Taxing multinationals (2) – the early responses

Ok. So the story so far.

The international consensus on taxing business income when there is a foreign taxpayer is: physical presence – go nuts; otherwise – back off.

And all this was totally fine when a physical presence was needed to earn business income. After the internet – not so much. And with it went source countries rights to tax such income.

Tax deductions

However none of this is say that if there is a physical presence, or investment through a New Zealand resident company, the foreign taxpayer necessarily is showering the crown accounts in gold.

As just because income is subject to tax, does not necessarily mean tax is paid.

And the difference dear readers is tax deductions. Also credits but they can stand down for this post.

Now the entry level tax deduction is interest. Intermediate and advanced include royalties, management fees and depreciation, but they can also stand down for this post.

The total wheeze about interest deductions – cross border – is that the deduction reduces tax at the company rate while the associated interest income is taxed at most at 10%. [And in my day, that didn’t always happen. So tax deduction for the payment and no tax on the income. Wizard.]

Now the Government is not a complete eejit and so in the mid 90’s thin capitalisation rules were brought in. Their gig is to limit the amount of interest deduction with reference to the financial arrangements or deductible debt compared to the assets of the company.

Originally 75% was ok but then Bill English brought that down to 60% at the same time he increased GST while decreasing the top personal rate and the company tax rate. And yes a bunch of other stuff too.

But as always there are details that don’t work out too well. And between Judith and Stuart – most got fixed. Michael Woodhouse also fixed the ‘not paying taxing on interest to foreigners’ wheeze.

There was also the most sublime way of not paying tax but in a way that had the potential for individual countries to smugly think they were ok and it was the counterparty country that was being ripped off. So good.

That is – my personal favourite – hybrids.

Until countries worked out that this meant that cross border investment paid less tax than domestic investment. Mmmm maybe not so good. So the OECD then came up with some eyewatering responses most of which were legislated for here. All quite hard. So I guess they won’t get used so much anymore. Trying not to have an adverse emotional reaction to that.

Now all of this stuff applies to foreign investment rather than multinationals per se. It most certainly affects investment from Australia to New Zealand which may be simply binational rather than multinational.

Diverted profits tax

As nature abhors a vacuum while this was being worked through at the OECD, the UK came up with its own innovation – the diverted profits tax. And at the time it galvanised the Left in a way that perplexed me. Now I see it was more of a rallying cry borne of frustration. But current Andrea is always so much smarter than past Andrea.

At the time I would often ask its advocates what that thought it was. The response I tended to get was a version of:

Inland Revenue can look at a multinational operating here and if they haven’t paid enough tax, they can work out how much income has been diverted away from New Zealand and impose the tax on that.

Ok – past Andrea would say – what you have described is a version of the general anti avoidance rule we have already – but that isn’t. What it actually is is a form of specific anti avoidance rule targetted at situations where companies are doing clever things to avoid having a physical taxable presence. [Or in the UK’s case profits to a tax haven. But dude seriously that is what CFC rules are for]

It is a pretty hard core anti avoidance rule as it imposes a tax – outside the scope of the tax treaties – far in excess of normal taxation.

And this ‘outside the scope of the tax treaties’ thing should not be underplayed. It is saying that the deals struck with other countries on taxing exactly this sort of income can be walked around. And while it is currently having a go at the US tech companies, this type of technology can easily become pointed at small vulnerable countries. All why trying for an new international consensus – and quickly – is so important.

In the end I decided explaining is losing and that I should just treat the campaign for a diverted profits tax as merely an expression of the tax fairness concern. Which in turn puts pressure on the OECD countries to do something more real.

Aka I got over myself.

In NZ we got a DPT lite. A specific anti avoidance rule inside the income tax system. I am still not sure why the general anti avoidance rule wouldn’t have picked up the clever stuff. But I am getting over myself.

Of course no form of diverted profits tax is of any use when there is no form of cleverness. It doesn’t work where there is a physical presence or when business income can be earned – totes legit – without a physical presence.

And isn’t this the real issue?

Andrea

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5 responses

  1. Realistically never going to happen?

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    1. I dont think so. I think the best we can get to is some form of new consensus. One where everyone feels a little hard done by but not enough to relitigate.

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      1. Good point re the litigation – I guess if the Govt then has to spend $$ to enforce the law, that cancels out the benefit of the tax revenue generated.

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  2. Hypothetically speaking in an ideal world, would all of these “problems” be solved if every country had the same tax rates?

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    1. Same tax rates. Same tax classifications and same tax rules including how individuals are taxed. Absolutely.

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