Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the tag “International Tax”

Let slip the dogs of war

Even the Portuguese have a Triumphal Arch (what for, exactly?)

Even the Portuguese have a Triumphal Arch (what for, exactly?)

I have just emerged from a fascinating two-day conference in rain-soaked Lisbon. Despite the headline title, the real theme was inevitably the prospects for the Base Erosion and Profit Shifting project of the OECD, the rump of which is due to be approved by the G20 shortly.

The public proclamations on BEPS have displayed populist triumphalism while, in the course of the two days – to anybody who had any doubts before – it became clear that the actual prospects are far more modest.

Firstly, by not allowing the Americans to think this was an extension of their work on FATCA, the OECD didn’t manage to bring them to the party. The Americans never join anything anybody else comes up with first – take the Second World War, for example, where the fun only started after Pearl Harbor.

Secondly, by making the Digital Economy the flagship topic, even if the Yanks had been convinced it was all their idea, they were not going to Kamikaze pilot themselves into their own ship – all Digital Economy reforms are, by definition, anti-American.

Thirdly, as two former senior politicians, gentlemen who almost gave me back the naive faith in politicians of my youth, made blatantly clear – no nation, be it America or the other God-knows-how-many countries currently on Earth, was going to give up on any serious opportunity to tax.

Then there was Pascal Saint-Amans, the Frenchman behind the BEPS project, who  explained how he had charismatically convinced everybody to accept his proposals. It was a case of working towards ‘consensus’ rather than ‘unanimity’. And that says it all. Never trust a Frenchman with your wife or long English words. Consensus is a synonym for unanimity. He was trying his luck on us, a group of grey accountants, for whom words are things to be kept under the bed (where the Frenchman may also be hiding). Obfuscation (go on Pascal, look that up in your Collins English-French Dictionary) seems to have been the name of the game. Sell the OECD a pile of words and confuse everyone into thinking something is happening. People may think Saint Amans has worked miracles (if the Pope canonises him will he be Saint Saint-Amans?), but the real deliverable looks a lot more down to earth.

That is not to say that BEPS is a failure (you may be wondering, after all I said above, how I am going to climb out of that one). Transparency – Country-by-Country reporting, international exchange of rulings, examination of holding and conduit companies, and dispute resolution will all become reality, alongside the unrelated Automatic Exchange of Information.

But, sorry Pascal, you don’t get all the credit for that.

BEPS was trumpeted as the first major breakthrough in international taxation in a hundred years. In reality, there has been some breeching of the fortifications, but no breakthrough.  Thanks to populist ‘uprisings’ following the 2008 Financial Crisis, taxation has been under the spotlight. Transparency is the minimum required to appease the masses, and even that would probably  have fallen  apart had it not been for the American obsession with FATCA. Many mistake the noise made by the British and French legislatures over the lack of tax being paid by American multi-nationals as part of the equation. Wrong. These are unilateral acts by Governments looking after themselves – the diametric opposite of the BEPS philosophy.

The G20's greatest internationalist

The G20’s greatest internationalist

The end result looks remarkably like the Allied approach to the Second World War. Frenchman Pascal Saint-Amans, like General De Gaulle,  made a lot of noise, was overrun, but declared victory. The British plodded on alone trying to break the multi-national enemy. And then the Americans came in and did whatever they wanted. I am not sure where the Russians fit in – but let’s wait and see what surprises Putin has up his sleeve if he is invited to the G20 summit (which, otherwise, will not be the G20). Interesting tax times.

 

Cogito ergo sum

Good old British liberal education

Good old British liberal education

Arguably, the greatest contribution to society of a liberal education is perspective. ‘Dah da dah da dah. DISCUSS’ was the way it went when I was at school, as opposed to the ‘A, B, C, D, E. Tick one’ of the modern era. Today, July 14, is only significant to the vast majority of the world’s population for being the day after July 13 and the day before July 15. In France, it is a national holiday. Back in 1989, the bicentenary of the storming of the Bastille, it was Oxford educated Margaret Thatcher who pointed out in an interview with Le Monde that: ‘ ”human rights did not start with the French Revolution,” a perspective the French were not prepared for.  Fortunately for the Iron Lady, she was guillotined by her own Government the following year, before the furious French could get their act together. Earlier today, the massively anticipated sequel to Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ hit the bookstores. The fictional superhero of my youth ( along with Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne), Atticus Finch, now turns out – in his author’s eyes – to have been a bigot. We all missed that one.

So, with the gradual movement from education to knowledge cramming, it is perhaps no surprise that the entire tax world is out on a fanatically dogmatic witchhunt, not even stopping to breathe and get the whole thing in perspective. And it is embarrassing.

I refer, of course, to the twin tax bugbears of western society, BEPS and Automatic Exchange of Information. Europe (did somebody whisper OECD?) has decided that American (did someone say ‘foreign’)  companies pay scandalously and imorally little tax in their jurisdictions, and the world’s leading economies (did someone shout ‘the entire world’?) are singlemindedly trying to sort this out (with a constant look over their shoulders to check if the Americans are going to throw a wobbler and crush the whole thing). Meanwhile, thanks to the Americans (who feel that – far from taking too much tax away from the Europeans – their taxpayers are hiding their income there),  everybody is trying to make sure that their tax residents declare all their ill-gotten gains.

He tried to take shares in somebody else

He tried to take shares in somebody else

Dogma rules. If this can be sorted out, we are told, the world will be a fairer place. Perhaps. But there are two small issues here that should have been factored in. Firstly, it is by no means clear that companies should pay tax.  While Shylock could ask, ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ joint-stock companies, like Pinocchio, do not have the same luxury. Companies are a legal fiction – the Walt Disney of the business world. As they do not have feelings (an accusation often aimed at me), they cannot suffer taxation. Taxation is paid by flesh and blood people – it is the customers who pay higher prices , the shareholders who make lower profits, and the employees who receive lower income. The company just sails on regardless – and, if it dies, does not even warrant a marked grave. There has always, therefore, been a strong movement to abolish company taxes in favour of taxes on individuals – income tax, withholding tax, value added tax. Company taxes, it is argued, distort economic performance.

Secondly, while the search for the hidden treasures abroad  of individuals is highly laudable,  white man speaks with forked tongue. The latest example of Orwellian Doublespeak is last week’s British budget where non-domicile status (institutionalized tax avoidance) was, with much fanfare, marginally tweaked. Rich foreigners will still be able to enjoy the English weather for substantial periods.

While BEPS and Automatic Exchange of Information are undoubtedly an improvement on the international tax scene that has been around until now, they are not a Utopian goal resulting from deep thought and discussion. They are  the result of an ‘I want’ philosophy of the electorates of the world’s leading nations. The elimination of company tax is controversial and may be totally impractical, but it, and other ideas including a simple move to regressive VAT as the main source of revenue, should have been part of  the debate that never came. Instead, the new world tax order – like so much else in the modern world – is being led by populism. And populism – thanks to a biased, disingenuous and largely ignorant press – is becoming increasingly dogmatic. Look what happened to the French in the 1790s.

 

 

 

Unfrozen Assets

Prime Real Estate

Prime Real Estate

I think the main reason I have been cautious and conservative all my life is a particular madness I observed in the 1970s as I was on the threshold of adulthood. There was a property boom in the UK and people were making a packet buying and selling anything with a front door. One fine day, a wealthy property dealer from our neighbourhood went spectacularly bust – at that time the biggest bankruptcy in UK history. In the months that followed, news surfaced of local rent collectors, shopkeepers and assorted minnows being declared insolvent for millions that they clearly had never possessed. It transpired that a combination of recommendations and guarantees by bigger players, together with banks thirsty to expand their balance sheets, meant that many idiots went from fashionably poor to unfashionably bankrupt without enjoying the fruits of their lack of labour for even a day.

Prime Real Estate

Prime Real Estate

When the Financial Crisis hit in 2008, it was deja vu. Here were Ireland and Spain going belly-up thanks to property speculation, while the Greeks didn’t even make the effort to invest in property – their country just produced bankruptcy out of thin air. But, it was Iceland that really caught my eye. Igloos not being subject to the same rules of property bubbles as other countries, and Iceland not having Greece’s ability to mug the EU, they had to think of something else. And for a country that had little to offer in the form of blood, toil, tears and sweat – what better luftgesheft than Finance? When everybody was doing it, who would notice little Iceland? When Iceland unsurprisingly slipped under the ice, the whole world looked aghast at how it managed to get there in the first place.

Well, it appears Iceland is finally coming in from the cold. Earlier this month the Government announced that it is relaxing the capital controls its predecessor was forced to impose during the 2008 meltdown, meaning that investors with money tied up in frozen Icelandic assets will be able to pull it home, while Icelanders will be allowed to buy forex. The rub is that any foreigner owed money by the country’s bankrupt banks will either need to agree to a substantial haircut or pay a 39% tax.

Now, when you see an offer like that you start to understand why the Icelandic economy crashed. I was, in fact, already at the end of the next sentence of the article I was reading when my eyes did one of those  typewriter carriage returns, boomeranging back across the page for a second-take. What difference can it make to a foreign investor whether the bit of his money  lopped off by the Icelandic Government is a haircut or a tax? The only thing I could think of is that a haircut will invite a capital loss at home which the disappointed investor might be able to use against other foreign capital gains, while a 39% tax on a capital asset is meaningless tosh.

This nation of fishermen, fresh from fooling the world that they were bankers, seem to think they can do it again – you can fool some of the people all of the time. Now that the chips are down once more, investors should smell something fishy and freeze them out.

His Kingdom For A Hearse

With England burying one of its monarchs today, 530 years late, I thought it appropriate to re-post this item from March 25,  2012.

Greatest Britain

What makes Britain great? There is, of course, no single answer (and the French would suggest there is no question), but the nation that gave the world its principal parliamentary system, its principal international language and (sorry, Yanks) its principal sport must have something in its national DNA that sets it apart from all the rest.

It seems to me that a major factor is Britain’s innate conservatism as described and promoted by the 18th century philosopher and politician, Edmund Burke. British society doesn’t change – it evolves. And evolution produces strength, step-by-step. There have, of course, been potholes in the road over the years – most notably the Civil War and Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century – but, let’s face it, after a few years of that miserable puritan they brought back Charles II whose head had fortunately not been cut off along with his father’s. When things went haywire again a quarter of a century later, the King (the last James we are likely to see) was booted across the water and none other than John Locke, the very man who challenged the divine right of kings in his “Two Treatises of Government”, was charged with schlepping the new king and queen from Holland.

There was a marvelous example of British evolution a few months back that, typically, went almost unnoticed. One Friday morning an announcement was made in Perth (the Aussie one) – which is just about as far as you can get from Buckingham Palace without jumping on a spaceship – that henceforth the first born of the monarch (etc) will be the heir to the throne irrespective of gender. In a stroke, countless centuries of common law and statute were set aside and Britain and its Commonwealth moved on (I am aware that political correctness dictates that I should be talking about the United Kingdom – but, frankly, I am a bit ambivalent towards Northern Ireland). And what about Decimalization 40 years ago? After watching sterling evolve over centuries into the quaint system of pounds, shillings (20 in a pound) and pence (12 pence in a shilling) – instead of changing the currency they just dropped the shillings and recast the pence. To maintain an element of originality in the change, instead of using a normal date (like January 1 used for introduction of the Euro) they went for the totally obscure February 15 1971 – which could, at least, have been identified as the middle of the month – in any month other than February.

Which brings me to the central point. I have a hunch (but not an ounce of evidence) that we may be heading for another of those evolutionary changes in the next few years.

Last week, in the month of March as from time immemorial, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne presented the Government’s budget for the coming fiscal year. The Government’s fiscal year starts April 1 but, for the purpose of income tax the year starts on April 6. Why April 6? The story is simply wonderful.

New Years Day used to be recognised in Britain as March 25. That date represents Lady Day when, according to Christian tradition, the Archangel Gabriel informed the Virgin Mary she was going to conceive (count nine months and you get to Christmas Day). The Treasury understandably collected its taxes based on the year commencing March 25. When, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII instituted his calendar replacing the old Julian version European countries gradually adopted it. The Protestant English, however, gave him the two finger salute and hung on until 1752 when, in addition to adopting the Gregorian calendar New Year’s Day was moved to January 1. The tax year was left untouched but for one small point. Adoption of the Gregorian calendar required an eleven day leap forward in the date (there were riots reported at the time of people claiming they had been robbed of part of their lives). Not prepared to give up on tax revenue, the Treasury moved the collection period forward by the said eleven days – meaning that the new tax year would start on April 5. As part of the calendar change leap years are generally skipped at the turn of the century – in 1800 another day was added bringing the start to April 6; in 1900, the Treasury was magnanimous and left the date alone; 2000 was a leap year, so we will never know what Gordon Brown might have done.

It is hard to see how this system can go on forever. I recently had to do some foreign tax credit calculations for a client invested in real estate in the UK – I felt like getting out an abacus (and hitting someone over the head with it). I would assume that one of these years when the economy is doing well and a government is in the middle of its term there will be a quiet announcement from somewhere like the Isle of Skye (if it is still part of Britain) that the next tax year will start on April 1 – but then everyone will probably assume it’s an April Fools joke. Happy New Year.

Greecing the wrong palms

'This is what you get for telling teacher'

‘This is what you get for telling teacher’

Sneak, snitch, grass – those one syllable words do not convey an aura of approval. In school, where we imbibe the morality that plagues us for the rest of our lives, a telltale can expect a bigger punishment than the class-mate he is squealing on. The sheer number of synonyms (I have just used five) shows how frowned-upon the practice is.

Governments – rarely the symbols of propriety we would like them to be – have a long history of encouraging informants. I have always been haunted by W. F. Yeames’s portrait of a boy being questioned as to the whereabouts of his father during the English Civil War. And then there were all those ‘Wanted $$$$$$’ posters plastered across the Wild West, not to mention the bank whistle-blower payouts over the last few years.

But the Greeks (who else?) have now raised the rat stakes a notch. Desperate to placate the Troika (now for some reason referred to – in deference to the Greeks – as the ‘European Commission,  ECB and  IMF’), the new Government has proposed employing tourists as tax spies.

The Greek Government does not seem to have thought through where tourists will hide the surveillance equipment

The Greek Government does not seem to have thought through where tourists will hide the surveillance equipment

The idea is that tourists will be asked, in return for  an hourly fee, to be wired up to audio or video equipment that will provide evidence of cash transactions between themselves and their Greek hosts.

I am afraid that I cannot get my head around this particular kind of international espionage.  I am a fan of spy novels – I have read almost the entire product of John Le Carre’s fecund imagination – but there is an underlying assumption that a spook is: (a) operating for his own government against a foreign government (a patriot); or (b) for a foreign government against his own government (a traitor); or (c) for his own government against a foreign government while making the foreign government think he is working for them against his own government –  and vice versa (double agent); or (d) for his own government against his own government (a shtinker). The CIA/MI6 exams do not have an ‘(e) none-of-the-above’ option, even when allowing for the widest possible definition of the word ‘government’ – but that is precisely what the lunatic Greeks are proposing.

The idea is both obscene (that word has plenty of life beyond porn) and insane. Greece has long passed into the realm of obscenity, but insanity should still worry them. Do they not realise that, by recruiting tourists who are coming to Greece for a good time, they risk destroying the whole underbelly of the Greek tourist industry – its goodwill? What is more, visitors from countries where the National Tax Authority is a feared institution, similar to a man-eating shark, are not likely to want to play with the Greek version, even if continues to prove it has no teeth.

Harry, watch where you take that photograph

Harry, watch where you take that photograph

Sorry, Mr Alexis Tsipras, you are going to have to do better than that if you don’t want the Troika to tread hard on your oxygen tube. This is one potential tourist who will now definitely not being coming to Athens this year. I think I will go to Russia instead – at least there they do things the right way round,  and will probably be spying on me.

A drop of golden sun

 

Punching above his weight

Punching above his weight

From Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Adolf Hitler to Conchita Wurst, little Austria has always punched above its weight. It is ironic that the country that gave the world half its great classical music and, so far, all its World Wars, should be almost exclusively associated today with one kitch movie.Fifty years ago this week, a British actress appeared over a grassy horizon and, after the umpteenth  take, belted out ‘The Sound of Music’. And the rest, as they say, is (highly distorted) history.

Well, all the fuss over the Von Trapps this month – including the excellent  impersonation of Ms Andrews at the Oscars by Lady Gaga (an aspiring novice nun if ever there was one)  – brought back nostalgic memories of Austria and tax planning.

Austria’s tax system is quite a boring one – as one might expect. An off-the-peg 25% corporate tax rate and 50% individual top rate send the tax consultant skipping on through the alphabet for greener pastures.

Nevertheless, Austria does have one point of interest that, amid the ennui, deserves not to be ignored.

Boring Austria

Boring Austria

Like most tax-enlightened countries these days (ie those not called the United States of America), Austria operates a Participation Exemption regime. For the uninitiated, that means that most dividends from affiliated companies and capital gains on their sale are not liable to corporation tax in the hands of the Austrian holding company. When an exemption to tax from profits from foreign branches is added, the overall result is that Austria taxes the profits of a corporate group on a territorial basis.

The jewel in the Habsburg crown however is that, whereas most countries with territorial corporate tax reporting insure themselves with Controlled Foreign Corporation legislation (CFC), Austria has a very watered down alternative. CFC rules in their various forms, first introduced to the world by John F Kennedy on the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, are designed to ensure that companies do not resort to chutzpa in their foreign operations. Although also applied to worldwide tax systems, they are of particular importance to territorial based systems where there is an enhanced  temptation to drive income offshore to low tax jurisdictions, thus depriving the home country Treasury of its life-blood for ever and ever. CFC permits the immediate taxation of certain foreign profits.

Austria is one of the few countries that does not have a CFC regime,  encouraging night-trips from nearby Transylvania by tax vampires (aka Advisors) to drink its life-blood.  To stem the flow, the Austrians have replaced the exemption on dividends with a credit system for foreign income that was clearly diverted for tax purposes. The big difference with CFC, however, is that the tax is not payable until the income is remitted. Depending on the rules in the ultimate jurisdiction of a corporate group, this can facilitate indefinite tax deferral – which, in these BEPS-induced, substantially-reduced times for tax gurus, is a very big deal.

Little Austria has a generous child  benefit scheme

Little Austria has a generous child benefit scheme

Having seen the Sound of Music when it first hit the screens in 1965, I have been an unashamed fan ever since. Back in 1995, on a trip to England, I dragged my then 9 year-old son to a 30th anniversary showing in the West End. Any illusions I had of passing on my enthusiasm to the next generation were shattered when, similar to a Rocky Horror Show Redux, the freak audience jokingly recited all the lines along with the cast. Well, to celebrate fifty years, I have decided to have a second go, this time with HIS children. It will be a Home Viewing, and all parents and uncles will be commanded to shut their trapps. Where is the Captain when we need him?

Celebrity Squares

1101500102_400Adolf Hitler is, for me, ancient history, while Churchill is almost pinchable. Why the distinction regarding two implacable foes, the height of whose infamy and fame coincided exactly? It is simply because, by the time I was born, Hitler had been dead for over a decade, while I remember Churchill’s funeral,  50 years ago next week, vividly. Hitler was in black-and-white. Churchill was in colour.

We tend to think back on our childhood as steady-state. I was 10 years old when Colour TV came to Britain and  have always thought of it as a major revolution in British life. In fact, although the BBC had started broadcasting in 1936, few homes had TVs until around 15 years before Colour hit the living room. The story of the last hundred and fifty years has been one of continuous change.

Change has been as true of Celebrity as of any other field. Although the early twentieth century brought images of mute silver-screen stars to the world’s movie theatres, it was Charles Lindbergh who, thanks to his groundbreaking transatlantic flight in 1927, was the first true international celebrity. World leaders were not seriously heard until the 1930s, so that, when the British people had the lion’s heart in the dark days of 1940, Churchill’s roar was quite a novelty. It wasn’t surprising that the Old Man was crowned Time Magazine’s Man of the Half-Century in 1950 (he was beaten for the full century by Einstein), or that he was later voted, almost by acclamation, as the Greatest Englishman, whatever that may mean.

High Flyer

High Flyer

Through the second half of the twentieth  century, celebrity had two significant branches – entertainment and glitzy wealth on the one hand, and politics on the other. If you were not an embarrassing extrovert or a politician, you could expect to live your life in blissful anonymity. Then came the Information Revolution. Everybody was out there with the potential to reach the world – even if the world wasn’t really that interested in being reached by most of them. But who cared? It was cheap and worth a go.

Which brings me to my point. I am a tax advisor. I am, despite what it says in the sub-headline to this blog, boring. Tax advice is something to be practiced behind closed doors by consenting adults. Should I ever become a celebrity, it will not (or at least, should not) be because I dispense advice about the laws and practices of taxation.

But, it appears, the times they are a’changing. After the OECD Centre for Tax Policy and Administration aired its maiden internet TV broadcast last year, its head – the drop-dead gorgeous Pascal Saint-Amans – has now been declared Person of the Year by none other than Tax Notes International (which you will be forgiven for never having heard of). In a wide-ranging interview on the progress of the world-famous BEPS project, he declares that he is ‘the luckiest person in the tax world’. Now, go steady there, Pascal. A tax attorney who pocketed a $10 million success fee might argue that you are in second place. We know you are an important bloke, and you and your team have to philosophise a lot about the future of taxation, but – as I have written in the past – philosophy is to international taxation what a bicycle is to a fish. You, and the world-famous Tax Notes International, may think that the BEPS project is up there with the Theory of Relativity and World War II, but frankly it isn’t.

Dazzling

Dazzling

When tax bureaucrats become celebrities – and I stress that I am sure Mr Saint-Amans is amazingly good at whatever he does from 9 to 5 – it is time to think about hanging up ones Oxford Shoes.  A good tax advisor is someone who has a broad view of the business and political environment around him. There is plenty more to read about than irrelevant bla-bla regarding  tax people similar to himself.

So I say to the editors and my fellow readers of Tax Notes International: ‘Get a life!’

 

Christmas Cheer

Charles-DickensThe spirit of Christmas Present materialized in the wake of the sensational success of  ‘A Christmas Carol’. Britain which, despite French whinging, was – in 1843 – the world’s superdooperpower, had been struggling with Christmas traditions and what-not for years. Dickens’s simple short story of a tyrannical, lonely employer mirrored against his put-upon employee (the latter having a loving, but tragic, family life) caught the nation’s mood. In a tale that, to borrow  from John Lennon, is more popular than the Nativity, the eponymous Scrooge eventually sees the light, and everyone – including the sick child that Dickens threw in for extra pathos – lives happily ever after. Amen.

The gifts didn't improve much over the years

The gifts didn’t improve much over the years

For me, a non-Christian, Christmas has long been defined by an event exactly 100 years ago today. The organized football match between the Allies and the Hun is probably apocryphal (nobody can agree on the score), but what is certain is that there was an informal truce on the Western Front for a number of hours on Christmas Day 1914. The Germans seem to have started it (as every good Englishman knows, they always start everything) by singing Stille Nacht (a passable translation of Silent Night). Before long, both sides were out of the trenches exchanging gifts of tobacco, black bread and buttons – and, just maybe, starting the Hundred Years War that has seen Jerry winning four World Cups to our one. (Fortunately, the World Wars went the other way.)

The truce over, the troops climbed back into their respective trenches and spent the next four years ensuring that at least 10 million of their number would never again sit around a Christmas tree exchanging gifts in the bosom of their families. Indeed, in December 1915, the order went out that any repeat of the events of a year earlier would result in a Court Martial and the Firing Squad, not necessarily in that order.

And THAT is Christmas. Once a year, mankind is enveloped in a vague haze that colours its eyesight and addles its brain. For a few short weeks, minds turn to gift-buying and peace and goodwill to all mankind. Come January 2nd, the miserable self-seeking world is back to normal  (from what I am told by Christian friends, it can start on Christmas afternoon when out-of-town guests – like three-day-old fish – start to stink). Someone who in mid- December would volunteer to save the world would, come  New Year, not give the drippings of his nose to a person dying of thirst.

Why do people insist on comparing me to these guys?

Why do people insist on comparing me to these guys?

This is the reason why, perhaps ironically, I believe in Taxation. While there are countless wonderful individuals and organizations out there who help the less fortunate, only the enlightened, collective self-interest of a people delegating the responsibility for its poor to its elected representatives, has the chance of ridding a country of the scourge of poverty. However enticing the Christmas message of peace and goodwill to all men sounds today (December 25th), Scrooge was right when he called it ‘Humbug!’

In any event, a heartfelt Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating today.

For Whom The Bell Tolls

Mr Turner wasn't always a Romantic

Mr Turner wasn’t always a Romantic

The scene – a church graveyard in Middle England. A respectable crowd, trussed-up in winter clothes, surrounds an open grave. As the coffin is lowered into the gaping hole, the priest declares: ‘The Mother of Parliaments gave, and the Mother of Parliaments hath taken away.’ A sharply dressed gentleman throws the first clod of earth onto the coffin-lid, almost obscuring the gold plaque: ‘Double Taxation Treaties 1872 – 2014. Taken In Their Prime. RIP’.

George, for that is the chief mourner’s name, turns towards the gate, followed by Dave, Nick and Ed. An intimidating, middle-aged woman tarries at the graveside, a sardonic smile engulfing her harsh face. ‘Margaret!’ calls Ed. ‘Move your arse. If we don’t hurry, the Tories will destroy the capitalist system before we  get the chance.’

Not fair. The lady is not gigantic

Not fair. The lady is not gigantic

Sounds gothic? Welcome to  Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s pre-election Autumn Statement (Budget Preview). After Labour MP Margaret Hodge successfully mauled executives of Starbucks, Google and Amazon back in 2012 over the immorality of shifting UK profits to low-tax jurisdictions, it was only a matter of time (election time, to be precise) before the Conservative Government sought to retake the moral high ground.

Many thought it enough that David Cameron had taken the lead in pushing the OECD BEPS initiative at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland in 2013. Wrong. Last week his Finance Minister spewed out possibly the most radical piece of international taxation legislation since JFK nuked the world with the Controlled Foreign Corporation (CFC) on October 16, 1962 – the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC).

google taxThe  Diverted Profits Tax – already affectionately  dubbed the Google Tax – will tax profits rightly belonging to the UK but currently denied it due to the inconvenient permanent establishment provisions of Britain’s double taxation treaties. It will also tax payments to low-tax jurisdictions unless there is a jolly good reason for them, irrespective of OECD transfer pricing provisions. In order to ignore the existence of a century-and-a-half’s worth of international agreements, the new tax is to be precisely that – a new tax, not a subdivision of the Corporation Tax. It will be levied at a higher (25%) rate and, Mr Osborne hopes, will be beyond the clutches of the EU, OECD and substantially every country participating in the United Nations General Assembly.

Happily, the legality of this aggressive move is to be examined by the Tory party’s nemesis – the European Commission. There are also strong arguments that the new tax does not succeed in side-stepping treaties, being ‘substantially similar’ to existing taxes.

What is hateful about the proposal – which has enormous support in the UK – is that it potentially undoes 140 years of international tax cooperation. Ironically, that cooperation was started by the British – the first ever double taxation treaty being concluded with the Swiss Canton of Vaud in 1872. Moreover, such international cooperation has never been more marked than in the last two years. The BEPS Action Plan, while unlikely to be implemented in all its detail, has, together with FATCA-inspired Automatic Exchange of Information, already started to shake-up the international scene in a big way.

Farage proves he can multi-task

Farage proves he can multi-task

So why has the British Government decided to risk bringing the whole international tax edifice crashing down, encouraging  other countries to retaliate with beggar-thy-neighbour treaty avoiding provisions? David Cameron has been a safe pair of hands as Prime Minister and is deserving of praise, but this latest gambit can only be explained in terms of cheap electioneering. It follows a developing trend that started with immigration bashing, and continued with threats to leave the EU. The paranoia of Britain’s ‘Knees up Mother Brown’, beer-swilling, fag-smoking UKIP party dodos has become contagious. Cameron did not see things done this way on the playing fields of Eton. The Prime Minister would do well to go back and read John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’.

Cry for Argentina

Tax Advisor's traditional battle dress

Tax Advisor’s traditional battle dress

Any professional Opinion Letter writer knows that the invention of the footnote was a godsend. Enabling the eternally cautious tax lawyer or accountant to throw caution to the wind in the main body of his document, the footnote can be stuffed with endless bits of what the paying client calls ‘fudge’ and the expert refers to as  ‘caveat’.

Hilaire Belloc, the writer of those early twentieth century ‘Cautionary Tales’, penned the most famous footnote in literature:

He had a lot of stocks and shares

And half a street in Buenos Aires*

*But this pronunciation varies

Some people call it Bu-enos Airés

Read today, it appears  ironically prescient that a Cautionary Tale resorted to Argentina as the seat of a person’s wealth. A hundred years ago, in 1914, Argentina was among the world’s 10 leading economies, a showcase of what South America could achieve. Today, in 2014, Argentina is a basket-case – a national cautionary tale, if ever there was one.

One of Argentina's more successful exports

One of Argentina’s more successful exports

After a hundred years of intermittent catastrophic military rule, as well as not much less catastrophic civilian administration, Argentina’s last century is best remembered for Evita!, The World Cup, and the Falklands Fiasco. Not much of a record. At times it has looked like it might disappear down the plughole of history.

Current Argentine President, Cristina Kirchner, is agonizingly playing out the last year of her disastrous administration. Inflation is thought to be running at over 40% (Government Statistics are known to be in the ‘damned lies’ category), the country defaulted (again) on its sovereign debt this summer, and the peso has been in free-fall. Meanwhile, the Vice President has been indicted on fraud and corruption charges, but – and why not, indeed? – hangs on to office.

What is interesting is that, despite all this nonsense, the Argentine Revenue Service is going strong and to hell with the economic consequences, as if it were 1914 all over again and Argentina were on the way to overtaking the US.

Among the less exciting developments, thanks to Exchange of Information with the French, the authorities have uncovered a thousand unreported foreign bank accounts. Although nobody is making the connection, it may be no coincidence that a number of HSBC employees have been arrested for allegedly enabling tax fraud. Tax Amnesties are now being offered to those who come out with their hands up, waving a cheque book.

At the same time, the Revenue Service has gone to town on Transfer Pricing. They have shot broadsides at such  companies as Procter & Gamble and GE. In the case of P&G they even suspended their operations for a while recently, which could not have been conducive to the sweaty population’s personal hygiene.

In taking on the multinationals, Argentina should remember that it takes two to tango

In taking on the multinationals, Argentina should remember that it takes two to tango

Of course, the Argentines have a history of picking their wars. They thought Mrs Thatcher wouldn’t hit back when they invaded the Falklands in 1982, but were comprehensively taken to the cleaners. It will be interesting to see how this widening conflict with multinationals pans out. I reckon it will all end in tears.

And meanwhile, the Vice President, facing fraud and corruption charges, carries on in office….

 

 

 

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