Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the tag “humour”

The Windsor Saga

Who by car crash? Who by suicide? Who by execution?

One of the perennial challenges of the writers of successful soap operas is finding original ways to write actors, who have had enough, out of the script. They can’t all be sent off to Canada, and the public sometimes doesn’t like what it gets. When, broadcast on Christmas Day 2012,  Downton Abbey’s Matthew Crawley died in a car crash on the way back from visiting his wife and new-born son, the outrage was almost tangible. One nutter even tweeted: ‘Why oh why Lord are you testing me…let alone on the day your son was born?’.

‘It’s the BBC, they want us to do a series.’

The British Royal Family has, of course, been a real-life soap opera at least since the Queen let the cameras into Buckingham Palace a half century ago. Writing people out of the script is a lot more complicated than Downton Abbey. Tragically, they have had the car crash and the sex scandal(s), while one of their number (plus household) is about to head for Canada. Lacking the imagination of Downton creator Julian Fellowes, others just get sidelined or – like old underground trains – are retired from public service.

The latest ‘Rexit’, that of Prince Harry and his family, appears to be attracting attention, less because of the human element, and more because of the budget. That isn’t what writers want to see – it detracts from the fairy tale script, and places the whole event in the grubbiness of the real world.

The British press is full of that bombastic and pompously self-righteous term: ‘The British Taxpayer’. How are they going to live? How much is it going to cost ‘us’? While that last question may be appropriate for Leninists, Trotskyites, and Corbynistas, it is not the ticket for a country whose electorate just returned a Conservative government with an 80 seat majority.

He also surrendered America

The Queen is not a pauper surviving on handouts from the State. Monarchs across the centuries amassed huge fortunes from – inter alia – rape, pillage and murder that gave them direct or indirect control over the means of production and human capital. Nice people all. On assuming the throne in 1760, George III surrendered his income from the ‘Crown Estate’ (basically, his property) in favor of an annual payment from Parliament (the Civil List). The Crown Estate was effectively placed into trust for the State, and the Treasury received the income. That state of affairs lasted for over 250 years until, 7 years ago, the Civil List was replaced by the Sovereign Grant which set the payment to the monarch at 15% of the total net revenues of the Crown Estate (temporarily increased to 25%).  Add to this the Royal Family’s  private wealth from the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, as well as the occasional  flutter on the horses, and the Queen is not short of a pound or two.

Thus, as the right to own private assets is still embodied in British law, and as the Sovereign Grant – as successor to the Civil List – is a contractual agreement to pay royalties at a fixed percentage  in perpetuity for the surrender of all control of the Crown Estate by George III, why is it anybody’s business how the wealthy Queen finances her grandson’s welfare? Were the monarchy to be dissolved today in anything other than a communist-style revolution, the royals would be entitled to the two duchies (as at present) and a financial settlement in respect of their rights to income from the Crown Estate. They wouldn’t be living on a council estate as depicted by Adrian Mole creator Sue Townsend in ‘The Queen and I’.

The British Taxpayer can’t even feel indignant over the income tax and capital gains tax position of the monarch anymore. While a king or queen cannot pay tax (it is, after all, HER MAJESTY’s Revenue and Customs), the Queen and Prince Charles have been paying voluntary amounts since 1993 that are supposedly designed to shadow the position of the rest of us.

There is one gaping exception. One of the subplots in Downton Abbey is the recurring issue of Death Duties, today known as Inheritance Tax. It serves as the reason great family after great family is forced to sell their stately home or significant parts of their estate. Under the Queen’s arrangement with her Revenue and Customs, everything she leaves to her successor is not liable to Inheritance Tax (as well as everything inherited from her mum). While it might be argued that the properties included in the Crown Estate (such as Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle) do not belong to her, Sandringham and Balmoral definitely do (her father even had to buy Balmoral off his abdicating brother), not to mention the assets held by the Duchies.

A parody of a soap opera

So, if the press wants to get on its soap box, lay off the Sussexes – that’s a family affair – and concentrate on the death taxes. Of course, were the position to change tomorrow, Her Majesty could transfer all her assets to Charles immediately, and would only have to live 7 years to avoid Inheritance Tax. At 100, she would be a year younger than her mother when she died. Long live the Queen!

Now is the winter of our discontent

How did they find me?

Years ago, before Millennials stalked the earth, I received a call from the Israeli tax authorities. ‘When is your client going to approach us regarding the capital gains tax on their transaction?’ I was duly impressed by the fact the inspector had read that morning’s paper and put two and two together, and was tempted to reply, ‘When they approach me’, but I opted for the benign, ‘All in good time’.

Once more unto the breach, my friends, once more

The fact was that, in the good old days, when the tax authorities wanted money, they had to get off their bottoms and sniff it out. I believe the thrill was in the chase. Not anymore.

Our friends at the Treasury now bless us with their annual shopping list of ‘Positions Requiring Reporting’. These are common tax planning devices where the taxpayer is told, ‘Do what you want, but you have to tell us about it if you are going to make a packet from it’. If all things go to plan, the sniffer dogs will be round before you can say, ‘Two tickets to South America, please’.

Thou hast slept well. Awake

The tax inspector is not as benign as he looks

The latest list, published last week, leans heavily on those coming out of the 10 year tax exempt hibernation granted to first time residents and veteran returning residents on their foreign income. As that particular jolly only entered the law in 2007, it is not surprising that the boys and girls gathering fuel for the engines of state have only woken up now –a year after the  first beneficiaries of the status  were required to report (the 2017 tax year, reporting in 2018).

What is irksome is that, apart from some of the positions being churlish (the income of CFCs and Foreign Personal Vocation Companies being taxable for the entire year even if the new resident’s 10 year period only expired on December 30th), there is at least one which is downright weird. The best way to understand it is to assume the authors of the list were having such a festive time in December while sitting in the comfort of their offices, pens at the ready, that they let the party get out of hand. I will explain.

Among the new positions, it is clarified that, if a dividend is paid from a foreign company after the end of the 10 year exemption period, but in that same year, despite the fact that the income of the foreign company accrued during the 10 year period, it is taxed normally. Fair dinkum. Dividends are a distinct ‘source of income’ in the tax ordinance, and the dividend appeared after the 10 year period. Although not presented in order, it is likely this led them on to the CFCs and Foreign Personal Vocation Companies where a ‘notional’ dividend is considered received on the last day of the year. Not nice that they didn’t split the year into ‘before’ and ‘after’ – it wouldn’t have hurt if, heaven forbid, they had taken the intention of the legislature into account – but there is little to do but gnash teeth.

Aye, there’s the rub

Then the authorities went a step further. Trusts settled by living parents (and certain others) for their Israeli resident children – known as Relatives Trusts – are, by default, required to pay  tax when a distribution is made. Provision is made in the law, and tax authority circulars, for the capital element to be deducted and losses and foreign tax credits to be taken into account, subject to proof being provided to the assessing officer. This approach is distinct from regular trusts that pay tax on an accumulative annual basis – a status that can also be elected by a relatives trust that chooses not to pursue the distribution route (also obtaining a beneficial tax rate). Beneficiaries in their 10 year exemption period are unequivocably entitled to an exemption from tax. But, what about those on the distribution route who receive distributions of income earned after the exemption period?

Fair is foul, and foul is fair

The authorities got carried away with their logic

Evidently pushing the dividend analogy one stage too far, they came to the conclusion that, as the tax event only occurs on distribution, no exemption will apply if the distribution is made after the 10 years. However, while dividends are a ‘source of income’ liable to be taxed in their own right, a distribution is not . What is more, the wording of the law clearly relates to the income derived or accrued abroad – not a million miles from the wording of the clause dealing with the 10 year exemption. It is hard to understand why the exemption would not apply.

I am not bound to please thee with my answers

The good news is that these positions are not legally binding – although their reporting will invite the prospect of audit.

But, let’s face it – the language of our laws isn’t up to Shakespeare’s standards.

Auld Lang Syne

Some cops will do anything not to be kissed on
New Year’s Eve

On New Year’s Eve, a man’s thoughts turn to the year that has just flown by. On the eve of a new decade, a man’s thoughts turn to the decades of his life that are lost. What has happened  since I sat glued to my grandparents’ gogglebox at five to midnight on Hogmanay in 1969? I wonder if that drunk lying on the roof of my car pretending his arms were a pair of windscreen wipers, as I inched away from Trafalgar Square in the first hours of 1980, is still alive? (Come to think of it, I never looked back to see if he was still alive when he fell off.)

Israel got back to agriculture in the end

Nostalgia was not quite the word that came to mind when I noticed the other day that the Israeli Income Tax Authority had once more extended Annex 1 to Instruction 34/93, while renewing a sweetener as a sop to the modern world.

When, early in my international tax career in this country, 34/93 hit the scene, it was something of an eye-opener. The instruction dealt with the requirements for deducting tax at source on payments abroad and, for the first time, included the country’s banks as gatekeepers. The upshot was that, with some specific exceptions, if you wanted to get money out of the country without resorting to a suitcase, it needed a request to the tax authority and, regularly, a long wait. 1993 was before the dotcoms and real estate tycoons lit up Israel’s economy internationally, so the parochial 34/93 was a bearable nuisance. There were two ‘get out of jail free’ cards – the special company (annex 1) which allowed largish companies to handle their own foreign withholding tax, and Certified Public Accountants, who could authorize many types of payment. The trouble was – and the reason special company status was used sparingly, and any sane Certified Public Accountant said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ – was that the responsibility for getting the withholding tax right rested on the payor – if the foreigner in some greasy foreign land did the unthinkable of lying, the noose was round the Israeli’s neck.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and 34/93 is still there. A small, but convincing, international economic superpower has to grapple with a system devised by those who dodged the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. To add insult to injury, the authorities can’t even hide behind the bureaucratic safe harbor of ‘we are just renewing it’, since this year they reconfirmed an earlier change (I suppose we should be impressed that they managed to find a copy of the original instruction – it isn’t on the tax authority’s website). Whereas payments to a foreign resident for services provided abroad (the absolute ‘what the hell do I have to ask permission for this?’ payment) used to be permitted up to $60,000 without the need for approval, the sum was raised to $250,000 a few years back. ‘Not bad, what is he complaining about?’ I hear you mutter. What many companies and banks miss is that the sum is the total of all payments a specific company can make in the year for services abroad. From personal experience, that is about as daft as the original $60,000.

The sane approach, that many of us have been advocating for years, is for the recipient to be required to fill in a form with their details and their claim for treaty benefits etc. The onus would be on them to tell the truth. In the modern world, if they were found to have made a fraudulent statement, the authorities could claim the additional tax and penalties through future payments, or make contact with the tax authority in the recipient’s country of residence.

Where 34/93 belonged

Of course it is not all bad news in the Start Up Nation. Around two years after the Instruction was issued, I was asked to lecture a group of bank clerks on the rules. Around five minutes into my talk, there were fireworks. ‘If we do that, the customers will just trundle off to the bank down the road.’ End of lecture. I spent the rest of the half hour listening to what they actually did. Fascinating.

Happy New Year (God preserve us).

Miracle in the Holy Land

Choose one

Chanukah and Christmas – which coincide this year – are both, in their distinct ways, about miracles that took place within theoretical walking distance of where I am now sitting. Another miracle that took place last week would have needed the car – the Lod District Court ruled against the Israel Tax Authority (ITA) in, what should become, a landmark case.

That doesn’t happen often. The tax authorities are normally clever enough to strong-arm a compromise on issues where they are not steady on their feet, so that a large proportion of the cases that come to court are no-brainers to the detriment of the little man (who was just wasting his money and everybody’s time).

What was doubly miraculous about this case was that it involved a real multinational group (not like the open and shut case a few years ago involving a holding company in Holland that produced directors’ meetings minutes in Hebrew). From experience, multinationals don’t run to court. A combination of maintaining good relations with the government and its offshoots who provide handsome incentives for investment in Israel, the small amounts of money involved looked at globally, and the geographical complications of pursuing a case from thousands of miles away, encourage the good old compromise – paying to make the ‘problem’ go away.

Not this time. The case involved an international business restructuring ie moving activities around within an international group. The group is involved (successfully) in something incomprehensible (to me) to do with Broadband technology. The previously independent Israeli subsidiary licensed its intellectual property to a foreign group company (not strictly corporate restructuring, but the tax authorities thought it was), signed a cost-plus agreement with another group company for marketing services, and signed another cost-plus agreement with its parent company for R&D services. The business had changed.

These are the rules. Don’t argue.

The tax authorities waded in with their hot-off-the-press professional circular from 2018 on Multinational Enterprise Business Restructuring, the 34 pages of which most of the time boil down to a  simple message: if an Israeli company is part of an MNE (multinational enterprise) which enters into  business restructuring, changing the Israeli company’s business model, expect a capital gains tax bill for transferring part of the business abroad.  The ostensible basis for their position was the OECD’s mammoth ongoing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting project, and specifically its ‘Transfer Pricing Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and Tax Administrations 2017’, together with a recent Israeli court case.

If there is one word that comes to mind in all OECD professional announcements it is ‘nuance’. There is seldom an absolute conclusion that applies in all cases. The ITA appeared to miss that point. Fortunately, the judge seems to have had a better grasp of what the OECD was not saying, as well as an infinitely better grasp of the recent court case the ITA was referring to – after all, he was the judge on that case, too.

The MNE won the case and the ITA was ordered to pay costs.

Although the case has been clearly decided correctly, it is worrying. If it deserved to come to court at all, the arguments should have been different – more ‘nuanced’. Instead, it was left for the judge to give a lesson in OECD guidelines and pure logic, which is not his job.

Did someone say ‘Bar’? ‘Miracle’?

It can only be hoped that this will prove a sobering experience for the professionals at the ITA, which will  serve to raise the bar in transfer pricing disputes going forward.

Miracles do happen (sometimes).

Happy Chanukah and Merry Christmas

Not subject to tax

Corbyn must have been thinking of her

‘It’s on in the morning, usually we have it on some of the time’.

That was the answer, a couple of days ago, to the question: “Do you sit down to watch the queen’s Christmas broadcast, Mr Corbyn?’ For the uninitiated, the Christmas message to the monarch’s subjects has been a cornerstone of British tradition ever since the present queen’s grandfather, George V, delivered the first radio broadcast, written by Rudyard Kipling, in 1932. Mr Corbyn, the man who may be kissing Her Majesty’s hands this Friday morning, might be forgiven for getting the time wrong – after all, the speech hasn’t ALWAYS been broadcast at 3 o’clock in the afternoon; in 1932 it went out at five past three.

In short, Britain’s possible next prime minister doesn’t seem to buy- in too much to the ‘monarch’ and ‘subject’ game.

Perhaps presciently, the recently ratified protocol to the Israel/UK double taxation treaty (see Tax Break January 27, 2019) which will come into force in 2020, dropped the word ‘subject’ in wholesale fashion.  That appears to be a blessing for Brits transferring their tax residence to Israel.

Why?

Aimed at the Labour Party, we hope

The treaty, ratified in 1962 and updated by the previous protocol in 1970, suffered from two nasty blights that together offered a highly effective stranglehold on tax planning. The first was a clause near the beginning that relieved the paying country from offering treaty relief (reduced withholding tax or exemption from tax) to the extent that the income was only taxable in the other country ‘if remitted to, or received in’ that country. This covered quirks in both the UK and Israeli tax systems at the time, the UK charging certain types of resident to tax on a ‘remittance’ basis (still the case – British tradition dies hard), and the Israelis charging passive income to tax on a ‘received’ basis (abolished in 2003). The second was a peppering of the treaty with the term ‘subject to tax’. Dividends, interest, royalties and capital gains were only treaty relieved if they were ‘subject to tax’ in the other country. There was much debate as to what ‘subject to tax’ meant, but whatever it meant, the tax authorities tended to think it meant something else. As a result, when Israel introduced its 10 year exemption period on income from foreign sources for new and veteran returning residents, HMRC gave it a Churchillian salute – the treaty didn’t apply.

Well, in the new protocol, the remitted/received clause disappeared from the beginning of the treaty, only to reappear in substantially identical format at the end. But, like with Mr Corbyn, ‘subject’ appears to have been a dirty word to drafters – those ‘subject to tax’ clauses have been swept away.

Had the British drafters cottoned on that Israel had overhauled its system of taxation in 2003, they might have replaced the word ‘received’ with something more apt to catch the 10 year exemption which does not tax on receipt or remittance– but they didn’t. And there are no ‘subject to tax’ restrictions on passive income. That would seem to imply that new residents should, for example, be eligible for reduced 10% taxation on interest even though they are exempt from tax in Israel, and owners of copyrights or patents could be totally exempt on their royalties, not to mention recipients of pensions.

These are just musings. HMRC could, I daresay, look for loopholes and, in any event, anyone thinking of trying to take advantage of the situation must take advice from a UK tax expert before contemplating diving in.

What right-minded voters wish for Corbyn on Friday morning

As for the British General Election – I hope Mr Corbyn remembers to turn on his TV for the results. They are due in the early morning, rather than the afternoon.

No time to die

In his latest movie, Quentin Tarantino – parodying Hollywood’s parody of itself – has a baddie refusing to die despite multiple wounds to her body. Finally, Leonardo DiCaprio (SPOILER ALERT) incinerates her with a flame thrower he happens to have next to his Beverly Hills swimming pool, and what’s left of her reluctantly succumbs.

Tax advisors also have a habit of never lying down. It is in their DNA to spy out loopholes in tax legislation whatever the good lawmakers throw at them. Indeed, that was never more clear to me than the first time I volunteered (for entirely client-centric reasons) to help the tax authority rewrite a terribly written professional circular. Every altered phrase brought another potential dodge.

After over four years of being knifed and shot at by the 15 Actions of the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project, earlier this month the tax profession was presented with the public consultation document on the Global Anti-Base Erosion Proposal – Pillar Two, conveniently, but outrageously, granted the acronym GloBE. Classified under Action 1 on the digitalization of the economy, it is really designed to catch anything that was missed – the victors bayonetting the wounded.

There are four parts to the proposal. The income inclusion rule means that, if a multinational group shifts income to low tax jurisdictions (or, these days, high-tax jurisdictions with low-tax loss leaders), the parent country will be forced to pick up the discarded tax. The undertaxed payments rule would either not allow a deductible expense or impose withholding tax on payments to scantily taxed related parties. The switch-over rule which, despite its debauched Hollywood-friendly name, would simply allow the ignoring of tax treaties operating the exemption rule on foreign tax (for example, not taxing the profits of a foreign branch) in favor of the credit rule, where the income is taxed and a credit given for foreign tax paid. The subject to tax rule is slated to be instituted as a back-up to thwart the plans of any smart-ass who thought he could get round the undertaxed payments rule through the wonders of a tax treaty.

Down but not out

 The six-million-dollar-fee question is: ‘Are international tax planners about to bite the dust, go west, push up the daisies?’

What do YOU think?

The proposal, which despite my one-paragraph precis runs to 36 pages, gets lost in its own complexities. It has two significant problems: how to define profit; and how to define low-tax. The system has to be simple, so the temptation is to rely on that child of a lesser god – accounting profit. But, what is accounting profit? Those distant cousins – auditors or whatever accounting people call themselves these days – have so far not been able to settle on a single international set of financial accounting standards or generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). So what do you do when, for example, the parent company does not consolidate under its own jurisdiction’s rules and the group is a Wild West of different systems? And what about those, oh so important, permanent and temporary differences to tax accounting that occupy our tax-crazed minds? And, when push comes to shove, what is low-tax? As the OECD and its friend the G20 have chased tax havens into a corner, the world has become more sophisticated than when Ireland drunkenly adopted a – then unheard of – 12.5% tax rate decades ago. It’s not always the statutory tax rate, stupid.

So, along with transfer pricing, it looks like international tax planning will live to fight another day – it is just going to have to reconstitute itself like in some Hollywood B-horror movie…

No laughing matter

Gallows humor

The masters of smalltalk have to be taxi drivers, barbers and publicans (Google translate: barkeepers). I have wondered for decades what humorous stories publican Albert Pierrepoint shared with his appreciative clientele, as they handed over their shillings encouraging him with the words, “And one for yourself”.

For Pierrepoint had an interesting sideline – he was Britain’s public executioner of choice. Some of the most notorious villains of the 20th century passed through his rope until he hung up his boots in 1956. If the stories are to be believed, he never treated that work as a laughing matter, and – indeed – even once had to hang one of his own customers with whom he had regularly sung duets across the bar.

A short, disagreeable piece on the Israel Tax Authority’s website made me think of Pierrepoint the other day. In an attempt at humour, a report of the results of a spot audit at two of Tel Aviv’s open air food markets was laced with quotes from the caught-red-handed miscreants: ‘ I am careful to register sales but I am after an accident and take pills.’ ‘The paper roll on the till ran out and, just as you arrived, I put in a new one.’ ‘My accountant told me I don’t need to register credit card transactions, only cash ones.’

Now, apart from none of these lines being side-splittingly funny (it IS a tax authority website, after all), there is an element of gratuitous cruelty or, at minimum, a lack of sensitivity. This was not an edition of Candid Camera. As American humorist Dave Barry once wrote after being selected for random audit by the IRS: ‘Remember that, even though income taxes can be a “pain in the neck,” the folks at the IRS are regular people just like you, except that they can destroy your life.’ What did the inspectors expect the panicked market stallholders to say?

I cannot help but believe this is all about the modern world’s obsession with self-promotion. Gone are the days when people with naturally anonymous occupations (like tax inspectors and accountants) beavered away anonymously – their reputation earned for their true professionalism rather than their vacuous razzmatazz.

Years ago, I happened to be at one of Tel Aviv’s main tax offices when a middle-aged man – having evidently been told that he was to be hung out to dry due to chronic non-payment of taxes – went crazy. The inspector was about to call security, when the soon-to-retire Chief Collection Officer came out of his private office, put his arm around the individual, said some soothing words and led him into his office where he offered him a coffee. However much the individual was in the wrong, the tax official understood his distress.

The tax authority’s money is hung out to dry

So, if you want to make fun of somebody, how about the Globes newspaper report the other day that the Israeli Tax Authority is unable to collect as much as a billion shekels from foreign assessees because neither the Bank of Israel nor the commercial banks are willing to facilitate payment of, what might be, laundered funds? A case of ‘hoisted with their own petard’? What a joke.

Papering over the cracks

Thou shalt not get caught

It was reported at the weekend that the Panamanian cabinet had approved an amendment supposedly strengthening Law 70 of January 31st 2019 which criminalized tax evasion for the first time.

For those of us who remember the invasion of Panama in 1989, Noriega’s sojourn in US prisons, and – even for those without much of a memory – the Panama Papers scandal, at first flush this appeared heady news indeed.

Not so fast.

With a smoking gun against its head from the main international financial agencies, and after a year of soul-searching (Google translate: searching for a soul), the Panamanian Government (good to know there is one) agreed back in January to outlaw tax evasion for amounts over US$300,000. In a country that the Economic Commission for Latin America reckons cradles upwards of $340 BILLION of evaded tax, that proved enough to buy some complimentary headlines in the international press.

What were the journalists smoking?

Panama operates a territorial tax system for both companies and individuals. That means everyone is only taxed on income sourced in Panama. Respectable tax rates apply, but the country is pockmarked with free zones and special economic areas (the difference between a zone and an area escapes me) where tax basically doesn’t apply. And then there are multinational enterprises which have a similar status despite not belonging to any zone, area or front drive.

Over the years, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge

Law 70, which threatens two to four years in the slammer plus payment of the tax owed, specifically states that the evasion to which it applies is only that against the National Treasury. Given the territorial basis of Panamanian taxation and the myriad exemptions, a tax evader would need to go to great lengths to evade US$300,000. In fact, it would be quite an achievement.  And if he did, he could be expected to be sent home with a rap over the knuckles as long as he paid up the amount owed plus interest and penalties. However, just in case somebody clever managed to go the whole way, the purpose of the amendment reported this weekend was to exclude first time offenders. I think you would find that, statistically, most people caught evading tax big time are first time offenders (or, more precisely, first time getting-caughters). Even Al Capone, who would have hit it off a treat with Manuel Noriega, only got busted and convicted once.

So, what are the $340 billion of evaded taxes? Of course, evaded from everyone else. Law 70 doesn’t give a fig about all that, not to mention international money laundering.

They are full of hot air

Do they really believe they can fool all of the people all of the time? Judging by the press coverage, the answer might be ‘yes’.

The Judgment

Where should I go to work?

To me, Israel’s National Insurance Institute is one of the last bastions of socialism in our essentially free-market economy. Despite legislation by the freely elected Knesset, it has always appeared to operate according to its own rules. Indeed, over an international tax career in this country spanning three decades, I was so confused that, when I would finish dealing  with the tax consequences of anyone going to work abroad  (and in this Start-up Nation, LOTS of Israelis go to work abroad), I would reach a point where I would simply tell them to visit their local NII office, provide a full explanation of their plans, and accept whatever they told them to do. That invariably resulted in a minimum (and I mean, minimum) monthly payment. When I did try to wade in – once sending not one, but two official letters for a ruling to two relevant addresses – I received two diametrically opposed answers.

The saddest thing of all is that the law is perfectly clear on the matter – an Israeli resident working abroad (unless governed by a Totalization – avoidance of double payment – Agreement between the two governments) is liable to full national insurance contributions on his or her income.

For decades the law might have been law, but bureaucracy was bureaucracy, and – as in any good socialist society – bureaucracy trumps law.

An appeal has just been heard to a case that was brought before a regional labor court back in 2017. The result is Kafkaesque. Hold onto your caps, comrades.

‘I am a faceless bureaucrat’

The case involved an individual who had gone to work abroad in 2009 and 2010 for a foreign employer. He did what any good free-marketeer (or even socialist) would have done at the time, and – on his tax advisors’ advice – trundled off to his local branch of the People’s Republic of National Insurance. They told him – as they did to countless others – that he would be required to pay minimum monthly payments during his sojourn abroad.

Four years after his return he received a (metaphorical) knock on the door from the men in raincoats telling him to pay up maximum (not nominal) amounts on the time abroad. The men in raincoats – as opposed to the bureaucrats manning the local offices of their Institute – clearly knew the law. The individual went to court.

In 2017, the labor court found in favor the little man. The judge sympathized with the plaintiff’s argument that, whatever the law, the clear practice of the Institute at the time was to charge the minimum amount. It even turned out that, when the NII dealt with the intrinsic problem in 2014 (a year conveniently sandwiched between the transgression and the claim for back payments) the reason for their cockeyed policy became apparent. There are three classifications for National Insurance – self-employed worker, employed worker, and not employed and not self-employed worker (‘worker’ is in the original, comrade). The first and last are required to pay over their own contributions; the second transfers obligation to pay to the worker’s employer. Foreign employers couldn’t be expected to pay the contributions, so workers in foreign employment were shoe-horned into the third category, which called for minimum payments. The judgement also made a big deal of the amount of time it had taken the NII to get to the individual, given that he had come clean prior to taking up the position.

Well, the appeal at the end of July, which took two long years to be heard, overturned the lower court’s position. The fact that the National Insurance Institute didn’t know its head from its backside was not a reason to relieve the individual of the need to pay – even years after the event. The Kafkaesque bit was that the judge even implied that – knowing the correct law – the individual should have come forward, reported, and paid. (In practice, the income tax authorities share the income tax assessment with the NII, and that is how liability is determined countrywide. Strictly, however, the reporting of that income to the NII is incumbent on the assessee).

Now, I don’t know the last time this judge turned up at a government office and told the bureaucrat behind the desk that – despite a clear monthly liability – they have got it wrong and they demand to pay more. I see the following scenarios:

  • The bureaucrat telling them in no uncertain terms to kindly stop wasting their time while looking around for the hidden Candid Camera.
  • The bureaucrat opening up an investigation into the individual’s affairs to find out how much they REALLY owe.
  • The bureaucrat calling the men in white coats (as opposed to raincoats, this time) to cart the individual off to a place their employer will never find them.

In Yiddish folklore, there is a town full of fools called Chelm.

Brexit Blarney

Why the British really don’t want an Irish border

A few years after the Good Friday Agreement, I found myself driving along the Irish border. Now, as a non-reconstructed Englishman would expect to find in Ireland, the road snaked drunkenly in and out of each of the United Kingdom and Republic of Eire (fortunately no other countries were involved, probably because there was a sea in between), without any respect for the  political map.

I got to thinking about that drive the other day, when I noticed that Israel’s new-improved Free Trade Agreement with Canada came into force on Sunday. The last time I checked, Israel didn’t have a border with Canada, but the United Kingdom – for better or for worse – has a border with the Irish Republic. And I know what it looks like. It doesn’t look like anything. They don’t even have a tourist attraction like Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie to cause an obstruction to passing motorists.

One solution?

The only way goods are going to make it into Israel from Canada is via air, sea or someone else’s border. And the Customs Authority must be licking its rubber stamp, because, far from reducing necessary bureaucracy, free trade agreements – that do away with tariffs (sort of) – create more bureaucracy. Whereas an import from a country governed by WTO rules just needs a quick open of the box to see that what is inside is what they said was inside, under an FTA they have to know what is inside what is inside. ‘Rules of Origin’ stop the good citizens of Bunga-Bunga just changing the packaging and passing their dubious products for Canadian or, even, Canadien.

The British, on the other hand, are currently in a customs union with the Irish, albeit through no fault of their own having been admitted together with them to the EEC in 1973. Customs unions are much more efficient than FTAs because everybody in the union adheres to a common external tariff system – ie all the foreigners (for the purpose of this discussion – and this discussion alone – the French and Germans are not foreigners) get the same treatment. That means that when goods pass between member countries, the local customs authority doesn’t need to see what is inside the box at all. On the other hand, an FTA allows members the flexibility to decide their own external tariff policy. Canada does not need to leave NAFTA (or whatever Trump calls it) just because it has a new FTA with Israel.

Our ex-army Economics master assured us that the word ‘snafu’ stood for ‘self non-adjusting f*** up’. Assuming Britain is not willing to, at least partly, raise anchor on Northern Ireland, the equation is simple:

Independent and seamless UK + Borderless Ireland = Permanent Error.

Who IS going to check on the Irish side?

If Britain leaves the EU Customs Union (which is a fundamental of Brexit because it will enable Britain to throw off the shackles of agreements with non-EU countries that benefit other members of the EU and not Britain), it will presumably sue for an FTA with the EU. But – even if the British decide to turn a blind eye to imports from Ireland –  who is going to check the Rules of Origin on the Irish side on behalf of the entire EU?

Boris Johnson promises technology – a grander version, I suppose, of the automatic supermarket check-out trolley we have been keenly awaiting for years. There is only one problem – what they need is still the stuff of science fiction (probably not forever, but time is not on their side).  

Mr Johnson – there is a less fanciful solution, but only if the British are willing to leave it to the Irish:

 Leprechauns.

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