Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the tag “humor”

When tax legislation bombs

Why did the RAF bother?

In his bestelling book, ‘Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’, Giles Milton tells the story of the destruction of Peugeot’s factory in Occupied France. The facility had been commandeered for German military production. One night, Bomber Command ordered the dropping of a massive amount of ordnance on the plant, only to discover the following day that they had missed their target completely and, instead, razed a number of French villages with several hundred innocent civilians providing a tragic statistic of ‘collateral damage’. The next attempt, which was as successful as the bombing raid had been a disaster, involved a handful of saboteurs placing plastic explosive at key points in the building.

Israel’s trust tax provisions, that largely took effect in 2006, could have been orchestrated by Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris himself. They are so far from perfect that they look like   the Knesset Finance Committee opened its bomb hatches and peppered them over the taxpaying public. It is well known that the authorities were so concerned about the capacity to use trusts to evade taxes, that they legislated to nab the heinous few, while causing collateral damage across the local and international economy.

Sifting through the debris, an example of legislation that appears to have been totally lacking in precision is the instruction that ‘the provisions of the third chapter of Section III’ will not apply to trusts. References like that are what Churchill might have called, ‘ A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ – obscure enough to be missed by anyone but the most obsessive tax wallah. Well, lo and behold, the chapter’s sections deal with the very human provisions of deductions and credits, such as those applying to pensions and the personal status of the individual – the stuff that amorphous trusts should be rightly excluded from. Indeed, the tax authority’s explanatory circular gives such items as the examples.

Bah humbug

However, somebody at the drafting stage obviously became bored, and didn’t notice the tax credit for charitable donations tucked away in the chapter. An individual is entitled to a 35% tax credit for donations to Israeli recognized institutions up to the lower of 30% of taxable income and around 9.2 million shekels. That is quite an incentive to donate. The trouble is that, according to the law, a trust (technically, the trustee) – that pays tax in Israel like an individual – cannot avail itself of that credit.

There is collateral damage, and there is collateral damage. Trusts , by character if not by definition, make charitable donations. In countries where tax efficient, those donations might be by way of making the charitable body a beneficiary. But, in Israel there is generally no tax on distributions anyway – the tax is on the annually earned income. So, by denying benefits at the trust’s taxable income level, they are being denied absolutely.

The bottom line is that it is not tax efficient for trusts to make charitable donations. That smacks less of collateral damage, and more of insane carpet bombing. It is almost as crazy as the Germans deciding to make their vehicles in France, and putting a man by the name of Porsche in charge of  the Peugeot factory.

Succinct summary

As WWII proved, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

Hoisted with their own petard

The good old days

In Tudor times it was traditional for condemned gentlemen to pay their own executioner. The equivalent in my world is the statutory requirement to report any of a series of positions taken in a tax return that the tax authorities do not agree with. The tax inspector no longer needs the deductive powers of a gumshoe – he or she can just sit in the comfort of their torture chamber picking their victims off one by one. The good news is that you need to be making quite a packet from your planning to be forced to the block – 5 million shekels in the current year or 10 million shekels over 4 years. The bad news is that there are 57 varieties (or positions) to choose from.

Although the list came out in December last year, the form for reporting – which is just really an index of the December headings, and could have been put together in half one of the many hours saved investigating – finally hit the presses earlier this month, just in time for some to miss the filing date of their  tax returns. What is most interesting is that most of the ‘positions’ could better be described as the ‘law’. The tax authorities seem to have taken a leaf out of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement‘s book: ‘Do you seek to engage in or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide?’ Like someone is going to announce they have been evading tax.

Some parents live in obscure faraway lands

However, one that caught my eye concerned the profit to be reported on the sale of trust assets. The pronouncement by the authorities (already back in 2017) was not controversial – the sale of an asset that had started life outside the Israeli tax net was subject to capital gains tax on the full gain – painful, but common international practice (and the clear law). The explanatory notes, however, included an exception relating to ‘Relatives Trusts’.  When the legislature took its last swing of the axe at trust tax planning in 2013 making everything taxable, there was one small sweetener. While distributions to Israeli beneficiaries would face a tax bill, Ma and Pa who had set up trusts in the obscure faraway lands where they still lived, would – together with their trustees – be largely let off the hook from reporting in years when distributions were not made (unless they chose otherwise). The explanatory notes spread the bonhomie further by making clear that relatives trusts set up before 2003 would get a step-up in value for capital gains tax purposes to January 1 of that year. The explantory notes were cross-referenced to the tax authority’s notes on the trust law. The only problem was, they didn’t fit. Where did 2003 come from? In fact, what the blazes did 2003 have to do with trusts at all – It was the one area actively ignored in the great tax reform of that year. The explanatory notes were silent.

They could always try and take it with them

But, if we are already talking about relatives trusts, there is sadly no happy ending. The authorities were nice to Ma and Pa. They even decided not to mess things up until not one, but both, of them were safely tucked up in their faraway graves. Then the fun would start. A relatives trust would become an Israeli resident trust – facing full taxation even of the bits heading to foreign siblings. While there were regulations offering solutions (potentially painful) for trusts to carve out foreign beneficiaries’ income from the Israeli tax system, the wording didn’t comfortably include relatives trusts which started life as something statutorily amorphous.

So, as with so much in Israeli tax law, assessees grieving their parents now find themselves at the mercy of the tax authority. In fairness, the authorities do their best to produce a sharp result from blunt legislation. But it can take a lot longer than a Tudor treason trial.

Relatives trusts need tender loving care if their beneficiaries are to avoid the ignominy of the scaffold.

English as a very foreign language

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One word would have been a start.

Several years ago, I returned from a quick trip to Paris on El Al Business Class. As everybody knows, El Al’s security measures are peerless, but just before the gate at Orly airport, the French insisted on putting us all through a second metal detector. I buzzed. Now, I am a big believer that there can’t be too much security, and would normally have been happily compliant as they played hide and seek with my belt and shoe heels (this was before shoe heels were a real security item). But this was France. And this was a security officer pulling on white gloves. And he was French. He barked at me in his Gallic tongue, and – despite five wasted years at school doing my bit for the Entente Cordiale – I just looked at him like a gentleman would look at a barking puppy. He barked again – and that was it; I flipped:

‘Speak to me in English! There is only one international language today, and you will speak to me in it!’

He barked again, this time signaling I should turn around. Not likely with those damned white gloves, Pierre!

I then did something rather disingenuous for the first and only time in my life:

‘I am an Israeli. I speak English. Why don’t you?’

At this point, the El Al security officer who had interviewed me earlier, and had suffered my heavily accented Hebrew, together with her two colleagues who were standing nearby, actually burst out laughing.  Suffice to say, not wishing to spend the weekend in the Bastille, I did ultimately comply. I have no idea why he wore the white gloves – he went nowhere near my Maginot Line.

What made me raise this now in a tax blog? A few weeks ago, the OECD uploaded the latest version of Israel’s Transfer Pricing Country Profile. The document involves, in the main, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers with a space for the reference in statute law. So far, so good. But, here and there, a few short sentences are necessary. Aye, and there’s the rub.

lets_eat_grandmaHardly any of it was in grammatical English. I had difficulty even understanding some of the sentences.

This is a disgrace, and I don’t think it is restricted to Israel.

One of the principal reasons the OECD has been able to advance its BEPS international tax agenda so efficiently is that the world has learnt to communicate in a common language. This is not about triumph or ego. It is about efficiency.

And, of course, the advantages go far, far beyond tax. There really is no reason today why the sine qua non for any function in the international sphere should not be relative fluency in English. The only exception would be a prime minister or president who is elected by the people (mind you, the current president of France seems to have a better command of English than the current president of the United States.)

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My fecund imagination is starting to run away with itself

And, as for the written word, if I were the OECD, I would put red ink all over the Israeli (and any other unacceptable) entry and send it back marked; ‘Not good enough. Try again’. That is how we learnt English in school.  The stick also helped – but I wouldn’t put that in the hands of any organization based in Paris.

The long and winding road

They even had a fab song called ‘Taxman’.

Given the plot of the recently released movie ‘Yesterday’, it is ironic that I can’t get the Beatles out of my mind. A ruling published by the Israeli tax authority around the time the latest blockbuster hit the screens sent me on my own magical mystery tour.

What, I hear you ask, could tax have to do with ‘magic’ or ‘mystery’, or anything anybody ever associates with ‘interesting’? Hold onto your seats.

The ruling was basic to the point of bland – in other words, the sort of thing you knew all along, you wondered why it was published, and you self-flagellated for wasting the time reading it twice to try and find the catch.

An Israeli resident individual set up a foreign company in 2000 which held all of the shares of an Israeli company. He now requested a tax-free transfer of the Israeli company from under the foreign company to a new Israeli company fully owned by him. There is a provision in the law that allows such transfer, subject to a request to the tax commissioner and a myriad conditions to ensure the Israeli tax authority is not deprived of tax. Big deal (Google translate: no big deal).

The dividends boomeranged back to Israel

Then, all of a sudden, it hit me between the ears. The big deal was in what was not written. There was no mention of the tax saving on the ‘circular’ dividend. Until the reorganization, dividends paid by the Israeli company to the foreign company would have been liable to withholding tax.  Leaving aside any foreign tax, when the foreign company distributed dividends to the Israeli resident individual – according to statute law – he would have been liable to tax on receipt of the dividend without credit for the tax previously withheld to the foreign company. The reorganization meant that, going forward, he would receive dividends direct from the new  Israeli company, tax being paid once on the dividend (no tax would apply on the  dividend between the old  Israeli company and the new one according to Israeli law).

The fact that the tax authority did not even mention it as a back-patting gesture signaled that – in keeping with a long tradition, and despite the deficiencies of the law – they appear to take it for granted that a ‘circular’ dividend should not be liable to double tax, giving a credit to the individual receiving a dividend from the foreign company for the tax withheld originally by the Israeli company.

The history of this is quite remarkable.

Since the beginning of time – 1 YTO (Year of our Tax Ordinance), corresponding to 1961 CE – there has been a clause (s163) that solved the problem of double taxation on ‘circular’ dividends in the manner described above. The only problem is that it deals with a tax that, since 32YTO, no longer exists. For reasons possibly best known to somebody, it was never knocked out of the Ordinance. Indeed, at the time of the Great Reforming Flood in 43 YTO (2003 CE), when so much was destroyed and replaced, I discussed the matter with a senior tax official who couldn’t explain its survival.

Arks were a bit passe by the third millennium

Meanwhile, in 42YTO (2002CE), when the rising water of the reform was already at the door and Israelis investing abroad were praying for salvation, the tax authority surprisingly issued a non-legally binding  circular dealing with foreign tax credits under the soon to be drowned system (they even stated clearly that another circular would be issued dealing with the postdiluvian  situation). That circular included a reference to s163 implying, in circular fashion, that credit on a circular dividend could be claimed. There was no reference to the fact that s163 clearly no longer applied. Somebody was sleeping in the biblical Land of Nod. Interestingly, when the new circular was finally issued in 44 YTO, there was no mention of s163. We were back on dry land.

As the years passed, the tax authority was known to give private rulings solving the double dividend tax on the basis that it just wasn’t fair in a two-tier system (corporate tax plus tax on dividend) to hit people with a triple-tax. But, as advisors we were always reticent – one never knew when the spring would go in a tax official’s head.

Then, in 54 YTO (corresponding to 2014 CE) a case concerning a sister provision in s163 came before the courts in the form of an appeal against the tax authority’s decision. The judge threw the appellant out on his ear – and that was what was widely reported at the time. But,  there was incredibly important ‘obiter’ in the case. Part of the appellant’s argument had been that the tax authority should be consistent in allowing a credit according to the  semi-relevant circular mentioned above from before the Flood. His honour made a few things clear. Firstly, despite the language of the law clearly not applying any longer, the intention of the original law was to avoid triple-tax in a two-tier tax system. Hence, interpreting the current law widely in that vein, was appropriate. Furthermore, even if the authorities were working ‘beyond the letter of the law’ in their circular it would only apply where there was triple tax – which was not the case before the court.

Unpredictable

So, where does that leave the matter? The tax authorities appear consistent in their approach, and there is obiter in a District Court case. But, that does not mean that the situation is closed  hermetically. There could always be an official  who wakes up one morning and conveniently forgets ‘Yesterday’. So, it appears that anybody contemplating circular dividends still needs to work it out with a little help from their friend the professional tax advisor. The advisor, hopefully, won’t let them down.

Eurotunnel vision

He was too busy womanizing to care.

After arriving in London en route to America, an acquaintance’s grandfather decided to kill time at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. It was 1906, and he, similar to my own grandparents, had fled a pogrom in Russia. Despite having his heart set on New York, he changed his mind when he heard an itinerant speaker slagging off King Edward VII from his soap box. A country that tolerated open criticism of its monarch was a country in which to seek asylum.

Britain has a long and marvelous self-deprecatory tradition of not taking itself, or anyone else, too seriously. Ideologies were for other mad-cap countries to self-destruct with (even the post-war surge in socialism was quickly diluted to something more essentially British). So, when Charles de Gaulle said ‘Non!’ to Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1967, despite Britain having been instrumental in saving his country from speaking German, he knew what he was doing. De Gaulle and his German allies were flying high, out to create something idyllic, and they didn’t need the English bringing them back to earth.

Britain’s next prime minister not taking himself too seriously

Since finally joining Europe in 1973, the British have periodically forced an emergency landing (or, at least, lowered the altitude of such lunacies as the single-currency Euro project), but now that Brexit is in the air, they have also made the mistake of splitting into two ideological camps. Amidst all their own dogfighting, they are missing a lot of the nonsense of Europe.

A recent example should serve the point.

British tax law has an eminently sensible provision permitting the deferral of capital gains tax on the transfer of assets within a UK group. Nothing left the ‘business’ so why prevent the transfer or penalize it with a tax charge? Only when the asset is actually sold outside the group would the tax crystallize taking into account the amount deferred.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (for, despite General de Gaulle, members of the Union are still responsible for their own fiscal management) held that an asset transfer by a UK company to its Dutch parent company triggered tax, since it was outside a UK group. The assessee said ‘Non!’ and the matter was taken to a First Tier Tribunal (Britain’s lowest tax court). Despite its own evident embarrassment, the court was hit by turbulence, and sided with the assessee.

Why?

One of the fundamentals of the European project is ‘freedom of establishment’. Article 49 of the Consolidated version of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union (yawn!) states:

Freedom of establishment shall include the right to take up and pursue activities as self-employed persons and to set up and manage undertakings, in particular companies or firms within the meaning of the second paragraph of Article 54, under the conditions laid down for its own nationals by the law of the country where such establishment is effected, subject to the provisions of the Chapter relating to capital.

Bottom line – the court felt it had to permit the transfer of the asset to the Dutch parent free of tax, knowing full well that there was no system in place to ensure that, when the Dutch company sold the asset outside the group, Britain would receive its share of the booty. While a form of installment payment was considered appropriate – it didn’t seem to meet European legal requirements,  and was ignored.

Their relationship was never going to work

There is no logic in any of this. With pragmatic Britain’s exit from the EU, de Gaulle’s legacy may finally reach its logical conclusion. Sacre bleu!

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.

Votes for taxpayers!

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Some suffering is not pointless

I was sorry to hear that former US president and Nobel Peace  laureate Jimmy Carterhad  broken his hip last month.  I was not sorry to hear that the incident had ruined his planned turkey hunt in his home state of Georgia. I – like the lion’s share of the western world – have a visceral dislike of the pointless suffering of wildlife.

The Americans continue to do things their way, while the rest of us are becoming more and more constrained by multinational consensus. The latest example came last month when a Swiss referendum ensured the application of a new corporate tax regime, as well as restrictive gun laws. On the face of it, this was an example of absolutely raw democracy in action. In Switzerland, all it takes is 50,000 signatures on a petition to guarantee a national referendum on parliamentary laws. And that was the case here.

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What choice do sovereign states have anymore?

But, beneath the surface, the reality was different. Both proposals had, broadly, been up for national vote previously, and both had failed. This time, the people knew that Switzerland’s much-loved-by-foreigners tax friendly principal companies, finance branches and private tax rulings were dead in the water, thanks to BEPS and related international agreements  pushing for a level playing field for domestic and foreign businesses alike. Meanwhile, persistence with the country’s liberal gun laws would mean exclusion from the EU’s much-prized border control free Schengen Area.

Companies of all stripes will now be subject to the same rate of tax, deductions being given for EU friendly R&Dcosts, patent box and the write-off of hidden reserves. To help cover the expected shortfall in tax revenue, and  pacify the lefter leaning elements of society,  there is to be an increase in social security related taxes. At the same time, residents of Switzerland will have to get used to less freedom to bear arms.

The message to the Swiss from the international community was loud and clear – you can vote any way you like, as long as it’s ‘yes’. Two thirds of voters duly obliged in both referenda; the rest are helping police with their enquiries (that bit isn’t true).

Careful thought about the Swiss situation  raises the long-standing question of the importance of nations and, with it, the importance of citizenship. Before the ascendancy of the nation state, the 17th century poet John Donne meditated that, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the Main’. Napoleon, Bolshevism, two World Wars, Apple and Amazon later, and nations have limited control of their own destinies, while hundreds of millions of their citizens live beyond their borders. Despite the passing centuries, we are evidently not done with Donne. And, despite a declaration of the League of Nations scarcely 90 years ago that: ‘Every person should have a nationality and should have one nationality only’, growing numbers of people collect citizenships like their grandparents once collected cigarette cards. 

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This bloke was a US citizen until recently. What was that quote of Baldwin?

The time has surely come to reassess the State/Individual connection. In  a world where -with a few prominent exceptions – compulsory conscription to defend the nation is no longer necessary, too many people fit Stanley Baldwin’s assessment of: ‘Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’.  An excellent candidate for consideration to, at least partly, replace citizenship in assessing an individual’s rights and responsibilities vis a vis the State, would be long-term tax residency.

Who knows? Monaco might one day be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Tales from the Crypt…

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Cryptowhat?

In a landmark Israeli court case last week, it was decided that Bitcoins are assets, the profit on sale of which attracts capital gains tax. The case revolved largely, but not exclusively, around the question of whether such cryptocurrencies meet the description of – well – currencies, exchange differences arising from which are exempt from tax.

The judge waxed  lyrical on the technical definition of ‘currency’ in Israeli law, bringing back memories of the 1980s when Milton Friedmann’s Monetarists ruled the macro-economic world; if there is no – what you and I call – cash, there is no currency. Given the movement towards a cashless society since Friedmann’s death, some might argue that the  approach was a little primitive (although, in fairness, the judge did recognize the prospect for change). But, let’s face it, why be just primitive when you can be positively Neanderthal?

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We really have come a long way since the Stone Age

We all know that money came about as a way of avoiding the gross inefficiencies of barter. Instead of a hunter having to schlep home the two sheepskin jumpsuits he got for his wild boar and then swap one of them for a wife, some bright spark realized (possibly while taking a break from inventing the spark), that the supply chain could be streamlined. All it needed was something the supply of which couldn’t be tampered with by the caveman next door, that would maintain the relative values of the items being traded.  Somewhere down the line people left the caves, gold came gradually  to the fore, and it wasn’t until 1931 – with one world war behind it, and the human race less than a decade away from indisputedly proving that it hadn’t really got anywhere since the stone age – that the Gold Standard was ditched.

So,  all that was really needed in this case was to establish whether Bitcoins, or cryptocurrencies generally, can be described as replacements for barter. With that in mind, it is time for a fairy story that will prove that every decently educated five-year old could have judged this case, and saved the State a small fortune.

Once upon a time, there was a poor widow whose old cow stopped giving milk. She sent her son to market to sell the beast. On the way, the boy – who was always looking for the chance of a quick buck – met a man in a pinstripe suit who offered him a handful of, what his prospectus claimed were, magic beans. When the boy arrived home, proud of his financial prowess, his sensible mother summarily chucked the beans out of the window. The next morning the boy found a beanstalk where the new Maserati should have been. To cut a long story (and a long beanstalk) short, as every one of you knows, Jack ended up – through a morally questionable transaction – with a pile of gold (gold!), a goose that laid golden (made of gold!) eggs, and an annoying harp that was presumably ditched in the nearest lake.

Jack’s deal for the magic beans was purely speculative. Jack didn’t know what he was getting, and his mother’s reaction was absolutely logical. And, look how the story ended. No beans in sight. To give the tale a happy ending, the storyteller had Jack and his mum back in hard currency (gold) quicker than you could say ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’.

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How I learnt Economics

Bitcoins are magic beans (the analogy can be extended to marijuana shares by substituting magic mushrooms for magic beans). There is no way any self-respecting caveman, five year old, or fairy tale character would accept them in a barter transaction as long as their price continues to move all over the place.

There have been too many unnecessary court cases over the last couple of years in what are, to any self-respecting tax specialist with no patience for worthless sophistry, open and shut matters. (Take for example, Snow White and the 1.83 Meter Actor). On the other hand, there are lots of disputes involving genuinely controversial issues that are settled by compromise with the tax authorities when a judicial clarification would be to the advantage of society.

There must be a better way to ensure that honest taxpayers can live happily ever after.

 

 

 

 

Hand it over and nobody will get hurt

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Automatic exchange of information between governments has been suspected for years

The ink on the page of my last post about the new softer, gentler approach to tax collection was not yet dry when Israel’s main financial daily ran a banner headline concerning the upcoming automatic exchange of information between tax authorities. The wording was a rather unimaginative: ‘ A flood of requests from foreign banks on the way: Demand  reporting of Israeli residency.’ Personally, I would have gone for the more catchy: ‘We will find you, and we will kill you.’ Game on.

The Common Reporting Standard, that – based on domestic legislation –  will require most  of the world’s tax authorities to collect data on foreign resident accounts from financial institutions in their jurisdictions and ship it out to the salivating jaws of the tax authorities of the account holders’ countries of residence, is at the door (see Tax Break January 7, 2019).

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Not a word about tax evasion

What bothered me about the headline, and the accompanying two page article, was not the accuracy – in my younger days, I would periodically pull my hair out at the distorted product of an interview I had given to that particular journal on a hot topic. This piece, however, appeared researched and reasoned. My problem was that any reader of the newspaper, other than someone with a financial death wish, has already done what they had to do (compliance, voluntary disclosure, or expensive – and possibly regrettable – planning). Meanwhile, a colossal number of people who do not read the financial press, and may not be financially savvy, remain – incredibly – blissfully ignorant as their canoe careers inexorably towards the falls.

As the death knell for international tax evasion has grown louder in recent years, the Israeli tax authorities (in line with many of their international counterparts) have shown remarkable restraint in enabling errant residents with unreported income from abroad to come clean with minimum fuss (paying some tax and remaining friends). Voluntary disclosure programs have been renewed, extended (there is currently a program in force until the end of this year – albeit without the previous advantage of anonymity),  and-where relatively small amounts are involved – even made simple.

The trouble is that, in a country like Israel that does not require a tax return from most salaried employees, many people  don’t ‘think’ tax of their own volition. So, when Belgian Aunt Sophie left Yossi  the contents of a bank account in Switzerland which sensible Yossi didn’t touch – treating it as rainy day money – he also didn’t think to report the interest to the Israeli tax authorities. And, unprompted, he still doesn’t. He will presumably start thinking about it when he gets a summons to appear in court in his mail box. The tax authorities will have achieved exactly what they actively set out not to do – waste valuable resources crucifying people they are not interested in. As Jesus  is reputed to have said a mile and a half  from where I am now sitting: ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

The solution is so simple, it hurts.

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I don’t care WHAT you were doing in the bank…

In the absence of a universal tax return, every resident over the age of 18 should be required to complete and submit a simple annual questionnaire (either online or offline) including such questions as: ‘Do you, or any of your children under the age of 18, have any access to the contents of a  foreign bank account?’ The answer ‘Yes’ to such questions should result in a compulsory tax return coming through the door. Failure to complete the form should result in a compulsory tax return coming through the door together with an appropriate fine designed to concentrate the  mind of even the most financially illiterate.

And, if that doesn’t work – the tax authorities need feel no guilt in unleashing the Spanish Inquisition.

 

 

 

‘Your money or your life, please!’

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How some people view the taxman

Stopped in the street by a young person with a clipboard, and asked: ‘What do you think motivates people to pay tax?’, I would have to answer honestly: ‘Five to ten, with time off for good behaviour’. Were my inquisitor brandishing a microphone and staring into a camera, however, the same question might elicit all sorts of ego-enhancing responses such as: ‘A positive view of democracy’, ‘Trust in government’, or, teeth gleaming beneath the arc lights, ‘A belief in the redistribution of income’.

When it comes to tax, who we are, and who we want others to think we are, are entirely unrelated.

Last month, the OECD invited public comment on the update to its 2013 report, ‘What drives tax morale?’ (Google translate: ‘What motivates people to pay tax?’) The original report made some good points: Ghana (which, if one was going to single out one country out of over 190, was evidently as representative as any) sounds like it has residents queuing up to pay tax because of its policy of earmarking revenue for specific purposes (eg VAT for health care). Eminently sensible, if you can do it, although Western treasuries have traditionally had insurmountable difficulties even keeping their hands off earmarked National Insurance/Social Security contributions.

But, what aroused my suspicion about the whole enterprise were the high scoring answers (questions elicit a 5 down to 1, or 10 down to 1 sliding scale response) to some highly moral questions:

  • People in Africa who agree that the tax department always has the right to make people pay taxes – substantially no country scored less than 3.5 out of 5.
  • People in Latin America who think that tax evasion is never justified – only outliers scored less than 7.5 out of 10.
  • People in Asia who would like to see more government spending even if it requires tax increases – 3.5 out of 5.

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Not as holy as he looked

Of course, some of this partially depends on who they were asking. I am sure a lot of people in Asia would like to see increased government spending as long as others (the rich) are paying the increased tax. But the whole thing smells of acute bias, whatever the reason.

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Even kids recognized the brown envelope

My most relevant  takeaway  from the recent update was a behavioural economics ‘experiment’ in  Britain that has already had wide exposure in the press. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs sent letters to taxpayers who had not paid their taxes on time. There was nothing new in that – generations of Britons (me included) remember the brown window envelope that ruined their day even before they had picked it up off the floor behind the front door. The innovation was in the language. Instead of British understatement asking them to ‘please pay their debt promptly’ (or words to that effect), taxpayers were greeted by exhortations such as:

“Nine out of ten people with a debt like yours, in your area, pay their tax on time”, “The great majority of people in your local area pay their tax on time” and “Most people with a debt like yours have paid it by now”.

We are told that the percentage of people paying their bill as a result of these letters went up from 34% to…wait for it…39%! I wonder what the numbers would have been had the letter arrived by registered mail, been printed in red, and promised prosecution two weeks before the letter actually arrived if the amount was not paid IMMEDIATELY.

I rest my case.

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