Tax Break

John Fisher, international tax consultant

Archive for the tag “Tax humour”

Spaghetti Westerners

He has been there before

He has been there before

The word around the Roman Forum is that Italy is on the verge of a Renaissance. After three years of recession, modest growth is expected this year.

Regular readers may recall Giovanni and Guiseppe, two Italian plumbers who tried their luck in England about three years back. Thanks to improved employment prospects, they have returned to their beloved homeland and have found work in the movie industry. Their photogenic faces not quite photogenic enough for the cameras, they have had to settle for being responsible for the fitting and maintenance of the portable toilets on the set of ‘Spectre’, the new James Bond movie. They handle their S-bends every bit as well as any stunt driver on the open road, while their high-speed drill leaves occupants shaken, not stirred.

Fellini's original Paparazzo in La Dolce Vita (lousy taste in whisky)

Fellini’s original Paparazzo in La Dolce Vita (lousy taste in whisky)

Strolling in the evenings  down the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II, Giovanni and Guiseppe notice that the potholes have been filled so that Daniel Craig doesn’t hit his bonce speeding his Aston Martin (sadly, not the original) along its length. They have to wait for a seat at a restaurant next to the Ponte Sisto, while revellers gabble to each other in accentless English about their day on the film-set. As they take their seats, there is sudden confusion as a gaggle of long-forgotten paparazzi appear in the entrance, furiously snapping the gorgeous Monica Belucci – Bond’s latest Girl – as she glides to her table. The pick-up in the international film industry has had a knock-on effect across the economy.

Why this revival of Hollywood on the Tiber? Answer: Incentives. Now, incentives are an international tax purist’s nemesis. They distort the allocation and location of labour and capital, and – if they could be brought to life – should be shot. Just occasionally though, they are justified. The incentives given by the Italian Government to Film Production in 2009 and grudgingly renewed in 2013, are a good example. Italy is a natural location for location filming – it possesses exquisite beauty and preserved history.

The 1950s and 60s were Italy’s heyday as a Hollywood host while nurturing the amazing homegrown output of the likes of Fellini. By the 1990s, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic had gracelessly stolen Italy’s thunder through cheap alternatives. Italy’s legislation – providing tax credits to locally registered production companies that could be used against, in addition to corporate tax, deductions against wages – has not created a distortion; it has relieved one. And the world of cinema is a better place for it. Watch out for the remake of Ben Hur.

If you cannot imagine Churchill in a swimsuit...

If you cannot imagine Churchill in a swimsuit…

Orson Welles was at the Hotel Excelsior in Venice some time after World War II trying to convince a White Russian to finance his next movie (I believe it was the Italian produced ‘Black Magic’). As he walked into the dining room with his prey, he spotted Winston Churchill – whom he had met briefly during the war and who had attended a performance of Othello – at a corner table. Noticing Welles, Churchill gave a polite nod of recognition. This sent the White Russian crazy – and he proceeded to offer Welles everything he wanted. The next day Welles spied Churchill paddling in the hotel pool. Wading over to the Greatest Englishman, he told him what had happened and thanked him profusely. That evening, when Welles and the Russian entered the dining room, Churchill stood up and bowed low. Britain’s past and future prime minister was clearly an international  patron of the arts – and a decent comic actor, to boot. More’s the pity he had to play opposite Hitler and Mussolini, rather than Marlene Dietrich and Sophia Loren.

 

Brazil gone nuts

Getting through the in-tray

Getting through the in-tray

The Circumlocution Office in ‘Little Dorrit’, where everything became bogged down in bureaucracy,  represented Dickens’s visceral satire on Government. A century and a half later, it might be time for novelist José Sarney to pick up, in his own country Brazil, where Dickens left off.

Brazil is a bureaucratic blast, nowhere more so than in the field of taxation. Over thirty types of taxes mean that 2,600 man-hours are wasted on compliance each year by an average medium-sized company, as opposed to 334 in Mexico, another country in the Lost Continent south of the Rio Grande.

Sarney is particularly qualified to write the book as his 9 to 5 job used to be President of Brazil. The Foreword might be penned by one of his successors, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was responsible for the plethora of taxes but, in a lecture I attended in Sao Paolo some years ago, made clear that he thought it was time for almost all of them to go.

When all else fails - its time to Carnival!

When all else fails – its time to Carnival!

Meanwhile, it was announced last week, that successive governments had been cheated of around $2 billion in tax revenue over the last decade. And, thereby, hangs a cautionary tale.

The Finance Ministry has a department that hears appeals by taxpayers who feel they have been given a rum deal by the tax authorities. As a tax advisor, this sounds to me like good bureaucracy. The problem is we are talking Brazil.

It turned out that half the  ‘arbitrators’ were drawn from government and half from industry. In many instances, by paying between 1% and 10% of the foregone revenue to a non-tax-specialist law firm for ‘consultancy’ services, it is alleged the disputed amounts were miraculously decided in favour of the taxpayers. Somewhere in the labyrinth of  Brazilian law, that is probably called ‘bribery’; ‘corruption’ and ‘fraud’ also come to mind.

Brazil 2014

Brazil 2014

So, another bunch of suspects gets lined up alongside those already facing prosecution in the State-run Petrobras Oil scandal. It would be nice to say that, at least, the fifth largest country in the world could be proud of its football – what with a record five World Cups to its name. But, after their drubbing by Germany last year, they have grown remarkably quiet on that front.

Time for a President Pelé?

Greecing the wrong palms

'This is what you get for telling teacher'

‘This is what you get for telling teacher’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry, watch where you take that photograph

Harry, watch where you take that photograph

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

A drop of golden sun

 

Punching above his weight

Punching above his weight

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

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

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

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

Boring Austria

Boring Austria

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

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

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

Little Austria has a generous child  benefit scheme

Little Austria has a generous child benefit scheme

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

Trying to keep the relationship platonic

Following the recent news of Greece’s continuing woes, and thinking about what to write, I soon realized that very little has changed since I penned the two Posts below in 2012. The country’s new whacko Government has won a reprieve from a fatal dose of international hemlock by promising to come up with alternative measures to meet the ‘Troika’ demands for a formal extension of its bail-out package. It looks like the great deficit-plug is to come from the ruthless prosecution of tax evaders (ha, ha). Indeed, a former finance minister went on trial yesterday for allegedly removing relatives’ names from a list of unreported offshore bank accounts (see Post from 2012 below – and ponder the relative amount of time it took to get him and the whistleblower to court). Furthermore, another former finance minister received a four year sentence last November for undereporting his income, although ‘four years’ subsequently turned into a €14,500 fine (the annual price of freedom in Greece, it turns out, is €3,625. Cheap at half the price). In short, Greece continues to be a hopeless case. The only question is whether foreign creditors are actively engaged in allowing the wool to be pulled over their eyes. Read on (I apologize in advance that you may be seeing this again in 2018):

Olympic spirit lost

My trip to New York cancelled last week courtesy of Superstorm Sandy, I decided to take advantage of the hour before anyone realized my calendar was empty to clear my desk. Forgetting the utterly ignored disposable cup of coffee nestling under a sheet of foolscap, I watched in helpless horror as it tipped drunkenly on its side and lazily cast forth its contents over my diary and neighbouring assorted papers. My barely legible handwriting disappeared as the ink, dissolving into the coffee, was dispersed across the open page. Taking a leaf out of the book of the intrepid New Yorkers, by midday I had a spanking new diary and only the merest hint of brown on numerous documents newly piled at the edge of the desk.

The experience took me back 40 years to the summer of 1972 when we were just finishing 8th Grade (in England it was called the 3rd Form which was a bit confusing since we had already had one of those several years earlier). Our Form Master was Severus Snape minus the charm with whom one messed at one’s peril. Of course, as healthily idiotic teenage grunts we messed at our peril – but we all knew our limits. All of us, that is, excluding one. There is one in every class. A totally incorrigible youth with no academic aspirations who is programmed to kick back at all cost against authority. Civilly disobedient – Mahatma Gandhi without a cause. Anarchic without knowing the meaning of the word. Angry young man who wasn’t even angry. If we were told to write the address on our report envelopes in the centre, he wrote it in the top left-hand corner. If we were told to sit down, he stood up. Told to write in pencil, he wrote in ink. You get the picture.

In those days part of the daily ritual was the redundant task of calling the register to corroborate the evident fact that, while so-and-so’s desk was clearly empty, he (we were all He’s) was not hiding somewhere else in the room. Each morning the dreaded Commandant would labour through the 31 names and mark squares on that term’s page with an alternating diagonal pencil-mark producing, over time, a herring-bone effect that was quite aesthetic. Trusting in his absolute power over us, the register was left in his unlocked desk – a Holy Ark that we assumed, if touched, meant instant death.

Then came that fateful morning when our revered leader marched to his desk, removed the register, opened it, fell totally silent, shook with rage and then sat down with his head buried in his hands. Carnage. Somebody (guess who) had poured an entire bottle of Parker Quink over the sacred tome. I don’t remember precisely what happened next but, despite the temptation to embellish the story, I am pretty sure there was no blood and there was definitely no ambulance.

Why am I writing all this? Because the European Union appears these days increasingly like a class of juveniles. And no prizes for guessing the incorrigible country. They were at it again last week.

Last Sunday, the editor of an investigative magazine published a list of over 2000 names of account holders in the Geneva branch of HSBC bank and was promptly arrested for breaching privacy laws. What is more, in a show of absolute legal efficiency, he was brought to trial on Thursday and, equally promptly, acquitted of the charges against him.

This all sounds quite impressive, if a waste of taxpayers money, other than for one thing – all the actors in this little play were Greek. The list, transferred to the Greek Government two years ago by the then French Finance Minister and now Head of the IMF, ostensibly pointed to wealthy Greeks who may be running a sideline in tax evasion. Somebody (the hot potato is now passing between former government ministers) stuck it in a drawer and “forgot” about it. Meanwhile, as I noted on this blog back in February there are (or, at least, were) over 165,000 (one hundred and sixty-five thousand) cases awaiting trial in the Greek court system. But they still managed to get this guy up in front of the Beak within 4 days.

I am not a lawyer and I do not know how heinous it is to breach someone’s privacy when it is in the public interest (if I am not mistaken Woodward and Bernstein did something similar 40 years ago that rather inconveniently brought down the President of the United States – and nobody tried to put them in the Electric Chair). However, even I know that there is something absolutely heinous with the government of a country that is struggling on the ropes with its budget deficit, not pursuing tax evaders. The fact that this case was taken to trial so fast is not heinous – it is just a sign of how morally bankrupt and obviously beyond the pale Greece is. I had goose pimples when the current Greek Front Man, Antonis Samaras was praised by Angela Merkel in Berlin. I know that a Greek exit from the Euro would not be simple for the creditor nations and that fact is heavily influencing Germany’s approach. But sometimes the school principal has to realise that it is not enough to make the errant youth write a thousand times “I must not tell lies in class” or “I must keep my promises”. If he proves himself totally incorrigible he needs to be expelled.

The Greeks like to keep telling us that they are the cradle of modern civilization and also the inspiration for the world’s greatest sporting event – the Olympics. Agreed. And what is the greatest problem facing competitive sport in the 21st century? Doping. Greek governments have been “enhancing” their statistics and breaking their promises, rather than records, for years.

It is clearly time to expel Greece from the Eurozone and disqualify it, for a period of several years, from the benefits of EU membership.

The Greecy pole

When it was suggested last week by a sympathetic BBC interviewer that the Italian government’s decision not to fund Rome’s bid for the 2020 Olympic Games had cost Italy the chance of taking its place on the world stage, the interviewee retorted sharply “Italy has been on the world stage for 2000 years”. Meanwhile, the Greeks keep reminding us that, as the cradle of democracy and western civilization, their continued hammering by the European Union is beyond comprehension. We should be thankful, at least, that the Germans have not yet chosen to harp back to the past.

Greece really does appear to be sliding down a greasy pole. The new government has continued its predecessor’s vain attempts at improving tax collection while trying to make new taxes stick in a country in which, thanks to rampant corruption, tax evasion is effectively state sponsored.

On January 22, a list of 4152 tax cheats was published in an effort to shame people – they must be joking – into paying up. Most fascinating was the fact that, even though the authorities know where they live, most of them have not been prosecuted. This is evidently thanks to there being a backlog of 165,000 cases in the courts. One prominent exception is, top of the list, Nikos Kassimatis (an accountant!) with an amazing 952 million euro owed, who is currently serving a prison sentence for VAT fraud which has probably taken away his appetite to settle. In a country where the judiciary clearly has a problem getting its act together, this may not be a case of the punishment not fitting the crime but – to put it in perspective – had he been convicted just before Henry VIII became King of England in 1509 he would be looking at walking free about now (not allowing for a couple of hundred years knocked off from his 504 year sentence for good behaviour).

An earlier list of 6000 major corporate delinquents was made public in September 2011. First prize went to the Hellenic Railway Organization which was running incredibly late with an unpaid tax bill of a whopping 1.26 billion euro – a real achievement given the fact that its owner is none other than the Greek government.

The now famous aerial inspection of houses with undeclared swimming pools, reported as carried out at great government expense by helicopter surveillance when the same result could have been achieved on Google Earth, has at least caused economic growth in the form of an increased demand for camouflage material. It has not been reported whether swimming pool owners have been paying cash for these purchases.

Meanwhile, while various officials have been forced out for either having their palms greased or turning a blind eye to the actions of others, the government came up with two quite ingenious methods of improving collection. Firstly, the new and much hated (along with every other) property tax is to be collected through household electricity bills. Non payment would result in disconnection from the National Grid and, in winter, death from hypothermia. Secondly, there is some madly complex , novel system using a smart card that enables the authorities to track a taxpayer’s payments. In keeping with Greek tradition, use of these cards is voluntary although it is not clear why the authorities don’t just start by looking up the names on that tax dodger list in the telephone directory and go knocking on their doors.

Alongside tax collection, privatization and reduced salaries, Greece has also been told by the EU and IMF to revamp its tourist industry. Knowing the Greeks’ record on compliance, left to their own devices, this will probably result in a new set of floodlights for the Acropolis and creation of more , euphemistically titled, clothing-optional beaches where German tourists can get an all-over tan while they are being burnt at home by the forced write-off of Greek sovereign debt.

The spotlight beside the golden door

When did she renounce her first religion?

When did she renounce her first religion?

Fifty years ago today, the New York Times announced that Elizabeth Taylor  had failed in her attempt to renounce US citizenship. Required to disavow ‘all allegiance and fidelity’ to the United States, she found herself  unable to do so. Now, allegiance and fidelity are terms Ms Taylor had a lot of experience disavowing – eight lots of experience, to be precise: Mr Hilton, Mr Wilding, Mr Todd, Mr Fisher, Mr Burton (Take one), Mr Burton (Take two), Mr Warner and Mr Fortensky.

Ms Taylor, somewhat disingenuously, declared her reason for renouncing her citizenship as wanting to have the same citizenship as her then husband-for-the-first-time , Richard Burton. Had Burton, by reason of his birth, been a Welsh Nationalist (which he was patently not), the argument may have had some traction. But Taylor did not need to seek the same British citizenship as her husband for the convenient reason that she was British, born and bred.

The only reason that the Cleopatra star wished to be rid of her American passport was that she was living and working in Europe at the time, and she did not want to have to pay tax in the US.

Nothing has changed in fifty years. People are renouncing their citizenship right, left and centre (although, on this occasion, I suppose that should be ‘center’). Whereas, in the conscience-ridden and patriotic ’60s ordinary people had understandable difficulty in renouncing allegiance and fidelity – nowadays, if it will save a buck or two, who the hell cares about such outdated emotional claptrap?

Thaddeus Stevens who roomed with Al Gore at Harvard

Thaddeus Stevens who roomed with Al Gore at Harvard

But, of course, as in so many other respects, this aspect of  US Tax Law is insane. Eritrea is the only other nation that taxes income on the basis of citizenship. I admit that I have never been to Eritrea (in fact, I would not know where to find it on a map, so it is just as well I have never tried to get there), but my assumption is that Fifth Avenue it is not. One can almost sympathize with successive Eritrean governments trying to plug their fiscal hole with takings from comparatively wealthy citizens abroad. One could also sympathize, if one were living a hundred and fifty years ago, with Thaddeus Stevens and his House Ways and Means Committee wanting to clobber Yankees escaping the Civil War. But things have moved on since then. The  dysfunctional American tax system allows multi-national corporations to shelter profits overseas, provides countless tax breaks to domestic taxpayers and has enough loopholes to fill whatever you can fill with loopholes. So, choosing to chase expatriates not currently benefiting from the public spending of tax revenues is barmy.

Beyond the idiocy of citizenship-based taxation, it is the offer of a ‘Get out of jail free’ card by relinquishing citizenship that I, a non-American with no aspirations to become one, find distasteful. I am very proud and happy that I became an Israeli citizen a quarter of a century ago. This is my home. This is the place where  I raised my children and the place where they are now raising theirs. But I am also proud of being British. It was Britain that offered my grandparents refuge when, over a century ago, they had to escape the stink-hole that was, and possibly still is, Ukraine. It was Britain that stood alone against the greatest evil yet known to man in 1940 and 1941. It was Britain that gave me the education that enabled me to get on in life. Britain does not present me with a dilemma. There is no reason for me to consider giving up my citizenship.

Expatriate Americans, on the other hand, faced with horrendous annual reporting requirements, as well as potentially horrible taxes, have to make a real decision. For those with a conscience, it is an almost impossible situation. How does a native-born American disavow ‘all allegiance and fidelity’? Even I, a non-American, would have difficulty making a  statement like that about the one nation on the planet that, when push came to shove,  has held it all together for the last hundred years.

Still liable to tax

Still liable to tax

Come on Uncle Sam. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the  Civil War. If you can make peace  with Cuba, you can  make peace with your expatriates. They are the best ambassadors you’ve got (although I’m not sure about Liz Taylor – she was a bit of an embarrassment at times, even for an American).

 

Cry for Argentina

Tax Advisor's traditional battle dress

Tax Advisor’s traditional battle dress

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

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

He had a lot of stocks and shares

And half a street in Buenos Aires*

*But this pronunciation varies

Some people call it Bu-enos Airés

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

One of Argentina's more successful exports

One of Argentina’s more successful exports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Gentle Tax

Spot the player who had never heard of Germaine Greer

Spot the player who had never heard of Germaine Greer

There was a time when the mere mention of the name Germaine Greer – pioneering feminist author of ‘The Female Eunuch’ – made grown men (and only grown men) adopt the Direct-free-kick-defensive-wall position favoured by all modern footballers. I had no such reaction when, the other day, I turned on my car radio and was sucked into the middle of a BBC panel show in which she was participating. Greer has long been an occasional, articulate and humorous guest on  such programmes. A few years ago she even eulogized one of my all-time heroes, ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ Chairman Humphrey ‘Humph’ Lyttleton, describing him as ‘salacious’. Salacious translates into Street English as ‘Dirty Old Man’- an adjective painstakingly earned by the deceased octogenarian, who was the master of double-entendre and, hence, an unlikely guru of the guru of feminists. But we all grow up eventually.

I can forgive Greer and her bra-burning cohorts just about everything, but I cannot accept the pathetically small-minded assault they made on the English language. I refer, of course, to the default pronoun. For  centuries the default pronoun has been ‘He/His” (A good  student always does his homework). Even if some crazies thought this was not appropriate, there was always ‘They/Their’ (A good student always does their homework) or ‘One/Ones’ (I cannot be bothered with an example). But no, Greer and Co were not satisfied with equality, they wanted liberation (or was it the other way round?)  So, ‘She/Hers’ started popping up. And nearly half a century after The Female Eunuch, it looks like the bloody thing is taking off. I recently stopped reading a new, much acclaimed, English Style book because my eyeballs started going in opposite directions around my head at the consistent use of ‘She’. And then, yesterday, my beloved Economist – supposedly slave to the bestselling Economist Style Book – succumbed.

Language undoubtedly evolves, but that evolution – especially in the case of the chaotic English language- should be natural and gradual. This She/He business is pure tampering.

Dressed like that, it is no wonder he got away with so much rhetoric in his inaugural address

Dressed like that, it is no wonder he got away with so much rhetoric in his inaugural address

An example of a material, but natural, change in the English language over the last few decades is the reduced use of rhetoric. Asked to reach for your favourite speech (‘your’ is yet another way of getting round the gender-bender issue), you will probably go for something out of 20th century history: Roosevelt’s ‘Nothing to fear but fear itself’; Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches’; Kennedy’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’. Chances are you will not come up with  George W Bush’s, ‘You teach a child to read , and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test’ (which is why he definitely should have stayed with the default pronoun),  or even Barack Obama’s…… well, let’s face it, he has simply never said anything worth remembering.

Rhetoric, once a staple of any English-speaking child’s education, has pretty much gone out of the window. People are nowadays as well-educated as those who lead and try to influence them, so rhetoric tends to sound naff. Nevertheless, as pointed out in an article last week in the New York Times by Mark Forsyth (who, even Ms Greer would allow me to refer to as ‘he’), rhetoric still has a central place on Madison Avenue.

I thought it would be fun to see what slogans a tax wonk could come up with based on rhetoric.

Boring

Boring

‘Intel Inside’ is an example of Alliteration, as is a method for stopping dogs fouling our footpaths: ‘Tax the Turds’ (with a background picture of a traffic warden handing out a ticket).

‘Bond, James Bond’, ‘Be all you can be’, and ‘Home, sweet home’ are diacopes, as is: ‘Tax, your tax’ (with a picture of a Victorian hospital corridor full of occupied beds).

An example of a chiasmus is ‘Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind’.  How about a Republican slogan: ‘America must lower taxes, or taxes will lower America’?

Enallage is a deliberate grammatical mistake for effect such as ‘We was robbed’. That could be a good line against a background of a picture of any Finance Minister at any time in history.

But the daddy (or, Ms Greer, should that be ‘mummy’?) of them all is the Tricolon:  ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’; ‘Liberte, egalite, fraternite’; ….’Tax, fraud, prison’.

 

 

Telling it like it is (?)

The person who drew the map ran out of ink

The person who drew the map ran out of ink

Alan Coren, the late editor of Punch, once wrote that, while touring Europe he climbed to the top of a hill to get a panoramic view of Luxembourg  – only to find there was a tree in the way.  The first time I flew into Luxembourg airport  a few years ago, was also the first time I had flown in a propeller plane since 1966. Luxembourg is size-challenged.

But when it comes to tax,  Luxembourg is a country that punches way above its weight. For years, it has been proud of its friendly tax environment (it has been in the game so long that, when I started out, the rage was 1929 Holding Companies which, I believe, had something to do with 1929).

Despite Luxembourg’s disproportionate influence, I was still a little surprised when, a few months ago,  that bastion of bankrupt democracy, the European Parliament, forced Jean Claude Juncker on the European Commission as its president. As much as the EU likes to claim it is about politics, it is clear that it remains attached to its birth mother, the EEC (European Economic Community). As such, the work being done in its various forms by the G20, OECD and EU concerning illegal state aid, suggests that anybody from Luxembourg would be an unlikely candidate for any economic portfolio, let alone the big job. Not only did the top job go to a Luxembourgian, it went to one who had been Finance Minister since 1989 and Prime Minister from 1995 until 2013. So, when the sparks started to fly following the (absolutely superfluous) revelation last week that hundreds of multinationals obtained ‘sweet’ tax arrangements in Luxembourg, it wasn’t as if Juncker could even blame ‘the other lot’ when they were in power, because he personally (let alone his party) had been in power for a quarter century.

Ideal tax rate for Luxembourg

Ideal tax rate for Luxembourg

Instead, he bunkered for a while, before making an unanticipated appearance at a press conference today. It was Monty Python time. Informing the assembled rabble that tax administration in the Grand Duchy ‘operates autonomously’, he responded to a journalist who queried why – given that his period of office had coincided with a bonanza time for corporate tax schemes – anyone should believe him, with the churlish: ‘Because I said so’. Asked whether his credibility as a European leader had been shredded, he replied to an Italian inquisitor: ‘I am as suitable as you are’. Heady, diplomatic stuff.

In any event, Juncker plans to march on, leading the onslaught on illegal state aid and  other State sponsored tax avoidance. While admitting that he is politically responsible for everything, he has reportedly claimed that he had nothing to do with the tax arrangements. Juncker is an honorable man, so he deserves to be taken at his word.

Today’s press conference led me to thinking about writing an entirely fictitious sketch about the prime minister of a small western tax haven. Any likeness to any person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Scene: The Prime Minister’s Office in the Principality of Taxembourg. Prime Minister, Jean Paul Messerschmitts, is sitting at his desk. Enter the Tax Commissioner.

TC: Prime Minister, I have come to talk about  projected  Tax Revenues for the year ahead.

PM: Why are you talking to me about it? Collect whatever tax you like and then I and my Cabinet will see how much there is to spend on welfare, education and things

TC: But, sir, I need to talk to you about the incentives we are giving foreign investors.

PM: I do not have time.

TC: When will you have time, Prime Minister?

PM: Can’t you see that I am always busy? Today, I must screw in three new light bulbs in my office, followed by my unveiling of a new ATM cash dispenser on the High Road. Then, this evening, I am hosting a dinner for a retiring Traffic Warden. Tomorrow promises to be another hectic day. Being Prime Minister AND Finance Minister is tough, you know. Set up an appointment with my successor for 15 years time.

TC: Prime Minister, I am sorry to have troubled you with such a trifling matter. Why should you have to be bothered with my nonsense when you must deal with important matters of state? I promise not to trouble you again.

PM: Schtum! Schtum!

Exeunt

pinocchioNow that all the fuss is behind him, Mr Juncker will be able to get on with the task he was, sort of, elected to undertake. With his immense experience, I am sure he will do an excellent job.

And now for something hardly different

Speaks for itself

Speaks for itself

The surviving members of the Monty Python team must be cock-a-hoop over the cover of the (just about) current issue of The Economist. Under the headline: ‘Europe’s Economy’, a parrot lies dead receiving an infusion, while Angela Merkel comments, ‘It’s only resting’. No further explanation required. Forty-five years on, the Parrot Sketch is part of the lingua franca.

The other instantly recognizable  Python sketch is ‘The Four Yorkshiremen”, in which a group of wealthy, aging northerners  each vie for the distinction of  most deprived childhood. In fact, that piece is almost a case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. It started life in the 1967 series “At Last The 1948 Show”, was adapted for the radio series, ‘I’m Sorry I ‘ll Read That Again’ in 1969, and only made it to Python in a live show in 1974.  ‘Almost’ imitation, because Cleese and Chapman were co-writers of 1948, together with Marty Feldman (the  most unlikely Jewish Yorkshireman ever) and Tim Brooke-Taylor (who did ISIRTA together with Cleese).

Tax authorities take this imitation business quite seriously, even if their material is far less original than Monty Python’s.

What's in a name?

What’s in a name?

Despite the hammering of Harmful Tax Practices, first more than a decade ago by the OECD and EU, and more recently by the OECD BEPS project and an extensive transfer pricing review, there has been an upsurge in the introduction of copy-thy-neighbour special IP regimes. To fool the enemy, they carry all sorts of different names and precise terms – Patent Box, Innovation Box, and – the latest Irish smokescreen –  Knowledge Development Box.

The ostensible justification for these schemes is the incentivization of R&D expenditure by offering reduced tax rates on associated revenue. But, with the exception of the UK innovation box, which was for self-defense, what countries are clearly doing is standing on street corners raising their skirts above their knees in an effort to attract new clients. Switzerland is proposing a scheme, as it preempts the forcible closure of its House of Ill Repute by undertaking a comprehensive tax reform. Ireland, meanwhile, no longer able to tempt Apple with its harmful double-Irish position, can at least claim not to be plagiarizing – it had the first scheme in the early seventies which it discontinued in 2010.

Innovation boxes are currently, effectively, under a three-pronged attack but are still spreading. There is Action 5 of BEPS dealing with Harmful Tax Competition – and what could be more harmful tax competition than this race to the bottom? Then there is Action 8 which deals directly with intangibles and the concept of value creation.  Finally, there is the long-running saga of OECD Working Party 6 on ‘The transfer pricing aspects of intangibles’. All these projects seek to prevent the maintenance of intangibles in ‘the second draw, third office along’.  Even if the whole caboodle gets caught up in bureaucracy and self-interest, and is not adopted internationally, something is bound to stick. And that something is likely to be the need for boots on the ground in any jurisdiction claiming the right to substantial returns due to intangibles ownership.

Where countries support large workforces of savvy individuals, the on-the-ground development  of intellectual property makes sense. But if all the country is offering is a crisp suit, a law office and a plaque, the whole thing could easily unravel.

Some called this British humour too

Some called this British humour too

A couple of years ago I made a one day trip to England to see Tim Brooke-Taylor and his colleagues doing a live recording of a long-running radio show – ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’. Over its forty-year run, shows have often ended with the announcement of late arrivals at some ball or other. Among the late arrivals at the Aggressive Tax Planning Ball might have been: ‘From the Republic of Ireland, Mr and Mrs O’Vation- Box and their son N. O’Vation-Box.’ You get the idea. It is called British humour. Patent Boxes and Innovation Boxes are full of it.

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