Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the category “United States”

Red Scotch Tape

And then came the 1970s

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

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

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

The British air industry knew when to be competitive

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

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

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

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

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

Who are the Americans trying to kid?

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

We are not amused.

GILTI pleasures

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Here they go again…

Just when you thought it was safe to put the Ibuprofen back in the medicine cabinet, the IRS has issued proposed GILTI (Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income) regulations in addition to the long anticipated final ones. (For an explanation of what was supposed to be going on, see Tax Break February 10, 2019).

Back in my day, the examinations for admission to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales were multi-stage. The last stage was supposedly the toughest (and I do not use that word lightly). I was, therefore, very surprised (and suspicious) when I turned over the ‘Financial Accounting’ paper to discover a 25 mark question that could be answered by a page of T accounts. T accounts are the graphic form of double-entry bookkeeping, providing a framework for ‘debits by the window, credits by the door’. If that still doesn’t resonate with you, it is like being presented with a first grade Arithmetic problem in twelfth grade Maths (Google translate: Math). When the official answers were published some weeks later, there was a comment by the examiner to the effect that many students had achieved very high marks by answering the question in the wrong way. That alone made me wonder whether I really wanted to join this elite group. Monty Python may have declared that ‘It’s accountancy that makes the world go round’, but from where I was looking, it was more likely to make the world go pear-shaped.

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It was either me or the examiner

That is what I feel about the proposed US regulations – despite being neither a US taxpayer, nor US tax advisor. I shall explain.

By the time the 2018 US tax reform package in general, and Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income in particular, had been suitably chewed over, it was apparent that US corporations were unlikely to be accidentally hit with GILTI tax. (As long as their subsidiaries were paying at least 13.125% corporate tax in their country of residence, they were fairly safe, at least in the short-term). Individuals weren’t so lucky and – in order to avoid horrifically skewed tax bills – they would need to use the obscure section 962 of the tax code, electing to be treated as corporations for this income. It was a case of scratching their left ear with their right hand. And that was how it was expected to remain.

So, despite having no faith in the IRS making anything simple, I was simply gobsmacked when I saw the shock announcement last week that there are proposed regulations that will effectively exclude the reporting of GILTI income where corporate tax is paid in the foreign country at a rate of at least 90% of the US federal rate (18.9%), similar to existing – and well-oiled – passive income rules. Apart from the not-insignficant saving of paperwork for US corporate shareholders, there shouldn’t be a tax difference – GILTI tax only kicking in below 13.125% abroad. It is a sea-change, on the other hand, for individuals with companies in ‘high-tax’ countries such as Israel where they will not need to go through the fantastical rigmarole of corporate-imagined taxation. (In Israel, there will still be an issue with companies with special low tax rates).

Waidamminit! This stuff would be great for wrapping food.

What is amazing is that there is no mention in the proposed regulations of the genuine grievance of individuals that these proposed regulations will evidently redress. There were other reasons given.  In other words, it looks like something sensible and good happened (or, at least, might happen) while nobody was paying attention. Not a million miles from the examiner’s comment in that faraway accounting exam.

And, Monty Python or not, the United States economy really does make the world go round. Scary.

Ain’t no Bonanza

JayLeno

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.

הורד (2)

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.’

GILTI until proven simple

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What a joke

Appearing on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show in 1975, the ex-governor of California quipped: ‘We live in the only country in the world where it takes more brains to figure out your income tax than it does to earn the income.’ A little over a decade later, the same gentleman put his pen where his mouth was, and signed into law the Tax Reform Act of 1986, ostensibly simplifying the US Tax Code.

Well, I have to admit that I didn’t take much interest in the Code before Reagan’s reform, but – if that was simplification – I dread to think what it was like in the good old days. Fast forward thirty-odd years and Donald Trump was playing the same game. Or was he?

As US taxpayers start to consider their first  filings under the latest reform, one example should show just how complex the damned thing is.

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He also borrowed the line

As of  2018 the US corporate tax system went over to a territorial basis. That broadly meant that dividends received from abroad by US corporations would be exempt from tax. Nothing is ever that simple. America had invented, back in 1962, the concept of Controlled Foreign Corporation  (today the internationally ubiquitous CFC) which essentially taxed passive and certain other profits parked in tax-advantaged jurisdictions on a current basis, irrespective of whether the income was repatriated. But, if they were to transition to a territorial basis, that wasn’t enough. To paraphrase Mr Carson: ‘Wheeeeeere’s Google/Amazon/Apple?’ What about active income being cleverly sheltered in the Islands and Irelands of the world? And so was born Global Intangible Low Taxed Income (GILTI). After certain adjustments, foreign income (‘intangible’ was evidently thrown in to make a good acronym) would be taxed at half the federal tax rate (10.5% in the New World Order) with a foreign tax credit for 80% of the foreign tax paid on the income. That meant that a foreign tax rate of over 13.125% cancelled out the US tax (which is the same effective rate on Foreign Derived Intangible Income – the export incentive offered to US corporations under the reform – meaning there is ostensibly no tax advantage to going through loops to carry on the business offshore).

So far – if a little complicated –  bearable. The fun starts, however, when considering the effect of GILTI on individual or transparent entities (LLCs, S Corps, Partnerships) investing directly in foreign companies. Once caught within the CFC rules, their position becomes untenable. As it seems right now, they get no 50% deduction for GILTI and no foreign tax credit. That means they have to pay up to 37% tax on the gross income abroad, in addition to the local tax paid.  Given that the foreign jurisdiction may impose withholding tax on distribution of an actual dividend (albeit that such tax may be credited – if there is other income – in a general basket separate from GILTI), and given the exposure to State taxes and Obamacare, it is time to consider buying a one-way ticket  up the Empire State Building.

Now, straight-thinking people  might have thought this was a mistake, calling for suitable regulations to correct the situation. Evidently not. In this (once again) newly simplified world of US tax the solution being screamed from the rooftops is for the individuals to make a S962 election for their income to be treated as corporate  for tax purposes. That way they (probably) become eligible for the foreign tax credit – although the 50% deduction still looks doubtful. Because they have elected to be treated as a corporation, there is tax to pay on the ‘dividend’ when received. This ‘might’ be eligible as a qualified dividend (23.8% tax) and there ‘may’ be a credit to be had on the foreign withholding tax. But, nobody seems very sure.

This is simplification?

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Don’t try this at home, kids. It’s just for movie stars

I recall an interview with the conservative intellectual guru William F Buckley Jr. on the night of Reagan’s 1980 victory. Asked why he wholeheartedly supported the former actor, he told a story (much as the newly elected president might). He had been one of a group, including Reagan,  attending a meeting in a room on a high floor of a luxury hotel. The door became jammed, and they couldn’t get out. Reagan proceeded to climb out of the window, feel his way  along the perilous ledge to the next room, where the window happened to be open, climb in and come around to open the door from the outside. To the genuinely brilliant Buckley, that showed decisiveness, and made Reagan eligible to rule the world. When I heard this, my immediate reaction was: ‘Wouldn’t it have been simpler to just call reception?’

Perhaps the Americans just have a different concept of  ‘simple’? After all, as George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said: ‘The English and Americans are two peoples divided by a common language’.

Another bite of Apple?

kennedy-was-also-dealing-with-embassy-bomb-threats-during-the-cuban-missile-crisis

Trump could also do with something to take things off peoples’ minds

In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis,  John F Kennedy quietly signed into law the most extra-territorial tax system in the history of the human race. As the world faced MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), it perhaps wasn’t the most important thing on the minds of American CEOs that week. Buried in the dark recesses of the US Tax Code, the Subpart F provisions for Controlled Foreign Corporations soon became the blueprint for advanced nations everywhere to enable their Treasuries to reach abroad and dip their hands into the profits of their residents’ foreign holdings.

Fast-forward 55 years, and America is blessed with a populist president who – to put it mildly – doesn’t do things quietly. Yet, last week’s House tax reform proposals spoke of a move to an anti-populist territorial tax system for Corporate America (Google translate: Render unto Caesar what is Roman), and – I, at least – do not recall hearing the Donald’s bellowing protests or observing his trembling orange mop.

Why not?

Possibly, because this is the most goddamed-extra-territorial tax proposal in the history of the human race. It is the mother of extra-territorial tax proposals. The message it sends to multinational Corporate America – especially the high-tech variety –  is: ‘You can bring your cash home any time you like, because we are going to find your profits in whatever foreign paradise they are sunning themselves, and we are going to nail them.’

The ingenious weapon they want to add to the ageing, but sprightly, Subpart F provisions is the invasive ‘Foreign High Return’ amount of controlled  foreign corporations. In a nutshell, the US Treasury will allow US-owned foreign companies to earn a reasonable return on their tangible property abroad, and tax the remainder at half the US corporate rate (ie 10% in the proposal) whether it is repatriated or not. This actually puts some vague sense into President Trump’s surprising remark to Japanese auto-manufacturers this week  that they should bring production to the United States. Of course, as any non-president-of-the-United-States knows, Japanese manufacturers already produce 75% of the vehicles they sell in America on American soil. Now that American car manufacturers will evidently have an incentive to produce ALL the cars they sell abroad in tax-friendly countries beyond the Statue of Liberty, it is perhaps only fair that the good old Japanese help out.

The foreign tax credit allowed in the US will be 80% of the tax paid, meaning that profits taxed at more than 12.5% should not be further taxed at home. Given the latest revelations in the Paradise Papers, this would mean that hi-tech companies not protected by exemptions due to normal returns on tangible property, will be taxed on an ongoing basis – albeit at a competitive rate.

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What was that logo?

In the meantime there will be a one-time tax on repatriating existing foreign earnings of 12% (cash etc) and 5% (illiquid assets).

And, if all this is not enough, just for the fun of bayoneting the wounded, a 20% excise tax is proposed on payments out of the United States.

My hunch is that the reason POTUS hasn’t been shooting off about all this is that he hasn’t quite absorbed it yet. That may not matter. Under the American system of government the chances of this, largely interesting, proposal passing are about as high as Donald Trump’s chances were a year ago today of winning the US presidential election.

Something to chew on.

 

Who wants to live forever?

Obamacare

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?

The Unsatanic Taxes

funnyroadNobody who has read Salman Rushdie’s classic ‘Midnight’s Children’ can be indifferent to the juxtaposition of India and Midnight in a phrase or sentence. So, the recent announcement that India’s new GST law (VAT by any other name would smell as sweet) would come into effect, amidst much fanfare, at midnight on July 1 was enough to make my heart flutter like a punkahwallah’s punkah.

The world’s biggest democracy has finally joined the vast majority of the globe’s tax-setters in a cross-twenty-nine-state system that, when the technological problems are sorted out, should improve India’s tax-raising efficiency and, thus, help that great country in furthering its economic growth.

That is not to say that VAT is the Mother Teresa of all taxes. Its biggest problem is that it is regressive –  it taxes consumption at the level of the poor-man-in-the-street who, the poorer he is,  spends a higher proportion of his income on surviving. This is traditionally combatted by lower rates or exemptions on basic things like food. Indeed, India – in keeping with its tradition of making everything as complicated as possible – has introduced five rates of VAT  plus a stratospheric concoction for dealing with untouchables like luxury goods and tobacco.

Of course, there will still be those who manage to get round the tax, legally or otherwise. Time will tell whether devious residents latch onto the ubiquitous Carousel Fraud phenomenon (involving the import and export of the same goods multiple times – a bunch of Brits were caught a few years back when they got lazy and stopped changing the plugs on phone chargers between France and England). And then there was the hard-to-believe wheeze of the Spanish theatre that sold VAT-exempt carrots for admittance to its performances together with a worthless piece of paper called a ticket. The only problem (apart from the Spanish tax garrotters catching up with them) was that hungry patrons couldn’t prove their right to re-entry to the auditorium after a toilet break during the intermission.

At the end of the day, VAT works. One of the few countries that does not seem to agree is the ‘biggest’ democracy (as opposed to the ‘biggest democracy’). A few years ago, at lunch at a conference in Berlin, a group of American experts were discussing ways of plugging the impossible US deficit, coming up with all sorts of supply-side ideas. Thinking that V.A.T was the sort of acronym (actually sayable, like M.A.D – Mutual Assured Destruction) that Americans would die for (especially when said with an English accent), I suggested that imposition of such a tax would surely solve all their problems. I was completely frozen out. V.A.T is a dirty acronym in the eyes of Uncle Sam. My luncheon partners looked like they wanted to drag me in front of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee. The irony, of course, is that while V.A.T undermines the ‘redistribution of income’ philosophy of most of the ’red’ nations (such as Britain and Europe) imposing it, the American belief in ‘equality of opportunity’ is completely at peace with its workings.

The Indians still have a long way to go. Their direct tax system leaves much to be desired – the witch-hunt of Vodafone to cover the seller’s capital gains in an offshore purchase a while back, and its treaty-defying Dividend Distribution Tax being but two examples of the rot.

As Rushdie put it in Midnight’s Children, ‘I admit it: above all things I fear absurdity.’ Thankfully, his beloved India is finally taking steps in the right direction.

Going it alone?

It would appear Americans have long preferred blondes

It would appear Americans have long preferred blondes

Ever since Marilyn Monroe’s less famous namesake, James, came up with his Doctrine almost two centuries ago, America has toyed with isolationism. They tried it in the First World War, and it didn’t work. They tried it in the Second World War, and it didn’t work. And Barack Obama has spent his presidency unsuccessfully trying to raise the drawbridge to the Middle East.

But there is a bit of isolationism going on at the moment that is not catching everybody’s eye: Tax Isolationism.

As the nation fires its engines for the four-yearly circus that is the Presidential Election, candidates for the Republican nomination are outdoing each other in unpassable and unworkable tax reform proposals. Meanwhile, the nominee-presumptive for the Democratic ticket has made her own comments on the issue.

What is remarkable is that all the candidates have concentrated on lowering tax rates and closing loopholes, conjuring up numbers they each know they will not have to justify. After all, America is one of the few countries in the world where the Government’s Budget is a wish-list rather than a statement of intent (Congress never passes Budgets as proposed). They are looking at America as if it were a self-contained island. Their sole material tip of the hat to other countries is the universal objection to inversion transactions, which have been rife in recent years and serve to reduce the US tax base.

In the meantime, BEPS is fast taking shape, and the US Treasury is belatedly realizing that, as European nations apply the rules and import more profit to their shores, in a zero-sum game the big loser is the U.S. of A. which is by far the busiest player in the international economy.

The big question now is whether the US will try and torpedo part of the BEPS program. At this late stage that would not go down well internationally. As regards automatic exchange of information, America may end up trailing much of the world since the Federal authorities evidently have limited legal right to demand States’ statistics.

What did he see in her?

What did he see in her?

On the other hand,  America’s antithetical view to John Donne’s meditation, ‘No man is an island,’ may not be all bad. As Mrs Arthur Miller herself once observed, ‘If I’d obeyed all the rules, I’d never have got anywhere’.

Putting a Price on Morality

The only relationship between morality and tax?

The only relationship between morality and tax?

‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ Well, not if we are a company. This was the point on which I was reduced to a state of heckling at the Lisbon conference described in my previous post. A Breakout ‘Conversation’ – Breakout ‘Sessions’ are SO last decade –  on ‘Tax and Morality’ was irresistible. (Look, when you are choosing between ‘Documentation requirements under BEPS’ and ‘Tax and Morality’,  irresistible is a relative concept.)

That the first question was simply whether tax and morality went together like a horse and  carriage (not precisely those words, but definitely the idea) was unacceptable. Corporate Tax and Personal Tax, as conceded by the moderator in dealing with my outburst, needed to be treated separately, even if the ultimate conclusion might be ‘yes’. Companies are Children of a Lesser God (their shareholders), and it is nigh impossible to pin anything high and mighty on them.

To me, all this populist corporate morality  posturing over the last few years, embarrassingly sparked off by a British Parliamentary Committee chaired by the alleged beneficiary of a Liechtenstein trust, has been one long yawn of poppycock. The most convincing argument regarding Corporate Morality came from a British colleague and old friend, who managed to dredge up the Parliamentary Proceedings leading to the enactment of certain joint-stock companies in the 17th century, that included some kind of public purpose. (I have been unable to confirm this in independent research, but he is a good bloke, so he probably knows what he is talking about.)

On returning home, thanks to an obituary in The Economist, the issue of Morality and Personal Tax was placed into focus. Irwin Schiff, who died in a Federal Prison last month, was a self-styled libertarian who refused to pay Federal Tax in the United States and, often with time on his hands in various open facilities financed by the idiots who did pay their taxes, wrote several books on the subject.

What was remarkable, and so typical of the different approaches of Europeans and Americans to tax, was that his lifelong struggle had nothing whatsoever to do with morality. In America, to this very day, morality is to taxation what a bicycle is to a fish. You pay taxes because the law forces you to. If the law is an ass and doesn’t close a loophole that allows you not to pay tax, you are an ass if you pay. C’est tout.

The late (literally, and with his tax filings) Mr Schiff attacked the income tax on the basis of it being unconstitutional. Now, I admit to not understanding this (and, neither, it appears did various US judges over the years who sent him to cool off in correctional facilities). The income tax was never popular. It was instituted during the Civil War when, to get at citizens clearing off from the land of the free and the home of the brave, it wasn’t escaped by leaving the US – a price still being paid by US Citizens overseas , and currently copied only by that other regional superpower, Eritrea. It was removed in the 1870s and only made it big-time when Congress passed the 16th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913 (the wrangle in recent years over Obamacare revolved around whether the required federal payments by individuals fell within the Amendment).

I personally do believe (as discussed in a number of earlier posts) that there is a moral responsibility on individuals to pay personal tax. However, there is something simple and attractive about the American approach. We Europeans could not begin to understand Mr Schiff. He lived (when not incarcerated) in Nevada, who few would dub the moral capital of the world. He dressed like a second-hand car salesman and represented himself in court (presumably because no self-respecting lawyer thought he had a case – his arguments  drew heavily on ridiculous sophistry).

Promo or mugshot?

Promo or mugshot?

Schiff made a fortune with such Pythonesque titles as ‘The Biggest Con: How the Government is Fleecing You’ and ‘How Anyone Can Stop Paying Income Taxes’, but the bit I find hardest to comprehend could best be summed up in that wonderful exchange between the legendary Jack Benny and a thug: “Your money or your life?….Look bud, I said ‘Your money of your life’.” …”I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” Forget morality, it seems even freedom has a price in the land of the free.

 

 

The spotlight beside the golden door

When did she renounce her first religion?

When did she renounce her first religion?

Fifty years ago today, the New York Times announced that Elizabeth Taylor  had failed in her attempt to renounce US citizenship. Required to disavow ‘all allegiance and fidelity’ to the United States, she found herself  unable to do so. Now, allegiance and fidelity are terms Ms Taylor had a lot of experience disavowing – eight lots of experience, to be precise: Mr Hilton, Mr Wilding, Mr Todd, Mr Fisher, Mr Burton (Take one), Mr Burton (Take two), Mr Warner and Mr Fortensky.

Ms Taylor, somewhat disingenuously, declared her reason for renouncing her citizenship as wanting to have the same citizenship as her then husband-for-the-first-time , Richard Burton. Had Burton, by reason of his birth, been a Welsh Nationalist (which he was patently not), the argument may have had some traction. But Taylor did not need to seek the same British citizenship as her husband for the convenient reason that she was British, born and bred.

The only reason that the Cleopatra star wished to be rid of her American passport was that she was living and working in Europe at the time, and she did not want to have to pay tax in the US.

Nothing has changed in fifty years. People are renouncing their citizenship right, left and centre (although, on this occasion, I suppose that should be ‘center’). Whereas, in the conscience-ridden and patriotic ’60s ordinary people had understandable difficulty in renouncing allegiance and fidelity – nowadays, if it will save a buck or two, who the hell cares about such outdated emotional claptrap?

Thaddeus Stevens who roomed with Al Gore at Harvard

Thaddeus Stevens who roomed with Al Gore at Harvard

But, of course, as in so many other respects, this aspect of  US Tax Law is insane. Eritrea is the only other nation that taxes income on the basis of citizenship. I admit that I have never been to Eritrea (in fact, I would not know where to find it on a map, so it is just as well I have never tried to get there), but my assumption is that Fifth Avenue it is not. One can almost sympathize with successive Eritrean governments trying to plug their fiscal hole with takings from comparatively wealthy citizens abroad. One could also sympathize, if one were living a hundred and fifty years ago, with Thaddeus Stevens and his House Ways and Means Committee wanting to clobber Yankees escaping the Civil War. But things have moved on since then. The  dysfunctional American tax system allows multi-national corporations to shelter profits overseas, provides countless tax breaks to domestic taxpayers and has enough loopholes to fill whatever you can fill with loopholes. So, choosing to chase expatriates not currently benefiting from the public spending of tax revenues is barmy.

Beyond the idiocy of citizenship-based taxation, it is the offer of a ‘Get out of jail free’ card by relinquishing citizenship that I, a non-American with no aspirations to become one, find distasteful. I am very proud and happy that I became an Israeli citizen a quarter of a century ago. This is my home. This is the place where  I raised my children and the place where they are now raising theirs. But I am also proud of being British. It was Britain that offered my grandparents refuge when, over a century ago, they had to escape the stink-hole that was, and possibly still is, Ukraine. It was Britain that stood alone against the greatest evil yet known to man in 1940 and 1941. It was Britain that gave me the education that enabled me to get on in life. Britain does not present me with a dilemma. There is no reason for me to consider giving up my citizenship.

Expatriate Americans, on the other hand, faced with horrendous annual reporting requirements, as well as potentially horrible taxes, have to make a real decision. For those with a conscience, it is an almost impossible situation. How does a native-born American disavow ‘all allegiance and fidelity’? Even I, a non-American, would have difficulty making a  statement like that about the one nation on the planet that, when push came to shove,  has held it all together for the last hundred years.

Still liable to tax

Still liable to tax

Come on Uncle Sam. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the  Civil War. If you can make peace  with Cuba, you can  make peace with your expatriates. They are the best ambassadors you’ve got (although I’m not sure about Liz Taylor – she was a bit of an embarrassment at times, even for an American).

 

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