I had thought this might be a good post for my young friends to sub in on. But quite quickly into the conversation it became clear there would need to be too many ‘but Andrea says’ interjections to make it technically right. So we decided that I should go it alone.
Now first of all the whole making multinationals pay tax thing is a bit of a comms mess so I thought I’d have a go at unpicking it.
The underlying public concern was, and is, based around large – often multinational – companies not paying enough tax. A recent article on my Twitter feed on Amazon earning $11.2 billion but paying no tax is pretty representative of the underlying concern.
Technically there were/are two reasons for this:
1) The ability to earn income without physically being in the country you earn the money from. This is primarily the digital issue.
2) Arbitraging and finding their way through different countries rules to overall lower tax paid worldwide. This is primarily an issue with foreign investment as such techniques really only worked with locally resident companies or branches.
In terms of the OECD work while it was 1) that kicked off the work – most of their action points have previously related to 2). That is – the base erosion part of base erosion and profit shifting.
In New Zealand there was a 2017 discussion document that was advanced by Judith Collins and Steven Joyce on the New Zealand specific bits of 2) which was then picked up and implemented by Stuart Nash and Grant Robertson.
And while the speech read by Michael Wood after Speaker Trevor got upset with Stuart for sitting down opens with a discussion of ‘the digital issue’, the bill was about increasing the taxation of foreign investment – ie 2) – not the tech giants. (1)
Current NZ proposal
Now Ministers Robertson and Nash have issued a discussion document proposing – maybe – a digital services tax if the OECD doesn’t get its act together.
Before we go any further one very key aspect here is the potential revenue to be raised. $30- $80 million dollars a year.
Now that may seem like a lot of money – and of course it is – but not really in tax terms. As a comparison $30 million was the projected revenue from a change to the employee shares schemes. Only insiders and my dedicated readers would even have been aware of this.
Now given the public concern and the size of the tech giants – with $30 million projected revenue – I would say either there really isn’t a problem or the base is wrong.
So what is the base? What is it that this tax will apply to?
Much like the Michael Wood/Stuart Nash speech, the problem is set out to be broad – digital economy including ecommerce (2) but then the proposed solution is narrow – digital services which rely on the participation of their user base (3).
This tax will apply to situations where the user is seen to be creating value for the company but this value is not taxed. The examples given are the content provided for YouTube and Facebook , the network effects of Google or the intermediation platforms of Uber and AirBnB.
And because of this, the base for the tax is the advertising revenue and fees charged for the intermediation services. Contrary to what the Prime Minister indicated it will not be taxing the underlying goods or services (4). It will tax the service fee of the Air BnB but not the AirBnB itself. That is already subject to tax. Well legislatively anyway.
There are some clever things in the design as, to ensure it doesn’t fall foul of WTO obligations, it applies to both foreign and New Zealand providers of such services. But then sets a de minimis such that only foreign providers are caught (5).
Officials – respect.
But then it takes this base and applies a 2-3% charge and gets $30 million. Right. Hardly seems worth it for all the anguish, compliance cost and risk of outsider status.
The other issue that seems to be missing is recognition of the value being provided to the user with the provision of a free search engine, networking sites, or email. In such cases while the user does provide value to the business in the form of their data, the user gets value back in the form of a free service.
For the business it is largely a wash. They get the value of the data but bear the cost of providing the service. That is there is no net value obtained by the business. (6)
For the individual the way the tax system works is that private costs are non deductible but private income is taxable. Yep that is assymetric but without assymetries there isn’t a tax base.
In some ways this free service is analogous to the free rent that home owners with no mortgage get – aka an imputed rent and the associated arguments for taxing it. That is the paying of rent is not deductible but the receipt of rent should be taxable.
Under this argument it is the user that should be paying tax on the value that has been transferred to them via the free service not the business. While I think the correct way to conceptualise digital businesses, taxing users is as likely as imputed rents becoming taxable.
But key thing is that the tax base is quite narrow and doesn’t pick up income from the sale or provision of goods and services from suppliers such as Apple, Amazon and Netflix. None of this is necessarily wrong as there has never been taxation on the simple sale of goods but it is a stretch to say this will meet the publics demand for the multinationals to pay more tax.
And it is true such sales are subject to GST but last time I looked GST was paid by the consumer not the business.
Technically there are also a number of issues.
The tax won’t be creditable in the residence country because it is more of a tariff than an income tax hence the concern with the WTO. It is also a poster child for high trust tax collecting as the company liable for the tax by definition has no presence in New Zealand and it is also reliant on the ultimate parent’s financial accounts for information.
This is all before you get to other countries seeing the tax as inherently illegitimate and risking retaliation.
The alternative to this is what is going on at the OECD.
They have divided their work into 2 pillars.
Pillar one is about extending the traditional ideas of nexus or permanent establishment to include other forms of value creation.
The first proposal in this pillar is to use user contribution as a taxing right. It is similar to the base used for the digital services tax and faces the same conceptual difficulty – imho – with the value provided to users.
However unlike the DST it would be knitted into the international framework, be reciprocal and there would/should be no risk of retaliation or double taxation.
The second proposal is to extend a taxing right based on the marketing intangibles created in the user or market country. The whole concept of a marketing intangible is one I struggle with. Broadly it seems to be the value created for the company – such as customer lists or contribution to the international vibe of the product – from marketing done in the source/user/market jurisdiction.
This is a whole lot broader than the user contribution idea and has nothing really to do with the digital economy – other than it includes the digital economy.
Some commentators have suggested it is a negotiating position of the US. Robin Oliver has suggested that the US seems to be saying – if you tax Google we’ll tax BMW. In NZ what this would mean is that if we could tax Google more then China could tax Fonterra more based on marketing in China that supported the Anchor brand.
Both options explicitly exclude taxation on the basis of sales of goods or services (7).
There is a third option under this option pithily known as the significant economic presence proposal. The Ministers discussion document describes it essentially as a form of formulary apportionment that could be an equal weighting of sales, assets and employees. (8) Now that sounds quite cool.
I do wonder whether it would also be reasonable to include capital in such an equation as no business can survive without an equity base.
In the OECD discussion document they state that while revenue is a key factor it also needs one or more other things like after sales service in the market jurisdiction, volume of digital content, responsibility for final delivery or goods (9). Such tests should catch Apple and Amazon in Australia as they have a warehouse there but they are likely to be caught already with the extension of the permanent establishment rules.
It is less clear whether this would mean New Zealand could tax a portion of their profits but if that is what is wanted – this seems the best option as it is getting much closer to a form of formulary apportionment.
The other pillar – Pillar 2 – sets up a form of minimum taxation either for a parent when a subsidiary company has a low effective tax rate or when payments are made to associated companies with low effective tax rates. Again much broader than just the digital economy and similar to what I suggested a million years ago as an alternative to complaining about tax havens.
For high tax parents with low tax subsidiaries this is effectively an extension of the controlled foreign company rules and would bring in something like a blacklist where there could be full accrual taxation or just taxation up to the ordained minimum rate.
For high tax subsidiaries making payments to low tax sister or holding companies, they have the option of either denying a tax deduction for the payment or imposing a withholding tax. This could be useful in cases where royalties and the like are going to companies with low effective tax rates. On the face of it, it could also apply to payments for goods and services made by subsidiary companies.
It might also be effective against stories of Amazon not paying any tax – as zero is a pretty low effective tax rate.
The underlying technology seems to be based on the hybrid mismatch rules which also had an income inclusion and a deduction denial rule. Such rules were ultimately aimed at changing tax behaviour rather than explicitly collecting revenue.
Pillar 2 seems similar. If there will be clawing back of under taxation it is better to have no under taxation in the first place. So it may mean the US starts taxing more rather than subsidiary companies paying more tax.
Pillar 2 by being based around payments within a group will have no effect when there is no branch or subsidiary as is often the case with the cross border sale of goods and services to individuals .
Now the reason for all this work – both the DST and the OECD – is the issue of tax fairness and the public’s perception of fairness.
DST – imho – is really not worth it. All that risk for $30 million per year. No thank you.
But it has come about because even after the BEPS changes they still aren’t catching the underlying concern of the public – the lack of tax paid by the tech giants.
And there is no subtlety to that concern. In all my discussions no one is separating Apple, Amazon and Netflix from Google, Facebook and YouTube.
But it is time to be honest.
There are good reasons for that distinction. NZ is a small vulnerable net exporting country. Our exporters may also find themselves on the sharp end of any broader extension of taxation.
So policy makers please stop asserting the problem is the entire digital economy and then move straight to a technical discussion of a narrow solution without explaining why.
It gives the impression that more is being done than actually is. And quite frankly this will bite you on the bum when people realise what is actually going on.
And front footing an issue is Comms 101 after all.
(1) To be fair that bill did also include a diverted profits tax light which was directed at the likes of Facebook who just do ‘sales support’ in New Zealand rather than full on sales. But that was a very minor part of the bill.
(2) Paragraphs 1.2-1.4
(3) Paragraphs 1.5 onwards
(4) I had a link for her press conference but it has been taken down. She suggested that it was only fair that if motels in NZ paid tax so should AirBnBs. I completely agree but the AirBnBs are already in the tax base and if they aren’t currently paying tax that is an enforcement issue not a DST issue.
(5) Paragraph 3.24
(6) Paragraph 60 of the OECD interim report also notes this issue.
(7) Paragraph 67
(8) Paragraph 4.47
(9) Paragraph 51
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.
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?
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 email@example.com 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 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.