Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the tag “Israeli tax”

No laughing matter

Gallows humor

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tax authority’s money is hung out to dry

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

English as a very foreign language

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One word would have been a start.

Several years ago, I returned from a quick trip to Paris on El Al Business Class. As everybody knows, El Al’s security measures are peerless, but just before the gate at Orly airport, the French insisted on putting us all through a second metal detector. I buzzed. Now, I am a big believer that there can’t be too much security, and would normally have been happily compliant as they played hide and seek with my belt and shoe heels (this was before shoe heels were a real security item). But this was France. And this was a security officer pulling on white gloves. And he was French. He barked at me in his Gallic tongue, and – despite five wasted years at school doing my bit for the Entente Cordiale – I just looked at him like a gentleman would look at a barking puppy. He barked again – and that was it; I flipped:

‘Speak to me in English! There is only one international language today, and you will speak to me in it!’

He barked again, this time signaling I should turn around. Not likely with those damned white gloves, Pierre!

I then did something rather disingenuous for the first and only time in my life:

‘I am an Israeli. I speak English. Why don’t you?’

At this point, the El Al security officer who had interviewed me earlier, and had suffered my heavily accented Hebrew, together with her two colleagues who were standing nearby, actually burst out laughing.  Suffice to say, not wishing to spend the weekend in the Bastille, I did ultimately comply. I have no idea why he wore the white gloves – he went nowhere near my Maginot Line.

What made me raise this now in a tax blog? A few weeks ago, the OECD uploaded the latest version of Israel’s Transfer Pricing Country Profile. The document involves, in the main, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers with a space for the reference in statute law. So far, so good. But, here and there, a few short sentences are necessary. Aye, and there’s the rub.

lets_eat_grandmaHardly any of it was in grammatical English. I had difficulty even understanding some of the sentences.

This is a disgrace, and I don’t think it is restricted to Israel.

One of the principal reasons the OECD has been able to advance its BEPS international tax agenda so efficiently is that the world has learnt to communicate in a common language. This is not about triumph or ego. It is about efficiency.

And, of course, the advantages go far, far beyond tax. There really is no reason today why the sine qua non for any function in the international sphere should not be relative fluency in English. The only exception would be a prime minister or president who is elected by the people (mind you, the current president of France seems to have a better command of English than the current president of the United States.)

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My fecund imagination is starting to run away with itself

And, as for the written word, if I were the OECD, I would put red ink all over the Israeli (and any other unacceptable) entry and send it back marked; ‘Not good enough. Try again’. That is how we learnt English in school.  The stick also helped – but I wouldn’t put that in the hands of any organization based in Paris.

Fair fight?

The tough guys are in charge

Underdog Andy Ruiz’s technical knock-out of world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua in their fight on June 2 was one of sporting history’s great surprises.

Similarly, civil court cases against the tax authorities are rarely won by the underdog, generally ending with a knock-out – technical or otherwise – of the assessee.

There was an exception back in February (I will explain shortly why the item is topical). It involved three flesh-and-blood Israeli residents who claimed a capital gains tax reduction on the sale of shares in the company they controlled. The basis of the claim was an article in the tax code declaring, in certain circumstances, that the part of the gain  reflected by retained profits in the company would be taxed as if those profits were distributed as a dividend. The company in question had a special tax status that offered a reduced rate of tax on dividends. The tax authority said ‘No Way Jose’ (pugilism and wresting belong to the same family of sports), and they ended up badly matched in the ring.

That’ll tell ’em

The advantage that the tax authority’s lawyers had going into the bout was that this particular article was enough to leave the fittest of fighters punch-drunk. It had been updated twice in the early years of this century – in both cases in response to serious tax reform – leaving assessees and their advisors swaying in confusion.

But, the referee was having none of it. The assessees convinced the referee with their parrying of a barrage of alternative arguments. And it was the referee himself who applied the killer blow,  sending the authority crashing onto the canvas.

The authority had declared in a non-legally binding circular some years back, that – while companies selling the shares of other companies with special status would benefit from the reduced ‘dividend’ tax, individuals would not. Earlier in his judgment, His Honour had already dismissed the entire argument as nonsense, but here was a circular offering no explanation or excuse for the bald-faced indefensible differentiation. Hoisted with their own petard. Count to ten, and out?

Not quite.

The tax authority sought leave to appeal. But, as they gathered their teeth from the canvas, they must have realized that – however low their chance of overturning the reasoned judgement that had floored their arguments one by one – they would be pummeled over their out-of-the-ring circular.

So, in the evident hope that nobody would notice them changing sports – they moved the goal posts. Earlier this month, the authority issued an uncharacteristically terse notice to tax representatives stating that companies selling their investments in other companies with a special tax status would not longer be entitled to the special dividend rates.

While – when the appeal is heard –  that may take the sting out of the judge’s most humiliating punch, there remans plenty more there to sink them.

Don’t worry, he won’t notice a thing

In any event, the authority’s action reeks of chutzpa – doubled by the fact that when  queried about it, they claimed not to understand what the fuss was about as the clarification was about companies rather than individuals There is sophistry, and there is circumlocution.

Were I the judge handling the appeal, I would invite the assessees to join the authority in the  witness box and give them leave to sort it out among themselves.

Tales from the Crypt…

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Cryptowhat?

In a landmark Israeli court case last week, it was decided that Bitcoins are assets, the profit on sale of which attracts capital gains tax. The case revolved largely, but not exclusively, around the question of whether such cryptocurrencies meet the description of – well – currencies, exchange differences arising from which are exempt from tax.

The judge waxed  lyrical on the technical definition of ‘currency’ in Israeli law, bringing back memories of the 1980s when Milton Friedmann’s Monetarists ruled the macro-economic world; if there is no – what you and I call – cash, there is no currency. Given the movement towards a cashless society since Friedmann’s death, some might argue that the  approach was a little primitive (although, in fairness, the judge did recognize the prospect for change). But, let’s face it, why be just primitive when you can be positively Neanderthal?

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We really have come a long way since the Stone Age

We all know that money came about as a way of avoiding the gross inefficiencies of barter. Instead of a hunter having to schlep home the two sheepskin jumpsuits he got for his wild boar and then swap one of them for a wife, some bright spark realized (possibly while taking a break from inventing the spark), that the supply chain could be streamlined. All it needed was something the supply of which couldn’t be tampered with by the caveman next door, that would maintain the relative values of the items being traded.  Somewhere down the line people left the caves, gold came gradually  to the fore, and it wasn’t until 1931 – with one world war behind it, and the human race less than a decade away from indisputedly proving that it hadn’t really got anywhere since the stone age – that the Gold Standard was ditched.

So,  all that was really needed in this case was to establish whether Bitcoins, or cryptocurrencies generally, can be described as replacements for barter. With that in mind, it is time for a fairy story that will prove that every decently educated five-year old could have judged this case, and saved the State a small fortune.

Once upon a time, there was a poor widow whose old cow stopped giving milk. She sent her son to market to sell the beast. On the way, the boy – who was always looking for the chance of a quick buck – met a man in a pinstripe suit who offered him a handful of, what his prospectus claimed were, magic beans. When the boy arrived home, proud of his financial prowess, his sensible mother summarily chucked the beans out of the window. The next morning the boy found a beanstalk where the new Maserati should have been. To cut a long story (and a long beanstalk) short, as every one of you knows, Jack ended up – through a morally questionable transaction – with a pile of gold (gold!), a goose that laid golden (made of gold!) eggs, and an annoying harp that was presumably ditched in the nearest lake.

Jack’s deal for the magic beans was purely speculative. Jack didn’t know what he was getting, and his mother’s reaction was absolutely logical. And, look how the story ended. No beans in sight. To give the tale a happy ending, the storyteller had Jack and his mum back in hard currency (gold) quicker than you could say ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’.

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How I learnt Economics

Bitcoins are magic beans (the analogy can be extended to marijuana shares by substituting magic mushrooms for magic beans). There is no way any self-respecting caveman, five year old, or fairy tale character would accept them in a barter transaction as long as their price continues to move all over the place.

There have been too many unnecessary court cases over the last couple of years in what are, to any self-respecting tax specialist with no patience for worthless sophistry, open and shut matters. (Take for example, Snow White and the 1.83 Meter Actor). On the other hand, there are lots of disputes involving genuinely controversial issues that are settled by compromise with the tax authorities when a judicial clarification would be to the advantage of society.

There must be a better way to ensure that honest taxpayers can live happily ever after.

 

 

 

 

Tell it like it is

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Not a robot? Spot the quotes

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. That quote from Romeo and Juliet has occupied my thoughts this last week. As an Israeli judge found recently, the concept is only a ‘truth universally acknowledged’ to the extent the rose is inarguably a rose. And, in the process, the learned gentleman took pains and, dare I say liberties with the law, to rub compost in the face of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

Israel has had a Law for the Encouragement of Capital Investment for the last 60 years. Primarily a treasure chest of tax and monetary incentives to further the needs of the economy, it has been touched up and renovated periodically as the needs of the State changed and matured. In 2005, in an attempt to simplify a cumbersome process befitting a formerly socialist country,  a boost was given to those industrial enterprises that exported a pre-ordained percentage of their production.

industrial robotic arm building EXPORT word

Not a robot? You don’t need the word ‘export’ to understand ‘export’.

However, the word ‘export’ had to be expunged from the Law’s lexicon. Offering export incentives threatened a shower of fire and brimstone from the World Trade Organization and, specifically, those with whom Israel had free trade agreements (including the US and EU). So, the sophists engaged to draft the law came up with a need to meet one of the following requirements:

  • Income from a specific market must not be more than 75% of total income;
  • 25% or more of total income must be  from a specific market numbering at least 12 million residents.

That would avoid detection in a word search by nosy foreign governments,  while anyone with a brain that worked in accordance with evolutionary theory could interpret the law as demanding  at least 25% export, with no restrictions on the level of exports to any major foreign country. Why 12 million? Probably because it was a lot more than the population of Israel in 2005 (the number was updated a few years back to 14 million with an annual automatic increase).

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How can we be sure anymore that the number of residents of New Zealand doesn’t include the sheep?

Well, populations have a habit of growing, and by sometime in 2012  Israel’s market, which included the residents of  Judea and Samaria aka the West Bank had grown to more than 12 million, and companies that sold exclusively to Israel decided to claim the benefits of the Law. The tax authorities told them, in no uncertain terms, to go fly a kite.

The courts got involved and agreed with the tax authorities (the tax authorities’ argument had layers not elucidated here). The appeal was heard this month.

Although, at bottom line, the appeal was thrown out, the judge disagreed with the tax authorities that Israel could not, in principle, be included in the second condition, offering a long and reasoned argument. The upshot would be that no exports were required at all – a surprising conclusion. Interestingly, in addition to arguing that exporting was not the clear intention of the law, he completely ignored the first (alternative) condition which, although not negating entirely the Israel-only possibility, made the whole thing Monty Pythonesque.

Benjamin Netanyahu, David Bitan, Oren Hazan

They are going to take the judge’s comments very seriously.

Faith in the judge was restored, however, towards the end of the 39 page judgement. Quoting from some of the committee discussions surrounding the 2005 amendment, he lambasted the parliamentarians for the underhand way in which they had sought to hide the export incentive from Israel’s trading partners, making clear that white man mustn’t speak with forked tongue. If, as a result, they got their wording in a twist, they deserved to be punished. He forcefully suggested that the legislature should update the wording of the law.

There is nothing new, or unique to Israel, about actively confusing laws. Back in the 1850s, the author of Little Dorrit invented a whole government department to promote the idea – the Office of Circumlocution. But, perhaps, times they are a changin.

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