The revenue drain - why chasing wily multinationals for more tax is a waste of time

Taxpayers may resent the underground systems that multinationals set up to pipe profits to low-rate regimes, but we need to get real. Corporation tax alone will never fill the Treasury's coffers.

by Nick Hood
Last Updated: 09 Jul 2013

International corporations pay tax; in fact they pay lots of it. But it is they and their sophisticated professional advisers, not governments, that decide where and how much they contribute to sovereign coffers.

It's an unpleasant fact of business life and a seriously inconvenient one right now for politicians grappling with deficit reduction in double and even triple-dip recessionary economies like the UK.

A number of high-profile US corporations have recently been pushed, bristling with defensive outrage and self-justification, into the spotlight of UK public opinion. They have even being forced to participate in the self-abasing blood sport of parliamentary select committee hearings.

Unfortunately for these commercial leviathans and their PR schmoozers, public anger over the tax planning strategies of the likes of Starbucks and Amazon is real, and is constantly being fanned by continued sniping on social media platforms and in the general media, as well as public statements by the Government, MPs and especially HMRC. Punters can and do vote with their wallets.

But here's the thing: far from being the tax avoiders the media would brand them as, they pay well over the British norm.

The average tax burden suffered by these multinational giants is above the notional top rate of UK corporation tax for 2013-14 of 23%. Over the past five years, the average corporate tax charge in their consolidated accounts has been 32% for Starbucks, 27% for Amazon and 24% for Google.

Unfortunately, they don't pay much of this to the UK Exchequer, as we now well know.

The problem in judging what they are doing and its moral efficacy is that their financial affairs defy any sensible independent analysis. Their corporate structures are complex, convoluted and opaque.

Starbucks lists 86 subsidiaries in 37 countries in its SEC filings, and this is the summary version, excluding some subsidiary companies on the grounds that they form part of local groups.

Google's profile is remarkably similar: it admits to 87 subsidiaries in 33 countries.

Amazon doesn't bother with the niceties of even partial disclosure, telling the world only about its 13 'significant' subsidiaries in just two jurisdictions, the US and the Netherlands.

According to a recent Sunday Times analysis, Apple shuttled some £7bn through offshore subsidiaries in the final quarter of 2012, part of a perfectly legal strategy to minimise tax paid on its overseas profits.

In case anyone thinks this is a solely American phenomenon, the French fashion group PPR, home to the Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Gucci brands among many others, pays a worldwide tax rate of 29% on average but operates through 434 subsidiaries in 61 countries. It has 302 separate companies in 34 countries in Europe alone.

Until tax rates are equalised and local deals like the one Starbucks admits striking with the Dutch authorities are stopped, corporate profits will flow through this underground financial plumbing system until they find the most agreeable tax regime into which to puddle.

The fundamental problem here is tax rate arbitrage (exploiting different rates to minimise overall payments).

According to the Adam Smith Institute's 2011 analysis, effective tax rates in the European Union range from the highest at 23.2% in the UK to zero in Lithuania.

Public anger over the tax planning strategies of the likes of Starbucks is realAmong the leading economies, the effective rate was 22.9% in Germany, 21% in Spain but only 8.2% in France. This is a constantly changing picture, but harmonisation is a long way off, despite recent political rhetoric.

The supplementary issue is that nothing that multinationals are doing to minimise their UK tax liabilities is in contravention of our tax code. They are simply gaming an overcomplicated system that is not remotely suited to the globalised business world.

They are also taking advantage of a grotesque mismatch between the skills and resources of their own highly paid tax advisers and the demoralised remnants of HMRC's ever-thinning ranks. Their strategies may be judged immoral, but they do not seem to be illegal.

Simplification of the system would certainly help and would be applauded by the millions of much smaller companies that spend a disproportionate amount on professional fees each year to stay compliant with the regime. It would also reduce the pressure on HMRC.

Unfortunately, recent history suggests that the best-intentioned tinkering with the tax laws to address the complexity complaints has only led to further intricacies.

Throwing the book away and starting again has been touted as an approach by some fantasists, but it would be resisted to the last bullet by HMRC on technical grounds and, more importantly, by the Treasury, which could hardly countenance the uncertainty it would bring to tax revenues in a time of such fiscal crisis.

Raising corporate tax rates is not on the Coalition's agenda, nor would discriminatory higher rates against multinationals do anything except drive many of them into the arms of friendlier regimes, thus potentially reducing rather than increasing their overall contribution to the Treasury.

That is anyway assuming that such a policy would survive scrutiny by either the UK or European courts.

Some have talked of reverting to a low basic tax rate and substituting a sales tax as the main tax generator. The ramifications of this need very careful analysis to ensure that the losers are not smaller, more vulnerable companies tipped over the edge by tax liabilities in their loss-making development stage.

Anything that reduces the incentives for investment and sucks cash out of young businesses would damage the economy far more than any benefit from levelling the tax playing field.

But, in any case, no single government can put this right. The nature of arbitrage is that it feeds off differences between tax regimes, as the UK has found to its cost.

Reducing or eliminating these variations in tax burdens would require co-ordinated international political action on a scale beyond imagination, especially in Europe, where so many governments are based on fragile and dysfunctional coalitions between parties with opposed agendas.

It would also require US support, which is no more likely to be forthcoming from a broken American political system than the much needed recognition that the biggest and most predatory tax haven in the world is located in Delaware.

Instead of agonising about how we can fix our shambolic tax system and bring tax-shy multinationals to heel, we should get real and admit that there is no solution that is both politically acceptable and workable.

This is a war that was lost decades ago to a far more powerful, amorphous, shape-shifting enemy and we'd better get used to it.

Life is unfair, business is amoral and tax is inequitable. That's how it has been since the dawn of commercial time and the puny UK tax authorities have no real prospect of ever changing this state of affairs.

But why are we worrying about it at all? Shaming a few more £20m PR honesty-box stunts out of the likes of Starbucks won't even touch the sides of the deficit.

Indeed, the sum raised by corporation tax in its entirety - some £43.7bn - is a relatively modest 9% of the total £467bn tax receipt in 2011-12,

That's a long way behind both VAT (around £98.2bn or 21%) and the daddy of all taxes, income tax (£151bn, 32% of the total take).

So perhaps instead of being starry-eyed moralists chasing slippery multinationals for a 'fairer' slice of their profits, we should all turn our attention to where the real game is: in the SME sector.

The government should be providing small businesses with proper tax incentives to employ more people. The bureaucracy that distracts entrepreneurs from creating wealth must be cut, whether it is mindless health and safety regulations, wildly onerous employment legislation or the plethora of data required by the tentacles of government, central or local.

The wholesale destruction of the business grant and local enterprise support structure must be reversed and proper funding committed to helping small businesses. And most urgently of all something must be done to reduce business rates, the most pernicious of all taxes on small companies.

SMEs are key to a return to economic growth: if they make more money, they will add far more to tax receipts (whether it is through PAYE, NIC, VAT or even corporation tax) than we think we are currently losing from the multinationals. And it is only growth that will eventually bring the UK's huge deficit down to manageable levels. In the meantime, it may be satisfying to buy our overpriced coffee elsewhere or even use another search engine, but it's a terribly misplaced effort.

Nick Hood is a business analyst with Company Watch, the corporate health monitoring specialist. He can be contacted at nhood@companywatch.net or www.companywatch.net

MULTINATIONAL TAX DODGES - Make mine a Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich on the side

  •  US multinationals can route intellectual property rights payments through a two-company Irish offshore structure to get round US transfer-pricing rules
  •  Because Ireland does not tax receipts from some EU countries, income from sales of products by one of the Irish companies can be diverted through a company registered in the Netherlands which has generous tax laws
  •  Losses in low tax jurisdictions can be moved to offset profits made in a higher-tax country such as the UK
  •  UK profits can be routed to low/no-tax locations offshore or elsewhere in the world by levying management charges, high interest charges or transfer-pricing adjustments
  •  UK staff bonuses can be deferred to a later tax year with a lower top income tax rate, reducing personal tax receipts
  •  EU rules allow sales tax (VAT) to be accounted for where the selling company is headquartered, not where the goods or services were purchased. This allows VAT to be paid in lower tax jurisdictions.

 

 


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