Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about accounting tax expense.
Now dear readers the most unlikely thing has happened. A tax free week in the media. No Matt Nippert on charities – just for the moment I hope – no Greens on foreign trusts. No negative gearing and – thankfully – no R&D tax credits. So with nothing topical atm – we can return to actually useful and non-reactive posts. And yes I am the arbiter of this. Although the whole Roger Douglas and his #taxesaregross does warrant a chat. Need to psyche into that a bit first though.
So I am now returning to my guilt list. Things I have been asked to write about but haven’t . That list includes land tax; estate duties; some GST things; raising company tax rate; minimum taxes; and accounting tax expense.
And so today picking from the random number generator that is my inclination – you get accounting tax expense.
At the Revenue when reviewing accounts one of the things that gets looked at is the actual tax paid compared to the accounting income. This percentage gives what is known as the effective tax rate or ETR. And yes there are differences in income and expense recognition between accounting and tax but for vanilla businesses – in practice – not as many as you would think.
Now it is true that a low ETR can at times be easily explained through untaxed foreign income or unrealised capital profits. But it is also true that for potential audits it can be a reasonable first step in working out if something is ‘wrong’. Coz like it was how the Banks tax avoidance was found. They had ETRs of like 6% or so when the statutory rate was 33%.
So when I ran into a May EY report that said foreign multinationals operating in New Zealand had ETRs around the statutory rate – I was intrigued.
Looking at it a bit more – it was clear that it was a comparison of the accounting tax expense and the accounting income. Not the actual tax paid and accounting income. Now nothing actually wrong with that comparison but possibly also not super clear cut that all is well in tax land.
And I have been promising/threatening to do a post on the difference between these two. So with nothing actually topical – aka interesting – happening this week; now looks good.
Now the first thing to note is that the tax expense in the accounts is a function of the accounting profit. So if like Facebook NZ income is arguably booked in Ireland – then as it isn’t in the revenues; it won’t be in the profits and so won’t be in the tax expense.
Second thing to note is that the purpose of the accounts is to show how the performance of the company in a year; what assets are owned and how they are funded. One key section of the accounts called Equity or Shareholders funds which shows how much of the company’s assets belong to the shareholders.
And the accounts are primarily prepared for the shareholders so they know how much of the company’s assets belong to them. Yeah banks and other peeps – such as nosey commentators – can be interested too but the accounts are still framed around analysing how the company/shareholders have made their money.
And it is in this context that the tax expense is calculated. It aims to deduct from the profit – that would otherwise increase the amount belonging to shareholders – any amount of value that will go to the consolidated fund at some stage. Worth repeating – at some stage.
First a disclaimer. When IFRS came in mid 2000s the tax accounting rules moved from really quite difficult to insanely hard and at times quite nuts. Silly is another technical term. That is they moved from an income statement to a balance sheet approach. Now because I am quite kind the rest of the post will describe the income statement approach which should give you the guts of the idea as to why they are different. Don’t try passing any exams on it though.
Now the way it is calculated is to first apply the statutory rate to the accounting profit. And it is the statutory rate of the country concerned. That is why it was a dead give away with Apple – note 16 – that they weren’t paying tax here even though they were a NZ incorporated company. The statutory rate they used was Australia’s.
Then the next step is to look for things called ‘permanent differences’. That is bits of the profit calculation that are completely outside the income tax calculation. Active foreign income from subsidiaries; capital gains and now building depreciation are but three examples. So then the tax effect of that is then deducted (or added) from the original calculation.
For Ryman – note 4 – adjusting for non-taxable income takes their tax expense from from $309 million to $3.9 million. That number then becomes the tax expense for accounting.
But there is still a bunch of stuff where the tax treatment is different:
- Interest is fully tax deductible for a company. But – if that cost is part of an asset – it is added to the cost of the asset and then depreciated for accounting. And the depreciation will cause a reduction in the profits over say – if a building – 40-50 years. So for tax interest reduces taxable profit immediately while for accounting 1/50th of it reduces accounting profits over the next 50 years.
- Replacements to parts of buildings that aren’t depreciable for tax can – like interest – receive an immediate tax deduction. But for accounting a new roof or hot water tank are added to the depreciable cost of the building and written off over the life of the asset.
- Dodgy debts from customers work the other way. Accounting takes an expense when they are merely doubtful. But for tax they have to actually be bad before they can be a tax deduction.
These things used to be known as timing differences as it was just timing between when tax and accounting recognised the expense.
And then the difference between the actual cash tax and the tax expense becomes a deferred tax asset or liability. It is an asset where more tax has been paid than the accounting expense and a liability where less tax has been paid than the expense.
And the fact that these two numbers are different does not mean anyone is being deceptive. They just have different raisons d’etre. Now if anyone wants to know how much actual tax is paid – the best places to look are the imputation account or the cash flow statement. The actual cash tax lurks in those places.
But yeah it does look like actual tax. I mean it is called tax expense.
Your correspondent has memories of the public comment when the banking cases started to leak out. I still remember one morning making breakfasts and school lunches when on Morning Report some very important banking commentator was talking. He was saying that the cases seemed surprising coz looking at the accounts the tax expense ratio seemed to be 30%. [33% stat rate at the time]. But that 3% of the accounting profits was still a large number and so possibly worthy of IRD activity.
Dude – no one would have been going after a 3% difference.
In those cases conduit tax relief on foreign income was being claimed on which NRWT was theoretically due if that foreign income were ever paid out. So because of this the tax relief being claimed never showed up in the accounts as it was like always just timing.
Except that the wheeze was there was no actual foreign income. It was all just rebadged NZ income. And yeah that income might be paid out sometime while the bank was a going concern. So it stayed as part of the tax expense. Serindipitously giving a 30% accounting effective tax rate while the actual tax effective tax rate was 6%.
And a lot of these issues are acknowledged by EY on page 13 of under ‘pitfalls’.
So yeah foreign multinationals – like their domestic counterparts – may well have accounting tax expense ratios of 28%. But whether anyone is paying their fair share though – only Inland Revenue will know.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about Facebook and their tax payments.
The methadone programme that is this blog is working pretty well and I now have an awful lot of non blog commitments these days. So until after the Budget I will just post when I can rather than every Monday. So those of you who haven’t already – you might like to sign up to email notifications on the right of the screen. Coz dear readers I would hate for you all to miss anything I had to say.
As a further aside I am also open to topic suggestions firstname.lastname@example.org altho I give no guarantee as to when they may turn up.
Now after dealing with Apple, family stuff and Sydney last week; dear readers I was and am a little tired. So as a bit of lite relief after all the nasty multinationals stuff I thought I’d finish off a post on GST I have had in the can for far too long. A reader asked for it last year but it keeps getting crowded out. Soz J.
But then this morning on my feed was a news item on Facebook and how they have very little income or tax paid in New Zealand. And how everyone who gets advertising in NZ contracts with Ireland. And they have very few staff here but earn all this money. But it’s not in their accounts.
Ok right. GST post down you go and Facebook here we come.
Now I have said a number of times there are many and varied ways of not paying tax. Apple uses a wheeze where they give the appearance of being a NZ company but because they are really an Australian company with no physical presence here they don’t pay tax here.
Looking at the 2014 accounts of Facebook New Zealand Limited and the news item Facebook’s wheeze seems to be separating out the income earning process so only some of it sticks in the New Zealand tax base.
Again once upon a time businesses advertised in newspapers or magazines that were physically based here. They would also have had a sales force that would have been a department of the newspaper or magazine probs also based in the same building as the publication.
The New Zealand company
Now the newspaper or website is in the cloud which just means a server somewhere. But there is still a sales force – or at least a sales support force – based in New Zealand. These guys are employed by Facebook New Zealand Limited a NZ incorporated company that earns fees from for its sales supporting.
Now a NZ incorporated company as you know dear readers this is prima facie taxable on all its income as it is tax resident in NZ. Ah you say but ‘what about the directors? Where is the control?’ Well done dear readers yes there are three foreign directors . Sigh. An Australian, an Irishman and a Singaporean. Beginnings of a bad joke. But good news is probs hard to show control in any one country.
So probably still resident under a treaty in New Zealand. And even if it isn’t as the sales support income is being earned from a physical presence here – note 7 shows office equipment – so probably fully taxable here. But expressions involving small mercies are coming to mind – it is only sales support income. But should be at armslength rates – usually done as a markup on cost. So there should always be taxable income here even if it is small.
The Irish company
And in the old days not only would the sales force be in NZ, the advertising contracts would be made with a NZ company. Not now. The Stuff article shows advertising agreements being made with a sister company in Ireland – Facebook Ireland Limited. This is also referenced in note 13 of the 2014 accounts so it must be true.
Now it is conceptually possible that Facebook Ireland Ltd is a NZ resident company if it had NZ directors – please stop laughing – but I am going to assume it isn’t. So let’s do the source rule thing.
Trading in v trading with
By now dear readers you will be quite expert on the whole trading in versus trading with thing. If there were no people here I would have said that this was trading with again. However the people on the ground – albeit employed by the NZ company – complicate the issue and what with the possibility that the contracts are partially completed in New Zealand. Hey I am going to give it a New Zealand source!
Limits of the permanent establishment rules
But then we go to the Irish treaty. Now the normal fixed place of business stuff can’t apply as it is Facebook NZ not Facebook Ireland that has the fixed place of business. However Article 5(5) provides that if another company – Facebook NZ – habitually enters into contracts for Facebook Ireland then game on – PE.
However your correspondent being the somewhat cynical – I have always preferred realist – individual she is is guessing the line is: ‘Dude they don’t conclude contracts for us – they are just like sales support – you know like preparatory and auxiliary. All the like real commercial work is done in Ireland not New Zealand – so bog off Mrs Commissioner.’
Yeah that is a bit clever and yeah that is what the tax avoidance provisons are for. And we can’t assume that the Department isn’t trying to use them.
Diverted Profits Tax – NZ style
Now PE avoidance is exactly how this all appears to your correspondent and that is what the government’s proposals are trying to counter. So lets see how that goes. Tests are:
Second point check – Facebook NZ does sales support;
Third point check – seems unlikely that only $1million was sales revenue in 2014
Fourth point – Ah.
The Irish treaty was concluded in 1988 long before BEPS; the international tax rules were only just coming in; and the Commissioner engaged in trench warfare that became the basis of the Winebox. Number 4 might be a bit of a struggle.
This struggle is alluded to in the discussion document’s technical appendix. Apple is example 1 and Facebook example 3. Example 3 discusses the application of the DPT NZ style and says it really is only any good if new treaties get new PE articles. And then says that maybe some countries won’t want them. Let’s all take an educated guess what Ireland will think.
But don’t panic. The OECD is doing some work on this which should come out in 2020. Awesome but wasn’t this exacly what Action point 1 was all about?
Changing the subject slightly last week Gareth Morgan put out his international tax policy. Most proposals were either the existing law – payments must be armslength or won’t get deduction – or government proposals – burden of proof should be on taxpayer. But his key point of difference is he wants all treaties ‘wound back’. I am not there yet but good on him for putting it on the table.
And given the public anger on all of this and OECD not reporting until 2020 when it was one of the original primary issues with the BEPS project – I would watch this space!
All this discussion on Facebook is only possible because until 2014 they had to file accounts with Companies Office. This changed in 2015 to large companies only. Because compliance costs. They still have to file accounts with IRD but rest of us don’t get to see them and their related party transactions anymore.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about Apple and their taxes.
Your correspondent is currently in Sydney – family stuff nothing glamorous or exciting – and had started to put together a post on Donald Trump and his 2005 tax return. Coz the Sydney Morning Herald had actually explained some stuff behind it and there were some issues that I thought – dear readers – you would find interesting.
But Saturday morning I opened my Herald app to find the latest on multinationals and tax. Apple this time. And yeah that is me. Apparently they have paid no tax in New Zealand. Whether that is 100% true only the Department would know but from looking at the accounts and how it has organised itself – looks pretty damn likely.
So let’s go!
Apple appears to sell products to New Zealand through a New Zealand incorporated company called Apple Sales New Zealand. Note no Ltd at the end. It is owned by an Australian company Apple Pty Ltd.
Now normally a New Zealand incorporated company means New Zealand has full taxing rights on all its income. No need to consider whether income has a NZ source or not . If it has earned income it is taxable. Well that is unless a tax treaty would take away some of those rights. And how could that happen dear readers? Yes that’s right – if it is managed or has directors control in another country.
And is Apple Sales New Zealand (not limited) controlled offshore? Yup the directors are Australian. Ok so then not a New Zealand company for tax purposes.
Now all the income comes from New Zealand so it should be taxed here – right? Well yeah if it has a New Zealand source. And remember that trading in v trading with thing again. Now once upon a time if you wanted to sell almost a billion dollars worth of consumer products you would kinda need to be here. But now http://www.apple.com/nz/ does the business. So thanks to the internet trading in can morph into trading with meaning bye bye income tax base.
Limits of diverted profits tax
Oh but the new things announced by Hon Judith should fix it? You know the diverted profits tax – NZ style? Well not really. The NZ diverted profits tax has some use if there really is stuff happening in New Zealand but clever things have happened to make it look like there isn’t. But here there isn’t stuff happening in NZ. Just people buying stuff from a website.
And remember how all the things a diverted profits tax would help with? Remember how trading with v trading in wasn’t one of them? Yeah this won’t save us.
But the pretending to be a New Zealand company when it is an Australian company. That is a bit cute isn’t it and doesn’t tax avoidance stop cute stuff. Yes it does so what are the facts?
- New Zealand incorporated company
- Australian directors with Australian control
- US website
- Shipping from Australia
- GST registered
- No presence or activity in New Zealand
So taking away any clever stuff. What is actually happening?
An Australian company is selling products to New Zealand via the internet shipping from a warehouse in Australia. What is the tax consequence of this? No tax – as Apple is only trading with New Zealanders not trading in New Zealand.
Compare to current outcome – no tax. Soz nothing for tax avoidance to bite on.
Could it be fixed?
Of course it is possible Apple will get shamed into paying tax here. Putting in New Zealand directors would do the trick. Not holding my breath though. There are also plans by the Government to strengthen our source rules – but nothing proposed tho that will bite on this issue.
What would need to happen is an extension of the ‘contracts made in New Zealand’ rule to say it is deemed to be made in the country of the purchaser for online sales.
So technically not hard.
But here’s the thing. If we do that for Apple – other countries might then do it to Fonterra; Zespri; Fisher and Paykel; Fletcher Building; and Rank when they trade without a footprint. And in this case Apple NZ seems to be paying some tax in Australia. So that will be an interesting discussion with the Australian Treasury.
And it won’t just be the nasty multinationals that get caught. Your correspondent has an extensive vintage reproduction wardrobe. All purchased online from the US and UK from relatively small companies. Risk is such suppliers would see NZ as not worth the effort and stop selling to us. But then now I live in active wear not such an issue for me.
Oh and the not limited thing? It will be a US check the box company as will the Australian Pty company meaning it is an entity hybrid and Apple Inc can choose how to treat it for tax. Cool – but don’t think it impacts on us. Phew.
Thanks to a comment below – I missed a point I really shouldn’t have.
Even if we do change our source rules every treaty we have requires there to be a permanent establishment or fixed place of business before business income can be taxed. So if our source rules were expanded to make income prima facie taxable in NZ the treaty would then allocate taxing rights to Australia.
So short of resinding our treaties – or shaming Apple into paying tax here – we have to suck it up.
There is also the issue of whether it is right to expect tax given Apple isn’t using anything that taxes have paid for. But currently that seems like an argument from another time given the public outrage.
So while taxes are inherently unilateral – this is something that has to be sorted multilaterally. Except I am not aware of any real work on it. And on that I would love to be proved wrong!
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.
Let’s talk about tax (and Michael Woodhouse).
Any reader of these august pages would be left in no doubt I have a bit of a professional crush on the outgoing Minister of Revenue.
Now all of that may seem seriously weird given that he is a member of a centre right government and I am an out lefty – social progressive please. Except that here’s the thing. So is he.
And before you protest Hon Mike let’s look at your record. Highlights include:
- Tightening up the foreign trust rules;
- Making foreign debt capital pay tax in a way they haven’t for decades;
- Releasing a discussion document to remove the too good to be true hybrid mismatches and
- Is thinking about considering finally taxing multinationals properly.
All stuff that would be more at home in a Green Party manifesto than the Business Growth Agenda. Now until this week I would have thought him a solid performer but not exactly a political operator. And its not like that is a bad thing. Chilled out entertainers get on my nerves.
Going through all the detail – coz that is what I do – here are the facts:
- In June Hon Bill and Hon Mike announced they were doing lots of multinational stuff including reviewing the interest limitation rules which is a big ticket way of not paying tax.
- A month ago Hon Mike announced there would be a discussion document on the whole diverted profits tax thing and interest deductions in February. I never covered it coz it looked quite sane and thought I’d wait for the detail.
- The reality of a discussion document in February is that while it might make a bill before the election. There is no way it can be passed into law by the time we go to the polls. So it will be become the next government’s problem to actually make it happen.
- Wednesday the Herald gets an advance copy of a cabinet paper probs also written a month ago. It says no to an actual diverted profits tax but proposes a bunch of stuff based on the work the OECD that should broadly have the same effect but without the drama of overriding our tax treaties.
- Oh and of course tax is inherently unilateral. Some how that seems to have got missed.
- The other thing that got missed is there was no detail on any moves to counter interest deductions. That is important but hard. And according to the June statement from both the boys was coming out this year. Waiting. Waiting.
Now from these little factoids Hon Mike got four articles in the Herald and me tomorrow in The Spinoff. Wow. Breathtaking. And – it is worth repeating – all on a subject announced at least a month ago that cannot become law in this term of government. And and he got a complete free pass on what he didn’t mention – interest deductions.
Sir. I have underestimated you. A solid performer AND a player.
And now you are leaving me and picking up ACC. But the real news is the change in your ranking from 19 to 9. This week has paid off for you.
Now I am not sure if I am going to find that Hon Judith is a closet lefty. But just in case my advice is:
- Carry on with the work on withholding taxes and particularly look at how vulnerable workers are treated and their risk of tax evasion;
- Interest deductions. Coz it is actually a key plank of work of OECD and is on a permanent foreshadow; and
- Keep an eye of those intermediaries and what they are doing with taxpayer data.
But otherwise good luck. I am pleased that Revenue is going to a senior Minister and none of this ‘outside cabinet’ nonsense. Michael Wood is going to have his work cut out for him marking you.
Let’s talk about tax (havens).
After eight days on a yoga course the role of balance in postures and in life was a recurring theme. And upon finishing the course this was brought home to me quite starkly. As after eight days of sequencing Sun A and B without naming the poses, understanding my inner child and hugging people that were a week ago complete strangers – your correspondent spent the subsequent week talking about multinationals and tax havens.
Yin and yang. Perhaps not as it is traditionally known but defo in my life.
Now my views on multinationals are ‘on the record’ but I realised I haven’t ever properly discussed tax havens.
Putting aside for a moment that no country has ever owned up to being a tax haven. And so much like the term ‘fat’ – it is in the eye of the beholder.
There are a number of criteria floating around but really they can be summarised as:
- low or no tax and
So yeah for New Zealand and foreign trusts pre Shewan report probs more tax haveny than not and post Shewan less tax haveny than not.
In the campaigns against them, tax havens are often swept up with the ‘multinationals – bad’ messaging. And the story goes something like this:
Multinationals strip profits from developing countries to tax havens. No tax paid in developing country or tax haven. Profits then not sent home coz they don’t want to pay tax on them. Double non-taxation – bad thing – everyone loses.
But in that story there are 2 quite distinct players:
- The developing country who is capital importing and
- the home country who is capital exporting.
The concerns of the developing or capital importing country – of which New Zealand is one – is to ensure that some tax is paid for the use of resources or on the location specific rents.
The concerns of the home or capital exporting country is to ensure that it receives some tax – after foreign tax is paid – for the capital invested.
Traditionally these two concerns have been reconciled through the OECD model for tax treaties. Broadly the approach is to let the source or capital importing country tax first but not too much. Then let the residence country also tax the income but give a tax credit for tax paid at the source country level.
Now that all works beautifully when structures are very simple and the person earning the money in the source country belongs to the capital exporting country. It becomes much more complicated when even simple entites like companies are in the mix. And it all starts to completely break down when tax paid in the capital importing country has no value as a tax credit to the ultimate owner of the capital.
Coming back to tax havens. For capital exporting countries where the multinationals are headquartered, tax havens then are a complete bugg@r. They potentially – will come back to this – put a block on the return on capital from the source country to them.
For capital importing countries like NZ the issue is not so clear. As IMHO isn’t the real concern returns leaving the country untaxed rather than where they go? Coz we have already seen with the use of hybrids it is quite possible for tax to be paid nowhere without a tax haven in sight. Also that income could also be directed to companies in the international group that were otherwise loss making – cross border loss refreshment. So really for capital importing countries, tax havens are just a tool in the mix rather than the definitive source of tax badness.
The story with tax havens being a blight on developing nations is also more nuanced than would first appear as they are often tax havens themselves. Vanuatu? Cooks? Admittedly more low rent – and therefore I would imagine more exploitable – than say Jersey or Bermuda but they still turn up on lists of potential havens.
Also capital exporting and importing countries are not as powerless against tax havens as it would first appear.
For capital exporting countries there is a 50 plus year old tool called the controlled foreign company rules that can be used against tax havens. The way it works is to say – you know if any foreign company is ultmately controlled by anyone in our country – well guess what we want to tax that income too. Trick can be knowing that income exists and so that is why the disclosure campaigns, TIEAs and automatic exchange of information are so useful. And if there continues to be non- disclosure this ups the ante with the tax administration to become potentially tax evasion and the spectre of the prison wall.
For capital importing countries its weapon of choice is the even more old school withholding taxes. Payments made to tax havens can have tax withheld at what ever rate you choose if you don’t have a tax treaty with that country. And if the treaty is a problem – it can strictly speaking be withdrawn.
The fact that these don’t happen really – IMHO – comes down to an international consensus to tax capital income more lightly than labour income. Aggravated by:
- The zero rate of tax borne by charities and pension funds;
- The active income exemption from the controlled foreign company rules;
- Classical taxation of dividends.
None of which provide any incentive to pay tax at the source country or even the home country.
Now tax havens can still be annoying to New Zealand to the extent our people have undisclosed money offshore – and the non- complying trust is worthy of its own future post – but as a country we are a net capital importer and so have much the same issues as the developing countries. And at times the label tax haven comes our way too – fairly or not.
Let’s talk about tax (and multinationals).
In her time your correspondent has been mistaken for a number of things. This has included being a
- Card player; and
But – you know what – apologist for foreign capital really hasn’t ever been one of them. So with this in mind I have been following the campaigns against multinationals and their non-taxpaying behaviour. And much as I hate to say this – I actually feel a bit sorry for them. Not a lot mind – but a bit.
A year or so ago while I was still at Treasury I went to the Accountants tax conference. Highlights included a Hip Hop presentation from a group in South Auckland in lieu of an after dinner speech. Pretty progressive for a bunch of tax geeks.
Also one of the main presentations showed the UK enquiry on multinationals where politicians – with no sense of irony – were giving Apple and the likes biffo for how they structured their businesses in response to the laws the politicians had enacted. Facepalm.
Now the public information surrounding multinationals non-taxpaying isn’t pretty. Double Dutch Irish sandwiches and the like. Great for headlines but not for taxbases.
All done through a combination of being in a country in substance but not for tax – the preparatory and auxillary out from a permanent establishment; treaty shopping in the form of royalties going to low tax counties and/ or excessive royalty payments. None of it – even to me – is the behaviour of a good corporate citizen.
But here’s the thing – in New Zealand a country where tax laws can be changed and cases can be run successfully in the courts – one of two things will be the case:
Option one. It is tax avoidance.
Now when I say ‘tax avoidance ‘ – this is tax avoidance in terms of the statutory provisions not tax avoidance coz people think they should pay more tax than they are.
If it is tax avoidance according to the law then my former colleagues will be getting right stuck in. Now Corporate Legal – remember breathe out – all these issues are beyond public domain. They would – Corporate Legal note conditional tense -be getting right stuck in as they/we did with the banking cases; avoidance of the top marginal rate; and the hybrid instrument cases. None of which required public outcry before that happened. Just a tax department getting on with its job.
However public outcry is pretty awesome for the front line in tax policing. Always good to know you are on same page as people you are serving.
Now there is quite a delay from problem indentification to going to court – dispute rules; fully discussing the issue with the taxpayer; briefing experts and ensuring all parts of the department are on board or at least don’t disagree and so on. And then there is the possiblity a taxpayer settles; in which case it is never public.
But dear readers never assume that just because you haven’t heard anything that nothing is happening. Because secrecy provisons. The very same ones I spend every blog post negotiating.
Option two. It is not tax avoidance in terms of the statutory provisions.
Now if that is the case this means the outcome was intended by Parliament. In the same way currently:
- Sales of businesses; houses; farms and other assets such as shares bought without the intention of resale are not taxed;
- Interest deductions for capital assets that may have incidental income are allowed and can be offset against other unrelated income;
- Income earned by contractors who do very similar work to employees are allowed work related deductions;
- Imputed rents are untaxed;
- Industries such as bloodstock and forestry either have accelerated deductions or deductions for capital;
- Businesses operated by charities are untaxed;
- There can be significant delay between income earned at the company level and when it is paid out to shareholders
- Transfer pricing or associated persons rules don’t apply to consortiums acting together as one entity;
- The thin capitalisation rules allow businesses funded by creditors the ability to strip profits by way of excessive interest.
Now there is also a move to make multinationals disclose how much tax they pay. Ok cool. But why is it only multinationals and not any beneficiary – which would include a lot of you dear readers I know it would include me – of the above list? Why is their non taxpaying so special?
And here’s the thing. Parliament – or really the government of the day – can change its mind. So if any or all of the above is ok but the multinational thing isn’t – Hon Mike can propose a law change. The current solution du jour is a diverted profits tax.
So maybe the target of the campaigns should be the politicans who continue to allow it rather than some companies that couldn’t help themselves? Just saying.
The campaigns will have been very useful in giving Hon Mike an ’empowering environment’. But maybe coz Hon Mike hasn’t done anything yet maybe it is tax avoidance. Even then taking avoidance cases ad infinitem is no way to run tax system.
So Hon Mike GET ON WITH IT!
Coz it is not like boycotting products is an option. At least for me. I am an Apple addict. Not so sure about ios 10 though.
One final thing dear readers – although I am now back to posting twice a week – Monday is Labour Day. So as a good lefty I am downing tools and will be back next Friday.