Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the tag “International Taxation”

Trust the taxman?

Perhaps not as bumbling an idiot as he looked…

My first suspicion that authority wasn’t all it was cracked up to be was at the age of 10, when I saw Lionel Bart’s newly released Oliver! Between the catchy numbers and faux-dirty actors there were two clear messages – the inhumanity of the workhouse system and Mr Bumble’s ‘The law is a ass, a idiot.’

Workhouses had blessedly long gone even then, but I have had many occasions in my long career to echo Mr Bumble’s sentiment. And if Dickens meant the term ‘ass’ in its asinine sense,  I am sometimes tempted to go with the American usage.

There have been many occasions when a sloppily drafted law has been saved by the tax authority, with liberal and, sometimes, downright anarchical interpretations that could only be strictly justified by a completely new interpretation of the letters of the alphabet used in the drafting.

There are often a lot more forms than substance

But, more often than not, it is not the case. While they will invoke ‘substance over form’ in incidences to their advantage – fairly confident that the courts will back them up if matters get that far – the authorities will fight hammer and nail to impose the letter of the law, hiding (possibly fairly) behind the excuse that they cannot ignore the written word.

And, just occasionally, they go a step too far.

If we are to believe the myriad reports of a case at the end of July, one of those steps is on the way.

I won’t dwell on the details of the case which has already been reported to saturation point, but suffice it so say, trust tax law – largely legislated with effect from 2006 – generally considers the contribution of an asset to a trust as a non-taxable event (a gross oversimplification, if ever there were one). The problem is that, for purely anachronistic reasons, Israel has a separate law for the capital gains from local real estate transactions. It, and its predecessor, simply predated Israel’s taxation of capital gains and for reasons I sadly suspect many of us understand, the situation has never been put right. The real estate law stayed silent beyond some existing archaic provisions that were essential for real estate transactions. The taxpayer argued that the transfer of real estate to a trust should not be a tax event – in logical line with the treatment of all other assets, as must have been the clear intention of the legislator – and the tax authority disagreed.

Blessedly, the committee appointed under the law  to hear the appeal of the taxpayer, comprising two respected accountants and a senior judge, found in favour of the appellant. The ruling was reasoned and well-presented doing what I, in my recurring naivety, thought  was what the tax authorities found difficulty with – filling in by stealth the missing bits of the law that should have been, but were not, there.

I assumed that would be it. The tax authorities were given a peg on which to hang their coat, and the world could carry on. The judge even recommended that the legislature add the relevant provisions to the statute so as not to permanently be required to rely on case law.

Dickens was quite obsessed with the failings of the legal system

Well, according to the professional ‘press’, I got it wrong. The tax authority is expected to blow a raspberry at the decision and pursue an appeal in the High Court.  Apart from the relative certainty that they won’t win, I don’t begin to understand what they are reported to be contemplating.

It would simply not be fair.

‘Your money or your life, please!’

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How some people view the taxman

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

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

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

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

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

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Not as holy as he looked

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

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Even kids recognized the brown envelope

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

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

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

I rest my case.

What a laugh!


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Don’t mention the war!

The irony of Ukraine’s recent election of a Jewish president would not have been lost on my grandparents who fled the Odessa pogrom of 1905, but they would have been utterly bamboozled – along with millions of members of their grandson’s generation – by the news that he is a satirical comedian.

On the other hand, many would think the contrary – that a honed satirical mind provides the keenest insight into the human condition, the sine qua non for an elected leader.

For someone who has made his living out of speech, President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky was remarkably mute on the issues during the campaign. He was either saving it all up for the ‘opening night’, or – more worryingly – he didn’t have anything to say.

As ‘news’ seeps out about his intentions, it does appear that the new president intends to push ahead with Ukrainian corporate tax reform. As the reform is somewhat revolutionary, it is either a sign of great political courage, or a complete absence of new material in his act.

Volodymyr Zelensky candidate for the post of President of

The polls just kept smiling on him

Despite Zelensky’s media people improbably waving it around as one of his team’s great ideas, the Ukrainian government and parliament have been toying for some time with replacing corporate profits tax (the plain vanilla thing we recognize around the world) with a ‘tax on withdrawn capital’. In a nutshell – companies would not pay corporate tax annually on their ongoing profits, but would incur tax on the withdrawal of any funds. So, for example, dividends  paid to a foreign resident would first attract tax at the company level, that foreign resident picking up  the net dividend as taxable income in  their home country with no credit for the Ukrainian tax paid. This contrasts with the traditional situation, where withholding tax would normally ‘belong’ to the recipient and be creditable in the foreign country either according to domestic law or treaty.

The rationale of the proposal, bantered about by the outgoing administration,  is that the non-taxation of reinvested funds will make Ukrainian industry more competitive. The reality is more likely that it is because tax collection is currently fiendishly difficult, and it will be much easier to collect on a transactional basis when the money is heading out the door anyway. For a courageous newcomer with a proven sense of humor and satirical prowess,  a far superior rationale might bring the house down –  the proposed tax makes more sense than the system employed by the other 190-odd countries in the world.

Although the tax on withdrawn capital is to be imposed on the company, in economic reality it is a tax on the recipient collected through the company – as if an uncreditable withholding tax were imposed on, say, the dividend. The company effectively pays no tax, period.

As I wrote on these pages back in July 2015, 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.

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Putting Ukraine on the map

There is, of course, one colossal problem with the whole idea – it is nigh impossible to predict annual tax revenues when so much is dependent on the decisions of companies  to distribute, or not. The system has evidently worked in Estonia – a small country – but failed in others. Ukraine is a big country with a complex  economy and a population of over 42 million. It has even won the Eurovision Song Contest twice.

It will be interesting to see if this idea continues its long run, or closes soon after the new leading man takes over.

 

Fishy business

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The good old days…

Among the moral influences on my childhood, and that of my fellow English countrykids, was Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Cautionary Tales for Children’. Entering the Land of Nod at night to the story of Jim who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion, or Matilda who said lies and was burnt to death, none of us was likely to deliver on any 6-year-old’s lurking urge to commit mass murder or rob a bank. Our parents knew how to keep us on the straight and narrow – pure, unadulterated fear.

In a long(ish) career, I have always tried to avoid instilling fear in clients. Clear explanations, and the earning of trust, are usually enough to encourage action. However, there is one area of taxation  in Israel that sometimes demands a little more persuasion when it comes to foreigners, both corporate and individual, setting up businesses here –  professional bookkeeping. And from this month we have a Cautionary Tale all of our own, thanks to a judge in the Tel Aviv District Court.

The judgement reads like a funny children’s book:

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‘101, 102…’

One fine day (that is approximately how the judgement starts) a woman walked into the local fishmonger operated by a Mr Katzav (Google translate: Mr Butcher). It seems they had an argument about the price (he wanted 108 shekels and she was only willing to pay 103 shekels). She ultimately insisted on paying him in notes and coins of small denominations, and stormed out of the shop. Waiting in the street were two comically ill-prepared tax inspectors who were there on a tip-off. They converged on the woman, in sight  – through the window – of a clueless Mr Butcher, and managed with difficulty to extract from her the details of her purchase. Thanks to nobody keeping proper track of what happened next (maybe no fewer than 3 inspectors are needed for that), there was some dispute as to whether the inspectors entered the shop 2 minutes or 10 minutes after the customer left. There was also some confusion as to whether Mr Butcher was on the telephone when they came in, and whether Mr Butcher decided to ring up the purchase (the cash was already in the till) just before or just after the inspectors identified themselves.

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Excellent powers of deduction

The bottom line was that none of the details really mattered (and the tax inspectors must have thanked their lucky stars for that). Once the judge had cleverly concluded that there was no way the officials could have been in the shop confronting Mr Butcher within anything close to 2 minutes – the mere fact that he was late in ringing up the purchase was enough to sink him.

Israeli bookkeeping regulations, based on statute and relying on case law, require any amount received to be registered ‘close to undertaking the transaction’. Motive is not relevant – the regulation is not designed just for tax evaders; it is also designed to prevent people honestly forgetting. So, ‘close to undertaking the transaction’ broadly means ‘immediately’ ie ‘right now’. (On the other hand, had Mr Butcher been able to show that it was a genuine mistake – wink, wink –  he would have probably been given a second chance, on condition nothing went wrong within the next 12 months.)

In the event, Mr Butcher’s accounting records were declared unfit for that year and, presumably,  the previous one. To be clear, that is a smelly state of affairs – the tax authorities can assume higher income than reported, and fines may be imposed.

While the non-registering of income is the most critical offense, there are a myriad bookkeeping rules for differing areas of business, right down to the specific layout of tax invoices. If practice is materially out of sync with the regulations, the same result can occur as with Mr Butcher. (Even the ‘second chance’ is scary as a sneaky follow-up audit could be expected during the probation period).

The takeaway should be that, anybody running even a one-man business needs to be sure that all details of the complex bookkeeping regulations are adhered to. That will, more often than not,  mean using the services of a professional bookkeeper.

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Hull – the UK’s current City of Culture

The first corporate liquidation in which I was involved, some 35 years ago, was of a Hull (a coastal town in Northern England) based fishery. They sent the records down to London. When we opened the boxes, the books stank in more ways than one.

Que?

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The British University of Glue

The English language often lags scientific progress. We still ‘turn on the radio’, even if none of us have seen a dial in years. When my kids were growing up, I always reminded them to ‘pull the chain’ even though toilet flush mechanisms had long been more user-friendly. And today, our computers offer us the opportunity to ‘cut and paste’ when there isn’t a pair of scissors or tube of glue in sight.

Early in my career, cutting and pasting was the standard way a kidnapper combined letters taken from a newspaper into a ransom demand, and a tax adviser pulled the disjointed components of a document together into a work of art that could demand a ransom. As we went (the ‘we’ being tax advisers rather than kidnappers), we deleted and replaced inconsistencies of language with red biro, and sent the resultant scrolls down to the soon-to-be-cursing typists.

Well, thanks to Word, those days are long numbered – but something close is going to hit the tax world like a tsunami next year (in fact it has already hit – but in very limited circumstances).

The Multilateral Instrument (MLI) – that won wide praise for the fact that it happened at all – is going  to make a lot of people’s lives (including mine) a misery, and no amount of Microsoft wizardry is going to lift  spirits; the Gettysburg Address was a magnificent eulogy – but it didn’t help the poor fellows buried there.

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Lost. Full-stop (Google translate: Period)

For the uninitiated, the MLI is a 49 page document of semi-comprehensible English and French that modifies bilateral tax treaties without the need for excruciating bilateral negotiations. Over a hundred countries signed up to the basic wording (the latest entries into force, in the last fortnight, are Malta and Singapore), with multiple choice opportunities for certain clauses, the right to exclude other clauses or sub-clauses that are satisfactorily covered in a specific bilateral treaty, and the right to ignore yet other clauses. There is also a right not to include another country (Israel has, for example, so far excluded the UK, and only the UK). The document deals – as part of the BEPS project – with hybrid situations, treaty abuse, avoidance of permanent establishment status, dispute resolution and arbitration. If you want a feel of how complicated it is – the section entitled ‘Simplified Limitation of Benefits’ runs to four and a half pages.

But that is not the difficult bit. If, for example, an Israeli adviser is going to consider a transaction with one of Israel’s 54 treaty partners that are not the UK, after establishing whether and when  that partner has signed up to the MLI, it is necessary to shoe-horn the relevant sections into the bilateral treaty, update specific sub-clauses, and then try and make sense of the different language styles and terminology without the benefit of a red pen – each change depending on the options the other side has chosen along the way. Cutting and pasting gone mad.

311fe468b42dace6de2e60adefc53918The OECD is making efforts to make it all easier with an MLI Matching Database (Beta) which,  at least, should obviate the need to view both country’s details with a split screen. Mind you, the OECD’s I-know-nothing disclaimer means it will also all need to be checked manually anyway. And, in any event, the cutting and pasting as well as different language are still there.

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Poor chap

The only long-term answer will be for some enterprising professional (probably a legal and tax publisher) in each country to produce updated treaties that read in one go from beginning to end.

I suppose we should be grateful that, with the United States not on board and the UK leaving Europe, they didn’t just do the whole damn thing in French.

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.

Tales from the Crypto

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There were always a few kids in the class who refused to look at the camera

Kurt Vonnegut famously said: ‘True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country’. The G20 summit in Buenos Aires earlier this month spawned a myriad online articles about the international taxation of cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin etc). Intrigued by the efforts of my ‘classmates’ (most of them belong to my generation) to get their heads around a difficult subject, I delved in only to find an even truer terror: ‘To wake up one morning and discover that your children’s high school class is running the online economic press’.

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You could forgive the journalist for missing the nuance of the paragraph break

My suspicions were aroused when I noted that each and every article relied on the same statement of a Japanese news agency ‘drawn’ from the final declaration of the summit. To anyone with a modicum of tax knowledge,  it was clear that the Japanese rumour-monger had got their taxes in a twist. With immense determination unknown to the younger generation, I spared no effort in googling: ‘G20 Buenos Aires final declaration’, the text of which, lo and behold, appeared before my very eyes. A further 5 minutes spent actually reading the entire thing (f-i-v-e whole minutes!) produced the answer. A bland paragraph  including reference to the need to regulate crypto-assets against money laundering and terrorism, followed by another bland paragraph about BEPS that even my classmates could understand. Somebody clearly forgot to tell the Japanese reporter that there is a reason for paragraph splits in the English language, and somebody forgot to tell the on-line reporters – who it appears don’t know what it is to get off their backsides for a story – that they should not blindly rely on every piece of fake news they read online. Bottom line – the G20 summit was silent on the taxation of cryptocurrencies.

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At least the Germans have always understood what money is

In the meantime, cryptocurrencies have been in free fall, and the world’s tax authorities may be about to regret their approach. Although cryptocurrencies have been around for a while, tax authorities were slow to sink their teeth into them. By now, possibly encouraged by price increases in 2016 and 2017, most jurisdictions have come to the conclusion that they are legally assets rather than currencies. As such, the exemptions that often exist  for individuals on exchange rate differences do not apply. In general, capital gains tax will be charged on realized gains (most authorities have at least managed to convince themselves that VAT should generally be avoided).But there is still confusion – as late as October 2018 an IRS Advisory Committee asked for certain clarifications from the IRS, while possible British taxation runs right across the spectrum depending on circumstances. Germany has a slightly different approach, having recognized them as money. At the same time, Israel took a literal view of the definition of currencies in its tax ordinance (cryptocurrencies do not qualify), and is there in the conservative pack.

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And what’s wrong with gambling?

The catch for tax authorities is that, by insisting gains are taxable, they have to recognize losses as allowable – and the losses in 2018 have been horrendous. If that G20 paragraph on regulation is properly acted upon, the days of wild fluctuations may be numbered in 2019 – and the pain of what was a bad gamble by individuals on something totally speculative, will be irrevocably shared by national treasuries. Maybe it is time to pass the baton to my grandchildren’s generation.

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.

Did you hear the one about..?

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French comedy at its (silent) best

This year’s Booker International prizewinner, ‘A horse walks into a bar’, follows the routine of an over-the-hill stand-up comic as he coaxes and manipulates his audience, painfully aware that one failed joke could send the entire act crashing through the stage floor.

I often wonder why modern politicians don’t take their cue from stand-up comedians. While much of what they say and do is laughable, they never seem to be afraid of wheeling out the old, failed one-liners. And, unbelievably, far from throwing rotten tomatoes, their constituents and the international community at large lap up their corny nonsense.

For example, did you hear the one about the French Finance Minister who walked into a press conference …?

Following five years of clownish misrule by socialist Francois Hollande, last month France’s independent auditor uncovered a budget shortfall of seven billion euros. Meanwhile, France has failed to meet the EU maximum deficit requirement of 3% of GDP every year for the last decade – a target that is particularly important for the stability of the single currency. And, then there is the protected labour market, with maximum working hours and early retirement, to name but two loony-left policies.

All that misery led the new Prime Minister to announce earlier this month that President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign-promised tax cuts would have to wait until 2019 while the government set about balancing the books. That invited an immediate reaction, not from the opposition, but from the government’s Finance Minister, evidently acting with the backing of his boss’s boss. According to the quickly revised script, the first stage of the planned reduction of corporate tax from 33% to 25% would go ahead next year – down to a cordon bleu, mouth-watering 28%. Meanwhile, housing taxes would be reduced, and there would be a reform of wealth tax (the latter would be delayed).

The amazing thing is that the Finance Minister declared that the required budget deficit target would still be achieved in 2018 – the gap evidently to be closed by the expected additional tax revenues from the economic growth arising from the change. You can fool some of the people all of the time. History is full of no-hope fiscal promises from governments. A larger than expected deficit, plus labour rigidity that will take years to unravel, would be a no-brainer to any tenth-grade pupil who could think past his infatuation with his teacher. Short of a miracle – like the bonanza of more than a billion euro back-taxes the French courts refused to sanction from Google last week, or the Finance Minister getting lucky with the country’s foreign currency reserves on the tables at Monte Carlo – the deficit target is going to be missed once more.

I realize that politicians, more than most, do not like to be bearers of bad tidings, but what about the French equivalent of the man on the Clapham omnibus? Do people really just hear what they want to hear?

While governments and their cohorts can, at a price, mess with the money supply and the amount of fiscal spending, as well – in fairness – as tax policy, they clearly cannot micromanage the annual tax-take.

Lousy one-liners aside – in politics, like in stand-up, it is all a matter of timing…..

 

The Unsatanic Taxes

funnyroadNobody who has read Salman Rushdie’s classic ‘Midnight’s Children’ can be indifferent to the juxtaposition of India and Midnight in a phrase or sentence. So, the recent announcement that India’s new GST law (VAT by any other name would smell as sweet) would come into effect, amidst much fanfare, at midnight on July 1 was enough to make my heart flutter like a punkahwallah’s punkah.

The world’s biggest democracy has finally joined the vast majority of the globe’s tax-setters in a cross-twenty-nine-state system that, when the technological problems are sorted out, should improve India’s tax-raising efficiency and, thus, help that great country in furthering its economic growth.

That is not to say that VAT is the Mother Teresa of all taxes. Its biggest problem is that it is regressive –  it taxes consumption at the level of the poor-man-in-the-street who, the poorer he is,  spends a higher proportion of his income on surviving. This is traditionally combatted by lower rates or exemptions on basic things like food. Indeed, India – in keeping with its tradition of making everything as complicated as possible – has introduced five rates of VAT  plus a stratospheric concoction for dealing with untouchables like luxury goods and tobacco.

Of course, there will still be those who manage to get round the tax, legally or otherwise. Time will tell whether devious residents latch onto the ubiquitous Carousel Fraud phenomenon (involving the import and export of the same goods multiple times – a bunch of Brits were caught a few years back when they got lazy and stopped changing the plugs on phone chargers between France and England). And then there was the hard-to-believe wheeze of the Spanish theatre that sold VAT-exempt carrots for admittance to its performances together with a worthless piece of paper called a ticket. The only problem (apart from the Spanish tax garrotters catching up with them) was that hungry patrons couldn’t prove their right to re-entry to the auditorium after a toilet break during the intermission.

At the end of the day, VAT works. One of the few countries that does not seem to agree is the ‘biggest’ democracy (as opposed to the ‘biggest democracy’). A few years ago, at lunch at a conference in Berlin, a group of American experts were discussing ways of plugging the impossible US deficit, coming up with all sorts of supply-side ideas. Thinking that V.A.T was the sort of acronym (actually sayable, like M.A.D – Mutual Assured Destruction) that Americans would die for (especially when said with an English accent), I suggested that imposition of such a tax would surely solve all their problems. I was completely frozen out. V.A.T is a dirty acronym in the eyes of Uncle Sam. My luncheon partners looked like they wanted to drag me in front of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee. The irony, of course, is that while V.A.T undermines the ‘redistribution of income’ philosophy of most of the ’red’ nations (such as Britain and Europe) imposing it, the American belief in ‘equality of opportunity’ is completely at peace with its workings.

The Indians still have a long way to go. Their direct tax system leaves much to be desired – the witch-hunt of Vodafone to cover the seller’s capital gains in an offshore purchase a while back, and its treaty-defying Dividend Distribution Tax being but two examples of the rot.

As Rushdie put it in Midnight’s Children, ‘I admit it: above all things I fear absurdity.’ Thankfully, his beloved India is finally taking steps in the right direction.

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