Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Little will for reform over tax haven status

Called into question: Starbucks' tax payments

Ireland's 'tax haven' status is becoming uncomfortable but there's little sign of any real political will for reform.

It could have been worse. As well as the 'double Irish', we might have had 'Irish coffee' as a way of describing multinational tax avoidance schemes.

In this case it turned out to be Dutch coffee. I presume such a thing would be made with gin instead of whiskey, which sounds awful. It might be going too far to say the same of Dutch attitudes to corporation tax, but it's tempting.

The case in question was the hearings by a British parliamentary committee into schemes by MNCs to reduce their corporation tax. I liked the comment by the committee chairwoman: "We are not talking about illegal, we are talking about immoral".

Ah now, there is one for the philosophers. As I'm sure you know, one of the most famous questions in history is whether it was moral to pay taxes to Caesar. (As it happens, the tax in question was a household charge. For the answer, see Mark 12: 13-17).

Whatever about the question, the UK Public Accounts Committee was asking the right people. Ranged before it on Monday were Amazon, Google and Starbucks; with HQs in, respectively, Luxembourg, Ireland and the Netherlands.

They are essentially intellectual properties - brilliant algorithms in the case of Google; brilliant marketing by Starbucks; brilliant organisation with Amazon.

Starbucks actually buys its coffee from a Swiss subsidiary, for some obscure tax reason, and funnels its profits via a complex tax arrangements with the Netherlands known as a 'Dutch sandwich'. Amazon employs thousands of people in UK warehouses, but records hardly any profits there.

Such companies are perfectly entitled to charge fancy prices for their ideas and knowledge. It is not merely smoke and mirrors. Apple may pay manufacturers in China $200 for the things inside an iPhone, but the finished article costs $700.

The problem for tax authorities is that the gains from this intangible wealth can be assigned anywhere, and are assigned where taxes are lowest. Ireland is a beneficiary, but its position is becoming more uncomfortable.

A traditional defence for its low profits tax rate was the lack of reliefs and offsets, which meant the tax actually paid was close to the 12.5 per cent rate. If it ever was, this is no longer the case. Schemes such as the 'double Irish', where the intellectual rights are located in some tropical tax haven and the royalties paid to an Irish subsidiary, lets the effective tax rate to fall well below 12.5 per cent.

The other defence is that everyone is at it. Governments want to both collect tax and also investors seeking to avoid paying it. In the same week as the hearings, EU courts ruled that UK taxes on dividends paid by foreign subsidiaries were unlawful and must be repaid - perhaps €5bn in all.

These competing interests give grounds for optimism that, if serious proposals for change emerge, in Europe or the USA, little will come of them.

Optimism on its own may not be enough. One of the best ways of capturing more of MNC profits may be the common tax base proposed by the Commission. This would seek to have more tax paid where sales are made, rather than where company treasurers land the profits.

The Irish Government has said it would look at this, but it seems more threatening than a modest increase in the tax rate. Even if nothing comes of it Ireland, as a recipient of rescue funds, could be picked off separately.

It is a curious, but perhaps a valid reason to stop borrowing to pay our bills as soon as possible. A tune may be the ultimate in intellectual property, but he who pays the piper calls it.

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