Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the category “Israel”

Bog standard (almost)

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These days a bloke would do anything for a free ticket to Australia

Charles Dickens’s fecund imagination allowed Pip’s benefactor Magwitch to return to England  from transportation to an Australian penal colony, albeit at risk of judicial execution. By all accounts, thanks to the triple-knot of location, location, location, escape for  real-life transportees wasn’t all that simple. What the desperate convicts of the nineteenth century needed was the solution of the  twentieth – air travel. And, in a twist of fate, the first person to pilot a controlled flight in Australia (back in 1910) was none other than history’s greatest master of escape, Harry Houdini.

Well, by now, the world’s tax advisors are becoming used to the locks, double locks and padlocks being used to prevent international tax planners from thinking out of the box. But, the tax treaty signed (though not yet ratified) last month between Israel and Australia plonked a kangaroo, with a 10 ton weight in its pouch, on the box’s lid.

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Truth be told, the Wright Flyer never did move very much.

The treaty itself is not very exciting. It contains much of the usual – just about comprehensible – gobbledygook, together with a fair share of the totally ludicrous. An  example of the latter: SHIPS AND AIRCRAFT SHALL NOT BE REGARDED AS IMMOVEABLE PROPERTY. Thanks for that.

There is also an unhealthy obsession with the amount of time that needs to elapse before work on a  construction site or installation project by a resident of one country  becomes taxable in the other – too many numbers and too many conditions (and given the nature of trade between the two countries – not too many instances).

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Spreading the love (and hate)

At the end of the day – as with all treaties – it is withholding taxes that are the real bread, butter and Vegemite of the agreement. These fit within the ‘new normal’ of international double taxation treaties: 5% – 15% for dividends, 5% – 10% for interest, and 5% for royalties. It is the Australians who benefit from this much more than the Israelis. While, in the absence of a treaty, dividends from Israel can rack up upwards of 30% tax, as long as Australian corporate income is franked (ie the company paid tax in Australia), there is no Australian withholding tax. Similarly, Australia’s withholding tax on interest is 10% as opposed to Israel’s mainly 25%. Only when it comes to royalties are the tables  turned.

Among the sparse points of genuine interest is the question of whether the exemption on pensions from Australia to Israel applies to immigrants to Israel in their first 10 years of residence.That one will have the experts opining vigorously.

What makes this treaty ‘different’ is the (what I believe to be unique) ‘Article 28, Protocol’. Now, many treaties have protocols which are agreed explanations and adjustments to those carefully negotiated agreements.  The recent protocol (not yet in force) to Israel’s treaty with the UK (Tax Break  27/1/19) is effectively a new treaty. But, to have a section in the treaty that simply refers to an attached protocol as part of the treaty is – at first sight – circular and balmy.

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No!! Not Hybrid Instruments!

However, closer inspection reveals all. Article 28 is to tax advisors what Room 101 was to Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 – the fulfillment of their greatest fear. Among all the normal explanations and clarifications, just in case anyone had any ideas about favourable interpretation of the treaty,  is a section that lists most of the goodies of the BEPS project, stating that nothing in the treaty can stop a country clobbering anybody who tries it on, whatever the wording. Game, set and match.

The Great Houdini’s most famous escape was from a water-filled tank in which he was inserted upside down, heavily manacled. Antipodean tax planners will  soon be standing upside down working out what to do next, together with their right-way-up Israeli counterparts.

Tell it like it is

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Not a robot? Spot the quotes

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. That quote from Romeo and Juliet has occupied my thoughts this last week. As an Israeli judge found recently, the concept is only a ‘truth universally acknowledged’ to the extent the rose is inarguably a rose. And, in the process, the learned gentleman took pains and, dare I say liberties with the law, to rub compost in the face of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

Israel has had a Law for the Encouragement of Capital Investment for the last 60 years. Primarily a treasure chest of tax and monetary incentives to further the needs of the economy, it has been touched up and renovated periodically as the needs of the State changed and matured. In 2005, in an attempt to simplify a cumbersome process befitting a formerly socialist country,  a boost was given to those industrial enterprises that exported a pre-ordained percentage of their production.

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Not a robot? You don’t need the word ‘export’ to understand ‘export’.

However, the word ‘export’ had to be expunged from the Law’s lexicon. Offering export incentives threatened a shower of fire and brimstone from the World Trade Organization and, specifically, those with whom Israel had free trade agreements (including the US and EU). So, the sophists engaged to draft the law came up with a need to meet one of the following requirements:

  • Income from a specific market must not be more than 75% of total income;
  • 25% or more of total income must be  from a specific market numbering at least 12 million residents.

That would avoid detection in a word search by nosy foreign governments,  while anyone with a brain that worked in accordance with evolutionary theory could interpret the law as demanding  at least 25% export, with no restrictions on the level of exports to any major foreign country. Why 12 million? Probably because it was a lot more than the population of Israel in 2005 (the number was updated a few years back to 14 million with an annual automatic increase).

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How can we be sure anymore that the number of residents of New Zealand doesn’t include the sheep?

Well, populations have a habit of growing, and by sometime in 2012  Israel’s market, which included the residents of  Judea and Samaria aka the West Bank had grown to more than 12 million, and companies that sold exclusively to Israel decided to claim the benefits of the Law. The tax authorities told them, in no uncertain terms, to go fly a kite.

The courts got involved and agreed with the tax authorities (the tax authorities’ argument had layers not elucidated here). The appeal was heard this month.

Although, at bottom line, the appeal was thrown out, the judge disagreed with the tax authorities that Israel could not, in principle, be included in the second condition, offering a long and reasoned argument. The upshot would be that no exports were required at all – a surprising conclusion. Interestingly, in addition to arguing that exporting was not the clear intention of the law, he completely ignored the first (alternative) condition which, although not negating entirely the Israel-only possibility, made the whole thing Monty Pythonesque.

Benjamin Netanyahu, David Bitan, Oren Hazan

They are going to take the judge’s comments very seriously.

Faith in the judge was restored, however, towards the end of the 39 page judgement. Quoting from some of the committee discussions surrounding the 2005 amendment, he lambasted the parliamentarians for the underhand way in which they had sought to hide the export incentive from Israel’s trading partners, making clear that white man mustn’t speak with forked tongue. If, as a result, they got their wording in a twist, they deserved to be punished. He forcefully suggested that the legislature should update the wording of the law.

There is nothing new, or unique to Israel, about actively confusing laws. Back in the 1850s, the author of Little Dorrit invented a whole government department to promote the idea – the Office of Circumlocution. But, perhaps, times they are a changin.

Ain’t no Bonanza

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Let’s face it. The bar was pretty low

Jay Leno once went walkabout in New York asking innocent passers-by if they could name a country beginning with the letter ‘U’. Apart from the usual camera induced deer-in-the-headlights non-responses, a few bright sparks came up with Uganda and Uruguay. At the close of the piece, as the camera faded out, Leno was heard asking: ‘Have you ever heard of the United States of America?’

Judging by the above experience, it can safely be assumed that, had Leno carried on to ask  the name of the alphabetically last of the 50 States, at least one person – having realized there was no State starting with Z – would have thought long and hard about Y and come up with Utah. Alternatively, still on Y, they might have gone for Wyoming. And Wyoming, dear readers,  is actually the correct answer.

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Named ‘The Virginian’, filmed in California, and set in Wyoming. Only in America

Although there is a tendency to think of Wyoming as still set in the 19th century, with characters like Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock, Doc Holliday and Calamity Jane ambling around the state capital, Cheyenne, it was the birthplace – in 1977 – of one of the most important tax sanitizers in US history.

The Limited Liability Company (LLC) – a mongrel of the corporation and partnership with descriptive terminology all of its own – crawled along at cowboy pace until 1988 when the Internal Revenue Service issued a ruling that LLCs were transparent for tax purposes. At the speed of a Colt 45, American taxpayers could suddenly combine the limited liability of a corporation with the personal taxation of a partnership or sole trader. This was particularly important in America where, despite Reagan’s major tax reform two years earlier, there was no correlation between the tax paid by an individual (up to 28%), and that paid by a corporation (up to 34%) followed by 28% individual tax on a subsequent dividend (over 52% in total). Congress failed to recognize that inanimate companies – while being vehicles of tax liability – cannot pay tax. Unlike Shylock, if you prick them, they do not bleed. Human beings pay the tax – either through the higher prices suffered by the consumers, or the lower profits earned by the shareholders. There is little justification economically for wide differences in total rates.

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Companies don’t have anything to cuff, either

As it turned out, it took until 2018 for the tax rates to be aligned. In the meantime, the vast majority of American private businesses organized themselves as either sole-proprietorships (and partnerships) or – thanks to Wyoming’s pioneering spirit – the new fangled LLCs.

And, thereby, hangs a tale. It was all well and good that America – with the biggest economy in the world – knew how to treat her LLCs, but other countries struggled with defining their treatment under their own laws. They ended up one of the major ‘culprits’ in hybrid mismatch tax planning that was so fiercely attacked in the OECD’s BEPS initiative.

 

Put simply, tax transparent companies in Israel are a rare and specific phenomenon. On the principle that, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck, LLCs fit the bill as companies. Therefore, according to statute law, they are not transparent.  However, given the large exposure of Israelis to the American economy, ever since its big 2003 tax reform the Israeli Tax Authority has been finding accommodation for these hybrid beasts. As long ago as 2004 it produced a circular that reiterated the corporate nature of the LLC, but offered solutions to the availability of a foreign tax credit for US individual tax being paid (since the LLC is tax transparent in the US). If the LLC is deemed controlled and managed from Israel, despite being liable to Israeli corporate tax, a credit is given for the US individual tax on profits attributed to the US (up to the level of the corporate tax). Alternatively, the taxpayer can elect at first filing to be taxed on the profits in Israel at the member (Google translate: shareholder) level, with credit for the US taxes. Some have incorrectly interpreted that as complete transparency for the LLC. In fact the circular stresses that the LLC is a body of persons and, in practical terms, that means that losses of  one LLC cannot be offset against those of another. As LLCs are set up at the drop of a cowboy hat in the US, this represents a real problem for many Israeli investors. There are certain planning devices, but advisors have always been aware that the problem exists.

Remarkably, 15 years after the issuing of that circular, essentially an extra-statutory concession, some  jester with nothing  better to do recently inexplicably allowed – not for the first time – a no-hope case to be brought before the courts. The claimant had set off losses between LLCs – in defiance of the circular – basing his claim on (1) Israeli law determining that when a word is stated in the singular, it also means the plural, unless – inter alia – the context does not support that interpretation, and (2) an informal conversation with a senior tax officer who allegedly told him that the problem could have been solved if all the LLCs had been held under a single holding LLC.

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Why have they stopped us handing out the death penalty?

The judge swatted away the first argument – the context clearly didn’t support the multiple LLC claim. But, the second argument was even more off the wall. Whether or not the senior tax officer had been quoted correctly about forming a group of LLCs, THE CLAIMANT HAD NOT DONE SO. Robert Frost wrote a famous poem on the subject, ‘The Road Not Taken’

‘I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.’
His Honour politely demolished this argument, too. Had I been the judge, I would have been tempted to return to the cowboy country roots of the LLC and quote from Clint Eastwood’s 1976 Western, ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’:
‘Don’t p**s down my back and tell me it’s raining.’

Monkey business

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Pass the monkey wrench

In its relentless efforts to clean us all up, the Israeli Tax Authority has just thrown another spanner in the works of the well-greased black market.

Meek householders faced by odd-job men  demanding cash as they flex their bulging muscles, not to mention seasoned mafiosi and disgraced politicians, will be questioning my timing. Surely,  the ‘Law for Restricting the Use of Cash’ was last year’s news, albeit that it only came into effect two months ago? The man with the leaky roof has already hardwired his brain with a little red light that goes off  when he hears – in a plethora of accents and grammatical constructs – the sum of eleven thousand shekels. Although that is not the final word (or number) on the maximum amount that can be paid in cash – it is a good trigger for the sweat glands to open. From October this year, not only those that demand cash, but those who pay it, will be liable to a fine if caught.

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Cheques are so much easier

The reason for mentioning the incursion into the colourful world of banknotes now in particular is the helpful simulator the tax authority has recently uploaded to its website. The idea – it appears – is that Joe Public can check, in the space of less than a minute, whether a cash payment he plans to receive or make is permitted and, if not, the ‘damage’ if he is nabbed by the long arm of the law.

Having carefully read the authority’s professional circular, replete with numerical examples, and then tested the simulator with the same examples, I have – at time of writing – two criticisms. Firstly,  the simulator’s results in respect of penalties are wrong – someone forgot to program the simulator’s programmer with the correct terms of the law. But, what is a little boo-boo among friends? It is the second point that, in my humble opinion, is the real issue, and on which I feel compelled to dwell.

For a deterrent to be effective, those it targets must either live in abject dread of the terrible consequences of breaking the law: death by hanging, prolonged incarceration, financial ruin; OR they must be left to fear the unknown.

The moment taxpayers can punch the numbers into their smartphones and summon up the bad news – which, starting at 15% of the illegally paid amount, is an irritant rather than a life-destroying event – for many the fine simply becomes a refinement of the black market calculation.

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Joe Public

An example will help the explanation. The abovementioned Joe Public, a typically morally unchallenged householder, hires Art Dodger to redecorate  his house. Art gives Joe a price, but tells him that – if he pays 25% in cash, he will knock off the VAT.  Until the recent change, the only thing stopping Joe was his civic responsibility which – given that he is typically morally unchallenged – is probably handsomely outpriced by the discount. Art, on the other hand, has had to make a risk assessment before making his offer. He will not be declaring VAT and income tax. He probably reckons that – even if he is found out – he will get away with a slap on the wrist and paying both taxes with interest. All in all, the income tax saving is appealing.

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Art Dodger

Enter the new law, and the soon-to-be-corrected simulator. Art retains his sunny outlook about not getting caught. Joe, on the other hand, now knows he has a risk – and, thanks to the simulator, knows exactly how much as he sits across from Art at his kitchen table. Joe might – as the law (and its simulator) hopes – tell Art to forget it. On the other hand, he might – depending on the amount at risk – ask Art to improve his offer. If that happens – depending on how Art responds – the black market  just got more sophisticated.

If I were the tax authority, I would bury the penalty part of the simulator, defects and all, in a very deep hole. The black market is a scourge that, deep down and however much our moral compass waivers , we all want to be rid of. The new law is a step in the right direction.

Oh, and they could always reassign that programmer to ‘Tax Refunds’.

Embrace the Model Treaty

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A real heavyweight of the small screen

When wheelchair bound ‘Ironside’ star Raymond Burr walked confidently down the aircraft steps at Lod Airport in 1974, the reaction of the Israeli public was something akin to the second coming. Still caught in the long shadow of the Yom Kippur War, Israelis were far closer to Tom Brokaw’s ‘Greatest Generation’ than  consumerist 1970s Western Society.  But, that didn’t stop them going bananas over an American TV personality.

Nearly half a century later, Israelis have taken their dubious place in western culture, and they can now fawn and slobber over their own lesser stars. Bar Refaeli – whose completely unearned claim to fame emanates from a combination of heaven-endowed gifts and an unearthly attachment to  silicone – has the nation goggle-eyed over her tax affairs. Based on tabloid rumors, she appears to be in a civil disagreement with the Income Tax Authority over whether she was justified in claiming not to be resident in either Israel or the United States while she shacked up with an Italian-American actor, and in a criminal disagreement over whether she – and her parents – hid critical facts from that same, august authority.

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Tax inspectors are only human after all

More worryingly, the tax authorities themselves seem to have jumped on the media bandwagon with the announcement last week that a committee has been set up to review the criteria for tax residence with a view to establishing greater certainty. Oh dear.

Starting with  the last major tax reform in 2003, Israel has moved forward steadily with the removal of ambiguity about Israel tax residency in domestic law. There was a useful addition to the law in 2007, a requirement to report the basis for an aggressive non-residence position from 2016, and several landmark court cases in recent years. Furthermore, Israel now has double taxation treaties with substantially all the countries Israelis are likely to clear off to (Australia is taking up the rear), which take precedence over domestic law where there is a dispute.

What appears to have put up the Tax Authority’s blood pressure in the Refaeli case (and, in fairness, those of a few other mega-rich individuals) is the claim not to be resident anywhere. That was ably dealt with in a court case back in 2016 concerning a poker player, when the judge made clear that such cases would be rare in the extreme (he even quoted the classic case of a person living on a yacht in the middle of the ocean).

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Sometimes it needs more than the instructions

The problem, if there is one, does not arise  from Israel’s lack of certainty in defining residence. In fact, Israel – in broadly paralleling the OECD Model Treaty guidelines – has a very healthy approach, combining qualitative tests (a person’s center of life), and secondary quantitive tests (number of days present). The problem is that the United States, going it alone as always, relies – at the first level – on a purely quantitative approach. So, in theory at least, an individual like Ms Refaeli could make sure they did not hit the quantitative test in either country, while claiming ‘center of life’ in the United States, where they don’t really care. Hey presto! Not resident anywhere. Any effort to achieve more certainty – like in the United States pure quantitive approach – is probably doomed to abject failure.

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His judgment is not to be trusted…

In cases like Ms Refaeli’s, it is surely far safer to have an Israeli judge look qualitatively at the situation in the light of the facts, and then – as Her Ladyship dons her black cap – stare the  defendant coolly in the eye while pronouncing sentence.

 

 

Keep Calm and Carry On

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About as intellectual as it got

The British have always been a supremely pragmatic people. It was thanks to a fickle king that they knocked religious hegemony on the head early on, and thanks to another misguided monarch that they got their revolution out of the way before the Rousseaus, Marxes and Engels of the world could fill the vacuum with an ideology. Indeed, it was the utterly pragmatic empiricist John Locke who tidied up the mess in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

It is, therefore, no surprise that – despite the cataclysmic events in Parliament surrounding Brexit – the British Government has been beavering away, preparing for the morning after (which, because Brexit is planned for the night of Friday March 29th, will be effectively Monday April Fools Day).

The big news from Davos last week was that Britain and Israel have confirmed ‘in principle’ a Free Trade Agreement similar to that enjoyed between the EU and Israel. With £10 billion of trade, that is eminently sensible for both parties. What received less coverage was the signing  a few days earlier of a protocol to the double taxation agreement between the two countries that dates back to 1962.

Protocols amend treaties. Hearing the words ‘protocol’, ‘tax’, ‘treaty’, ‘Israel’, ‘UK ” (not strictly a word) in the same sentence came as no surprise to my tax-attuned ear. What with all the OECD changes in respect of Base Earnings and Profit Shifting (BEPS) and the automatic exchange of information, protocols are the name of the day. The media reports (that all appeared to stem from the same press release) gave a few details of new provisions and mentioned the obvious. It was only when I downloaded and read the document (who, for heaven’s sake, ruins the party by reading primary sources these days?), that I realized the enormity of what had happened. Perfidious Albion, God bless her!

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What an interesting job

Israel and the UK initialed a new treaty to replace the 1962 one way back in 2009. I remember it well, because I was informally consulted just before initialling, and found a couple of boo-boos. In order for a treaty to take effect, each country needs to take it through whatever processes its domestic law requires – but the stages are identical: initialling, signing, ratifying. In the UK, following the signing,  an Order in Council is issued. That is a process where a Government representative rattles off the wording of a load of boring regulations while the Queen listens (yeh, sure!) and, in the case of a tax treaty or protocol, it goes to a delegated  legislation committee, where it is considered and then brought before Parliament. It can then be ratified.

The 2009 treaty hit a total snafu after initialling. The original 1962 treaty bore the wording: ‘the term “Israel” means the territory in which the Government of Israel
levy (sic) taxation’, and  ‘the terms “resident of the United Kingdom” and “resident of Israel” mean respectively any person who is resident in the United Kingdom for the
purposes of United Kingdom tax and any person who is resident in Israel for
the purposes of Israel tax’. It was widely understood that somebody in London (I hazard a guess, from the Foreign Office) decided that Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria aka the West Bank aka the Occupied Territories should not be included. That was never going to pass muster with  the Israeli Government, and both sides got back in their trenches for the next decade.

But, times change, and these days it might be cheekily argued that go-it-alone Britain needs Israel more than Israel needs Britain (although Britain is still a very-nice-to-have). And that treaty is seriously prehistoric. Meanwhile, as Professor Emeritus of Empire Building, Britain had to watch its step.

Then came the Eureka! moment. It was time to sign protocols with treaty partners. A month after  the UK’s High Commissioner in Cyprus signed with the Cypriots, a British government representative signed with the Israelis. But, there was a subtle difference. The Cypriot protocol ran to a familiar 3 pages; the Israeli protocol ran to an eye-boggling 19. The British and Israelis had effectively shoehorned the long-dormant new treaty into the Protocol, simply passing over the naughty bits.

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I wonder if Mel is one of George’s

The signatory for the British Government was one Mel Stride, Paymaster-General – a name and title which, together with the plot, could have come straight out of a John Le Carre novel.

All that now remains is for the Queen to cock a deaf’un, and for Parliament to be pre-occupied with Brexit. (Israel also needs to ratify).

As regards the new provisions, they can be easily found popping up all over the internet in the same form as they were initially announced.  What seems to have escaped the journalists’ attention is the long-awaited exemption on UK pensions received by Israeli residents (as opposed to the highly-specific exemption from withholding tax on interest and dividends to Israeli pension funds, which was included). New and potential expats, benefiting from a ten year tax exemption on foreign sourced income in Israel,  should be talking to their advisors.

It could have been 1984

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1960s subliminal brainwashing led a generation to careers in numbers

A career in tax really does necessitate a command of numbers. You never know when they are going to unexpectedly turn up and try to bend your mind.

Many years ago, I was asked if I could assist an independent contractor with a spot of number bother with the Israeli tax authorities. I couldn’t.

An Israeli company contracted with a US individual for – what can best be described as – seasonal work. For a number of years, he had arrived on January 1st  and left religiously on July 1st. In those days there were no low-cost airlines encouraging bookings decades in advance, so why was he so particular about the dates? To be back home in time for the July 4th jamboree? No. You guessed it. According to the Israel-US double taxation treaty, independent services by a US resident  are only liable to tax in Israel if the individual is present for 183 days or more. As Israel has always contended that part of a day is to be considered as a day, he had to leave on July 1st – day 182. Since the paying company was required to apply for a withholding tax exemption certificate each year, the matter irritated the tax official charged with issuing the certificates to distraction.

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Not that seasonal

There was nothing the frustrated official could do, so he waited patiently. And his patience paid off. Sometime towards the end of 1999 the individual booked his tickets as usual for January 1st to July 1st 2000. He may even have brilliantly thought he knew what he was doing, but – like over-clever crooks who are  eventually hoisted with their own petard –  he screwed it up. Even though it divides by 4, the turn of a century does not normally sport February 29th UNLESS the number of turns of the century since that event in Bethlehem two millennia ago also divides by 4. 2000 was a leap year, July 1st was day 183, and he was sunk.

This story came to mind now, because January is the month for getting caught napping by the Israeli tax system.

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One way to remember January 30th

Individuals with taxable income from a rental apartment can pay 10% tax on the gross income, rather than much higher marginal rates on the net,  until 30 days after year end. That adds up to January 30th. According to the rhyme I learnt as a child, that is not the day January hangs up its boots  – so paying on the last day of the month, although intuitively the thing to do, is too late. A miss is as good as a mile (although many experts might disagree in this particular case).

Companies that are eligible to maintain their books according to the Dollar Regulations, effectively reporting in foreign currency, are required to elect to do so by that same, busy, day – January 30th. Remember on January 31st – and you will be twisting through the year with the shekel.

Does somebody get their kicks out of tripping innocent taxpayers up with this sort of insidious nitpicking? Or, do the authorities just have a difficult time with numbers?

Telling it like it isn’t

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Very last call …

A rabbi, a priest and the secretary-general of the OECD walk into a bar… Not heard that one before? Read on.

Last Wednesday, January 2nd, as the 20th Knesset breathed its last before flatlining in the run-up to a General Election, the Finance Committee approved regulations paving the way for the introduction of the international ‘Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters’.

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Game over

The New World Order, where there is nowhere for the less-than-honest to hide their ill-gotten gains, has been heading this way to much fanfare for some time. Too long, in fact. Israel signed on to the G20/OECD 2014 initiative early on, and was committed to having the necessary legislation in place by January 1st 2017. This was to be followed by necessary bi- or multilateral agreements (it committed to two multilateral ones), necessary bilateral commitments to ensure  the other side would respect confidentiality – as well as being both legislatively and operationally sound – and technical guidance to Israel’s banks on how to provide data on accounts of foreign resident in standard international format (so they could be easily deciphered at the other end). Information exchange was to start in September 2018. In fairness, Israel didn’t score too badly other than on one rather critical point – although legislation was in place in mid-2016, well in time for the 2017 deadline, it could not come into force until accompanying regulations took effect.

Well, as the naysayers would have it, a miss is as good as a mile and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. By December 2018, there were only seven countries that were non-compliant: Antigua & Barbados, Brunei Darusallam, Dominica, Niue (is that a country or a spelling mistake?), Qatar, Sint Maarten and … Israel. This prompted a desperate letter from the secretary-general of the OECD to Israel’s prime minister, and the eleventh hour passing of the regulations last week, exactly two years and one day late. If you are going to be late, you might as well do it in style.

What went wrong?

The required regulations, as the American FATCA information exchange regulations before them, hacked at one of the mainstays of ultra-Orthodox society (and a much valued traditional Jewish institution)  – the ‘Gemach’. The concept is a simple one. Groups of largely anonymous donors provide money to an intermediary who generally disburses the funds as interest free loans to those in need. In the event the borrower is unable to repay, the donors (who have generally kissed goodbye to the money) have no recourse. Until now, these arrangements have had no legal or regulatory basis – essentially private arrangements that could run into incredibly large sums. When FATCA came along, Israel’s banks started closing Gemach accounts as they were unable to verify to the US authorities that there were no US ‘depositors’. On the other hand, as the chairman of the Finance Committee repeatedly protested, requiring a donor who gets nothing other than a place in Heaven out of the whole process to fill in forms for the tax authority is a kiss of death for the institutions.

A solution was found, with the evident acquiescence of the US authorities, for small Gemachim, and in August 2016 Gemachim generally were given two years grace, in which time they would – against their will – be brought under regulation, and they could organize their affairs to be compliant for the banks. To cut a long story short, after a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth, including the flat refusal of the Bank of Israel and Capital Markets Authority to supervise them (The Capital Markets Authority lost, and ‘won’ the job), the very last piece of legislation to pass its third reading in the 20th Knesset was the attrition-much-reduced Gemachim Law, which paved the way for the Chairman of the Finance Committee to agree to approve the information exchange regulations.

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The only thing crooked about him

Had the script of this farce been written by the 2008 financial crash’s moral voice, then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Finance Committee and Israel might have walked away with their heads held high. Williams had maintained that the ‘markets’ that bankers claimed dictated the path of the financial system, were – in Judeo-Christian – terms a form of idolatry, something man-made being attributed independent powers. He argued that modern financial transactions lacked the face-to-face component of yesteryear – it is much easier to default when lenders are obscured behind a curtain of intermediate transactions than when recognized at an individual or community level. Here were self-regulating funds that should not be collateral damage in the post-2008 meltdown regulatory war against the unfettered avarice of the players in the financial markets.

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There are always the traditional methods

However, Anglicanism hasn’t had much of a look-in around these parts since 1948, and  the ‘guilty’ Knesset Finance Committee was chaired until last week by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi-politician not given to philosophical musings, but rather to horse-trading in the name of his flock. The reason there was a need for a law regulating the Gemachim was that a number of them, predominantly in the United States and Israel,  had been the facilitators of big-time money laundering and tax evasion. A war of attrition in the long process of arriving at the final wording,  holding the inevitable (and, hence, unforgiveably late) information exchange regulations hostage,  is considered  to have severely compromised the regulatory effect of the law. Any collateral damage ultimately suffered by the moral majority of Gemachim is thanks, therefore, to the unsavoury dealings of some of their number, rather than the excesses of the financial system.

The last weak joke of the 20th Knesset…

Comfort and joy (for some)

New Zealand

This Prime Minister doesn’t need a babysitter

Several years ago I wrote a newspaper article about a fresh addition to the Israeli Income Tax Ordinance that included four subparagraphs. Or, at least, there should have been four subparagraphs. The fact that there were only three made the whole thing toothless. My tongue-in-cheek piece suggested a scenario where the Knesset Finance Committee was working late into the night, and the person with the most tax knowledge received a phone call that they had to relieve the babysitter – so they all went home. Joke – right? The following day I received a call from a senior tax official asking me how I knew. You couldn’t make it up.

Monkey-typing

If you pay peanuts….

The drafting of tax legislation in this country is often notoriously slapdash. But, that doesn’t explain all the problems with tax statute. For a start, there is the pain of keeping up with changing business environments – just look at the mess the international tax system is in over taxation of the digital economy. And then there is accounting. Corporate taxation is based on accounting profits.  Once upon a time, thanks to the ancient simple art of double entry bookkeeping, the profit and loss account was a fairly close reflection of the dollars and cents performance of a company give or take capital expenditure, debts, liabilities, inventory, and the odd accrual . A few additions and deductions and the taxman could take his toll. An explosion of accounting standards plus that thing they call IFRS led, in recent years, to more adjustments to the accounting profit than fairy lights on a Christmas tree – but as long as tax departments kept their heads, it could be handled. Almost.

For reasons best known to the British Mandatory Authorities that planted the seeds of our tax law, dividends – while mentioned freely throughout the Ordinance – are not defined for tax purposes. The upshot is that they go according to company law and are ultimately calculated in line with the latest whim of the accounting wonks in their ivory towers. That means that a company can distribute either more or less than its taxed profits. It’s the ‘more’ that bothers us here – or more precisely the parties to a court appeal that was heard this month.

Israel adheres broadly to the classical system of taxation – corporate profits are taxed twice, first at the company level, and then in the hands of  the individual on dividend. In order to avoid taxation mushrooming to three, four or heaven knows how many times, if there are several layers of companies passing dividends up the chain, Israel generally exempts intercompany dividends on which Israeli corporation tax has been paid. The second level of tax waits for distribution to the individuals right at the top.

General view of Buckingham Palace in central London.

Rumour has it, her great-great-great-great grandfather bought this place for a fiver.

That last paragraph probably sounds logical to anyone reading this – but it demanded a 39 page, beautifully reasoned ruling by the judge to put it to bed. The appellant company had received accounting profits from a subsidiary manufactured from the revaluation of certain real estate on which tax had, correctly, not been paid as the real estate had not been sold. The tax authorities and a judge had already told the appellant that the intercompany exemption didn’t apply. The company decided to try its luck on an appeal using a combination of sophistry (the wording  – but not the intention – of the law was, indeed, pitiful), a real concern for future double taxation (the subsidiary would be liable to tax on sale of the real estate even though tax was being paid now by its parent), and a childlike plea that, if all else failed, could the nice judge please treat the whole thing as a nightmare and pretend the dividend didn’t happen.

The judge wasn’t having any of it. He countered their sophistry with his own, and treated the request to reverse the transaction like a parent  explaining to a 6 year old that Santa doesn’t really exist. That was all reasonable and fine – but, it was the double tax issue that restored my faith in a system that so often seems broken.

The judge analyzed the concept of avoiding double taxation in Israeli law. He noted that, while the double taxation issue is an important principle underpinning the law, there are situations where double tax applies – predominantly where there is a change of ownership in-between certain transactions. Had the appellant sold the shares to a third party, its representatives would not have been in court arguing that – because the subsidiary company would have to pay tax again in the future on sale of the real estate (the value of the shares sold now would already have taken into account the increased value once), it should be relieved from the resulting double tax.

The Ten Commandments. Image shot 1956. Exact date unknown.

Thou Shalt Not Steal

So, armed with that logic, the judge rejected the appeal and insisted that tax was payable on receipt of the dividend. However, he literally ‘commanded’ the tax authorities to relieve any subsequent sale of the property from double tax, as long as there was no change of ownership in the meantime. That produced a result in parallel with normative Israeli law, as opposed to a narrow, literal interpretation that could have caused unnecessary hardship.

All too often, tax rulings rely on logic as much as  a fish relies on a bicycle. Not this time.

A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all those celebrating.

Wakey-wakey!

clock

Two minutes to midnight

It is the morning of the Maths exam that will decide which, if any, university awaits the candidate. He/she suddenly realizes that he/she hasn’t even started learning the syllabus.

How many of us have periodically woken in a cold sweat from that nightmare in the course of our adult lives?

I sometimes feel that, especially around the December full moon, tax advisers do their darnedest to  induce such feelings in the populace with ‘Achtung!’ articles of what must be done  (but clearly can’t be achieved)  before drawbridges go up for the Christmas/New Year break.

475px-The_Scream 2

Don’t panic!

I only ever tried to panic a prospective client once. (I warned a foreign company that  they needed to get their VAT house in order to avoid risk of  criminal prosecution, they ignored me and went to an alternative firm that proffered soothing advice, and they were criminally prosecuted two years later).

So, allow me to preface my remarks on Israel’s  10 year tax exemption period for first-time and certain returning residents by stressing that they are not aimed at those whose benefits end in the next few weeks, but rather in 2019 and thereafter. People who arrived on their equivalent of the  Mayflower  in 2008 (or earlier) are either sorted out, or the best of luck.

Everybody – that is the entire Jewish world, the OECD and the IMF – by now knows that Israel has operated a territorial tax system for first-time and certain returning residents since 2008 (with retroactive force to 2007). The law states that a first-time resident or veteran returning resident is exempt for ten years from income produced or derived outside Israel or whose source is in assets outside of Israel, as well as capital gains from the sale of such assets. The problem is that (from my experience) many mistakenly believe that, as long as they don’t go to work on a kibbutz milking cows, they can forget about tax for ten years. In reality, even those who do not incur any Israeli taxation during the exemption period need to be prepared for the day at the end of the decade when they fall off the tax cliff.

OLIM-HADASHIM

New olim, yes. New residents, perhaps

First of all the good news. Despite the drafting of the law being as hopeless as much other tax legislation in the country, more than ten years down the road the  tax authorities seem to have made their peace with much of the excruciatingly inconsistent language, as well as the fundamentals of residence. Grammatical glitches appear to have been passed over unnoticed, and nobody seems to be bothered about the repeated careless use of the word ‘Oleh’ in pronouncements, aliyah not being a prerequisite for tax residence. 2018 saw the first annual filings of residents coming out of the ten years (for the 2017 tax year), and most of the reporting snafus will presumably be ironed out over the coming months. Similarly, some of the more heroic assumptions required as the assessee slowly glides out of the exemption period (there are special provisions for capital gains) can be expected to be blessed, or otherwise, by the authorities.

As people start to report, the authorities could take an interest in the exemption period, looking for amounts that should have been reported despite the exemption.

In any event, among the issues assessees need to be considering as the watershed approaches are:

  1. When did they actually become resident? Although, in terms of the wording of the law, residence under domestic law as opposed to treaty is an annual thing, the authorities have repeatedly made clear in writing that they interpret it as something that can change mid-year. So far, so good. The problem is that their pronouncements on when the ten years actually starts have made clear it is not necessarily the night they give you a funny hat and a flag at Ben Gurion airport if, for example, there was already a home in Israel and/or significant time has been spent in Israel.
  2. Are they sure none of their income was ‘produced or derived’ in Israel, and thus liable to tax? There have been rulings over the last decade concerning new residents working  with foreign companies from Israel ‘by remote control’ through internet, e-mail etc, or trading foreign securities from Israel. The tax authorities are operating an amnesty procedure until the end of next year – although if an anonymous request is desired, it has to be made by the end of this month (ouch!).
  3. Corporate structures abroad, while being convenient as long as Israeli taxation does not apply, may need reorganizing. That is something that generally needs to be done while the exemption is still in place.
  4. Decisions need to be made regarding whether to realize assets – significantly  parts of securities portfolios  – before the end of the exemption period, or to benefit from the only gradual linear increase in capital gains in the post-exemption period.
  5. Thanks to developing legislation since 2006, trusts are supposed to be largely tax neutral – but there are still some horrible jagged edges that can create nasty tax accidents . There are certain benefits to new-resident settlors or beneficiaries that soothe the pain as long as the exemption period lasts. The long-term future of such trusts needs to be considered.
nuclear

Public Service Announcement

I sincerely hope this hasn’t scared anybody. I prefer to think of it as a Public Service Announcement. Really.

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