Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the tag “humour”

Bog standard (almost)

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These days a bloke would do anything for a free ticket to Australia

Charles Dickens’s fecund imagination allowed Pip’s benefactor Magwitch to return to England  from transportation to an Australian penal colony, albeit at risk of judicial execution. By all accounts, thanks to the triple-knot of location, location, location, escape for  real-life transportees wasn’t all that simple. What the desperate convicts of the nineteenth century needed was the solution of the  twentieth – air travel. And, in a twist of fate, the first person to pilot a controlled flight in Australia (back in 1910) was none other than history’s greatest master of escape, Harry Houdini.

Well, by now, the world’s tax advisors are becoming used to the locks, double locks and padlocks being used to prevent international tax planners from thinking out of the box. But, the tax treaty signed (though not yet ratified) last month between Israel and Australia plonked a kangaroo, with a 10 ton weight in its pouch, on the box’s lid.

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Truth be told, the Wright Flyer never did move very much.

The treaty itself is not very exciting. It contains much of the usual – just about comprehensible – gobbledygook, together with a fair share of the totally ludicrous. An  example of the latter: SHIPS AND AIRCRAFT SHALL NOT BE REGARDED AS IMMOVEABLE PROPERTY. Thanks for that.

There is also an unhealthy obsession with the amount of time that needs to elapse before work on a  construction site or installation project by a resident of one country  becomes taxable in the other – too many numbers and too many conditions (and given the nature of trade between the two countries – not too many instances).

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Spreading the love (and hate)

At the end of the day – as with all treaties – it is withholding taxes that are the real bread, butter and Vegemite of the agreement. These fit within the ‘new normal’ of international double taxation treaties: 5% – 15% for dividends, 5% – 10% for interest, and 5% for royalties. It is the Australians who benefit from this much more than the Israelis. While, in the absence of a treaty, dividends from Israel can rack up upwards of 30% tax, as long as Australian corporate income is franked (ie the company paid tax in Australia), there is no Australian withholding tax. Similarly, Australia’s withholding tax on interest is 10% as opposed to Israel’s mainly 25%. Only when it comes to royalties are the tables  turned.

Among the sparse points of genuine interest is the question of whether the exemption on pensions from Australia to Israel applies to immigrants to Israel in their first 10 years of residence.That one will have the experts opining vigorously.

What makes this treaty ‘different’ is the (what I believe to be unique) ‘Article 28, Protocol’. Now, many treaties have protocols which are agreed explanations and adjustments to those carefully negotiated agreements.  The recent protocol (not yet in force) to Israel’s treaty with the UK (Tax Break  27/1/19) is effectively a new treaty. But, to have a section in the treaty that simply refers to an attached protocol as part of the treaty is – at first sight – circular and balmy.

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No!! Not Hybrid Instruments!

However, closer inspection reveals all. Article 28 is to tax advisors what Room 101 was to Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 – the fulfillment of their greatest fear. Among all the normal explanations and clarifications, just in case anyone had any ideas about favourable interpretation of the treaty,  is a section that lists most of the goodies of the BEPS project, stating that nothing in the treaty can stop a country clobbering anybody who tries it on, whatever the wording. Game, set and match.

The Great Houdini’s most famous escape was from a water-filled tank in which he was inserted upside down, heavily manacled. Antipodean tax planners will  soon be standing upside down working out what to do next, together with their right-way-up Israeli counterparts.

Dead Wrong

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April fool!

It’s bad enough that, thanks to the controversy surrounding Brexit, the average Briton no longer lives with peace of mind. From April 1 they will no longer die with peace of mind.

A headline-grabbing exaggeration perhaps, but probate fees for opening a file to deal with a deceased person’s estate are due to jump from £155 to, in some cases, £6000 from next week. While the government insists it is a fee – in order to avoid a legal requirement to include it in the annual Finance Act – the Office for Budget Responsibility announced on March 15 that it would be included, alongside Inheritance Tax, as a tax for statistical purposes.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs  has been administering the controversial – and widely hated – Inheritance Tax since its inception in 1986.

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The Twilight Zone?

As in other countries imposing an Estate Tax or Inheritance Tax (there are many that have either cancelled or never adopted either) UK Inheritance Tax is  controversial for the wrong reasons. It is argued that it represents a double tax on already-taxed income, while at the same time not bringing in much revenue (other than from the good dead people of Guildford, the recently crowned inheritance tax capital of Britain). The first argument cries out for a different spin, and the second (it represents around 1% of tax-take) may anyway cease to be valid in the years ahead.

As taxes go, an Inheritance Tax makes a lot more sense than an Estate Tax.

An Estate Tax imposes tax on the estate of a dead person – beneficiaries receive what is due to them out of the post-tax value of the estate. There is, unquestionably, an element of double tax (although the likes of Thomas Jefferson and liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill gave the finger to that), and the fact that estate tax planning is entirely within the bailiwick of the donor (subsequently the ‘dead person’) such tax can often be minimized.

An Inheritance Tax imposes tax on the beneficiaries. In that case, the double tax argument is weakened – the dead person passes on their estate free of tax (but without a tax deduction for the transfer as they, rather than society, decide who is to receive it) and the beneficiaries – similar to the winner of a lottery – pay taxes on their windfall. As regards the level of collections, imposing tax on the beneficiaries also puts something of a spanner in the works of aggressive tax planning during the donor’s lifetime.

There are two types of inheritance tax  – accessions and inclusion. An accessions tax system provides the beneficiary with their lifetime tax-free inheritance threshold, and hits them with the prescribed rate of inheritance tax on  the balance of what they receive from any number of donors, while an inclusion tax  charges beneficiaries according to their marginal income tax rates  (plus an inheritance surcharge). While inheritance tax is always fairer than estate tax, the inclusion tax system is the fairest of them all – as it clearly works in favour of beneficiaries of smaller amounts and/or lower income.

Furthermore, in all cases (Estate Tax and both types of Inheritance Tax), the increased exchange of information between tax authorities mean it is increasingly difficult to hide assets ‘abroad’ – which should also substantially serve to increase the revenue collection.

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‘More tea, guv?’

Britain claims to have an Inheritance Tax. The problem is that – to all intents and purposes – no, it doesn’t. It has an Estate Tax. The government website (Gov.UK sounds like an initiative of the Kray Twins) talks to the donor. Other than in specific circumstances the tax is claimed from the estate. The tax-free threshold is given to the estate – and even in the case where specific gifts are given outside the will in the 7 years prior to death, they get first benefit of the tax-free amount. And the tax rate is fixed.

So, why is it called an Inheritance Tax?  We shouldn’t complain. At least it is called a ‘tax’ as opposed to the Probate Fee, which is a tax but the government can’t afford to call it that. And what about Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?  Isn’t it a tax authority?

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At least they still call it a ‘tax’ return

Perhaps we shouldn’t ask too many difficult questions of a country with a tax year-end of April 5th.

Telling it like it isn’t

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Very last call …

A rabbi, a priest and the secretary-general of the OECD walk into a bar… Not heard that one before? Read on.

Last Wednesday, January 2nd, as the 20th Knesset breathed its last before flatlining in the run-up to a General Election, the Finance Committee approved regulations paving the way for the introduction of the international ‘Standard for Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information in Tax Matters’.

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Game over

The New World Order, where there is nowhere for the less-than-honest to hide their ill-gotten gains, has been heading this way to much fanfare for some time. Too long, in fact. Israel signed on to the G20/OECD 2014 initiative early on, and was committed to having the necessary legislation in place by January 1st 2017. This was to be followed by necessary bi- or multilateral agreements (it committed to two multilateral ones), necessary bilateral commitments to ensure  the other side would respect confidentiality – as well as being both legislatively and operationally sound – and technical guidance to Israel’s banks on how to provide data on accounts of foreign resident in standard international format (so they could be easily deciphered at the other end). Information exchange was to start in September 2018. In fairness, Israel didn’t score too badly other than on one rather critical point – although legislation was in place in mid-2016, well in time for the 2017 deadline, it could not come into force until accompanying regulations took effect.

Well, as the naysayers would have it, a miss is as good as a mile and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. By December 2018, there were only seven countries that were non-compliant: Antigua & Barbados, Brunei Darusallam, Dominica, Niue (is that a country or a spelling mistake?), Qatar, Sint Maarten and … Israel. This prompted a desperate letter from the secretary-general of the OECD to Israel’s prime minister, and the eleventh hour passing of the regulations last week, exactly two years and one day late. If you are going to be late, you might as well do it in style.

What went wrong?

The required regulations, as the American FATCA information exchange regulations before them, hacked at one of the mainstays of ultra-Orthodox society (and a much valued traditional Jewish institution)  – the ‘Gemach’. The concept is a simple one. Groups of largely anonymous donors provide money to an intermediary who generally disburses the funds as interest free loans to those in need. In the event the borrower is unable to repay, the donors (who have generally kissed goodbye to the money) have no recourse. Until now, these arrangements have had no legal or regulatory basis – essentially private arrangements that could run into incredibly large sums. When FATCA came along, Israel’s banks started closing Gemach accounts as they were unable to verify to the US authorities that there were no US ‘depositors’. On the other hand, as the chairman of the Finance Committee repeatedly protested, requiring a donor who gets nothing other than a place in Heaven out of the whole process to fill in forms for the tax authority is a kiss of death for the institutions.

A solution was found, with the evident acquiescence of the US authorities, for small Gemachim, and in August 2016 Gemachim generally were given two years grace, in which time they would – against their will – be brought under regulation, and they could organize their affairs to be compliant for the banks. To cut a long story short, after a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth, including the flat refusal of the Bank of Israel and Capital Markets Authority to supervise them (The Capital Markets Authority lost, and ‘won’ the job), the very last piece of legislation to pass its third reading in the 20th Knesset was the attrition-much-reduced Gemachim Law, which paved the way for the Chairman of the Finance Committee to agree to approve the information exchange regulations.

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The only thing crooked about him

Had the script of this farce been written by the 2008 financial crash’s moral voice, then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Finance Committee and Israel might have walked away with their heads held high. Williams had maintained that the ‘markets’ that bankers claimed dictated the path of the financial system, were – in Judeo-Christian – terms a form of idolatry, something man-made being attributed independent powers. He argued that modern financial transactions lacked the face-to-face component of yesteryear – it is much easier to default when lenders are obscured behind a curtain of intermediate transactions than when recognized at an individual or community level. Here were self-regulating funds that should not be collateral damage in the post-2008 meltdown regulatory war against the unfettered avarice of the players in the financial markets.

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There are always the traditional methods

However, Anglicanism hasn’t had much of a look-in around these parts since 1948, and  the ‘guilty’ Knesset Finance Committee was chaired until last week by an ultra-Orthodox rabbi-politician not given to philosophical musings, but rather to horse-trading in the name of his flock. The reason there was a need for a law regulating the Gemachim was that a number of them, predominantly in the United States and Israel,  had been the facilitators of big-time money laundering and tax evasion. A war of attrition in the long process of arriving at the final wording,  holding the inevitable (and, hence, unforgiveably late) information exchange regulations hostage,  is considered  to have severely compromised the regulatory effect of the law. Any collateral damage ultimately suffered by the moral majority of Gemachim is thanks, therefore, to the unsavoury dealings of some of their number, rather than the excesses of the financial system.

The last weak joke of the 20th Knesset…

Comfort and joy (for some)

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This Prime Minister doesn’t need a babysitter

Several years ago I wrote a newspaper article about a fresh addition to the Israeli Income Tax Ordinance that included four subparagraphs. Or, at least, there should have been four subparagraphs. The fact that there were only three made the whole thing toothless. My tongue-in-cheek piece suggested a scenario where the Knesset Finance Committee was working late into the night, and the person with the most tax knowledge received a phone call that they had to relieve the babysitter – so they all went home. Joke – right? The following day I received a call from a senior tax official asking me how I knew. You couldn’t make it up.

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If you pay peanuts….

The drafting of tax legislation in this country is often notoriously slapdash. But, that doesn’t explain all the problems with tax statute. For a start, there is the pain of keeping up with changing business environments – just look at the mess the international tax system is in over taxation of the digital economy. And then there is accounting. Corporate taxation is based on accounting profits.  Once upon a time, thanks to the ancient simple art of double entry bookkeeping, the profit and loss account was a fairly close reflection of the dollars and cents performance of a company give or take capital expenditure, debts, liabilities, inventory, and the odd accrual . A few additions and deductions and the taxman could take his toll. An explosion of accounting standards plus that thing they call IFRS led, in recent years, to more adjustments to the accounting profit than fairy lights on a Christmas tree – but as long as tax departments kept their heads, it could be handled. Almost.

For reasons best known to the British Mandatory Authorities that planted the seeds of our tax law, dividends – while mentioned freely throughout the Ordinance – are not defined for tax purposes. The upshot is that they go according to company law and are ultimately calculated in line with the latest whim of the accounting wonks in their ivory towers. That means that a company can distribute either more or less than its taxed profits. It’s the ‘more’ that bothers us here – or more precisely the parties to a court appeal that was heard this month.

Israel adheres broadly to the classical system of taxation – corporate profits are taxed twice, first at the company level, and then in the hands of  the individual on dividend. In order to avoid taxation mushrooming to three, four or heaven knows how many times, if there are several layers of companies passing dividends up the chain, Israel generally exempts intercompany dividends on which Israeli corporation tax has been paid. The second level of tax waits for distribution to the individuals right at the top.

General view of Buckingham Palace in central London.

Rumour has it, her great-great-great-great grandfather bought this place for a fiver.

That last paragraph probably sounds logical to anyone reading this – but it demanded a 39 page, beautifully reasoned ruling by the judge to put it to bed. The appellant company had received accounting profits from a subsidiary manufactured from the revaluation of certain real estate on which tax had, correctly, not been paid as the real estate had not been sold. The tax authorities and a judge had already told the appellant that the intercompany exemption didn’t apply. The company decided to try its luck on an appeal using a combination of sophistry (the wording  – but not the intention – of the law was, indeed, pitiful), a real concern for future double taxation (the subsidiary would be liable to tax on sale of the real estate even though tax was being paid now by its parent), and a childlike plea that, if all else failed, could the nice judge please treat the whole thing as a nightmare and pretend the dividend didn’t happen.

The judge wasn’t having any of it. He countered their sophistry with his own, and treated the request to reverse the transaction like a parent  explaining to a 6 year old that Santa doesn’t really exist. That was all reasonable and fine – but, it was the double tax issue that restored my faith in a system that so often seems broken.

The judge analyzed the concept of avoiding double taxation in Israeli law. He noted that, while the double taxation issue is an important principle underpinning the law, there are situations where double tax applies – predominantly where there is a change of ownership in-between certain transactions. Had the appellant sold the shares to a third party, its representatives would not have been in court arguing that – because the subsidiary company would have to pay tax again in the future on sale of the real estate (the value of the shares sold now would already have taken into account the increased value once), it should be relieved from the resulting double tax.

The Ten Commandments. Image shot 1956. Exact date unknown.

Thou Shalt Not Steal

So, armed with that logic, the judge rejected the appeal and insisted that tax was payable on receipt of the dividend. However, he literally ‘commanded’ the tax authorities to relieve any subsequent sale of the property from double tax, as long as there was no change of ownership in the meantime. That produced a result in parallel with normative Israeli law, as opposed to a narrow, literal interpretation that could have caused unnecessary hardship.

All too often, tax rulings rely on logic as much as  a fish relies on a bicycle. Not this time.

A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all those celebrating.

Wakey-wakey!

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Two minutes to midnight

It is the morning of the Maths exam that will decide which, if any, university awaits the candidate. He/she suddenly realizes that he/she hasn’t even started learning the syllabus.

How many of us have periodically woken in a cold sweat from that nightmare in the course of our adult lives?

I sometimes feel that, especially around the December full moon, tax advisers do their darnedest to  induce such feelings in the populace with ‘Achtung!’ articles of what must be done  (but clearly can’t be achieved)  before drawbridges go up for the Christmas/New Year break.

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Don’t panic!

I only ever tried to panic a prospective client once. (I warned a foreign company that  they needed to get their VAT house in order to avoid risk of  criminal prosecution, they ignored me and went to an alternative firm that proffered soothing advice, and they were criminally prosecuted two years later).

So, allow me to preface my remarks on Israel’s  10 year tax exemption period for first-time and certain returning residents by stressing that they are not aimed at those whose benefits end in the next few weeks, but rather in 2019 and thereafter. People who arrived on their equivalent of the  Mayflower  in 2008 (or earlier) are either sorted out, or the best of luck.

Everybody – that is the entire Jewish world, the OECD and the IMF – by now knows that Israel has operated a territorial tax system for first-time and certain returning residents since 2008 (with retroactive force to 2007). The law states that a first-time resident or veteran returning resident is exempt for ten years from income produced or derived outside Israel or whose source is in assets outside of Israel, as well as capital gains from the sale of such assets. The problem is that (from my experience) many mistakenly believe that, as long as they don’t go to work on a kibbutz milking cows, they can forget about tax for ten years. In reality, even those who do not incur any Israeli taxation during the exemption period need to be prepared for the day at the end of the decade when they fall off the tax cliff.

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New olim, yes. New residents, perhaps

First of all the good news. Despite the drafting of the law being as hopeless as much other tax legislation in the country, more than ten years down the road the  tax authorities seem to have made their peace with much of the excruciatingly inconsistent language, as well as the fundamentals of residence. Grammatical glitches appear to have been passed over unnoticed, and nobody seems to be bothered about the repeated careless use of the word ‘Oleh’ in pronouncements, aliyah not being a prerequisite for tax residence. 2018 saw the first annual filings of residents coming out of the ten years (for the 2017 tax year), and most of the reporting snafus will presumably be ironed out over the coming months. Similarly, some of the more heroic assumptions required as the assessee slowly glides out of the exemption period (there are special provisions for capital gains) can be expected to be blessed, or otherwise, by the authorities.

As people start to report, the authorities could take an interest in the exemption period, looking for amounts that should have been reported despite the exemption.

In any event, among the issues assessees need to be considering as the watershed approaches are:

  1. When did they actually become resident? Although, in terms of the wording of the law, residence under domestic law as opposed to treaty is an annual thing, the authorities have repeatedly made clear in writing that they interpret it as something that can change mid-year. So far, so good. The problem is that their pronouncements on when the ten years actually starts have made clear it is not necessarily the night they give you a funny hat and a flag at Ben Gurion airport if, for example, there was already a home in Israel and/or significant time has been spent in Israel.
  2. Are they sure none of their income was ‘produced or derived’ in Israel, and thus liable to tax? There have been rulings over the last decade concerning new residents working  with foreign companies from Israel ‘by remote control’ through internet, e-mail etc, or trading foreign securities from Israel. The tax authorities are operating an amnesty procedure until the end of next year – although if an anonymous request is desired, it has to be made by the end of this month (ouch!).
  3. Corporate structures abroad, while being convenient as long as Israeli taxation does not apply, may need reorganizing. That is something that generally needs to be done while the exemption is still in place.
  4. Decisions need to be made regarding whether to realize assets – significantly  parts of securities portfolios  – before the end of the exemption period, or to benefit from the only gradual linear increase in capital gains in the post-exemption period.
  5. Thanks to developing legislation since 2006, trusts are supposed to be largely tax neutral – but there are still some horrible jagged edges that can create nasty tax accidents . There are certain benefits to new-resident settlors or beneficiaries that soothe the pain as long as the exemption period lasts. The long-term future of such trusts needs to be considered.
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Public Service Announcement

I sincerely hope this hasn’t scared anybody. I prefer to think of it as a Public Service Announcement. Really.

Bad Cumpany

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

 

Before our very eyes!

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The Ten Commandments weren’t supposed to be easy

When it comes to aphorisms, ‘Oldie but Goodie’ is high on my list of suspect examples. Generally quoted by the generation above mine to fill the void of laughter following a particularly hackneyed joke,  it only  rolls happily off the tongue when served with lashings of irony.

Such was my reaction to a ruling published by the Israeli tax authorities the other day. It stumbled through a long preamble, only to mention, before things really warmed up, that it was essentially in line with another ruling from Christmas week in 2016. It begged the question: ‘ Why waste busy peoples’ time knocking out another one?’ Was it because it was so enjoyable the last time, we had to be fed it again?

Not quite.

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‘Well they would, wouldn’t they?’

The new ruling, though causing no surprise to the cynics that make up the numbers in our profession, is well beyond a joke. The Man on the Clapham Omnibus would surely ask: ‘How could they?’

Well, they can, and they did, and it was obvious they would.

The ruling related to an individual who had left Israel for the US, breaking residency, and  subsequently returned home. As part of his US salary package, he received options with various vesting periods. The tax authorities had to decide what part of the financial benefit from exercising the options should be taxed in Israel.

Thus far, we were in 2016 country. That ruling, based on court precedent, established that the profit earned abroad from options exercised while the individual was still abroad would not attract any tax in Israel, as it was not sourced in Israel. So far, so good. Given that information, and asked an inane quiz question: ‘What  taxation would apply to the profit earned abroad during the vesting period if the options were simply exercised in Israel on the individual’s return to Israel?’, our Clapham Omnibus gent would reasonably have come up with: ‘Zero’. At that point, the trapdoor under his upper deck seat would have opened and sent him crashing into the arms of the conductor collecting fares below.

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‘You’ve got to pick a pocket or two’

The decision given, in 2016 and once again in 2018, was that – although Israel operates a standard modified personal tax basis (Israeli residents are taxed on their internationally sourced income, and foreign residents on their Israeli sourced income), as salaried employees are charged to tax in Israel on a cash basis, the entire amount should be charged to tax in Israel, even though it was not sourced in Israel.

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A rare oldie but goodie

The 2016 decision, with its literal accuracy but flawed concept (cash basis is a timing concept, not a country source concept), stopped there. Clambering to his feet, the bus inquisitee – still hoping for the holiday for two in Benidorm – would have accepted the challenge of the next question: ‘If the individual once more leaves Israel, and he subsequently exercises options abroad, part of the vesting period of which was while he was Israeli resident, what would be his tax in Israel?’ Easy! Already seeing in his mind’s eye his six-pack lying on the beach next to his bright yellow lilo, he would answer: ‘Zero! He is on a cash basis!’ At which point the floor would open up and – if he managed to avoid the rear axle of the bus – he would be left, not believing his bad luck, in the middle of the road, holiday dreams in tatters. All thanks to the November 2018 decision that – correctly – states that the income sourced in Israel is taxable in Israel with no reference to where it was received. The problem is that it also restates the 2016 ruling’s cash-basis conclusion, making it inconsistent and illogical.

The 2016 ruling brought a sardonic smile to my face. The 2018 ruling is laughable.

I think I’ll try this one on my kids.

It’s just not cricket

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He might still need more proof of residence than this

Last month’s news from India, that tax residency certificates would no longer be a must for  foreigners claiming treaty benefits, will come as a welcome relief to the finance departments of organizations doing business with that great country. Obtaining certificates of residence can be a pain in the neck, especially when they are needed quickly. When it comes to transparent partnerships, like accounting firms, the bureaucracy can be a nightmare.

Although at first sight this announcement may put India in a positive light, it is more a reflection of the relief to heads no longer banging against brick walls – the original requirement for certificates stemmed from a silly amendment to the law in 2012. There is so much that is daft about India’s approach to international taxation.

When I hear the words ‘India’ and ‘Tax’ juxtaposed, I invariably think of Kipling’s quote ‘Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.’

India – the largest democracy on Mother Earth – has, when it comes to international tax, a split personality. On the one hand,  its appellate tribunals and courts wax more lyrical than anybody else on tax  issues brought before them. In 2017 it was estimated that nearly a quarter of a million disputes were awaiting resolution. Every international tax practitioner knows that, when examining the case history of OECD treaty articles, it is rare for a bon mot from India not to pop off the page. On the other hand,  India maintains primitive imperialist designs on the tax that rightly belongs to others (I wonder what Gandhi would have said). Its Dividend Distribution Tax, declared a tax on the distributing company rather than a withholding tax on the recipient, has deftly (and, I believe, uniquely) sidestepped treaty withholding restrictions, while its technical services tax has long-armed income that should have nothing to do with India. Then there was that beautiful moment a few years back when they followed seller Hutchison and buyer Vodafone up the food chain, and rather than going for  a bite out of the indirect seller’s cake, tried improbably  to extract it from the indirect buyer’s mouth. That’s chutzpah.

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It could have been worse. It is only an accident of history that they didn’t produce Austin Allegro doppelgangers

Perhaps, however, this recent loosening of the tax belt is not just a blip, but a symptom of something bigger. Since 2014 India has jumped a remarkable 65 places in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings. Starting in 142nd place, it is today sandwiched at 77 between Uzbekistan (the butt of many of Borat’s jokes) and Oman. To show they were aware that the century had turned, they even stopped production of the Hindustan Ambassador in 2014 –  a copy of an early model of the Morris Oxford that the British replaced nearly sixty years previously. That’s progress.

Microsoft, IBM, Proctor and Gamble, Tesco, Wallmart, motor companies (thank heaven not British) – India is opening up for business. This has been accompanied by a massive reform in indirect taxation.

It is to be hoped that international direct taxation will be next. Wouldn’t it be nice if those legislators who draft the laws so suspectly could listen to those world-class judges charged with interpreting them so expertly? Or is that an encroachment upon the foundations of democracy?

The taxman takes his cut

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At least he also had a day job

Initially dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’, the act of carnage that ended a hundred years ago this week had to later suffer the ignominy of having ‘First’ stuck at the front of its name. While recognizing the sacrifice of the combatants and the tragedy of 20 million dead, subsequent generations have suggested the futility of the whole thing.

As the world prepared to commemorate those events, Israel’s judges, perhaps ironically, had to waste their valuable time on something else absolutely futile – the taxation of professional poker players (not one, but two). The wording of the judgements (and appeals) gave the distinct impression that each learned judge would have been quite happy for the young men in question to take their chances being ‘sent over the top’, but they had no choice other than to give them a fair hearing.

Although I have no sympathy for gamblers, and in both cases the end result was the payment of tax at marginal rates (one of them had to be reined in by the court as an Israeli tax resident), the result bothered me.

Israel, like other tax jurisdictions, operates a system of marrying income to various sources (such as business or vocation, work, interest). The word ‘income’ is defined in dictionaries as deriving from capital or labour – fitting nicely with the sources mentioned in the Income Tax Ordinance (which is just as well, really,  since it is called the ‘Income’ Tax Ordinance). The proceeds from gambling and lotteries  do not derive from labour or capital, and did not therefore have a place at the sources table in the law.  In the course of time, however, legislators were reminded of HL Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: ‘The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” As a result they shoe-horned an extra clause taxing  profits from gambling, lotteries and prizes. To make the whole thing work they called  the resultant windfall ‘income’, a sleight of hand that would not disgrace the most unsavoury of card sharks.

However, when the tax authorities brought the two intrepid poker players to the table, they did not play for the 25%  tax that the misplaced clause then legislated, but full marginal tax on the basis of ‘business’ income. Both these characters were, after all, professional players. The position of the courts was that – similar to business income – their income could be considered income from a  vocation, their expertise implying effort and, therefore, labour. The last hand played was the appeal against the tax authorities’ insistence not to allow expenses in the production of income such as flights, hotels and payments to the casinos that financed some of the tournament games (the mind boggles). Here, the judge was consistent – if it’s income from a vocation, it’s a vocation, and proven expenses should be allowed.

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And so did they…

The bug in all this is that while these poker players were taken out of the bunker of  restricted tax  onto the battlefield of regular income, there is still dissonance.

The various sources of income (labour and capital) that combine to form the backbone of the Income Tax Ordinance are inextricably linked to Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product. It isn’t by chance that governments measure their tax take accordingly – by taxing income, they are  taking their share of the value created in the economy.

Gamblers – professional or otherwise – do not add to the value of the economy. It is a zero-sum game. One person’s  gain is another’s loss. When, the legislature incorrectly added a section on gambling to the Income Tax Ordinance instead of legislating an excise tax (as they should have done),  they at least had the sense to exclude the possibility of setting off losses from other sources of income while isolating the gambler’s activity.

In transferring professional gamblers to a business/vocation basis, while the rate of tax may be higher, in a perfect world the overall tax take should be zero  (or negative due to expense set-off). Of course, in practice, most of these games are taking place abroad against non-Israeli taxpayers which clearly changes the domestic picture – but today  the name of the game in international tax  is a level playing field.

It feels like somebody wasn’t playing with a full deck.

FANGs ain’t what they used to be

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Repairs courtesy of the Information Superhighway

Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google, the tech giants collectively dubbed the FANGs, are hardly going to be digitally quaking in their virtual boots over British Finance Minister Phillip Hammond’s Budget announcement last week that he plans imposing a 2% Digital Services Tax on their UK related turnover. Hammond himself admitted it would only be expected to bring in around £400 million a year, the amount he coincidentally just allocated to filling pot-holes on Britain’s roads.

The UK is not alone in taking the ladle to the primordial soup of  the evolving digital economy – Australia, France, Israel, Hungary, India, Italy (and the UK itself with its Diverted Profits Tax) are already at the feast, due to be joined by the EU when it is finally sick of wasting its time trying to eat the UK for Brexit.

Hammond’s hammering of the Goliaths earned kudos across the entire spectrum of British society (even the Tory-hating Guardian gave grudging praise) – but nobody seemed to pick up on the gaping irony of the whole thing – the use of a neolithic method to  tackle a state-of-the-art problem.

Egged on by the 2013 G8 Summit in Northern Ireland (to the non-Catholic citizens of which, I unreservedly apologize for using ‘British’ interchangeably with ‘UK’), the OECD and  the rest of the world (apart from a possible few smelly islands once – and probably still – frequented by pirates and other undesirables) have been engaged in tackling the unfairness of the international tax system. I, for one, started out sceptical that anything could be achieved. Country-by-country reporting, the MLI modifying tax treaties, and changes in the Permanent Establishment definition are just some of the impressive advances that have been made in the last six years in the BEPS (Base Erosion and Profit Shifting) project, not to mention (sorry) the automatic exchange of information.

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California is still part of the United States

But, there are two major gaps – the United States’ lack of enthusiasm when it cottoned on that it was a large part of the problem the others were trying to solve, and the reform  of the taxation of the Digital Economy – which happened to be the first of the 15 Actions listed by the OECD.

The international tax system is founded on two principles established a century ago – ‘nexus’ and ‘profit allocation’. The first is supposed to determine where business is done, and the second, how to divide the spoils between the places of business. Fitting the digital economy into this framework is not easy. In trying to establish where value is created, three challenges have been identified: nexus, data and characterization. The first suffers from what is pompously termed ‘ scale without mass’ – you don’t need much physical presence in a country to do business these days; the second raises the question of the interactivity of data exchange – if a social platform is using data gathered from members, where  the income arising from its exploitation belongs; and the third recognizes that the world is changing constantly and the classification of income needs constant updating.

In trying – so far unsuccessfully – to reach a consensus, the participating countries have broadly divided into three groups: those that believe the problem is confined to specific business models involving user participation in data (eg Facebook’s), that need to be dealt with individually; those that believe there is no problem (if you think that is strange – consider how long it took countries to realize there was going to be a Second World War); and those that think everything is completely screwed up, and we need a revolution (hopefully only in international taxation, which can be achieved using pens rather than swords). The OECD has kicked the can down the road (a game my generation played before digitalization condemned children to little screens) with the hope of reaching an agreement by 2020. Given the ‘slight’ differences between the participants, it doesn’t sound like we should be holding our breath – but I have had egg on my face before.

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Which wireless age does the new UK tax belong to?

So, in the meantime, nations like the UK have been driven to adopting recessive taxes that would have been more familiar to the 18th century than the 21st. Its approach to the digital economy is to throw income tax out of the window (or should that be Windows?) in favour of a tax on turnover, that looks far more like the excise duty stuck on barrels of rum that smugglers didn’t manage to secrete in coves along the southern coast of England. (In fairness, it is only to be applied to companies with worldwide turnover of over half a billion pounds, and there will be exemptions for loss making companies and those with low margins).

As an English playwright wrote four centuries ago: ‘O for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention’. And I doubt he paid any taxes at all.

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