Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the tag “International Tax”

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…

Lost before translation

Balfour was Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary AND looked like John Cleese

At a conference in Lisbon a few years back, I listened to a delightfully amusing talk by a former British Foreign Secretary (who is NOT now Prime Minister). He mentioned a near diplomatic incident some years earlier when he was speaking at a dinner in Japan. His quote from Matthew: ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’ was translated as: ‘The whisky is good, but the meat is terrible’.

We have all smirked at some time or other over images of South East Asian signs ostensibly in English. The funny side is, however, sometimes lost when it comes to assembly instructions for cheap goods ordered over the internet from faraway lands, when we toil into the night trying to assemble them. The frustration is only exacerbated when we realize that some of the parts are missing or don’t fit, and there is nowhere to turn this side of Suez. (I would point out that last comment is not strictly true in my personal case). The High Street store has life in it yet.

Israel – the Start-Up Nation – prides itself on very expensive exports with excellent instructions (often an expert team sent abroad to install the very latest technology). On the other hand, we are still East of Suez, so something has to give in our relations with foreigners, the people who happen to make up most of the world.

An excellent example is Israeli trusts and their reporting requirements. The only thing the forms are missing is a label on the back stating: ‘Mad in Bangladesh’.

In case you’ve never seen it

By now, everybody knows that Israel’s fairly new trust tax law doesn’t fit reality. Gallant efforts by the tax authorities (and I mean that most sincerely, folks) to try and produce sensible practice out of it, most clearly resembles attempting to  sew Mama Cass into Marilyn Monroe’s ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ slinky dress.

In the last week alone, I was faced with two reporting howlers.

A trustee needed to report the formation of an Israeli resident trust. This would – according to the forms – inexplicably normally be done by the settlor. But, in accordance with the law, a trust that has been decanted from an existing trust looks to the settlor of the parent trust as the settlor. As is often the case in these circumstances, the settlor was in no position to file the forms because he was already dead. Choosing between a number of irrelevant options, the reporting accountant took a bash and ticked a vaguely relevant box. I was amazed when the trust’s  foreign advisor told me they were wrong, and pointed me to the ‘right’ box. And – in the world of wonky instructions for third world products – he was right. The English translation fitted the trust precisely. The only problem was – it was not a faithful translation of the official Hebrew which unfitted the trust precisely.

And then, I had to break the news to someone else that there is no form (I also thought there was, until I read them all in detail) for beneficiaries receiving cash distributions from a relatives’ trust on the 30% tax on distribution route. It isn’t really surprising – logic and intelligent interpretation of the law require tax on such distributions to be paid by the trustee, but the tax authority’s explanatory circular, as well as forms to be completed by the trustee, places the payment obligation on the beneficiary. On that basis, the reporting by the trustee is purely informative and no active tax file is opened. In the absence of access to the financial data of the trust (which is in the hands of the trustees), the beneficiaries cannot challenge the full 30% taxation on their distribution (the tax authorities talk loosely of the trustee convincing them – but, in their official eyes, what has he go to do with the price of cheese?), so there is already a mess. This is exacerbated by the fact that the line on the actual tax return for distributions from trusts is for both ‘liable’ and ‘exempt’ trusts. These terms have no meaning in Israeli trust tax law – but whatever they do mean (and I have my suspicions), without an accompanying form the tax authority cannot know who should be paying the tax (the trustee or the beneficiary). AND THERE IS NO FORM!

Tax returns in Israel are filed electronically. The days of the nice letter from Mrs Trellis of North Tel Aviv  to the nice tax clerk explaining the situation are over.

At a dinner in Tel Aviv a couple of years back, I listened to a delightfully amusing talk by a former British Foreign Secretary (who IS now Prime Minister). He referred to the residents of Bromley being a credit to their favourite son (or words to that effect). I turned to the British expatriate next to me and pointed out that Bromley’s favourite son was Charles Darwin. Reminds me of something, but I can’t (or should I say won’t?) put my finger on it.

Red Scotch Tape

And then came the 1970s

When Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition in 1851, Britain was the world’s leading industrial power, producing more than half its iron, coal and cotton cloth.

 Well, I don’t think Her Late Majesty would be very amused to hear from her great-great granddaughter how the country she bequeathed to her descendants in perpetuity is currently faring in that field (mind you, her grandson Kaiser Bill did a far bigger hatchet job on Germany).

Nothing highlights the shifting sands more starkly than the announcement the other day that, following World Trade Organization approval, the US is to apply ‘the biggest ever’ new tariffs to imports from the EU – and specifically the UK, France, Germany and Spain.

The British air industry knew when to be competitive

The issue has been brewing for 15 years, ever since the US first complained to the WTO that the EU was subsidizing Airbus and others to assist in their competition with Boeing and others. The EU was indeed found to have overshot the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and given until late 2011 to comply. The EU did take measures, but in 2012 the US requested the review of a compliance panel, and in 2018 the WTO determined there had been further violations. The WTO finally ruled last week in the US’s favor and the US Trade Representative was quick to issue a list of products to have their wings clipped through new import tariffs.

The list of products to be punished, represented by their Harmonized Tariff Schedule Codes, is long. The first item is, unsurprisingly, aircraft – the prices of which are to be hiked by 10% from later this month.

It is the next item – designed to hit Britain – that is gobsmackingly strange. You would have thought that it would be heavy turbines, trains or ships. No. It is single malt (and only single malt) scotch whisky – together with single malt Irish whiskey distilled in Northern Ireland, if there is such a thing. And no friendly 10% for them. 25% slapped drunkenly on the price.

It turns out that the most effective way to get at what was once ‘the workshop of the world’ is through premium brand whisky. But, it is all so unfair. Check on Wikipedia for ‘Aircraft Manufacturers of Scotland’, and you will be greeted by ‘Defunct Aircraft Manufacturers of Scotland’. In fact, tragically, Scotland’s biggest claim ever to aviation fame was probably the 1988 Lockerbie Disaster, for which they suffered more than enough.

So, sadly, the good people of Scotland (in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I am half Scot) are being made to pay for the shenanigans of their southern partners (who themselves are probably far less guilty than the Germans and French , both of whose record on air wars is abysmal).

Who are the Americans trying to kid?

I don’t know what hurts more – Britain’s descent from the industrial world to the spirit world, or the gross unfairness of trade wars. Not much can be done about the former, but the latter should be exorcised before the new mercantilism takes an unbreakable hold.

We are not amused.

One day more

Even he looks bored

Of all the hackneyed aphorisms that grate on my undertaxed mind, that one about nothing being certain except death and taxes has got to be prime candidate for the next cull of the English language.

So, I was both irritated and fascinated when it was brought to my attention that Monday last week was the first ever Tax Certainty Day. We have become used to ‘Days’ designed to make us more aware of everything from climate change to world health, but why a day to make us more aware of something we are all so painfully aware of already? After all, there is no Death Day (or is there?). My appetite for information was further whet by the news that the center of the celebrations was the City of Love itself.

Never underestimate the ability of tax to underwhelm.

It turns out that Tax Certainty Day is not about the inevitability of paying taxes, but rather about achieving certainty over how much to pay. It was marked at the OECD headquarters in Paris, where – rather than enjoying a day of tax non-deductible booze – the participants were presented with the OECD report on the 2018 Mutual Agreement Procedure (MAP) statistics. Add to that, presentations from Austria and France (the only justification for singling out these particular two countries apparently being the two world wars fought between them), and a suitably drab day must have been had by all.

Or not.

Somewhere else the scores mean nothing

Tax professionals like statistics, and this was a day for league tables of which countries had started and finished the most mutual agreement procedures (broadly, the discussions between international tax authorities to resolve disputes over taxing rights in specific international transactions), how long the procedures took on average, how many related to transfer pricing and how many to other transactions, how many were withdrawn, how many were not resolved, and so on.

Now, judging by the reporting of the occasion, these statistics must have been quite intoxicating, because there seemed to be a fair degree of back slapping for hitting the top of the various categories, and a degree of back turning to those at the bottom. This appears utter nonsense. While MAP is a competitive sport involving two opposing teams, there was evidently no category of winners, and it takes two to tango for timely dispute resolution. Manchester City’s emphatic 8-0 demolition of Watford last weekend did not entitle Watford to equal points for helping their opponents wrap up the game in the first half. Furthermore, quick resolution may just reflect a tax authority’s willingness to ‘have a go’ at charging a taxpayer while caving in as soon as they get around the table, or alternatively, their support of aggressive tax planning. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Malta came top in the speed stakes (2 months). Saudi Arabia, a country justly maligned for so much, was perhaps unfairly singled out as the only country sporting no MAPs. It could be that they are just very fair tax-wise to foreign companies (unfortunately I have no first-hand knowledge of that particular jurisdiction’s practices).

Coming to a cinema near you: ‘Tax, Lies and Red Tape’

Second in the league table of aphorisms for the gallows must surely be that one about lies, damned lies and statistics. Like guns, statistics are highly dangerous when they fall into the wrong hands.

Time for an International Statistics Awareness Day?

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

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