Tax Break

Who said tax is boring?

Archive for the tag “France”

The lion that squeaked

How doting parents view the school play

How doting parents view the school play

We all remember those excruciatingly painful dance sequences in end of year school plays. As a long-in-the-tooth tweed jacketed teacher attacked the untuned keys of the upright piano while simultaneously pumping furiously at the worn pedals, budding Nureyevs and Fonteyns would take to the stage. With eyes adamantly fixed on their neighbours the children would twirl to the right and swing their arms to the left in accidentally syncopated time with the music. One of the incontrovertible Laws of Motion was that there was always one  twit lacking rhythm who would insist on twirling to the left and swinging his arms to the right; he couldn’t help himself – the act was as involuntary as breaking wind in the headmaster’s study.

I have waited 40 years to observe similar ineptitude on the world stage. Thank you France. Or should I say, Andorra?

Last week, the Co-Monarch of Andorra met with his joint and several Prime Minister. It was a cordial meeting. Because there are only 85,000 citizens of Andorra,the microstate stuck in the Pyrenees between France and Spain, there is no need for a full-time monarch  let alone two full-time monarchs (the other is a Bishop, confirming the Combination of Church and State). In his spare time  the non-ecclesiastical one is President of France. As everyone who reads a newspaper with more words than pictures knows, there is a worldwide move spearheaded by the EU, G8, G20, OECD United Nations and every other populist organization in the world  to force greater transparency (exchange of information, withholding tax on deposits etc.) in traditional tax havens. This is a logical approach to ensuring that the governments of home countries are able to catch and tax earnings that would probably otherwise escape their grip (unless, as if often the case, it is members of the governments themselves that are depositing the money offshore).

Where's Wally?

Where’s Wally?

It was, therefore, yet another out-of-step move for President Wally (unfortunately we know where HE is) when he proudly announced that the Prime Minister had agreed to institute a personal income tax. Duh? There were no details of the extent of the tax (surprise, surprise) and similarly no mention what the tax would be used for – tiny Andorra has generally been doing quite nicely from tourism, duty-free and “financial services”. There is no moral obligation on any country to impose an income tax unless it needs to – and Andorra patently doesn’t need to.

I admit (proudly) that I have never had any dealings with Andorra – until a few years ago I thought it was a fictitious state in a black-and-white movie, but when I saw that they had instituted company tax in 2012, I knew that I could have written the script for them.  The company tax was set at 10%, a low but no longer crazy rate. However, if the company is in the finance industry or holds IP or is involved in international trade (in practice, almost every company except for the Candy Store in Andorra High Street), there is an 80% reduction. I truly admire those adherents of “you can fool all of the people some of the time” who genuinely believe that the average OECD economist doesn’t understand that an 80% reduction on 10% is ALWAYS 2% . But what a tragedy it would be if everybody had to pay a horrific 2% tax – so they instituted Holding Company status, which pays no tax at all. To all intents and purposes they managed to get back to where they started – plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

So what is the, as yet unannounced, income tax rate likely to be?

From Half-Prince-President Wombat’s point of view, if the aim is to prevent wealthy French from hiking it over the Pyrenees, the number to beat is 75% which, despite being stubbed out by the Supreme Court, is still on his agenda. But Andorra is one of those countries that likes to fall below the radar. Indeed, after declaring war on Germany in World War I, it was forgotten in the Treaty of Versailles and continued in a state of belligerency with Germany until 1958 – despite having declared neutrality in World War II (Hitler was never one for the intricacies of international law so he didn’t have the place turned into a car park for a Panza Division). So my guess is that when the Prime Minister gets back to his mountain lair he will give himself a few months to return to anonymity and then quietly come up with a rate that warmly hugs a Very Round Number.

Half-mad King?

Half-mad King?

Meanwhile the Royal President is presumably very proud of his day’s work last week and hoping his decisive action will lift his ratings in the polls. At the last count his popularity rating was 24% (even Louis XVI would have beaten that) – proving beyond all reasonable doubt that nearly a quarter of all French are stupid. Methinks the man is  Half-Prince and  Half-Wit. I wonder what he would have  looked like 40 years ago in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy?

Left luggage

Hitler or just the bloody tyrant next door?

It was during the Bosnian War that the BBC’s Martin Bell and his colleagues developed the concept of Journalism of Attachment.  While war correspondents stretching back  to William Howard Russell a century and a half earlier had reported the good and evil of war, it was this new generation that took sides and, effectively, became unarmed combatants on behalf of  the chosen good guys.

I am, personally, not entirely comfortable with this approach since the arguments surrounding war are often complex. The future of world peace would be better served by presenting the stories dispassionately and letting the public decide. Having said that, at least the underlying morality of each situation is normative.  Judeo-Christian morality, that has finally evolved into what Judeo-Christian morality was supposed to be before nasty little men spent thousands of years distorting it beyond recognition, has little difficulty identifying the rights and wrongs of war and conflict.

But when Journalism of Attachment reached the battlefield of taxation  last week,  moral compasses went spinning out of control.

For many of you, this will be the first sighting of the Belgian ruler

The French left-leaning newspaper Liberation ran a story about Bernard Arnault, the founder of LVMH the luxury goods group who happens to be France’s richest dude. It transpired that he had applied for Belgian nationality  to add to the French one that came free of charge with his birth certificate. Apart from the affront to Liberation’s French sensibilities that one of France’s favourite sons wants to be associated with a country that many French view as nothing more than a playground for European wars incapable even of sporting its own King (Whateverhisname  is King of the Belgians – not Belgium), they smelt a tax exile in the making.

Reading the headline, I dusted off my 40 year old French textbooks to try and work out the meaning, but to no avail. The reason for this became clearer when the Economist informed its readers (I am one of them) that, allowing for poetic  licence, it meant “Sod off, you rich bastard”. Mr Arnault is using some of what defines him as France’s wealthiest individual to sue Liberation out of existence.

Now there is nothing strange in a newspaper having a clear political philosophy and taking a stand against anyone whose actions diverge from that philosophy. Newspapers have, after all, been recognized since as far back as the 18th century as the “Fourth Estate”  in  parliamentary (or, more generally, democratic) systems.

What is worrying in the case of Liberation is that the self-righteous outburst is not just the statement of an opinion, it is a critical (and probably the only) component in ensuring the success of the Government’s policy. Liberation has become a combatant in Francois Hollande’s ill-advised war on the rich.

The French budget, unveiled last Friday, included, as expected. a provision taxing earners of over €1 million at the incredibly punitive rate of 75% – put another way, it is telling top executives to work for the Treasury who will , in turn, give them pocket money. This was a significant Hollande campaign pledge along with other  Disneylike  fantasies . The concept is completely unworkable because France is unable to impose a meaningful exit tax on individuals escaping to other EU countries and some of those, especially Britain, have remarkably cosy tax regimes for tax residents who are not domiciled there. The only way to stop a brain-drain is to use moral pressure. Since modern governments are not good at the morality thing  (politicians are not high on the international ethics league table) and France’s dominant Catholic Church is having a bit of a moral crisis of its own, it falls on left-obsessed journals like Liberation to do the Government’s bidding. The big problem is that the moral issue here is anything but normative – there are widely differing views under the circumstances as to whether there is anything wrong with Mr Arnault leaving. Indeed,  Freedom of Movement is one of the EU’s central freedoms.

Hollande has been at pains to paint himself as Mr Normal after 5 years of Sarkozy who, it is implied, was abnormal. What the president does not seem to comprendez-vous is that, while France may be pleased to have a leader who LOOKS like a bank clerk , they do not want a leader who THINKS like a bank clerk. They like their presidents to be intelligent. Even a bit foxy.

The French President reading his watch strap

Mr Hollande seems to have had sufficient intelligence to restrict the tax hike to 2 years, but that could still be a critical 24 months when France is trying to get back on its feet. Top executives will delay coming to France (if they come at all) and some of those already there will do their utmost to leave – even if only for a few years. One weapon the French do have in their armory is their language. While monolingual Americans can strut the planet asking for a Big Mac and Fries everywhere they go, French who want to venture beyond Belgium, Luxembourg, Monaco and select bits of Switzerland without resorting to their phrase books will need to head for such desirable locations as Democratic Republic of Congo and Burkina-Faso.

Hitler

Perhaps the biggest irony in this story is that Bernard Arnault, as founder of LVMH, makes some of the best luggage in the world. Just as nations  rarely amass weapons for peaceful purposes, would  it be so strange if Mr Arnault were to consider using some of his suitcases for his personal use? In the meantime he is reported to have categorically denied that he is considering a change of fiscal residence.

French toast

Indignant Frenchman

The French are the masters of indignation. Staring at an offender from the top of his Gallic aquiline nose,  a Frenchman can turn any opponent to blancmange faster than a speeding escargot. You don’t cross the French.

Marking Bastille Day last weekend with a cafe-au-lait and croissant in the comfort of my salon,  my mind wandered back to Mrs Thatcher’s run-in with the last socialist president and his entourage at the bicentennial celebrations in Paris in 1989.

World leaders getting focused for photo shoot at 2010 G20 summit. Mrs Thatcher should be grateful Mitterand put her in the back row

Determined to be cast in the role of the wicked fairy at the feast, even before celebrations started she had told French journalists that the ideas  fought for in the Revolution were filched from the ancient Greeks and less ancient British. In gratitude for her kind words she was stuck in the back row of world leaders for a photo shoot and her car was only allowed to leave the Opera after that of the President of Zaire. It would not have been lost on Mrs Thatcher that, being France – the flag bearer of  “Liberté egalité fraternité” –  President Mobutu of Zaire was only allowed to leave after everybody else, although – to be fair – that may have been because he wasn’t even invited and chose to crash the party.

1812 is ancient history. Russian with French luggage

After five years of Sarkozic bling-bling, the French are back in their sanctimonious “We may not rule the world any more, but we will show you the moral high ground by finding someone to be indignant about” mood. Since the revolution it has gone: Louis XVI, the British, the Russians, the Germans,  Dreyfus, the Germans, the Germans, the British, the Algerians, the Rosbifs (British), the British. Having booted Sarkozy out of the Elysé Palace, over the last couple of months when he wasn’t being indignant at his serial concubines and children for tweeting each others eyes out, Francois Hollande has been frantically consolidating power in the National Assembly while downsizing his own and ministers’ cars and salaries.  Two weeks ago he was finally ready to resume the national sport with  the announcement of the new government’s budget which passed the Lower House last Friday. Bored with the British and with a morganatic marriage to the Germans , the new president went gung-ho for the hammering of the filthy rich.

This man has blurred vision

Hollande having been elected on the back of a promise of a 75% individual tax rate on people earning more than € 1 million, renewed that pledge immediately after the election. The Budget contains proposals for an  increased wealth tax, tightening of inheritance tax provisions and an additional 3% on most dividends. Taken together with the additional 5% surcharge on major corporate profits (a Sarkozian legacy) which makes France among the highest taxing jurisdictions on the planet, it is no wonder that there has been an exodus of French men, women and the undecided to that cultural backwater, London. Then there is the levy on oil inventory and the souped up Banking Levy (can’t you just see the executioner holding up the banker’s corpseless head as the guillotine’s blade is raised ready for the next happy financier?). Companies employing more than 20 people used to be entitled to give a tax exemption for overtime. Not anymore – why would a socialist president want to encourage the exploitation of the proletariat by the owners of capital, even if it was the proletariat that benefited?  One thing that did come out looking better  was CFC legislation – which is probably because Hollande doesn’t have a clue what it is. Meanwhile, transfer of tax losses between group companies will be subject to various restrictions. The general expectation is that rich-bashing  has only just started while various instruments of torture have been retrieved from museums and are being oiled for use.  An employers’ union leader, reacting to the Budget, suggested a state of “systematic strangling” which is more reminiscent of Spanish garrotting than the preferred method of disposal in France.

Despite the suicidal tendencies of several of the new edicts there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Indignation is not Fury. An indignant person still acts rationally and will calm down. Within five years the French Revolution had imploded. Within five weeks of election, Francois Hollande had received the report of the State Controller (a socialist) telling him what everyone else already knew – that to meet this year’s 4.5% and next year’s 3% deficit reduction targets as well as reducing the mammoth public debt standing at 90% of GDP,  tax has to go up or spending has to go down. And the Controller sided with the reduction of spending.

Pointless to try and come up with a caption for this

The Budget Minister said recently that the problem with public spending is that it is like “slowing down a supertanker – it takes time”. As a Frenchman he might have bettered the metaphor by saying it is “like starting up a Renault – it takes time” ,which is part of  France’s real problem. However, he also stated last week that the proposed 75% top tax rate might only be temporary until the deficit is brought under control. That is more like it mon cher. You are starting to talk like a pragmatist. Keep on like this and within a few years you will be able to go back to being indignant about the British. It is much more fun and gives British newspapers so much to talk about.

The Euro – a mental exercise

Polish ex-president demonstrates best tool for unblocking an S bend

Zbig does not understand what the fuss over austerity in Europe is all about. He fails to comprehend the fall of the Dutch government, the elevation of a socialist to the presidency of France, the  inconclusive election in Greece, bailouts and quantitative easing.  All he can say, with his utterly limited command of at least 10 European languages, is that the European Union is “good”.

Whenever he finds himself a bit short of  work Zbig chucks his monkey wrench into his volumnous bag of tricks and heads for the next member state and fortune.  An optimistic chap, his education evidently did not include Steinbeck’s masterpiece “Grapes of Wrath” about the hardships of American migration during the Great Depression or, for that matter,  AA Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner”. Noticing that children’s classic in the bathroom of one of his clients, he casually asked the lady of the house if it was the only book they had on plumbing.

“Next stop, Berlin!”

The media is currently obsessed with the woes of the Euro.  Faced with the inability of some countries to service sovereign debt 25 of the 27 members of the EU entered into a pact, under the extremely persuasive eye of Angela Merkel of Germany, to slash  deficits. Meanwhile rescue packages were put together where required and the European Central Bank eased credit.  The  austerity resulting from the contractionary fiscal policy has been roundly condemned by much of  the economics profession and is being clearly rejected by the electorates of countries with the chance to choose.

With only an undergraduate degree in monetary economics, when the Euro was first mooted my inital reaction  to the plan was “This is mental but I am sure that better men than I know what they are doing”. IT WAS MENTAL.

Don’t tell me what to do!

Now our economic gurus are telling anyone willing to listen (which is  just about everyone except Angela Merkel who is the only person who needs to listen) that prudent northern Europe needs to expand demand and encourage inflation to compensate for the inability of countries like Greece to devalue their Euro against everybody else’s Euro. A few days ago the Germans gave the first indication that they might be prepared to budge on this.

At the same time they place faith in the ability of workers to migrate freely between states thus solving the chronic unemployment problem in distressed countries. While Zbig, working with his hands in a pretty homogenous Europe-wide market for pipes and washers,  can get by with a few necessary words in whatever language he happens to be being paid in – for most people migration is hardly an option. Language barriers, recognition of qualifications, home ownership and pension rights are just some of the factors that put paid to serious mobility.

As it appears to be silly season for macroeconomics, I thought I might throw in an idea of my own. I am aware that it is full of holes – indeed, when I briefly spoke to the editor of  a respected financial newspaper last summer, he gently advised me that, although I was clearly a young man,  economics had moved on a bit since my student days.

If they want to save the Euro, it is time to employ some highly unorthodox tax policies “for a limited period only”  that go against everything the EU and OECD believe in (which is probably as  good  a reason as any to employ them). The following idea might provide a short-term solution to the mobility problem.

Greek workers demonstrating their flexibility

Countries with official unemployment above a certain level should be allowed to ring fence job-enhancing investment from low unemployment EU countries from taxation.  Thus, for example, a German company could invest in a factory in Greece starting  2012 or 2013 employing 800 workers and would get a tax holiday in Greece for, say, 10 years. At the same time, to ensure that the tax is not simply shifted, Germany would apply tax sparing (a credit for notional tax paid in Greece). Investing companies would have to prove that their existing employment numbers in other EU countries did not drop as a result of the new investment. What the Germans should like is that it does not involve them directly dipping their hands in their pockets and, as long as the OECD can imagine the EU as one country – there is no issue of unfair tax competition.

As a result of investment and increased employment in distressed countries demand should be enhanced, leading to optimism and recovery. In the meantime economists can keep pushing for the European Central Bank to continue printing Euros (quantitative easing) and German expansion  while citizens sporadically revolt against draconian deficit reductions.

With the spread of English as the international language across the globe (even the French, Russians, Japanese and Chinese have learnt to play the game) when all is said and done mobility may one day work in the EU. But there is one country that still seems to insist it hasn’t lost the language war – and that country is quite important.

In those days there was always someone who spoke English

A few weeks ago I had to join a conference call with a foreign colleague and his client in Germany. When I called the conference number the taped instructions were entirely in German which, I confess, I did not understand. Mildly frustrated by the experience of getting nowhere and surrounded by my bemused team I started jokingly shouting at the phone. Exasperated and beyond hope, I eventually hit the hash button and, to my utter surprise, was connected to the call.  At that point, the prerecorded call identifications started – first my German colleague, then his client and then……..a bellowing “Speak English!”  I don’t think they understood.

Vive L’ Hollande

The quiet ones are the worst

The swashbuckling  Alexandre Dumas  coined the phrase “cherchez la femme” (literally: look for the woman) that has haunted French culture ever since. In the run up to the French Presidential election it is generally agreed that, had Dominique Strauss-Kahn not fumbled in the wrong pocket of his bathrobe  for the gratuity for the chamber maid of his New York hotel room, he would now be  a shoo-in to the Elysee Palace and the rest of Europe would be nodding approval at the  election of a former head of the IMF. Instead, Europe is aghast at the prospect of an old-style left-wing candidate (more of that nonsense below) who is about as exciting as a stale baguette and, whilst by all accounts of high intellectual ability, brings  recollections of Lyndon Johnson’s comment about that other President-by-mistake,  Gerald R Ford – “He cannot fart and chew gum at the same time”.

HE left HER!

But, however daft and outdated many of Francois Hollande’s policies are, and however unlike Maurice Chevalier and Alain Delon this slightly owlish chap is – judging by the two women in his life, there has to be some magnetism somewhere. Although he seems to have never got round to paying for a wedding licence, the mother of his four children is none other than the delectable Segolene Royale who is best remembered for losing the presidency the last time to little Sarkozy. Not satisfied with his lot, he started up with a drop-dead-gorgeous Paris Match journalist two years before he finally split up from Royale and it is Valerie Trierweiler  who is expected to become First Lady (or First Mistress, or whatever they call girlfriends in the Elysee Palace).

And SHE took HIM!

Among Hollande’s policies are: the renegotiation of the latest Eurozone treaty which is what has led European leaders from Merkel to Cameron to refuse photo-ops with him; the batty idea to return the retirement age to 60 from 62; and, battiest yet, a proposal to tax people making over € 1 million at a new 75% rate earning him the nickname “Monsieur 75%”.

The background to the 75% top rate is not economics. In 2012 everybody knows that punitive rates (and that does not even take into account wealth tax and social taxes that get dumped on top) do not bring in significant revenue. No. Mr Hollande is out to take revenge on the rich, especially the demonic financial sector- as he speaks you can hear the cart rattling into the Place de la Concorde, the hapless aristocratic occupant being pelted by the rabble as he approaches his doom at the hands of Madame La Guillotine.

Apart from the effect on the incentive to work, mad tax rates on the highly paid simply cannot work in the European Union. Shortly after making his madcap announcement Hollande traveled to London to canvass the 300,000 plus French living there ( London is the 6th largest French city). The French no longer buy left wing panic mongering about life beyond France’s borders, normally accompanied by Gitanes smoke and the fruity aroma of  un bon vin rouge; instead they master English and go abroad.

The one policy that might have prevented a wholesale decamping from Gaul is the imposition of an Exit Tax – the crystallization of  a capital gains tax liability on assets on the day of departure irrespective of  if, and when, the asset is disposed of and the capital gain realized. The European Union has been playing with this concept for years – most recently in the November 2011 European Court of Justice decision in the National Grid Indus case. The problem with exit taxes is that they tamper with a basic freedom of the EU – The Freedom of Establishment . On the other hand, the EU is concerned not to deny members the right to a balanced allocation of taxing rights (territoriality). As such, the Court considered the imposition of an immediate Exit Tax as not “proportionate” – instructing that, if an exit tax is to be imposed, the assessee should have the option to pay the tax at a later date when the asset is realized.

The French government, in fact, prophesied this situation when advancing new exit tax legislation in 2011. The legislation applies to shareholdings in companies, does not require immediate payment if breaking residence for another EU country and – in the event that the asset is not sold within 8 years – eliminates the liability. As one commentator noted, the new exit tax does not appear to have had any effect on slowing emigration.

Thank heaven for little girls

Of course, the peculiarities of the French election system could see Mr Hollande crowned but unable to enact his manifesto. If the elections to the National Assembly, a month after the second round of the presidential election, return a right wing majority (the current composition is heavily tilted to the right) , the Fifth Republic will enter into its fourth period of Cohabitation – a President and Prime Minister from opposing parties sharing government.  Mr Hollande has already proven himself a master of Cohabitation – cohabiting successfully with Ms Royale and Ms Trierweiler – so he is well placed to make a go of things at the national level.

Post Navigation