and the ITA was ordered to pay costs.

Although the case has been clearly decided correctly, it is worrying. If it deserved to come to court at all, the arguments should have been different – more ‘nuanced’. Instead, it was left for the judge to give a lesson in OECD guidelines and pure logic, which is not his job.

Did someone say ‘Bar’? ‘Miracle’?

It can only be hoped that this will prove a sobering experience for the professionals at the ITA, which will  serve to raise the bar in transfer pricing disputes going forward.

Miracles do happen (sometimes).

Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas

Not subject to tax

Corbyn must have been thinking of her

‘It’s on in the morning, usually we have it on some of the time’.

That was the answer, a couple of days ago, to the question: “Do you sit down to watch the queen’s Christmas broadcast, Mr Corbyn?’ For the uninitiated, the Christmas message to the monarch’s subjects has been a cornerstone of British tradition ever since the present queen’s grandfather, George V, delivered the first radio broadcast, written by Rudyard Kipling, in 1932. Mr Corbyn, the man who may be kissing Her Majesty’s hands this Friday morning, might be forgiven for getting the time wrong – after all, the speech hasn’t ALWAYS been broadcast at 3 o’clock in the afternoon; in 1932 it went out at five past three.

In short, Britain’s possible next prime minister doesn’t seem to buy- in too much to the ‘monarch’ and ‘subject’ game.

Perhaps presciently, the recently ratified protocol to the Israel/UK double taxation treaty (see Tax Break January 27, 2019) which will come into force in 2020, dropped the word ‘subject’ in wholesale fashion.  That appears to be a blessing for Brits transferring their tax residence to Israel.

Why?

Aimed at the Labour Party, we hope

The treaty, ratified in 1962 and updated by the previous protocol in 1970, suffered from two nasty blights that together offered a highly effective stranglehold on tax planning. The first was a clause near the beginning that relieved the paying country from offering treaty relief (reduced withholding tax or exemption from tax) to the extent that the income was only taxable in the other country ‘if remitted to, or received in’ that country. This covered quirks in both the UK and Israeli tax systems at the time, the UK charging certain types of resident to tax on a ‘remittance’ basis (still the case – British tradition dies hard), and the Israelis charging passive income to tax on a ‘received’ basis (abolished in 2003). The second was a peppering of the treaty with the term ‘subject to tax’. Dividends, interest, royalties and capital gains were only treaty relieved if they were ‘subject to tax’ in the other country. There was much debate as to what ‘subject to tax’ meant, but whatever it meant, the tax authorities tended to think it meant something else. As a result, when Israel introduced its 10 year exemption period on income from foreign sources for new and veteran returning residents, HMRC gave it a Churchillian salute – the treaty didn’t apply.

Well, in the new protocol, the remitted/received clause disappeared from the beginning of the treaty, only to reappear in substantially identical format at the end. But, like with Mr Corbyn, ‘subject’ appears to have been a dirty word to drafters – those ‘subject to tax’ clauses have been swept away.

Had the British drafters cottoned on that Israel had overhauled its system of taxation in 2003, they might have replaced the word ‘received’ with something more apt to catch the 10 year exemption which does not tax on receipt or remittance– but they didn’t. And there are no ‘subject to tax’ restrictions on passive income. That would seem to imply that new residents should, for example, be eligible for reduced 10% taxation on interest even though they are exempt from tax in Israel, and owners of copyrights or patents could be totally exempt on their royalties, not to mention recipients of pensions.

These are just musings. HMRC could, I daresay, look for loopholes and, in any event, anyone thinking of trying to take advantage of the situation must take advice from a UK tax expert before contemplating diving in.

What right-minded voters wish for Corbyn on Friday morning

As for the British General Election – I hope Mr Corbyn remembers to turn on his TV for the results. They are due in the early morning, rather than the afternoon.

Service and tax included

You get the idea

Around the turn of the century, British left-wing tabloid, The Daily Mirror, had a very short-lived flirtation with serious journalism, signified by the change of its banner from red to black, and the use of words like ‘proletariat’ instead of ‘sex’.  One of the serious broadsheets ran an editorial a few days into the experiment stating that the Mirror had ‘gone from talking bollocks about trivial things, to talking bollocks about serious things’. As is being proven once again in the contest for the Democrat to challenge President Trump next year, a socialist message is much harder to formulate and get across than a conservative one.

When it comes to taxation, income taxation – in its modern guise – has socialist leanings (even in conservative societies). It is a progressive tax that seeks fairness with redistribution of income between the wealthiest and the poorest. As such, it is also a complex tax that is the Play-Doh of tax advisors who juggle, shape and interpret it. VAT, on the other hand, is a regressive tax that broadly comes in one-size-for-all, take it or leave it (and if you leave it –risk going to jail).

We were reminded of the primitivism of the specific Israeli incarnation of Value Added Tax last week, in a court decision in which the judge made very clear that, despite her desire for fairness, her hands were tied by a law that – though she would never have used the term – is an ass. And an expensive ass, at that.

Israel, like most countries operating a VAT system, does not insist on VAT being charged on exports or services to foreign residents. The reasoning is simple – to improve competitiveness with foreigners. Way back, the Israeli legislature saw fit to include an exception regarding services, ‘if the subject of the agreement is the provision of a service in practice to an Israeli resident in Israel’.  Fair dinkum. There was no justification for unfairly improving competitiveness with other Israelis.

Tax planning doesn’t always go right

But, not satisfied with their status as children of a lesser god,  VAT practitioners thought they could juggle and shape the Play Doh. What if the service was partially for a foreign resident and partially for an Israeli? If the amount were charged abroad, VAT would be an emphatic – and hardly fair – zero.

So, following a court decision around the time the Daily Mirror was making a fool of itself, the legislature tightened the wording to, ‘if the subject of the agreement is the provision of a service in practice, in addition to a foreign resident, to an Israeli resident in Israel’.

And that is why laws are far too important to be left in the hands of lawmakers.

The result was a car crash. The exporter was to be sacrificed on the altar of obsession – the car chase between the tax authorities and smart-arse tax avoiders, where collateral deaths were just an unfortunate statistic. As soon as there was any trace of an Israeli recipient of a service, the whole charge – lock, stock and barrel – was to attract VAT.

The latest case last week, in which the only good news for the appellant was that the judge limited costs, did allow for the possibility of negligible or subordinate services sneaking through. But, the rest of the news was grim.

Being nicked for VAT is not a joke

What it all means is that, until such time as the legislature (which has been in suspended animation throughout 2019) hopefully listens to the judge and gets its act together, the reinvigorated VAT authorities are likely to be on the prowl for those charging  zero rate VAT without legal justification. Conservatives are, after all,  all about law and order.

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