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 non-residents buying property in New Zealand.
Your correspondent has never understood the expression the devil is in the detail. Coz as someone who has spent her career in detail – I have always found the truth or the clarity to be in the detail. Because surely it is only from the detail that the high level stuff can come? Otherwise how do you trust that the principles or concepts are right?
All of this came back to me – as I mentioned last week – when a reader asked about the non- resident stats on property purchases. And how they kinda get touted as being both evidence and not evidence of low levels of foreign ownership in New Zealand.
As it all just very confused with claim and counterclaim – it is worth starting at the beginning. And in the beginning was Budget 2015. The government wanted a demand side measure or measures to help cool the housing market aka something to reduce the number or value of buyers in the market. And yeah that is me in the early stuff.
Where they landed was a combination of the:
So the people who have to provide NZ IRD numbers are all companies, trusts and partnerships as well as individuals who have limited connections to New Zealand or are not selling a main home. So pretty much everyone except anyone who can vote and is selling their family home. This meant IRD could track buying and selling of property better and stand a better chance of enforcing the Brightline test as well as the intention test.
And the people who had to supply foreign IRD numbers were anyone – individual or entity – who a foreign country had claimed under their tax residence rules. And it was tax residence before any treaty would apply too so these people could also be tax resident in New Zealand. Think Mr Thiel. This meant IRD could let foreign tax authorities know what their tax residents were doing here . And if the foreign country had a capital gains tax – very likely – they might be interested in this information.
Now let’s have a look at the LINZ pie chart. This chart is simply a summary of those who gave foreign IRD numbers and those who didn’t. So what can it tell us about the level of ‘foreigners’ buying residential property? Well actually absolutely nothing. Coz in the 3% this could include:
- A New Zealand incorporated company with New Zealand shareholders but with directors control in either Australia, China, Canada or the UK. Coz remember from last week how shareholding was irrelevant for residence?;
- A company incorporated offshore with New Zealand shareholders but with high level control in New Zealand;
- An American citizen who lives here all the time buying an investment property;
- A trust with any of the above as a trustee.
Now in practice some scenarios are more likely than not. But the key point is that even tho 3% is small it could also include buyers – as above – that don’t exactly feel foreign.
And in the 60% green – NZ tax resident only – the reverse becomes even more pronounced. This group can include a:
- company incorporated in New Zealand with high level control in New Zealand but offshore shareholders;
- trust with a New Zealand resident company or individual as a trustee but offshore settlor and beneficiaries aka our friends the foreign trusts;
- foreign citizen on a working or student visa in New Zealand for more than 6 months.
And all of this makes complete sense when the objective is helping treaty partners enforce their tax laws. As where there is no tax claim on the individual or entity by a foreign country there is no need for a foreign IRD number. But to consider this group ‘not foreign’ – bit of a stretch really.
Now the really interesting thing tho in all this stuff is there is a defintion in the mix that is a reasonable approximation of ‘foreign’. That is the term ‘offshore person’ (pg 15). It is used for the NZ IRD number requirement and as a carve out from the main home exclusion.
In offshore person there are no tax concepts and comes pretty close to what intuitively would be considered a ‘foreigner’ or a NZ citizen with limited ties to New Zealand. For individuals an offshore person includes non-citizens; citizens who haven’t been here in 3 years or permanent residents who have been absent for a year. For companies, partnerships and trusts it is where the 25% of the beneficial ownership is by these individuals who have these limited ties to New Zealand. Peter Thiel may be an offshore person given how little he seems to be here.
So if you actually wanted a proper foreign register of buyers of residental property or wanted to assess the level of foreign ownership in NZ – that offshore person definition really isn’t bad. It would need work if you started banning these sales as it does include actual NZ citizens and the company/trust foreign threshold is a 25% ownership which is kinda low. But still a lot better than anything based on tax residence.
So is that question asked anywhere? Nah. Facepalm. I guess coz like they really really don’t want a foreign buyer register.
But if you think it through – all the Budget 2015 things were really actually only about tax. And with LINZ being the easiest place to collect the data. So it makes complete sense that this stuff is administered by LINZ – joined up government and all that.
But what doesn’t make sense is why poor old LINZ has to produce these reports. Because honestly why does anyone care what percentage of land sales might be exchanged with a foreign tax authority? Even your correspondent the international tax geek – as the Americans would say – could care less.
But though much like the:
- Bright Line test which is the infrastructure for a capital gains tax;
The offshore person’s test could be the basis of a register of foreign buyers. Thereby continuing this government’s kind provision of the springboard for the next lefty government’s policies. And who says John Key doesn’t have a legacy?
But first LINZ would have to start collecting that information.
PS This is the last post for the next two weeks. I have part 2 of my yoga teacher training coming up. Namaste.