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Archive for the tag “Germany”

Bad Cumpany

scaramander

‘Come, come Mr Bond’

If, like me, you have been wondering for decades what the European Parliament is there for, wonder no more. Following a recent vote, the august institution is considering  setting up an investigations unit to tackle two humongous European fraud schemes  named improbably  ‘cum-cum’ and ‘cum-ex’. The first warning that something was afoot came in 1992, and the fan turned brown in 2017, but the wheels of power turn slowly in Strasbourg. (Or was it Brussels? Or Luxembourg?)

For those without a Latin education, the schemes translate as ‘with-with’ and ‘with-without’. It would be nice to leave it at that, but I had better explain.

Both schemes revolve around dividends on stocks. A stock is cum-dividend when a securities buyer is destined to receive a dividend that a company has declared but not paid. That is the status quo (more Latin) until the date at which the stock trades ex-dividend – when the dividend will go to the seller. Thanks to lacunae (Latin noun – first declension nominative plural, like mensa/mensae) especially in German law, but evidently in about ten other European jurisdictions, bankers and the other usual suspects were (possibly still are) able to bleed national treasuries of scarcely imaginable sums.

The cum-cum smacks more of an old-style tax avoidance scheme than hardcore evasion. Stocks of German companies held by foreigners who were not eligible to  dividend witholding tax exemption were ‘lent’ (effectively sold with an agreement to repurchase , – but it isn’t written that way) to bona fide German banks shortly before a payment date. The stock went back at a lower price without the dividend. Naughty, but with loud protests that it only made hay while the legislators slept. There was one exemption, and the bank had a technical right to it.

Godfather

He knew how to make sure a secret was kept

Cum-ex was a far dodgier form of exploitation, which did not rely on foreigners. It did, however, require collusion and, on the grounds that ‘two people can keep a secret as long as one of them is dead’, it was bound to be found out eventually (having said which, the German and other authorities seem to have made gargantuan efforts to miss what was going on beneath their noses). Basically, a bank would ‘borrow’ stocks cum-dividend within two days of the dividend payment date and would sell them (short) to a third party. Delivery was required in two days, by which time the stock had gone ex-dividend. The procedure in force until 2011 in Germany (and heaven knows what is still happening elsewhere) was that the bank had to make a compensatory transfer between the seller and the buyer for the net after-tax amount of the dividend, and then issue a certificate of withholding to the buyer even though he did not actually receive the dividend. The theory went that the seller would no longer be entitled to that withholding as he had transferred the dividend amount to the buyer, and therefore would not receive a withholding certificate. Aye, and there’s the rub. The short seller of the stock was not the ultimate owner and had not suffered the withholding tax. The ultimate owner also received a witholding tax certificate (if handled correctly, the number of withholding tax certificates could be multiplied) enabling two or more ‘owners’ to cash in on the same tax benefit. This is not clever tax avoidance. It is clearly tax evasion. And it has cost European state coffers an estimated €60 billion.

mob

The words ‘company’ and ‘companion’ derived from the Latin ‘cum panis’ – with bread

But, at least we know we can now sleep safe at night in the knowledge that the European Parliament is on to it. It has only taken them 26 years. Rumour has it that MEPs are soon to issue a communique announcing the end of the Second World War. The suspense is killing.

 

It’s peace and democracy, stupid

Bayern Munich 3 Chelsea 4

We accountants do not care much for the front section of the newspaper. If  a story cannot be reduced to prime numbers, it is not for  us. After a cursory glance at the headlines we skip to Section B to be hypnotized by the latest business and finance news followed by yesterday’s football, baseball and cricket results. Reaching the back page we take a quick look at the paper’s weather forecast and then commit its earthly remains to the nearest bin.

I am grateful, therefore,  to Nobel Laureate (Economics) Paul Krugman who shone a different – albeit obvious – light on the Euro Crisis in a recent New York Times article:

 “Failure of the euro would amount to a huge defeat for the broader European project, the attempt to bring peace, prosperity and democracy to a continent with a terrible history”.

I wonder how long they had to queue?

I am British, which explains why I have been in denial on this issue for so long. When Britain negotiated belated entry to the EEC  (the forerunner of the EU) in 1973 and promptly held a referendum two years later to decide whether to have the marriage annulled, the British Government talked lots about the importance of a Common Market. What they always avoided was the unhidden agenda of the six founding fathers – West Germany, France, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – of achieving political union: a United States of Europe. The Six had one thing in common – they had all, in recent memory, been overrun by  foreign troops. Britain, too, had been overrun  by foreign troops – Americans  – who were overpaid, oversexed and over here but, while this was hardly less traumatic (especially for the husbands dying for King and Country overseas), it did not compromise Britons’ fierce commitment to independence that has remained uninterrupted for a thousand years.

The  twenty other countries that have joined since 1973 generally fit the “We had better share some independence rather than risk our heads being kicked-in every 50 years” philosophy shared by the Six.

As has been clear from Day 1 (or, to be more precise, D Day) Britain has no place in the EU. It is a  bridge between the Old World and the New and should have  economic status not dissimilar to Switzerland – access to the Single Market is all that it ever really wanted.

With Britain out, political union could proceed and the Euro could thrive (I joke not).

Of course there will still be a few minor roadblocks along the way like: cultural diversity; getting over a history of regularly pulverizing each other; and Greece (World War 1940-45, Civil War 1946-49). But it was pleasing to recently see troubled Spain (Civil War 1936-39) taking  a leaf out of Germany’s fiscal notebook  (World War 1939-45, World Cup 1966).  The slow march towards the Common Consolidated Tax Base – a precursor to fiscal union, itself a precursor to political union – advanced another step.

It will be recalled that Spain is having a little trouble meeting its Teutonically imposed budget targets this year. It needs to raise more taxes.

So, following Germany’s lead a few years ago, the Spanish legislature invited the Interest Expense to step up to the executioner’s block  for a haircut.

While international tax advisers will be aware that Spain has been quite a paradise for the tax planning of interest expenses (double dips et al), it does look like it is time to put the castanets  back in their box and get down to serious business.

The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain

To replace the old Thin Cap (3:1) rules which apply to shareholder finance, the Spanish have introduced a general net interest deduction limitation  of 30% of , basically, EBIDTA (a la Germany). To the uninitiated, who may find this as understandable as the programming language of their computer – I will explain it in English like wot it is spoken. Ladies and Gentlemen, hold on to your hats.

You start with the financial statements of the Spanish company (or consolidated tax group)  and open them at the Profit and Loss Statement. Using your eyes and a calculator you work out operating profit – earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization  (EBIDTA)  plus a few secret ingredients. If interest expense minus interest income arrives at more than 30% of the operating profit you start to sweat and move on to Stage 2.  In Stage 2, if it is a single company (as opposed to a consolidated group) the rules will only apply if financing expenses are derived from certain related party transactions. In addition, up to one million euro of net interest expense is always deductible. If you are wondering why Stage 2 is not performed before Stage 1, you are right – the accountant will now have to decide whether he can charge his client for the wasted hours on the EBITDA calculations. Accountants  sometimes do that sort of thing. Amounts not deductible will be carried forward for up to 18 years to be included in the same 30% limitation each year while, if the net finance expenses are less than 30% in a given year, they can be carried forward for up to 5 years.

What, sadly, the Spanish have omitted is a (brilliant) German  exception to the rule. For Germany, where an entity is in a consolidated group  even if  the 30% rule is breached, as long as the equity ratio (equity to debt) of the company is not less than 99% of the equity ratio of the consolidated group the rule will not apply. What is clever here is that they are effectively saying that if the German situation reflects a more conservative position than the international group as a whole – then it is fair to assume that the interest charge is not designed specifically to hurt Germany and should be allowed.

While, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong this may be “One small step for Spain, one smaller step for Europe” it is still a step in the right direction of unified policies.

It couldn’t happen to a nicer airline

Some years ago I flew Iberian to Spain and vowed never again (Iberian, not  Spain). Among the numerous insults I suffered on the flight (and I was flying Business – Heaven knows what happens in Coach), was when the young female flight attendant came round offering immigration cards and, smiling politely, I refused as “I am a British citizen”. “You still need an immigration card. Britain is not part of the EU” she growled. I smiled benignly and informed her that Britain had been part of Europe when her country was still a fascist dictatorship. They didn’t allow me on the Business Bus when the plane landed. I suppose old fascist dictatorships die hard.

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.

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