Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about the release of the recent government discussion documents on taxing the nasty multinationals.
You correspondent had spent the week before last on stage two of her yoga teacher training. No inner child this time but lots of describing poses in anatomical language. ‘The spine is flexed at the pelvis’ aka you bent over. Same lovely people though. Unfortunately my time on the course was punctuated by a day trip to Sydney – yes day trip – for a family funeral. I did however spend both legs watching a documentary on Oasis. So not entirely wasted. Also brought home number 2 son for a week’s visit.
So after all that I was seriously contemplating giving this week a pass too from posting. Coz like: ‘I am enough; I have enough; I do enough’ and other such lessons from the training. I was even looking for a cartoon to stand in its place:
Or possibly – as it is in colour:
But then Friday morning when I was working thru the details for a big family dinner for number 2 son and girlfriend – on comes the lovely Hon Judith Collins announcing the release of the discussion documents on taxing multinationals. Right. Ok. Mmm perhaps the cartoons won’t really cut it for Monday. But channelling my inner bureaucrat – where March counts as ‘early next year’ – Tuesday can count as Monday. Well broadly.
And the proposals are pretty good. Proper thin cap rules for finance companies are still missing but then a seven year time bar for transfer pricing! Whoa tiger. Even at my most revenue protective I’d never have thought of that. Lots of quite detailed techy stuff all which looks pretty effective to your correspondent.
On interest I am also pretty happy. No earning stripping rules but putting a cap on the interest rate should remove the structural flaw discussed previously and levelling the field by removing non- debt liabilities alg.
There is of course the small matter that with the House rising in July(?) and a Budget in May – there is no hope in hell it will even make a bill before this government finishes. Still no sign of any decisions on the Hybrids stuff that was released in September. And that is just as hard.
But if there is change in government this work will give Grant, Mike, James and Deborah an early taste of implementing fairness in the tax system. Coz there is nothing large well advised companies enjoy more than tax base protection. And they hardly ever lobby Ministers; harangue officials; brief journalists or turn up to select committees to advise them of the damage such tax measures will do to the New Zealand economy. So quite a good warm up for their fairness working group.
But I digress.
There are many and varied ways for non-residents to not pay tax with many and varied solutions. Most of which are in the discussion documents. But the one potential solution that gets all the airtime is the diverted profits tax. Which is a pretty narrow solution to a pretty narrow problem. But hey much like the iPhone 7 – irony intentional – even if our tax environment is different or our iPhone 5 is still fine – the UK and Australia have one so we want one too.
What is being proposed is the diverted profits tax equivalent of the iPhone SE – a 6 in a 5’s body. But when your existing phone really isn’t that bad.
And because it all gets so much media attention – this is the one techy thing I’ll take you through dear readers. But I am very sorry there is a bit of background to go through first. Kia Kaha. You can do it.
All taxpayers – resident and non – resident – are taxed on income with a New Zealand source. Our source rules however were devised in 1910 or so. Long before the internet and possibly even before the typewriter. Tbh tho they aren’t that bad and periodically get a wee tweak. They are broadly comparable to other countries. They include all income from a business in New Zealand which can include foreign income as well as income from contracts completed here.
Case law however has narrowed this to income from trading in New Zealand rather than trading with New Zealand. So foreign importers selling stuff to punters here are out of scope but a business here – even an internet business – game on.
The source rules are further narrowed by any double tax agreements. Here now New Zealand business income of a non-resident is only taxable in New Zealand if it is earned by a permanent establishment aka PE. And a PE is a fixed permanentish place of business. Once upon a time it would have been pretty hard to be a real business and not to have a fixed place of business. Possibly not so much now.
So if the non-resident earns business income through a fixed place in New Zealand – taxable – otherwise not. And for historic reasons the fixed place can’t include a warehouse. Coz that is like only preparatory or auxiliary to earning the income – not like the main deal. Yeah I don’t get it either.
Tax planning Apple and Google style
So when you put together the combo of no tax when:
- contracts not entered into in New Zealand;
- income earned from trading with New Zealand;
- no fixed place of business; and
- warehouse doesn’t count.
You kinda get the most widely known of the BEPS issues. The Google and Apple thing. Tbf I think they also use treaty shopping and inflated royalties but above is also in the mix.
Diverted Profits tax UK Style
Now a diverted profits tax doesn’t deal with the ‘trading with’ thing coz that is pretty entrenched and there are limits to anyone’s powers on that. And of course this would mean our exporters who ‘trade with’ other countries would become taxable there too. But it has a go with the other bits.
In the UK their diverted profits tax pretty much deals with situations as above where there is trading in a country and a permanent establishment should arise but doesn’t. The way it works is to say : ‘oh you know the income that would have been taxable if you hadn’t done stuff to not make it taxable – well now it is taxable.’ ‘Oh and it is like taxable at a much higher rate than normal – coz like we don’t like you doing that.’
And now New Zealand
Now in New Zealand that kind of I know you have followed the letter of the law – but dude – seriously is countered by the tax avoidance provisions. And much to the chagrin of the Foreign banks; specialist doctors; and Australian owned companies it does actually work in New Zealand.
And just because the tax avoidance provisions are being successfully applied doesn’t mean that the law shoudn’t be changed. It is a bucket load of work to investigate; dispute and then prosecute successfully. And if there are lots of cases – and there do appear to be – law changes are ultimately less resource intensive.
But even given all that I am somewhat surprised that what they have proposed is very similar to the handwavy tests of the UK. A bunch of clear questions of the structure and then asks if ‘the arrangement defeats the purpose of the DTA’s PE tests.’ Ok. Not a million miles from the parliamentary contemplation test with tax avoidance. So not entirely sure what extra protection it gives us other than being a bright shiny tax thing.
But then how different was the iPhone 6 from the iPhone 5 after all? And while the iPhone 7 is newer and flasher is it actually better?
Who knows though maybe New Zealand’s version of a diverted profits tax has a signalling benefit to the Courts. And its not like it will do any harm. So long as you don’t count additional complexity as harmful.
So all in all not bad. With the earlier Hybrids and NRWT on interest – even if the diverted profits tax equivalent may not add much – all the rest of the proposals should deal to undertaxation of non- residents.
Lets’s talk about tax (and interest deductions for non- residents).
Over the last couple of months, your correspondent has become completely obsessed with the Netflix series The Crown. There really is something for everyone: fifties fashion; power plays and constitutional crises. On top of that it should also be a training video on how NOT to give advice. Some of the incomplete partial advice the young QEII received from her chief advisors – as well as close family – was nothing short of incompetent and unprofessional.
From time to time the Duchess of Windsor makes a minor appearance usually as a plot device for the Duke to explain things too. As well as coming from central casting as chief villian in the abdication saga – even though it wasn’t actually her that abdicated cherchez la femme I guess – she is also famous for that equally feminist quote that a woman can’t be too rich or too thin. I will have to take her word for that having never got that close to either.
Now the thin part turns up in tax in something delightfully known as thin capitalisation. Now while it sounds – and is – quite techy it is a concept that underpins our ability to get tax from non-residents. So you know like quite important then. And also the basis of all my moaning that for all the talk on the government getting tough on multinationals a big ticket item like interest deductions keeps sliding away. And and no one is calling them on it.
Taxation of New Zealand debt
Soz dear readers but before we get to the truly exciting tax thin thing – kinda need to talk about how debt is taxed. But you can do it dear readers – you can do it. Breathe in and out.
When a totally New Zealand business borrows from a totally New Zealand bank – say the local dairy from Kiwibank – the interest paid reduces the dairy’s profit which in turn reduces the dairy’s tax to pay. However Kiwibank has to pay tax on that income.
And the tax is according to the normal rules – the progressive tax scale if an individual or the company or trust rate. So if a business was earning $500 profit before interest of $100 – it now pays tax on $400 but the lender also pays tax on the $100 so $500 is still taxed. So in a closed system – interest causes a repackaging of how tax is paid rather than being a net reduction. [Yes there is lender’s deductions but I am assuming that away ATM as this is hard enough already.]
Taxation of foreign debt
Now this is not the case when the lender is non-resident. Payments are still deductible but the non-resident lender is only taxed at most at 10% non-resident withholding tax. So in the previous example the $500 taxable profit has effectively become $400 taxable profit.
The thing tho is that normal commercial and business considerations will naturally put a lid on how much debt a business has. As you actually have to pay it back and you have to have the cashflow to meet the interest payments. For the economists reading – a graph to keep you interested.
But this isn’t the case though when you are a New Zealand subsidiary being directly funded by a foreign parent. It is going to have to fund you anyway and its balance sheet is taking the risk of your failure. So faced with the choice of funding by debt which costs 10% tax – at most – or 28% the company tax rate if funded with equity … Mmm tricky – let me get back to you in that one.
So as a way of attempting to reapply some commercial pressure on a foreign controlled New Zealand company – the tax rules say if your debt is more than 60% then you are thinly capitalised and interest deductions effectively start to be denied.
And what could be more fair than that?
All – directly or indirectly – foreign controlled companies are restricted to interest deductions on a debt to assets ratio of 60%. Actually two things:
1) Nature of business Some firms through the nature of their business aren’t naturally funded by debt – and so costs other than interest are their major deductions.
Take for example a supermarket that rents its premises. It’s major asset will be its inventory that will primarily be funded by the terms given by its creditors. Its major deductions will be purchases, staff costs and electricity. This means that such a foreign owned business has the ability to insert additional debt and strip out profits based on its asset base that capital intensive businesses that are naturally funded by debt cannot. This is because for them the 60% threshold is already used up to pay for actual assets.
And capital intensive businesses naturally funded with debt can’t just add additional purchases; staff costs and electricity to level the playing field as those costs won’t get profit back to its shareholders.
In practice it isn’t supermarkets as I think they are all New Zealand owned cooperatives. But it is Life Insurers which are naturally funded by their policyholder base and distributors which are also naturally funded by their creditors.
2) Finance companies One of the other parts of the thin cap rules is that any firm that lends to third parties – finance companies – get a reduction in their debt amount and their assets amount by the value of their third party lending. It was originally brought in as a way of not making the rules too onerous for foreign owned banks. As it is completely legit that banks don’t carry equity levels of 40%.
Unfortunately as the tax base found in the Banking tax avoidance cases it really didn’t put any practical constraint on excessive interest deductions.
Now registered banks have their own special banking thin cap rules. But foreign owned finance companies – nothing. Effectively unconstrained interest deductions as was the case previously with the banks.
And then there is a final hole in the rules that might be fair to everyone in the thin cap rules but not so much to anyone not controlled by a foreigner.
Now you have all done really well to get this far. Go and get and drink of water or a cup of coffee and come back. You need to know this next bit.
The thing about the thin cap rules is that they constrain the quantity of debt. Transfer pricing however sets a price for the interest on the debt. And the higher the levels of debt the higher the market price for the interest – as high levels of debt mean there is a higher risk of bankruptcy. This is what the economists graph says above – so it must be true.
But but dear readers I hear you say – the thin cap rules constrain the amount of debt a company can hold so alg. The interest rate can only be at most that which relates to a 60% threshold.
Now well done for getting this far. Unfortunately – close but no cigar. The sequencing – as the economists would say – is:
1) Interest rate is worked out under transfer pricing based on actual amount of debt. Say 20% instead of 7% if really high bankruptcy risk.
2) Interest rate x amount of debt calculated to give potential interest deduction.
3) Potential interest deduction reduced by proportion of debt over 60%.
So as you see the higher interest rate still gets embedded as a deduction. It isn’t like transfer pricing insists on the interest rate that applies to the 60%. It seeks an armslength price for actual debt levels. And that is embedded in our treaties so no way around that.
Now the OECD has proposed an option that would cut right through this. They are proposing that countries adopt an earnings stripping rule which would link the amount of allowed interest to the profit before tax. To the accountants – base the restriction on the P&L rather than the balance sheet.
And yeah that would work. There are a bunch of issues that freak people out like what if I had a bad year and my sales fall and you restrict my interest deduction and I have to pay tax and I have had a bad year and it’s not fair. For these type of reasons there may be reasonable resistance to moving to the OECD proposals.
But our current rules are far from even handed and contain a structural flaw. So Hon Judith if you choose not to adopt the OECD proposals – I look forward to your improvements to the existing rules coz a level playing field they ain’t. And with potentially a wall of American interest deductions looking for a new home, we need to make sure we are protected.