Over the summer, I wrote a column on the ongoing EU state aid investigation into Ireland's tax practices involving Apple. The recent news that Ireland plans to cut its corporate tax rate again, dropping to just 6.5% for IP-driven companies, reminded me that I neglected to post this article, so here it is. Abstract:
Apple recently disclosed to shareholders a potentially material impairment to its earnings: an ongoing investigation by the European Commission into Ireland’s tax ruling practices. Ireland may be forced to retroactively impose additional taxes on Apple, going back as much as a decade (and possibly beyond), if the Commission decides that the Irish Tax Authority granted Apple a prohibited subsidy, referred to as “fiscal state aid,” in contravention of EU law. But the impact of this investigation may be felt well beyond Europe. Against the backdrop of the OECD’s project on base erosion and profit shifting, the Commission’s investigation about whether Ireland gave Apple unfair benefits is fundamentally an interrogation into what, if anything, governments can or should do to stop the strategic use of national tax systems to lure international trade and investment. The Commission’s inquiry into Apple is thus a cautionary tale for both tax planners and tax authorities, whose confidence in past practices must give way as traditional compromises and well-worn assumptions suddenly become subjects of intense renegotiation on the global stage.Tax competition and cooperation continue to duke it out: BEPS is one battleground, state aid is another. If in policing internal practices, the EC finds that tax favours like Ireland's are anti-competitive as to other EU countries, then surely they are also anti-competitive as to the rest of the world. Even though the relevant treaty (TFEU) is unique and distinct, the principle that tax favours constitute state aid might open the door for disputes beyond the EU, for example in the context of other bilateral or multilateral trade agreements.
Side note: in writing this column, I compared the successive Apple disclosure statements to watch the language change in response to the EC inquiry, which unfolded as follows:
1st EC letter to Ireland: June 2013
Additional info request: October 2013
Additional info request: January 2014
EC letter informing Ireland of investigation: March 2014.
In the column I suggest we can trace this correspondence in Apple's tax disclosure. Because it was a brief discussion I didn't lay out the disclosure changes in full but here they are (through the time of the column; not updated since), interesting in terms of revealing management's decisions about what shareholders need to know in order to make informed investment choices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Apple's share price appears immune to the news to date. It is hard to imagine the size a clawback would need to be in order to have a material impact.