Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the tag “Tax humour”

The Celtic Tiger changes its stripes

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I can’t wait for 2046

The biggest debunker of conspiracy theories has to be what the British call ‘the thirty year rule’  for the declassification of secret documents. It is not that the released documents reveal the truth (the really juicy ones are locked up for far longer); it is, rather, the realization that the behind-the-scenes machinations of government way back then were far more chaotic than anything we imagined at the time. Conspiracies need thought.

So, my conspiracy theory about Ireland’s mammoth tax bill  to pharmaceutical giant Perrigo towards the end of last year will probably be utterly disproven sometime in 2048. But, by then I will be either dead or too old to care. So, here goes.

The (undisputed) story:

In 2013 the (undisputed) Irish Elan Corp sold its interest in Tysabri, a multiple sclerosis drug, to Biogen Idec Inc for a lot of money. A few months later (undisputed) US corporation Perrigo Inc entered into an inversion transaction with Elan. The transaction involved the smaller Elan achieving ownership of Perrigo, with the Perrigo shareholders receiving a majority of the shares of Elan. The principal  (undisputed) advantage to Perrigo was a reduction in future tax. This would be achieved by (calculated conjecture) including future non-US acquisitions under the Irish parent, thus bypassing the then draconian US tax system, and engineering debt from the US to the Irish parent. The latter  would reduce US taxable income at 35%, and increase Irish taxable income at rates of between 0% and 25%, with the Irish foot secretly holding the scale at the lower end thanks to leprecaunish Irish wheezes such as the Double Irish and Single Malt schemes ( the Irish clearly chose names they were convinced could never be traced back to them).

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Ireland is quite a distance

In December 2018 it became known that the Perrigo group (Elan had very cleverly changed its name to that of its new subsidiary) had been issued a bill by the Irish tax authorities for  €1.64 billion. The justification was the reclassification of  the profit on sale of the intellectual property to Biogen from trading income (somewhere between 0% and 12.5% tax) to capital gains (33%). Perrigo promptly announced  that  it was suddenly hard to run a US customer-service organization from the other side of the pond. It is now rumoured that the group is threatening shelving plans for expansion in Dublin unless, presumably, their appeal against the tax assessment is successful.

And now, the conspiracy theory:

As opposed to the $13 billion tax claim from Apple forced upon Ireland by the EU (poor Ireland), the issue  here is what one commentator called Tax 101 – the party trick of tax advisers worldwide walking the tax classification tightrope between capital gains  and trading income, ready at all times to pull the tax-saving bunny out of their moneybags. The sale of the IP was several months before Perrigo merged into Elan. It is to be presumed that Perrigo ordered a tax due diligence, and even if some bits and pieces were obscured by the Guinness, had some inkling of a potential €1.64 billion tax bill. Either they received an utterly obese indemnity from Elan’s shareholders, or there was a clear understanding from somewhere that lreland’s long-standing open-sewer policy of encouraging American investment at all moral cost meant that the authorities could be expected to stay out to a liquid lunch.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2018, and the US had a new tax law . The complementary regimes of Foreign-Derived Intangible Income on certain income of US companies from abroad, and Global Intangible Low Taxed Income of non-US subsidiaries, established a planning benchmark US effective tax rate  in either case of  around 13% . Add to that new inversion rules and restrictions on interest deductibility, and the question that comes to the befuddled mind is: ‘Why Ireland?’

So, what does a country do when its economic raison d’etre is disappearing down the  sewer? It takes a leaf out of Donald Trump’s book – and thinks protectionism. But, in the case of Ireland – other than its beer and whiskey industries – there was precious little of its domestic economy to protect. Other  than its tax advantage, that is.

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And where do you think you’re going?

In October 2018 the Irish budget included, as expected, Controlled Foreign Corporation provisions as required by the EU (see Tax Break 1/1/19). What wasn’t expected was the early imposition of an Exit Tax (which was not due until 2020). Companies wanting to expatriate from Ireland will now face a 12.5% ‘capital gains tax’ – or, in other words, they are pretty well stuck.

All this opened the door for the Irish Treasury to take off its kid gloves, and treat captive foreign companies just like any other. The Irish seem to be saying to Perrigo: ‘You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.’ I wonder how many Irish-Americans there are in California.

 

Double Dutch

Another way to keep the tax bill downBack in the days when there were twelve pence to a shilling and twenty shillings to a pound, there was an urban myth of a retired Maths teacher who runs into his worst student as the latter climbs out of a Rolls Royce. The younger man embraces his old nemesis, proceeds to thank him for the great Maths education that enabled him to succeed, and declares: ‘I buy ties for a pound, sell them for one pound ten shillings (Google translate: £1.50), which means a ten per cent gross profit. My after-tax earnings are amazing’.

As 2018 was drawing to a close, Holland appeared to be having a similar problem with basic Maths in meeting its commitments to the European Union, albeit that the EU had itself been guilty of gross bureaucratic circumlocution.

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How will the EU manage with the English language when the UK leaves?

In 2016, the EU issued its ambiguously entitled, ‘Anti Tax Avoidance Directive’, which might have been the credo of our low-taxed tie entrepreneur had it not been for the fact that the text made very clear that this was a pro-tax directive aimed at ensuring there was no avoidance. It was however a warning that members would be dealing with poor-language damage control. The Directive directed that interest limitations, exit tax, hybrid arrangements and controlled foreign corporations (CFCs) all had to be dealt with in individual national legislation by the end of 2018. So far, so clear.

As summer gave way to autumn (and, in some cases autumn gave way to winter) member states seemed to inexplicably vie for last place in the legislating stakes, despite having no ultimate choice – even the hapless British, who were hanging off the edge of the EU, had to comply.

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There are other ways of solving the problem of offshore jurisdictions

As the stragglers came on board, thanks to the abovementioned Dutch, there was one curiosity deserving attention. The Controlled Foreign Corporation (CFC) has been with us since the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis (CMC) in October 1962, when John F Kennedy (JFK) signed the US version into law. In a nutshell, despite jurisdictions adopting various incarnations of CFC, the underlying nous is that certain income either parked in or diverted to a low-tax jurisdiction is to be taxed on a current basis in the hands of the parent as if a dividend has been distributed.

One of the features common to most CFC regimes is that the calculations are objective – identify the item and tax it. The EU version offers two options to choose from. Option A is the traditional method – identifying specific types of income, while Option B has CFC provisions stepping in where state-of-the-art Transfer Pricing isn’t satisfactory. Option B is clearly subjective, and seems to beg to be ignored (when was the last time a company volunteered that its transfer pricing wasn’t up to much?)

Common to both methods, however, is the ownership level triggering CFC, and the rate of tax below which the CFC legislation can apply. That last point is where the Netherlands  appear to have lost track of the numbers, and the EU to have lost track of its mind.

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I think I’ll stick with the mind reader

We all surely remember the ‘great’ mind-reading trick of our youth – telling some unwitting stooge (usually a younger brother) to ‘think of a number, double it, add X, divide by two, and take away the number you first thought of’. The answer, due to the rudiments of Mathematics, was always X/2.

Well, the Directive establishes low-tax for CFC purposes by the following calculation:

‘The actual corporate tax paid on its profits by the entity or permanent establishment is lower than the difference between the corporate tax that would have been charged on the entity or permanent establishment under the applicable corporate tax system in the Member State of the taxpayer and the actual corporate tax paid on its profits by the entity or permanent establishment.

Now, as hard as I try, I  cannot interpret this gobbledygook as anything other than a horribly complex and roundabout way of arriving at half the parent company’s corporate tax rate. Almost all the EU member countries appeared to come to the same conclusion. However, not the Dutch. Perhaps the official Dutch translator in Brussels was drunk or stoned, but after a lot of bellybutton watching in recent months over an initially proposed 7%, they finally plumped at the eleventh hour for 9%. Despite wrestling with every combination of current and proposed higher-income and lower-income Dutch corporate tax rates, I could not justify 7% or 9% when fed into the above ‘equation’.

So, what is happening? As far as I can see – nothing. The EU bureaucracy is in Christmas hibernation, with instructions only to be aroused from its slumber by occasional wake-up coughs from the tiresome British.

It will be interesting to see if, now we are in the New Year, anybody notices.

Happy New Year – especially to my Dutch friends.

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.

Yes, Minister

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Keep it simple…

Looking confused next to the overhead locker of my assigned Business Class seat on a British Airways flight from Heathrow to New York last year, I was approached by a helpful flight attendant (if that is what stewardesses are called these days) who offered assistance. Pointing to the little picture indicating which mini-compartment was 12A, and which 12B, I told her I was unfortunately pictorially dyslexic. She looked momentarily sympathetic before bursting out laughing: ‘What do you mean, pictorially dyslexic? There is no such thing!’

For all I know, she was right.

The fact is that our brains have become so used to hard-edged information being pureed into easily digestible mush, that many of us find it hard coping with anything more taxing than a Facebook intelligence test. (I was recently informed I had an IQ of over 160 because I knew a photograph was of Adolf Hitler, rather than the other choices of Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg. Surely everyone knows that neither Trump nor Bloomberg has a  moustache.)

If you think I am being unfair, take literature. In this day and age, if you want to be published, you have to keep sentences short, and multiple adjectives locked up. So, you would think that chucking the following paragraph – which doubles up as a sentence – at the reader on the first page of a 500 page novel might have condemned the author to obscurity:

‘In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.’

Thankfully, the book saw the light of day  in 1850, not 2017, and  David Copperfield became one of Charles Dickens’s most-loved novels.

Until fairly recently, I believed that one area of intellectual pursuit that had escaped the brain surgeon’s knife was taxation. Taxation is complicated, and advisors have kept it complicated. How often have we watched with satisfaction as our clients’ eyes have glazed over, knowing at the end of a tortuous meeting that they will just tell us ‘to deal with it’?

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…or not.

 

Then – Shock! Horror! – in 2010 the British Treasury came up with the Office of Tax Simplification. 450 recommendations later – including such game changers as simplification of the corporation tax computation and out-of-date procedures still requiring paper confirmation for stamp duty transactions (themselves an anachronism) – the OTS published its first annual report. Apart from a ‘first annual report’ issued seven years after inception being a leading candidate for the accolade ‘the triumph of hope over experience’, the wording itself left hope for tax professionals:

‘The OTS is in a unique position to highlight issues, stimulate debate and act as a catalyst for positive change, being strongly connected within government, having exceptionally wide access to a range of deep expertise from outside government and speaking with an independent voice.’

Charles Dickens couldn’t have written a better paragraph (doubling up as a sentence) himself. In fact, it almost looks like the Office of Tax Simplification could come to rival Little Dorrit’s Circumlocution Office.

The spirit of Bleak House’s Jarndyce and Jarndyce lives on. Mercifully.

 

Taking axes to taxes

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How Hungary chose its tax rate

En route to a tax conference in Malta earlier this month, circumstances led me to muse about the renewed race to the bottom of international corporate tax rates. Donald Trump had not yet surprised the world with his election win, so his promises of madly reduced US corporate tax rates were the stuff of fantasy. But lowly Hungary had just come up with the first single digit rate in the EU, leapfrogging on its way down the traditional cut price nations of Ireland and Cyprus. And since Britain’s decision to ditch the EU, its surrogate Prime Minister Theresa May and her Cabinet have been titillating the markets with talk of even lower rates, though this week’s Autumn Statement reiterated the, once promiscuous but now modest, 17% target for 2020.

All sounds wonderful? Well, here was the first lesson in Tax Policy 101 at 35,000 feet. A certain Italian international airline, which shall remain nameless, was offering the cheapest Business Class travel to my destination. This was not the first time I had flown with them, but triumph-of-hope-over-experience is my middle name.

As Milton Friedman famously said: ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch’,

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It took their minds off crashing

but in the case of this airline, for the first hour and a half in the air, there was no such thing as a free glass of water. The single attendant assigned to Business Class clearly felt the need, inspired by his socialist Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, to redistribute his time to the proletariat at the back, and offer free access to the Business Class toilet because – as he pointed out – he had 150 people on the flight needing facilities; Airbus (and the Italian airline) obviously hadn’t taken that fact into account when configuring the seat lay-out. The meal would not have disappointed a five year old kid with a five dollar budget at McDonalds.

But it wasn’t all bad. The plane did manage to stay in the air for the entire three and a half hour flight – no small feat when considering Italian aviation history, especially in the early 1940s.

At the end of the day, it is simple economics that if you cut the budget something has to give. In the case of the Italian airline, it was service that flew out of the window. In the case of countries recklessly hacking corporate tax rates without stopping to think, they are condemning their populations to austerity today, or austerity tomorrow.

Of course, what each government is trying to do is bring in more foreign investment, expand employment and, thus, the tax base. However, while there is considerable evidence that free trade, by forcing nations to concentrate on their areas of comparative advantage, potentially leads to an increase in the size of the overall pie, tax competition is, if anything, distortive to international trade leading to suboptimal results, at the same time delivering reduced public investment that may have been needed to expand the economy.

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Where is he when we need him?

After years of careful planning following the 2008 financial crisis, we are now entering a period of knee-jerk decisions in international economics alongside knee-jerk decisions in international affairs.

At least it will not be boring.

 

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Putting a Price on Morality

The only relationship between morality and tax?

The only relationship between morality and tax?

‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ Well, not if we are a company. This was the point on which I was reduced to a state of heckling at the Lisbon conference described in my previous post. A Breakout ‘Conversation’ – Breakout ‘Sessions’ are SO last decade –  on ‘Tax and Morality’ was irresistible. (Look, when you are choosing between ‘Documentation requirements under BEPS’ and ‘Tax and Morality’,  irresistible is a relative concept.)

That the first question was simply whether tax and morality went together like a horse and  carriage (not precisely those words, but definitely the idea) was unacceptable. Corporate Tax and Personal Tax, as conceded by the moderator in dealing with my outburst, needed to be treated separately, even if the ultimate conclusion might be ‘yes’. Companies are Children of a Lesser God (their shareholders), and it is nigh impossible to pin anything high and mighty on them.

To me, all this populist corporate morality  posturing over the last few years, embarrassingly sparked off by a British Parliamentary Committee chaired by the alleged beneficiary of a Liechtenstein trust, has been one long yawn of poppycock. The most convincing argument regarding Corporate Morality came from a British colleague and old friend, who managed to dredge up the Parliamentary Proceedings leading to the enactment of certain joint-stock companies in the 17th century, that included some kind of public purpose. (I have been unable to confirm this in independent research, but he is a good bloke, so he probably knows what he is talking about.)

On returning home, thanks to an obituary in The Economist, the issue of Morality and Personal Tax was placed into focus. Irwin Schiff, who died in a Federal Prison last month, was a self-styled libertarian who refused to pay Federal Tax in the United States and, often with time on his hands in various open facilities financed by the idiots who did pay their taxes, wrote several books on the subject.

What was remarkable, and so typical of the different approaches of Europeans and Americans to tax, was that his lifelong struggle had nothing whatsoever to do with morality. In America, to this very day, morality is to taxation what a bicycle is to a fish. You pay taxes because the law forces you to. If the law is an ass and doesn’t close a loophole that allows you not to pay tax, you are an ass if you pay. C’est tout.

The late (literally, and with his tax filings) Mr Schiff attacked the income tax on the basis of it being unconstitutional. Now, I admit to not understanding this (and, neither, it appears did various US judges over the years who sent him to cool off in correctional facilities). The income tax was never popular. It was instituted during the Civil War when, to get at citizens clearing off from the land of the free and the home of the brave, it wasn’t escaped by leaving the US – a price still being paid by US Citizens overseas , and currently copied only by that other regional superpower, Eritrea. It was removed in the 1870s and only made it big-time when Congress passed the 16th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913 (the wrangle in recent years over Obamacare revolved around whether the required federal payments by individuals fell within the Amendment).

I personally do believe (as discussed in a number of earlier posts) that there is a moral responsibility on individuals to pay personal tax. However, there is something simple and attractive about the American approach. We Europeans could not begin to understand Mr Schiff. He lived (when not incarcerated) in Nevada, who few would dub the moral capital of the world. He dressed like a second-hand car salesman and represented himself in court (presumably because no self-respecting lawyer thought he had a case – his arguments  drew heavily on ridiculous sophistry).

Promo or mugshot?

Promo or mugshot?

Schiff made a fortune with such Pythonesque titles as ‘The Biggest Con: How the Government is Fleecing You’ and ‘How Anyone Can Stop Paying Income Taxes’, but the bit I find hardest to comprehend could best be summed up in that wonderful exchange between the legendary Jack Benny and a thug: “Your money or your life?….Look bud, I said ‘Your money of your life’.” …”I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” Forget morality, it seems even freedom has a price in the land of the free.

 

 

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.

Virgin Alpine

He was surprised to discover which nunnery she belonged to.

He was surprised to discover which nunnery she belonged to.

Hamlet’s outburst at Ophelia to ‘get thee to a nunnery’ was intentionally ambiguous. In Elizabethan times a nunnery was either a convent or a brothel. Were the Danish Prince alive today, he could merrily get away with the same line aimed at Switzerland. What happened to the once VIP Escort Agency that, on its way to legitimacy, managed to skip the world’s standard hypocrisy, and within six years achieved a pose of pious humbug. ‘I knew the bride before she was a virgin’ could have been written across the Welcome Hall at Geneva Airport.

There is no need to relate the bawdy history of this mountainous paradise – it will suffice to mention the last century’s safe-haven for the loot of Nazi war criminals, and the recently exposed shenanigans of FIFA, football’s world governing body based in Switzerland (and led by a Swiss citizen – one of the most reviled people in the world not serving time for pedophilia or war crimes).

After telling the US back in 2009 that it would not allow UBS to release records of undeclared bank accounts, now, with all the zeal of the convert,  it is publishing lists of individuals subject to requests for information from other governments.

Switzerland has also joined the OECD’s global transparency initiative, according to which there will be automatic exchange of information without the need for a request from another country. And as for  that bust last month of seven FIFA officials in a Zurich hotel…..

Gentle persuasion

Gentle persuasion

Viewing all this from the comfort and security of my own lily-white country, Switzerland is less the zealous convert, and more the faceless (do you know the name of the Head of State?), small-time con who, when put under the swinging lamp, squeals loud and clear.

I wouldn’t trust Switzerland any further than the next US investigation. A leopard doesn’t change its spots – or at least not so fast. Switzerland is to be avoided, nay evaded, by individuals until such time as it settles down to some form of hypocritical normality like the rest of the world. In the field of corporate tax, on the other hand, where international populism has forced Switzerland into change,  the hypocrisy in offering new incentives to replace the old disgraced ones is Switzerland at its cheekiest best (or worst). Nothing to worry about there (other than the possibility that the rest of the world will get wise to them).

Hero with admirer

Hero with admirer

In the meantime, Switzerland will be feeling just a little more self-righteous – and deserving of the centuries-old honour of providing the Pope’s Swiss Guard.

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