Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the category “International Tax”

Dead Wrong

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April fool!

It’s bad enough that, thanks to the controversy surrounding Brexit, the average Briton no longer lives with peace of mind. From April 1 they will no longer die with peace of mind.

A headline-grabbing exaggeration perhaps, but probate fees for opening a file to deal with a deceased person’s estate are due to jump from £155 to, in some cases, £6000 from next week. While the government insists it is a fee – in order to avoid a legal requirement to include it in the annual Finance Act – the Office for Budget Responsibility announced on March 15 that it would be included, alongside Inheritance Tax, as a tax for statistical purposes.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs  has been administering the controversial – and widely hated – Inheritance Tax since its inception in 1986.

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The Twilight Zone?

As in other countries imposing an Estate Tax or Inheritance Tax (there are many that have either cancelled or never adopted either) UK Inheritance Tax is  controversial for the wrong reasons. It is argued that it represents a double tax on already-taxed income, while at the same time not bringing in much revenue (other than from the good dead people of Guildford, the recently crowned inheritance tax capital of Britain). The first argument cries out for a different spin, and the second (it represents around 1% of tax-take) may anyway cease to be valid in the years ahead.

As taxes go, an Inheritance Tax makes a lot more sense than an Estate Tax.

An Estate Tax imposes tax on the estate of a dead person – beneficiaries receive what is due to them out of the post-tax value of the estate. There is, unquestionably, an element of double tax (although the likes of Thomas Jefferson and liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill gave the finger to that), and the fact that estate tax planning is entirely within the bailiwick of the donor (subsequently the ‘dead person’) such tax can often be minimized.

An Inheritance Tax imposes tax on the beneficiaries. In that case, the double tax argument is weakened – the dead person passes on their estate free of tax (but without a tax deduction for the transfer as they, rather than society, decide who is to receive it) and the beneficiaries – similar to the winner of a lottery – pay taxes on their windfall. As regards the level of collections, imposing tax on the beneficiaries also puts something of a spanner in the works of aggressive tax planning during the donor’s lifetime.

There are two types of inheritance tax  – accessions and inclusion. An accessions tax system provides the beneficiary with their lifetime tax-free inheritance threshold, and hits them with the prescribed rate of inheritance tax on  the balance of what they receive from any number of donors, while an inclusion tax  charges beneficiaries according to their marginal income tax rates  (plus an inheritance surcharge). While inheritance tax is always fairer than estate tax, the inclusion tax system is the fairest of them all – as it clearly works in favour of beneficiaries of smaller amounts and/or lower income.

Furthermore, in all cases (Estate Tax and both types of Inheritance Tax), the increased exchange of information between tax authorities mean it is increasingly difficult to hide assets ‘abroad’ – which should also substantially serve to increase the revenue collection.

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‘More tea, guv?’

Britain claims to have an Inheritance Tax. The problem is that – to all intents and purposes – no, it doesn’t. It has an Estate Tax. The government website (Gov.UK sounds like an initiative of the Kray Twins) talks to the donor. Other than in specific circumstances the tax is claimed from the estate. The tax-free threshold is given to the estate – and even in the case where specific gifts are given outside the will in the 7 years prior to death, they get first benefit of the tax-free amount. And the tax rate is fixed.

So, why is it called an Inheritance Tax?  We shouldn’t complain. At least it is called a ‘tax’ as opposed to the Probate Fee, which is a tax but the government can’t afford to call it that. And what about Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?  Isn’t it a tax authority?

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At least they still call it a ‘tax’ return

Perhaps we shouldn’t ask too many difficult questions of a country with a tax year-end of April 5th.

Prospecting for tax

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True heroes…

If you hear the term: ‘sans frontieres’, it is odds on that – after ‘French’ – the first thing that will come into your mind is ‘Medicins Sans Frontieres’, that truly remarkable international humanitarian medical NGO founded in 1971 and based in Switzerland. Add to that ‘Avocats Sans Frontieres’, the human rights lawyers, and a plethora other ‘Without Borders’ organizations, and your forehead will probably furrow as your thoughts turn to the altruism of Churchill’s ‘Never in the history of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’, and Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’.

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… and true fools

As proof of my innate cynicism, when for the first time last week I came across  ‘Inspecteurs des Impots Sans Frontieres’ (Google translate: Tax Inspectors Without Borders), my agile memory leapfrogged all those worthy international bodies dating back to the early seventies. ‘Jeux Sans Frontieres’ – known on my TV set as ‘It’s a Knockout’ – was a banal  pan-European TV competition tracing its history to 1965. Similar to a well-funded kids’ birthday party, participants were required to engage in physical contests of the utmost idiocy. Europe had been laid waste twice in the preceding half century by the two most utterly mind-boggling catastrophes in the annals of mankind, and this was the reward.

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Tax inspector in the mind’s eye

Thinking my memory was treating the world’s tax inspectors to the respect only they deserved, I plunged first into an Economist article – the headline of which had introduced me to TIWB – and then the  OECD literature on the topic.

I was wrong.

TIWB was founded by the OECD and UN in 2015 around the time the world’s governments started to take international taxation cooperation seriously. Tax administrations with well-developed international tax audit capabilities, as well as retired tax inspectors, are now targeted to assist less fortunate administrations with developing their own tax audit capabilities.

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It just got harder

It turns out there are dozens of these projects going on around the world (there is even a bi-annual newsletter), and it is estimated that, for every dollar spent, a hundred dollars of tax avoiding revenue is collected.

Along with complex changes in rules, much of the stress over the last half-decade has been on transparency and the exchange of information. But, if a cash-strapped tax administration does not know what to do with all the data it receives on international groups  who exploit the system to the full – albeit within legal limits – little will happen. Projects based in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are closing the gap. According to the IMF, over 20% of tax revenues were still being lost to the legal playing of the system as recently as 2016.

It looks like it is time to take tax inspectors seriously. When American humorist Dave Barry was chosen for audit in an  IRS sample, he wrote a syndicated article of comical unctuousity to the Service: ‘The truth is that I have the deepest respect for the IRS, and for the thousands of fine men and women and Doberman pinschers who work there….IRS are regular people just like you, except that they can destroy your life.’

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I do, honestly

I have decided to  turn over a new leaf and show respect to tax inspectors whether with or without borders. They are good people. Really good people. Really.

Nexus, shmexus

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What tax advisers think they look like

In my halcyon days as a tax adviser, a client conference meant lots of numbers thrown at a stark white screen via an overhead projector, the small audience looking pale and bored under the harsh fluorescent lighting. We, the professionals, were geeks that nobody wanted to talk to unless we were saving their cash, or saving their hides.

It transpires that  a quarter of a century is a long time in tax, and in recent years we have found ourselves in  conference centers bathed in blue light, no numbers in sight, talking (and talking) about ‘paradoxes’ and ‘paradigm shifts’, and other intelligent concepts that have as much to do with tax as that other famous three-letter word ending in ‘x’. It isn’t that much has really changed. It is just that we have learned to talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk in our designer suits. The meaning of the words – or their dubious relevance – doesn’t really matter. Conferences are all about the sound bytes and the press coverage. The public face of tax has had a makeover.  Meanwhile, real tax consulting – exactly as in the good old days – continues to be undertaken by consenting adults behind closed doors.

It is, therefore, with some trepidation and a shaking pen, that I find myself writing about – what might actually be – both a ‘paradox’ and ‘paradigm shift’  in international taxation.

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When physical nexus made sense

I refer, of course, to the OECD’s invitation for public input on the possible solutions to the tax challenges of digitization. The topic is not new (see Tax Break October 5th 2018), and is, indeed, Action 1 (of 15)  of the Base Earnings and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiative that has been monopolizing the attention of tax practitioners for the last five years. However, it has for some time been looking like it would be sacrificed on the altar of disagreement and procrastination, as it requires a complete rethink of two of the pillars of the existing century-old system – nexus (connection to a country) and profit allocation (between countries).

On February 13th, the Inclusive Framework on BEPS (comprised of just about every self-respecting nation in the world – not to mention a few others) came up with a Public Consultation Document, the member countries having previously been divided on any way of moving forward. To be clear, it is stressed that the comments are ‘without prejudice’ (which I think means countries are not committed). Different countries have different interests – in the rawest of terms developing countries that are not hi-tech originators have a major interest in attracting tax from digital companies interacting with their populations, while the United States would ideally like to keep as much of Google and friends’ taxable income as possible for itself. The indisputable paradox here is that – in a world veering more and more towards trade wars and protectionism –  they  were able to come up with a series of alternative proposals, any one of which  – if adopted – will represent a paradigm shift in international taxation affecting everybody.

There are three proposals for tampering with profit allocation and nexus, with the aim of ensuring that taxable profit is allocated according to where value is created.

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No comment

The first proposal focuses on ‘user participation’. This is fairly specific to the ‘highly’ digitalized economy –  social networks, search engines and on-line marketplaces, where the activities and participation of these users contribute to the creation of the brand, the generation of valuable data, and the development of a critical mass of users, which helps to establish market power. For this purpose, nexus would no longer be only to where the company physically undertakes its business. but also to  where the users build part of its profits, with suitable allocation of those profits.

The second proposal is based on ‘marketing intangibles’ such as brand and trade name which are reflected in  favourable attitudes in the minds of customers and so can be seen to have been created in the market jurisdiction. There are also other marketing intangibles, such as customer data, customer relationships and customer lists  derived from activities targeted at customers and users in the market jurisdiction, supporting the treatment of such intangibles as being created in the market jurisdiction. Once again the definition of nexus would need to be expanded beyond the physical and profit allocated accordingly.

The third proposal relates to ‘substantial economic presence’ via digital technology and other automated means. Such presence could be evidenced by:  the existence of a user base and the associated data input;  the volume of digital content derived from the jurisdiction;  billing and collection in local currency or with a local form of payment;  the maintenance of a website in a local language;  responsibility for the final delivery of goods to customers or the provision by the enterprise of other support services such as after-sales service or repairs and maintenance; or  sustained marketing and sales
promotion activities, either online or otherwise, to attract customers. Same again, in terms of revolutionary forces in international tax.

As already mentioned, each of the proposed methods requires an overhauling of ‘nexus’, until now based on a level of  physical presence in a jurisdiction, and ‘profit allocation’ which – even in the BEPS world – suffers from the vagaries of the Old World Order.

Pending public comment – the deadline for which has been extended to March 6 – the bets are on  ‘Marketing Intangibles’ over ‘User Participation’, the former catching a wider cross-section of the digital industry in its net. ‘Substantial Economic Presence’ was a late arrival at the ball, and  – if the digital tax revolution is consummated – will likely be confined to the role of chaperone.

Will anything happen? There is no question that the BEPS project has achieved a momentum that could not have been predicted five years ago. The Americans are said to favour ‘marketing intangibles’ – although when they calm down from the sound bytes, soft blue light and dark suits, they might start to run the boring numbers and discover it (and any other change) is not in their best interests.

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‘I am just the greatest ever paradox and paradigm shift!’

So, it looks like ultimate success in achieving the paradigm shift rests on the continued goodwill of the United States, which in the current political climate would be a paradox par excellence. But, we are living in interesting times.

Tales from the Crypto

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There were always a few kids in the class who refused to look at the camera

Kurt Vonnegut famously said: ‘True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country’. The G20 summit in Buenos Aires earlier this month spawned a myriad online articles about the international taxation of cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin etc). Intrigued by the efforts of my ‘classmates’ (most of them belong to my generation) to get their heads around a difficult subject, I delved in only to find an even truer terror: ‘To wake up one morning and discover that your children’s high school class is running the online economic press’.

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You could forgive the journalist for missing the nuance of the paragraph break

My suspicions were aroused when I noted that each and every article relied on the same statement of a Japanese news agency ‘drawn’ from the final declaration of the summit. To anyone with a modicum of tax knowledge,  it was clear that the Japanese rumour-monger had got their taxes in a twist. With immense determination unknown to the younger generation, I spared no effort in googling: ‘G20 Buenos Aires final declaration’, the text of which, lo and behold, appeared before my very eyes. A further 5 minutes spent actually reading the entire thing (f-i-v-e whole minutes!) produced the answer. A bland paragraph  including reference to the need to regulate crypto-assets against money laundering and terrorism, followed by another bland paragraph about BEPS that even my classmates could understand. Somebody clearly forgot to tell the Japanese reporter that there is a reason for paragraph splits in the English language, and somebody forgot to tell the on-line reporters – who it appears don’t know what it is to get off their backsides for a story – that they should not blindly rely on every piece of fake news they read online. Bottom line – the G20 summit was silent on the taxation of cryptocurrencies.

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At least the Germans have always understood what money is

In the meantime, cryptocurrencies have been in free fall, and the world’s tax authorities may be about to regret their approach. Although cryptocurrencies have been around for a while, tax authorities were slow to sink their teeth into them. By now, possibly encouraged by price increases in 2016 and 2017, most jurisdictions have come to the conclusion that they are legally assets rather than currencies. As such, the exemptions that often exist  for individuals on exchange rate differences do not apply. In general, capital gains tax will be charged on realized gains (most authorities have at least managed to convince themselves that VAT should generally be avoided).But there is still confusion – as late as October 2018 an IRS Advisory Committee asked for certain clarifications from the IRS, while possible British taxation runs right across the spectrum depending on circumstances. Germany has a slightly different approach, having recognized them as money. At the same time, Israel took a literal view of the definition of currencies in its tax ordinance (cryptocurrencies do not qualify), and is there in the conservative pack.

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And what’s wrong with gambling?

The catch for tax authorities is that, by insisting gains are taxable, they have to recognize losses as allowable – and the losses in 2018 have been horrendous. If that G20 paragraph on regulation is properly acted upon, the days of wild fluctuations may be numbered in 2019 – and the pain of what was a bad gamble by individuals on something totally speculative, will be irrevocably shared by national treasuries. Maybe it is time to pass the baton to my grandchildren’s generation.

FANGs ain’t what they used to be

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Repairs courtesy of the Information Superhighway

Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, the tech giants collectively dubbed the FANGs, are hardly going to be digitally quaking in their virtual boots over British Finance Minister Phillip Hammond’s Budget announcement last week that he plans imposing a 2% Digital Services Tax on their UK related turnover. Hammond himself admitted it would only be expected to bring in around £400 million a year, the amount he coincidentally just allocated to filling pot-holes on Britain’s roads.

The UK is not alone in taking the ladle to the primordial soup of  the evolving digital economy – Australia, France, Israel, Hungary, India, Italy (and the UK itself with its Diverted Profits Tax) are already at the feast, due to be joined by the EU when it is finally sick of wasting its time trying to eat the UK for Brexit.

Hammond’s hammering of the Goliaths earned kudos across the entire spectrum of British society (even the Tory-hating Guardian gave grudging praise) – but nobody seemed to pick up on the gaping irony of the whole thing – the use of a neolithic method to  tackle a state-of-the-art problem.

Egged on by the 2013 G8 Summit in Northern Ireland (to the non-Catholic citizens of which, I unreservedly apologize for using ‘British’ interchangeably with ‘UK’), the OECD and  the rest of the world (apart from a possible few smelly islands once – and probably still – frequented by pirates and other undesirables) have been engaged in tackling the unfairness of the international tax system. I, for one, started out sceptical that anything could be achieved. Country-by-country reporting, the MLI modifying tax treaties, and changes in the Permanent Establishment definition are just some of the impressive advances that have been made in the last six years in the BEPS (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting) project, not to mention (sorry) the automatic exchange of information.

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California is still part of the United States

But, there are two major gaps – the United States’ lack of enthusiasm when it cottoned on that it was a large part of the problem the others were trying to solve, and the reform  of the taxation of the Digital Economy – which happened to be the first of the 15 Actions listed by the OECD.

The international tax system is founded on two principles established a century ago – ‘nexus’ and ‘profit allocation’. The first is supposed to determine where business is done, and the second, how to divide the spoils between the places of business. Fitting the digital economy into this framework is not easy. In trying to establish where value is created, three challenges have been identified: nexus, data and characterization. The first suffers from what is pompously termed ‘ scale without mass’ – you don’t need much physical presence in a country to do business these days; the second raises the question of the interactivity of data exchange – if a social platform is using data gathered from members, where  the income arising from its exploitation belongs; and the third recognizes that the world is changing constantly and the classification of income needs constant updating.

In trying – so far unsuccessfully – to reach a consensus, the participating countries have broadly divided into three groups: those that believe the problem is confined to specific business models involving user participation in data (eg Facebook’s), that need to be dealt with individually; those that believe there is no problem (if you think that is strange – consider how long it took countries to realize there was going to be a Second World War); and those that think everything is completely screwed up, and we need a revolution (hopefully only in international taxation, which can be achieved using pens rather than swords). The OECD has kicked the can down the road (a game my generation played before digitalization condemned children to little screens) with the hope of reaching an agreement by 2020. Given the ‘slight’ differences between the participants, it doesn’t sound like we should be holding our breath – but I have had egg on my face before.

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Which wireless age does the new UK tax belong to?

So, in the meantime, nations like the UK have been driven to adopting recessive taxes that would have been more familiar to the 18th century than the 21st. Its approach to the digital economy is to throw income tax out of the window (or should that be Windows?) in favour of a tax on turnover, that looks far more like the excise duty stuck on barrels of rum that smugglers didn’t manage to secrete in coves along the southern coast of England. (In fairness, it is only to be applied to companies with worldwide turnover of over half a billion pounds, and there will be exemptions for loss making companies and those with low margins).

As an English playwright wrote four centuries ago: ‘O for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention’. And I doubt he paid any taxes at all.

Who wants to live forever?

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Not quite the tax doctor I had in mind

There was a time, not long ago, when the ideal higher education of a tax specialist was a combination of law and accounting. With the gradual death by asphyxiation of income tax planning, the ambitious young prospective practitioner might  add a third arrow to his bow – doctor of medicine.

Many would argue that, despite frustrating bureaucracy,  the gathering pace of intergovernmental cooperation in the war on tax evasion and money laundering is one of the great advances of twenty-first century society. However, the process has also brought to the surface long dormant legalities that most governments would have been happy to leave as long dormant.

Take American Estate Tax. A foreigner who dies  holding (not literally) more than $60,000 worth of  US securities, invites a bill to his estate in respect of US Estate Tax. That rule has been in place since, I believe, 1913, but has only been inadvertently enforced since FATCA rules forced international banks, on pain of lynching, to handle all withholding tax obligations on behalf of the IRS. The upshot is that savvy investors (especially those past the waterfall three-score-and-ten years) are deserting US securities, or finding obscure ways to invest indirectly.

But the problem does not stop there. In an increasingly negotiable world, where the successful can remain in daily touch with their homebound families and visit regularly, estate and inheritance taxes are often the death knell for staying put. And if that is not enough, some countries impose an insidious wealth tax.

If you wanted an example of a country that has, for years, seemed to encourage their citizens to get on their onion-laden bikes and seek comfort elsewhere, you need look no further than France.

A combination of estate tax and wealth tax (helped along by an aborted 75% top income tax rate) sent packing the likes of actor Gerard Depardieu (Belgium, and thence to Russia with love), and singer Florent Pagny (Portugal, who?). The typically French defense against the mounting exodus (some reports suggest some 10,000  since the turn of the century) was typified by the Defense Minister stating that those who love their country stay in France. Sacre bleu. To an Englishman like me, pro patria mori has never stood out as a French sentiment.

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France’s sixth biggest city

Well, it looks like Fortress France, at least, is finally taking baby steps forward under its exceptionally young new president’s tutelage.

A few weeks ago the prime minister proposed a severe curtailing of the wealth tax – restricting it to real estate. But, there is some doubt as to whether that will be enough to encourage wealthy French to return home – especially given that estate tax still remains.

Ultimately, unless the current passion for Balkanization (Spain, UK, Iraq) takes hold – creating a dampening of global mobility – there can be no room for estate taxes or wealth taxes in the future world order. Despite their political attraction as a component in the fair distribution of everything (optical rather than actual), they create a drain on national coffers.

In the meantime, expert tax planners will try to keep their clients alive long enough to move them out of undesirable post-mortem jurisdictions. Is there a tax doctor in the house?

Yes, Minister

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Keep it simple…

Looking confused next to the overhead locker of my assigned Business Class seat on a British Airways flight from Heathrow to New York last year, I was approached by a helpful flight attendant (if that is what stewardesses are called these days) who offered assistance. Pointing to the little picture indicating which mini-compartment was 12A, and which 12B, I told her I was unfortunately pictorially dyslexic. She looked momentarily sympathetic before bursting out laughing: ‘What do you mean, pictorially dyslexic? There is no such thing!’

For all I know, she was right.

The fact is that our brains have become so used to hard-edged information being pureed into easily digestible mush, that many of us find it hard coping with anything more taxing than a Facebook intelligence test. (I was recently informed I had an IQ of over 160 because I knew a photograph was of Adolf Hitler, rather than the other choices of Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg. Surely everyone knows that neither Trump nor Bloomberg has a  moustache.)

If you think I am being unfair, take literature. In this day and age, if you want to be published, you have to keep sentences short, and multiple adjectives locked up. So, you would think that chucking the following paragraph – which doubles up as a sentence – at the reader on the first page of a 500 page novel might have condemned the author to obscurity:

‘In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.’

Thankfully, the book saw the light of day  in 1850, not 2017, and  David Copperfield became one of Charles Dickens’s most-loved novels.

Until fairly recently, I believed that one area of intellectual pursuit that had escaped the brain surgeon’s knife was taxation. Taxation is complicated, and advisors have kept it complicated. How often have we watched with satisfaction as our clients’ eyes have glazed over, knowing at the end of a tortuous meeting that they will just tell us ‘to deal with it’?

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…or not.

 

Then – Shock! Horror! – in 2010 the British Treasury came up with the Office of Tax Simplification. 450 recommendations later – including such game changers as simplification of the corporation tax computation and out-of-date procedures still requiring paper confirmation for stamp duty transactions (themselves an anachronism) – the OTS published its first annual report. Apart from a ‘first annual report’ issued seven years after inception being a leading candidate for the accolade ‘the triumph of hope over experience’, the wording itself left hope for tax professionals:

‘The OTS is in a unique position to highlight issues, stimulate debate and act as a catalyst for positive change, being strongly connected within government, having exceptionally wide access to a range of deep expertise from outside government and speaking with an independent voice.’

Charles Dickens couldn’t have written a better paragraph (doubling up as a sentence) himself. In fact, it almost looks like the Office of Tax Simplification could come to rival Little Dorrit’s Circumlocution Office.

The spirit of Bleak House’s Jarndyce and Jarndyce lives on. Mercifully.

 

Some like it hot

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Will this save the planet…?

Political fossil Al Gore’s sequel to his Oscar winning environmental documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – ‘An Inconvenient Sequel’ – may have underwhelmed at the box office this month, but it provided a timely counterweight to President Donald Trump’s announcement some weeks earlier that the United States was pulling out of the Paris Agreement. Despite the protestations to the contrary of substantially every-government-that-is-not-America’s (as well as several of the States that enable the United States to be called the United States), without Federal US involvement all bets for preventing environmental Armageddon appear to be off.

Until recently, the Tax World’s contribution to the fight against this threat to our future generations had taken the form of airing the concepts of ‘Cap and Trade’ and ‘Carbon Taxes’ – the former involving the auction and trade of emission permits that seek to limit total pollution from certain gases, the latter a hit or miss, essentially regressive, tax on fossil fuels and suchlike.

Then, last month, things hotted up.

In his State of the Nation address, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines told mining companies that ‘he would tax them to death’ if they did not clean up their act. Coming from anyone else, the statement might have been filed alongside Benjamin Franklin’s ‘nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’, but Duterte has, for some time now, been proudly having drug pushers and other undesirables knocked off wholesale in extra-judicial killings. The message is clear – the president clearly reckons himself the biggest threat since Mohammed Ali throttled Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila.

Indeed, Duterte also announced that, you-couldn’t-make-up-its-name, ‘Mighty Corp’ has agreed to pay the government a cool half a billion dollars to settle the mining giant’s alleged catalogue of criminal tax evasion offences. Simple when you have the method sussed.

And, to cap it all, any additional tax take from the mining sector is to be earmarked for local communities damaged by the mines, while processing of mineral resources is ‘requested’ to be performed in the Philippines before export, thus adding to employment.  Interesting, if worrying.

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…or will this?

With all due respect to Mr Gore’s valiant efforts, if the environment is to get back on track, the mob that elected Trump doesn’t need a staid documentary – it needs exciting Alternative  Facts. So, perhaps the real existential question now is whether there is enough material for Quentin Tarantino to make a movie about taxing environmental terrorists. The climactic scene: an Internal Revenue Service agent, in sleek black suit and Ray-Ban shades, standing with his foot pressuring the windpipe of a prostrate business executive, two revolvers cocked and pointed at the entrepreneur’s trembling head, spits, ‘You’re going to clean up the river in this goddamn town, or we’re going to tax you to goddamn death’.

All’s fair in love and war. And, if Mr Tarantino is looking for a working title, how about: ‘Kill Fake Bills’?

Brother, can you spare a dime?

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Not quite Laurel and Hardy

He is best remembered through the prism of the witticisms of his arch-rival, Winston Churchill: ‘A modest man, who has much to be modest about’; ‘A sheep, in sheep’s clothing’; ‘Up drew an empty taxi, and out stepped…’, but Clement Attlee, the fiftieth anniversary of whose death is being marked this year, had many arrows to his bow. His sound defeat of Churchill in the 1945 election heralded in the Welfare State and wholesale Nationalization (including the Bank of England, coal and steel, and the railways), which changed Britain forever. Even Margaret Thatcher, who staked her claim to a place in history on unravelling much of what Attlee had done (with mixed results – someone recently suggested that Virgin Trains’ motto should be ‘The first time is always the worst’), referred to him as, ‘all substance, and no show’.

Fast-forward seventy years and it seems everyone, apart from the Americans, talks the talk about looking after the weaker elements in society and redistributing income, but doesn’t walk the walk of being willing to pay the price. There is more show than substance.

The latest evidence comes from that country up there in social Valhalla, Norway.

Six weeks ago the conservative government introduced a Voluntary Tax Payment Program. When I first read this, I assumed it was a Voluntary Disclosure Program for naughty Nordics – but no, it is what it says. If, after paying nearly 50% tax, you fancy paying some more, your contribution will be gratefully accepted by the government.

Well, according to the latest available statistics (at least, available to me), the total take has been around $1,500 – which includes tax lawyers and accountants making small contributions to see how it works (and, it has to be assumed, claiming their payments as a business expense). It also turns out that this is not Norway’s first voluntary payment scheme – they set one up in 2006 to which around 90 people have, to date, contributed a total of $85,000 – all, curiously,  anonymous ‘donations’. This might sooth a tax evader’s conscience while financing a government minister’s sleigh expenses, but it won’t do much for the relief of the poor.

When push comes to shove, the vast majority of people pay taxes because they have to, whatever their political hue, and high taxes are a toxic election loser. Only the Americans tell it as it is. The main reason for their dogged refusal to adopt VAT is considered to be the ease with which additional revenue could be raised resulting in ‘inflationary’ pressure on government spending, with the dreaded prospect of turning America into a European-style welfare state.

Modern attitudes are perhaps neatly reflected in a statement by a left-leaning political pundit on the reason for the large turnout of Labour-supporting young voters at the recent British General Election. Referring to the inability of the young to step onto the home-owning ladder due to the exorbitant cost of housing, she said: ‘They didn’t vote conservative, because they have nothing to conserve.’

Back in 1945, despite the Conservative Churchill’s massive personal popularity and acerbic witticisms, there were less egocentric reasons to elect Clement Attlee and his Labour colleagues.

There is an i in America

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In a sweltering, politically incorrect scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones – tired of the boastful swordsmanship of an Arab adversary – nonchalantly draws his pistol and shoots him dead. This could be a metaphor for the last hundred years: with a few exceptions, when the Americans have put their minds to it, their primacy in all things has meant they have the last word. And they know it.

So, I admit to remaining a little nervous about the impossibly named MULTILATERAL CONVENTION TO IMPLEMENT TAX TREATY RELATED MEASURES TO PREVENT BASE EROSION AND PROFIT SHIFTING which, had the Americans been among the 68 nations that signed it in Paris last month, would probably now be known for short by its acronym MCTITTRMTPBEAPS. But America was not among those 68 nations, so it is known affectionately as The Multilateral Instrument. In tax terms it is a miracle up there with splitting the Red Sea and walking on water but, to paraphrase Michael Jordan: ‘There is no i in team, but there is in America’ – the Americans are just not good at playing a team game.

The Multilateral Instrument is the most unlikely victor in the mammoth OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting enterprise of the last four years. In order to ensure a fairer playing field in the world of international tax, there was the daunting prospect of the need to adjust thousands of bilateral double taxation treaties – Mission Impossible. Then somebody – probably the sort of person whose optimism leads them to walk confidently over the edge of a cliff – came up with the idea of getting all the countries to agree to a super-agreement that would take precedence over the myriad treaties. Back in 2013, any sane human being would have said it was a case of Taxworld meeting Disneyworld.

But, by ingeniously including Get Out of Jail Free cards whereby member states could publicly opt out of individual provisions of the Multilateral Instrument, everybody who was anybody (apart from the biggestbody) was able to cherry-pick and sign up. As a result, within a couple of years, the game will be up for such fun pastimes as hybrid mismatches, treaty abuse, and permanent establishment avoidance. Against that will be improved dispute resolution, as well as the prospect of arbitration in intractable situations. Tax heaven (as opposed to haven) on earth.

So far, other than the United States, the only other G20 nations not to sign up are Brazil and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the Saudi Arabians are still smarting from Harrison Ford’s one-upmanship nearly four decades ago, and are hanging out for the prospect of being the last nation standing. I can’t wait for the new Indiana Jones movie scheduled for 2020.

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