TAX, SOCIETY & CULTURE

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Tax Sovereignty in the BEPS Era

Published Jun 17, 2017 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Kluwer law has recently published Tax Sovereignty in the BEPS Era, a collection of contributions I co-edited with Sergio Rocha, in which we and a slate of authors from a range of countries explore the impact of the BEPS initiative on "tax sovereignty"--which I take to mean the autonomy that nations seek to exercise over tax policy. Here is the description:

Tax Sovereignty in the BEPS Era focuses on how national tax sovereignty has been impacted by recent developments in international taxation, notably following the OECD/G-20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) Project. The power of a country to freely design its tax system is generally understood to be an integral feature of sovereignty. However, as an inevitable result of globalization and income mobility, one country’s exercise of tax sovereignty often overlaps, interferes with or even impedes that of another. In this collection of chapters, internationally respected practitioners and academics reveal how the OECD’s BEPS initiative, although a major step in the right direction, is insufficient in resolving the tax sovereignty paradox. Each contribution deals with different facets of a single topic: How tax sovereignty is shaped in a post-BEPS world.
And here is the table of contents:
Part I The Essential Paradox of Tax Sovereignty
  • CH 1: BEPS and the Power to Tax, Allison Christians          
  • CH 2: Tax Sovereignty and Digital Economy in Post-BEPS Times, Ramon Tomazela Santos & Sergio André Rocha
  • CH 3: Justification and Implementation of the International Allocation of Taxing Rights: Can We Take One Thing at a Time?, Luís Eduardo Schoueri & Ricardo André Galendi Júnior
  • CH 4: An Essay on BEPS, Sovereignty, and Taxation, Yariv Brauner

Part II    Challenge to the Foundational Principles of Source and Residence
  • CH 5: Evaluating BEPS, Reuven S. Avi-Yonah & Haiyan Xu
  • CH 6: Jurisdictional Excesses in BEPS’ Times: National Appropriation of an Enhanced Global Tax Basis, Guillermo O. Teijeiro
  • CH 7: Taxing the Consumption of Digital Goods, Aleksandra Bal

Part III  Acceptance and Implementation of Consensus by Differently-Situated States
  • CH 8: The Birth of a New International Tax Framework and the Role of Developing Countries, Natalia Quiñones
  • CH 9: The Other Side of BEPS: “Imperial Taxation” and “International Tax Imperialism”, Sergio André Rocha
  • CH 10: Country-by-Country Over-Reporting? National Sovereignty, International Tax Transparency, and the Inclusive Framework on BEPS, Romero J.S. Tavares
  • CH 11; How Are We Doing with BEPS Recommendations in the EU?, Tomas Balco & Xeniya Yeroshenko      
  • CH 12: U.S. Tax Sovereignty and the BEPS Project, Tracy A. Kaye 
And finally, here is a brief description:

The book unfolds in three parts. The first, The Essential Paradox of Tax Sovereignty, features four chapters.

  • In chapter 1, Christians introduces the topic by demonstrating how BEPS arose from the paradox of tax sovereignty and analyzing why multilateral cooperation and soft law consensus became the preferred solutions to a loss of autonomy over national tax policy. The chapter concludes that without meaningful multilateralism in the development of global tax norms, the paradox of tax sovereignty will necessarily continue and worsen, preventing resolution of identified problems for the foreseeable future. 
  • Tomazela &; Rocha pick up this thread in chapter 2, where they demonstrate that BEPS addresses the symptoms, but not the problems, of the sovereignty paradox. In their view, the central defining problem of this paradox is an ill-defined jurisdiction concept. The chapter demonstrates why tax policymakers need to change the conventional wisdom on sovereignty in order to incorporate new nexus connections due to the changing nature of trade and commerce. 
  •  In chapter 3, Schoueri & Galendi further the inquiry by providing a detailed analysis of the interaction of contemporary cooperation efforts with the sovereignty of states in light of historical claims in economic allegiance, economic neutrality and now cooperation against abusive behaviour. 
  • Brauner rounds out this first part in chapter 4, which establishes the evolution of the concept of tax sovereignty. The chapter proposes an instrumental role for sovereignty in the process of improving cooperation and coordination of tax policies among productive (non-tax haven) countries, to balance claims and serve as a safeguard against political (in this case international) chaos. Brauner concludes that such a change to the business of international tax law would ensure at least an opportunity for all participants to succeed on their own terms. 

 Part Two of the book, Challenge to the Foundational Principles of Source and Residence, takes an in depth look at why residence and source continue to be the two essential building blocks of tax sovereignty and the backbone of the international tax system, surviving BEPS but still subject to multiple challenges in theory and practice.

  • In chapter 5, Avi-Yonah & Xu argue that BEPS simply cannot succeed in solving the sovereignty paradox because BEPS follows the flawed theory of the benefits principle in assigning the jurisdiction to tax. Avi-Yonah and Xu therefore make a compelling argument that for the international tax regime to flourish in the face of sovereign and autonomous states, countries must commit to full residence-based taxation of active income with a foreign tax credit granted for source-based taxation. 
  • In chapter 6, Tejeiro continues the analysis of the fundamental jurisdictional building blocks, demonstrating that by resorting to legal fictions within BEPS and beyond it, states are attempting to enlarge the scope of their personal or economic nexus, or to grasp taxable events and bases beyond their proper reach under well-settled international law rules and principles. 
  • Bal furthers the discussion in chapter 7, with an analysis of how digital commerce has upended traditional notions of source and residence. Bal advocates the consumer's usual residence as a good approximation of the place of actual consumption and therefore the best-justified place of taxation. 

Part Three of the book, Acceptance and Implementation by Differently-Situated States, considers tax sovereignty after BEPS from a range of perspectives. Chapters 8 through 10 focus on perspectives from lower income or developing countries, while chapters 11 and 12 review the landscape from the perspective of Europe and the United States, respectively.

  • In chapter 8, Quinones explores how developing countries might take advantage of the new international tax architecture, developed for purposes of coordinating the BEPS action plans, to ensure that their voices are truly shaping the standards. She argues that the knowledge gap between developing and developed is getting narrower instead of wider, with major negative impacts expected for the international tax order. 
  • Rocha continues this discussion in chapter 9, with a proposal: instead of simply accepting the BEPS Project’s recommendations and their reliance on historical decisions about what constitutes a country’s “fair share of tax”, developing countries should join in the formation of a Developing Countries’ International Tax Regime to focus discourse on the rightful limits of states’ taxing powers. 
  • Furthering the theme of autonomous priority-setting, in chapter 10 Tavares focuses in on a key part of the BEPS consensus, exploring whether implementing the CBCR standard, without a deeper transfer pricing reform, should be viewed as a priority in every country. He further questions whether this particular initiative, even if important, is worthy of mobilization of the scarce resources of developing countries. Tavares concludes with an incisive review of the role of the inclusive framework in prioritizing some needs over others. 
  • Balco & Yeroshenko then consider BEPS implementation from the very different perspective of the EU in chapter 11. The chapter demonstrates that even within the EU, BEPS implementation is not straightforward, as the interests of member states sometimes conflict and the basic notion of tax sovereignty remains fundamental even while tax coordination and harmonization across the EU expands. However, the authors note that the progress made in the last several years on key cooperation norms, which was largely inspired by BEPS, has been unprecedented. 
  • Finally, Kaye provides a capstone to the book in chapter 12, where she makes the convincing case that although some in the United States saw the BEPS Project as a threat to US tax sovereignty, this project was in fact necessary in order for the United States to effectively wield its tax sovereignty. Kaye’s chapter thus ends the book with a clear picture of the ongoing paradox of tax sovereignty in the world after BEPS.

Tagged as: BEPS scholarship sovereignty tax competition tax policy

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Analysis of Canada's Tax Gap Pre-Study

Published Jul 26, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Further to my last post on the newly released Tax Gap study by the Canada Revenue Agency, the following comes from guest blogger Iain Campbell (ARC, UK):

I hope this comment is not too long but I’ve been following Tax Gap discussions for so long that it’s hard to pass by the chance to comment!

Background
This is an interesting development. Writing from the UK I’m not in regular contact with developments in Canadian tax administration. But I do recall there has been some entertainment over the Tax Gap, with the Parliamentary Budget Officer asking for the CRA to do some work on it - and being rebuffed.

In fact, the CRA has not been keen on preparing a Tax Gap analysis. In 2002 it reported that attempting to estimate overall levels of reporting non-compliance such as the ‘tax gap’ or the total amount of smuggling activity was fraught with difficulty. (CRCA Performance report for the period ending 31 March 2002.) Ten years later the CRA were still not convinced. At the start of 2013 they told the PBO:

The CRA later pointed out “the significant debate about the precision, accuracy and utility of any methodology to calculate the tax gap”. It drew attention to critical comments from the UK Treasury Select Committee, as well as the fact of 52 tax administrations surveyed by the IRS, 33 did not produce one, and the high costs of doing so. (CRA, PBO Information Request IR0102: tax gap estimates, letter 20 March 2013,] and PBO Information Request IR0102: tax gap estimates, letter 1 August 2013.) In 2014 the PBO even threatened to take legal action in order to compel production.
But in the recent election there was a promise to undertake such a study, ending this long standing reluctance to follow the example of other countries, including the USA and UK.  And following the Panama Papers the Revenue Minister said in January a tax gap study would be done. The new Canadian study comprises a 31pp paper on a conceptual study of the Canadian tax gap and an 11pp study on the Canadian GST/HST, which gives a gap of 5.5% in 2000 and 6.5% in 2014. (It explicitly references the decision announced by the Minister of National on 11 April.)

Basis of study – what’s in and what’s out
The conceptual study does, to an outsider, seem to spend a lot of time in not saying a great deal. It seems to add qualification to qualification, caveat after caveat, so that at times I wondered if the CRA really wanted to publish anything at all. Gus O’Donnell is the UK civil servant who wrote the Report that led to the UK Customs and Excise combining with the Inland Revenue to form HM Revenue and Customs. In that Report he surely got it down to a few words: “Making estimates of the tax gap is methodologically and empirically difficult, although easier for indirect taxes where tax can typically be related to consumption. Direct tax gaps are particularly difficult to estimate because the aggregate figures for income, for example, are built on tax data.”

The CRA's conceptual study refers a lot to the HMRC papers and policies on calculating the Tax Gap. But in some of the key areas it dances around what might be difficult decisions e.g., whether to report the gross tax gap, or, as in the UK, the gap after action to tackle non-compliance.

Avoidance
More controversially, the UK includes tax avoidance.  This is a good illustration of its overall approach.


On the other hand, academics and members of the accountancy profession have argued the opposite, that any estimate should not include avoidance as referenced by the “spirit of the law”. For example, during a Treasury Select Committee Hearing on The Administration and Effectiveness of HMRC, Judith Freedman (Professor of Tax Law, Oxford University) commented “I really take issue with the spirit of the law part, because either you have law or you don’t have law and the law has to state what it is.”

The Canadian paper discusses this option and concludes “the appropriate treatment of tax avoidance is less clear”. It seems Canada has decided to not include avoidance in its definition: “In general the CRA’s approach to the tax gap encompasses non-compliance related to non-filing, non-registration (in the case of GST/HST), errors, under-payment, non-payment, and unlawful tax evasion” (p29).  There seems to be no explicit position on avoidance but, although I doubt it will happen, “under-payment” is potentially broad enough to include under-payment via avoidance.

Other “Gaps”
Another area the study did not address is what the IMF and EU call the “tax policy gap”. I agree with this decision (which mirrors the UK). The IMF would widen the definition and use of the Tax Gap approach. It suggests including the effects of policy choices that lead to reduced revenues. In a study on the UK Tax Gap it refers to the impact of compliance issues on revenue as “the compliance gap” and the revenue loss attributable to provisions in tax laws that allow an exemption, a special credit, a preferential rate of tax, or a deferral of tax liability, as the “policy gap” (para 68).  As part of this they recommend tax avoidance schemes deemed legal through litigation should be considered part of the policy gap, not the compliance gap, and this distinction should be made clear.

A similar point was made by an EU report on VAT. They suggested that a possible link between the policy and the compliance gaps, since using the reliefs and allowances intended by policy could make compliance more difficult. “Reducing the policy gap may often be the simplest and most effective way to reduce the compliance gap. “ (p21)

In my view these kinds of proposals are likely to be very complex, perhaps contentious, and hard to administer. It seems a sensible decision to not refer to them or suggest their inclusion.

Then there are the base erosion issues where tax is avoided through the use of legal structures that make use of mismatches between domestic and international tax, e.g. permanent establishments. The Canadian study nods in the direction of BEPS and then passes by.

What’s the point of working out a Tax Gap?
But putting aside these sorts of issues, or whether “top-down” targeting is better than “bottom-up”, does the size of the hidden or “informal” economy predict the level of GST/VAT underpayment (or is it the other way around?), perhaps the  big $64K question is whether any of this means anything. If there is no clear agreement on the numbers, how they are calculated and their reliability, then is there are any point in preparing them?

The very concept of the tax gap is not universally agreed to be a useful analytical or strategic lever. Apart from the earlier Canadian reluctance, the Australians were slow to go down this road. UK Parliamentarians have been less than keen. In 2012 the Treasury Select Committee said they thought it was essentially a waste of time and resources. Worse, they feared it would misdirect HMRC away from ensuring every taxpayer paid the right amount of tax. Such fears have not died. The current TSC is examining UK corporation tax. Their early work involved scoping the problem and they heard some evidence on the tax gap. Andrew Tyrie (the Chair) seemed less than enthused at the very concept.

I think it has merits. But it ought not to be elevated to some shibboleth. It is one high-level measure of how successfully legislation is being applied, use of resources, etc.  The UK Government’s official position is that that “thinking about the tax gap forces the department to focus attention on the need to understand how non-compliance occurs and how the causes can be addressed—whether through tailored assistance, simpler legislation, redesigned processes or targeted interventions. Measuring the tax gap helps us to understand whether increasing returns from compliance activity reflect improved effectiveness or merely a decrease in voluntary compliance.”

The Canadian paper says broadly the same things (pp22-24). It talks of providing insight into the overall health of the tax system, of understanding the composition and scale of non-compliance, but warns of their limitations.

If that is how it used then I think it is a useful aid to policy making and how robust is the assurance being provided by the tax administration.


Tagged as: Canada tax gap tax policy

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Kill Switches in the New US Model Tax Treaty

Published May 17, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

I posted previously on the new US Model, which was released in February of this year; I've now posted my article, co-written with McGill PhD student Alex Ezenagu, on the "kill switch" provisions in the new model. These provisions are found in the new articles and definitions involving special tax regimes and subsequent law changes, which would allow countries to switch on and off specified treaty benefits if their treaty partners get too aggressive in the ongoing race to the bottom on tax.

Here is the abstract:

The new US model income tax treaty contains an unusual addition: mechanisms for the parties to unilaterally override the negotiated treaty rates in specified circumstances. Previewed last year in proposed form—a first for Treasury—these new mechanisms work as kill-switches, partially terminating the treaty as to one or both treaty partners. The idea is to forestall a more problematic outcome, such as an enduring breach of one of the parties’ expectations, or the opposite, a complete termination of all the treaty terms in the face of such a breach. Yet embedding a kill-switch in a treaty creates distinct legal, procedural, and political pressures in the tax-treaty relationship that implicate treaty negotiation, ratification, interpretation, and dispute resolution. Kill-switches also communicate a defensive tenor in the tax treaty relationships among many countries. This Article analyzes the new kill-switch provisions and concludes that their introduction in the U.S. Model reflects the steady deterioration of tax treaties from essentially diplomatic documents premised on the good faith of the parties to detailed contracts drafted in anticipation of the opposite.
It has long been assumed that tax treaties are uncontroversially technical agreements that no one outside of tax circles cares about or pays attention to--including, it seems, all too many lawmakers tasked with adopting these agreements into law. But with the US Treasury and the EU competition commissioner trading barbs over the fence about what seems right or fair when it comes to global tax competition and coordination, this assumption might be changing. The consensus built up over decades by OECD nations is under stress as the pressure for coherence in the international tax realm increases. Treasury released these provisions in draft from last fall, expressly in order to influence the OECD's work on BEPS. Now that the provisions are in the model, it remains to be seen how they will play out as BEPS, currently at a mid-cycle of norm making, moves from the articulation of principles to the implementation phase. This article doesn't provide answers or predictions about the future but it examines one aspect of the ongoing contestation and tries to situate it in historical and contemporary terms.

Tagged as: institutions international law offshore scholarship tax policy treaties US

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This Friday in London: Conference on The Changing Shape of Tax Avoidance

Published May 04, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

This Friday, I'll be in London participating in a conference on tax avoidance and evasion, hosted by the Journal of Tax Administration. Here is the program:


11.00 – 11.15 Welcome and Introduction

11.15 – 11.50 Matthew Rablen: Optimal Income Tax Enforcement in the Presence of Tax Avoidance

11.50 – 12.25 Maya Forstater: Can Stopping ‘Tax Dodging’ by Multinational Enterprises Close the Gap in Development Finance?

12.25 – 13.00 Allison Christians: Tax Avoidance in a World of Aggressive Tax States

13.00 – 13.45 Lunch

13.45 – 14.15 Federica Bardini: The “Ius Commune Europeum” on Tax Avoidance

14.15 - 14.45 Shu-Chien Chen: The Common Pattern of the “Tax Avoidance Concept” in the EU and USA

14.45 – 15.00 Discussion

15.00 – 15.20 Break

15.20 – 15.55 David Duff: Tax Avoidance – Causes, Consequences and Responses

15.55 – 16.30 David Quentin: Tax Risk Mining and Corporate Responsibility for Human Rights

The venue for this conference is Friends House, 173 – 177 Euston Road, London.

Here is the abstract for my presentation:
Tax Avoidance in a World of Aggressive Tax States 
Media coverage of tax “dodging” by high profile elites and multinational companies leads the public to believe that tax avoidance happens when individuals act to thwart the efforts of the state. Confined to the domestic arena this may be an apt description, and a problem anti-avoidance regimes are designed to solve. But on an international scale, tax avoidance is not a one-person show. Instead, it involves interactions among four types of actors: individuals, home states, host states, and intermediary states. International tax avoidance persists largely because home, host, and intermediary states intentionally use their tax systems to lure investment away from other jurisdictions that impose higher tax burdens, and individuals do their best to exploit available opportunities to the fullest. In deciding whether and how law should be used to prevent international tax avoidance, the goals and interests of each of the four actors must be examined.



Tagged as: conference fiscal state aid institutions Tax law tax policy

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May 4: International Tax Governance in Action at Tilburg University

Published Apr 28, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Next week, I will be participating in a workshop at Tilburg University in the Netherlands on the topic of International Tax Governance, a timely topic especially given the recent developments in the coordination of the international organizations, the expansion of the OECD's global forum idea to monitor BEPS, the impact of the state aid cases within and beyond Europe, and the increasing role of NGOs in shaping international tax policy. Here is the program:
10:00- 10:30 Welcome and registration
10:30- 11:00 Opening
Cees Peters (Tilburg University): International Tax Governance in Action
11:00- 12:30 Session 1 - Transparency
Edwin Visser (PwC): reaction of MNC's to transparency pressure: CbCR and CSR discussion (30 minutes + 15 minutes discussion)
Maaike van Diepen (Tax Justice Network): The perspective of an NGO (30 minutes + 15 minutes discussion)
12:30- 13:30 Lunch break
13:30- 15:00 Session 2 - EU State Aid
Allison Christians (McGill University): a US perspective - the reaction of the US government and US MNC's
Anna Gunn (Leiden University): an EU perspective - the reaction of the EU Member States and EU MNC's
15:00- 15:30 Break
15:30- 17:00 Session 3 - Compliance of states with new norms of international taxation
Carla De Pietro (Tilburg University and University of Bologna): Implementation of the OECD BEPS measures (Action 6) in the light of the relationship between international and EU law.
More details and registration information are here.





Tagged as: conference governance institutions international law tax policy

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Soft Tax Law & Multilateralism: Modifying treaties with anti-BEPS measures

Published Mar 17, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

As observers of global tax policy know, international tax issues are dealt with in bilateral treaties that more or less adhere to a 'model' tax treaty developed and periodically updated by the OECD (provisions in a rival UN Model are occasionally invoked, and the US has its own model with its own distinctions and idiosyncrasies). There are those who have long lamented the problem of having thousands of bilateral agreements that can't be easily or quickly updated when the OECD revises the model (thus curbing the impact of OECD soft law).

As part of the base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) initiative, the OECD is currently developing a
"Multilateral instrument on tax treaty measures to tackle BEPS" which would be used to 'modify' all existing tax treaties in force among signatory countries. The OECD says this mechanism (which it calls an 'innovative approach') 'would preserve the bilateral nature of tax treaties' even as it modified all existing bilateral treaties 'in a synchronized way'. The OECD says there are "limited precedents" for modifying bilateral treaties with a multilateral instrument.

But are there really any precedents at all? I couldn't think of any off-hand. A quick check with a few international law colleagues yielded few comparators. Tim Meyer suggested the EU harmonizing efforts on Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) as a candidate, albeit noting that this does not contemplate directly overriding existing BITs but requires EU members to change their bilateral arrangements to conform with EU investment policy.

Tim also made the interesting observation that"treaties that reference customary international law standards, such as BITs’ reference to the minimum standard of treatment" could be overridden in a somewhat similar fashion. He explained that "[i]f custom changed, such as through the promulgation of soft law documents or multilateral treaties, it would change the BITs that incorporate the customary standard. That isn’t exactly the same thing [as the new OECD multilateral instrument], but similar."

The OECD's work in developing "global consensus" has in the past led some to describe OECD standards as "soft law" and others to suggest that the OECD may be understood to articulate customary international tax law; moreover the OECD has itself now taken to describing its model as soft law (including in its 2014 report on the multilateral instrument). I have urged caution in defining OECD proclamations as soft law or customary law given the OECD's exclusive membership of mainly rich countries, which excludes all of the BRICs and most of the rest of the world, as I think the nomenclature lends an imprimatur of legitimacy to OECD proclamations that may not be deserved. But it seems clear that the BEPS action items, and the new global forum to "monitor compliance" with them, are intended to overcome the exclusivity problem while endowing OECD norms with ever-greater law-like effect (without offending the unicorn that is "tax sovereignty").

It seems likely to me that a multilateral agreement that modifies existing tax treaties is actually intended to ultimately replace those treaties, making small and incremental modifications until the underlying bilateral treaties become superfluous or extinct. Accordingly I view the OECD's multilateral 'modification' function to be an exercise in creeping harmonization as well as "ossification" (or maybe transformation) of soft law into hard law.

Adding together the other elements of BEPS, including the new global forum to compel national compliance with 'minimum standards' as they develop, I recently suggested that the OECD's tax folks are giving birth to a new global tax order complete with rules, audits, and reform processes. This is perhaps not the order envisioned by those who have in the past called for global tax coordination in a supranational body for the sake of pursuing global tax justice. If the OECD-based regime is not fully supranational yet, it is close, and it looks increasingly inevitable once it sets a multilateral agreement in place.

There are many fascinating threads of soft law and public international law are at work in these developments. I recently came across an article by Jung-Hong Kim on the topic, entitled A New Age of Multilateralism in International Taxation?, abstract:

 With the OECD/G20 BEPS project, the current international tax landscape is facing challenges and changes unprecedented for the past several decades. This paper looks at the development of bilateralism and multilateralism in the current international tax regime, takes stock of the BEPS works and analyzes the proposed Multilateral Instrument. Then, the paper discusses the emerging multilateral tax order in international taxation. 
Historically, bilateralism has been the constant trend of tax treaties, and later multilateral tax treaties have emerged in some regional areas. There being some deficiencies with bilateral treaties such as dilapidation, delay in entry into force and vulnerability to treaty shopping, the experience of multilateral tax treaties can help build a foundation for future development of a multilateral tax treaty to complement the bilateral tax treaty network. 
With a caveat that BEPS output is fluid at this stage, drawing on the various examples of existing non-tax multilateral treaties, the Multilateral Instrument will be a desirable and feasible tool to reflect the necessary changes resulting from BEPS project. For Korea whose tax treaties need a systematic upgrade after a noticeable growth in quantity, the negotiation on the Multilateral Instrument of the BEPS project will be a great opportunity to revisit the existing bilateral tax treaties and to make appropriate amendments with bilateral treaty partners in multilateral format. 
Beyond BEPS, supposing that the work on the Multilateral Instrument results in a multilateral convention, the inevitable question is the emergence of a multilateral tax order. In terms of feasibility of such a multilateral tax order, there are both positive and negative sides. The positive side is that the relative success of Global Forum on Tax Transparency can be a guidance on the post-BEPS multilateral tax order. On the other hand, the phenomenon of diminishing multilateral trade regime and bilateral investment treaty regime seem to be a negative evidence. Another point to consider is the appropriate forum to manage the multilateral tax order. For this, there are two competing organizations, i.e., the OECD CFA and UN tax committee, each of which having some limit to be developed into an intergovernmental forum. 
After all, the essential question will be how those major players such as the U.S., EU, China, India etc. could build a consensus by compromising on the institutional and substantive aspects of the multilateral tax order. For now, for the emerging multilateral tax order to proceed on a sound basis, the work of the BEPS project should bear substantive and meaningful fruits. 
This is a useful contribution to the discussion and I would like to see more analysis on the OECD's developments, especially from the perspective of nonOECD countries that are being drawn in as BEPS Associates. I would be interested to hear from readers with thoughts on the public international law foundations and precedents, particularly any comparator regimes that I should be thinking about.

Tagged as: globalization governance international law OECD rule of law sovereignty tax policy treaties

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EU Report: give fiscal state aid recoveries to tax competition victims; sanction the culprits

Published Feb 03, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

In an annual report to the European Parliament on EU Competition Policy, MEP Werner Langen has proposed that the fiscal state aid rules be changed so that other EU states receive any recoveries. Thus, if Ireland loses in its investigation by the EC, it will have to recover some billions from Apple as punishment, and Langen proposes that Ireland--the "culprit"--not be allowed to keep the money. The Report:

Calls on the Commission to modify the existing rules without delay, in order to allow the amounts recovered following an infringement of EU tax-related State aid rules to be returned to the Member States which have suffered from an erosion of their tax bases, or to the EU budget, and not to the Member State which granted the illegal tax-related State aid, as is currently the case, as this rule provides an additional incentive for tax dodging;
Even if the proposal goes nowhere, one can understand why the sentiment would arise. When I first started looking at the fiscal state aid investigations, this element struck me as counter-intuitive: where a state has foregone revenue in order to lure business in contravention of the antitrust rules in the TFEU, the punishment is then to collect the revenues foregone. The narrative thus is that the state successfully cheated its EU neighbours of an opportunity to attract foreign investment and the punishment is a cash windfall.

This looks more like a punishment if you think the collection of revenues by the state will cause the investment to flee to other jurisdictions because the targeted state is not competitive but for the state aid. That might not seem likely for Ireland, both because Ireland's general corporate tax rate is still lower than much of Europe even without the extra padding of the state aid, and because the successful luring of Apple arguably had its intended effect, creating spillover effects that gave Ireland a first-mover advantage which now extends its attractiveness beyond the favourable tax climate. In that case the MEP's position on the cash windfall is sympathetic.

Even if it is sympathetic, it is hard to imagine redistributing Apple's foregone tax revenue to other EU members, when it is at least debatable whether any of the recipients hold out clean hands. Tax competition is so ubiquitous, so multifaceted, every victim is a culprit, too.

In a potentially even more problematic move, the report "[c]alls on the Commission to consider the introduction of sanctions, either against the state or the company involved, for serious cases of illegal State aid". The array of issues involved in sorting out that kind of power structure is vast.

On a side note, the report contains a long list of tax harmonization goals, and it includes an interesting call for the EC to get in on the multilateral exchange of tax rulings, which, via the OECD BEPS initiative, are to be automatically shared among countries under conditions of confidentiality, including restrictions as to their use for non-tax purposes. The report "Emphasises that the Commission must, as a matter of course, have access to data exchanged between tax authorities which are relevant in the context of competition law." I am not sure whether sharing tax rulings with the EC would be compatible with the OECD confidentiality framework.

A very provocative report that signals a growing amount of frustration with ongoing tax competition, and an increasing desire of some to use the fiscal state aid rules to stop it. Will be interesting to see where this takes the field.



Tagged as: fiscal state aid tax competition

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Apple's private meeting to lobby the European commissioner in state aid investigation

Published Jan 23, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

The FT reports that Tim Cook took it upon himself to go and visit the European commissioner Margrethe Vestager, "to lobby the EU’s antitrust chief weeks before she is set to rule on a landmark case that could force the California-based technology company to pay billions in underpaid taxes to Ireland." Really? Let's see, this is a private meeting with a person who is in charge of deciding whether your company benefited from a scheme to violate an agreement among EU members on trade practices within the internal market.

Pretty clearly the Commissioner should have flatly refused such access. I don't know what the rules are for private parties to attempt to influence a sitting Commissioner in the midst of a procedure laid out in an international treaty that directly impacts one's pecuniary interests. Apple is not a party to a case; rather it is a beneficiary of something Ireland did, and that it the action being investigated. But Apple has had a chance to make its statements and explanations according to a process. According to the EC, the formal investigation procedure accords an opportunity for input from all those that may be affected by its investigation:

The Commission is obliged to open a formal investigation under Article 108(2) TFEU where it has serious doubts about the aid's compatibility with EU State aid rules, or where it faces procedural difficulties in obtaining the necessary information. 
The decision to initiate this procedure is sent to the relevant Member State. It summarises the factual and legal bases for the investigation and includes the Commission's preliminary assessment, outlining any doubts as to the measure's compatibility with EU state aid rules. The decision is published in the EU's Official Journal, and Member States and interested third parties have one month from the date of publication to submit comments. The Member State concerned is in turn invited to comment on observations submitted by interested parties.
I have not seen comments submitted by Apple according to this procedure. It seems to me that the private meeting has an appearance of impropriety. First, it was private so it does not form part of a record of information reviewed in the course of the investigation. Neither party has given any public comment regarding what was discussed. Having a private meeting deprived Ireland of its role in responding to observations submitted by interested parties, as described above. The conversation took place for the specific purpose of influencing a decision. The conversation raises the question of whether others have also private meetings, also trying to influence the commissioner beyond the procedures laid out for investigations.

I note that "All decisions and procedural conduct of the Commission are subject to review by the General Court and ultimately by the ECJ." The Commissioner will not likely seek review of its own decision. I do not know whether other member states could seek such a review. It seems most likely that Ireland could seek a review, which it would only do if the decision was unfavorable. If that were to happen, would Tim Cook also have private meetings with the judges of the ECJ?

I should hope not.

Tagged as: fiscal state aid governance institutions international law lobbying

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Apple may owe $8bn in back taxes after European commission ruling

Published Jan 18, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

I have been following the EU state aid cases with particular attention to Apple and its SEC disclosure involving its sweetheart deal in Ireland. A recent story in the Guardian suggests the amounts at stake could be significant, even if not by Apple's standards:
The European commission’s recent ruling against tax breaks for multinational corporations in Belgium strongly suggests that the tech behemoth could be subject to a hefty bill when the open investigation against its activities in Ireland concludes. 
...The commission found that Starbucks owed Dutch authorities upwards of $22m, and a ruling from Belgium this week determined that 35 companies across the EU owe the equivalent of $760m in back taxes. 
Apple has already said it would appeal against a ruling against the company; CEO Tim Cook called the investigation “political crap” in a recent 60 Minutes interview. “There is no truth behind it,” he said. “Apple pays every tax dollar we owe.” 
This is not the first time Apple has been investigated for its accounting practices in Ireland. Executives including Cook appeared before the US Senate in 2013 to testify about whether it had renegotiated Ireland’s 12.5% corporate tax rate down to 2%. The company denied any wrongdoing. Matt Larson, litigation analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, calculates that the company would owe $8.02bn at that rate....
$8 billion sounds like a lot of money until considered in the reflection of its $200 Billion cash stash, which is being held offshore pending US international tax reform as openly advocated by Tim Cook.

Still, the figure is not nothing and it is pretty far off what Apple intimated to investors back in April of 2015:
As of March 28, 2015, the Company recorded gross unrecognized tax benefits of $4.6 billion, of which $1.6 billion, if recognized, would affect the Company’s effective tax rate. As of September 27, 2014, the total amount of gross unrecognized tax benefits was $4.0 billion, of which $1.4 billion, if recognized, would have affected the Company’s effective tax rate. The Company’s total gross unrecognized tax benefits are classified as other non-current liabilities in the Condensed Consolidated Balance Sheets. The Company had $844 million and $630 million of gross interest and penalties accrued as of March 28, 2015 and September 27, 2014, respectively, which are classified as other non-current liabilities in the Condensed Consolidated Balance Sheets. Management believes that an adequate provision has been made for any adjustments that may result from tax examinations. However, the outcome of tax audits cannot be predicted with certainty. If any issues addressed in the Company’s tax audits are resolved in a manner not consistent with management’s expectations, the Company could be required to adjust its provision for income taxes in the period such resolution occurs. Although timing of the resolution and/or closure of audits is not certain, the Company does not believe it is reasonably possible that its unrecognized tax benefits would materially change in the next 12 months. On June 11, 2014, the European Commission issued an opening decision initiating a formal investigation against Ireland for alleged state aid to the Company. The opening decision concerns the allocation of profits for taxation purposes of the Irish branches of two subsidiaries of the Company. The Company believes the European Commission’s assertions are without merit. If the European Commission were to conclude against Ireland, the European Commission could require Ireland to recover from the Company past taxes covering a period of up to 10 years reflective of the disallowed state aid. While such amount could be material, as of March 28, 2015 the Company is unable to estimate the impact. 
That language was new in the April 2015 filing, but the latest Apple filing reverts to the more general message found in prior filings:
The Company could be subject to changes in its tax rates, the adoption of new U.S. or international tax legislation or exposure to additional tax liabilities. 
The Company is subject to taxes in the U.S. and numerous foreign jurisdictions, including Ireland, where a number of the Company’s subsidiaries are organized. Due to economic and political conditions, tax rates in various jurisdictions may be subject to significant change. The Company’s effective tax rates could be affected by changes in the mix of earnings in countries with differing statutory tax rates, changes in the valuation of deferred tax assets and liabilities, or changes in tax laws or their interpretation, including in the U.S. and Ireland. For example, in June 2014, the European Commission opened a formal investigation of Ireland to examine whether decisions by the tax authorities with regard to the corporate income tax to be paid by two of the Company’s Irish subsidiaries comply with European Union rules on state aid. If the European Commission were to conclude against Ireland, it could require Ireland to recover from the Company past taxes covering a period of up to 10 years reflective of the disallowed state aid, and such amount could be material. 
The Company is also subject to the examination of its tax returns and other tax matters by the Internal Revenue Service and other tax authorities and governmental bodies. The Company regularly assesses the likelihood of an adverse outcome resulting from these examinations to determine the adequacy of its provision for taxes. There can be no assurance as to the outcome of these examinations. If the Company’s effective tax rates were to increase, particularly in the U.S. or Ireland, or if the ultimate determination of the Company’s taxes owed is for an amount in excess of amounts previously accrued, the Company’s financial condition, operating results and cash flows could be adversely affected.
I continue to wonder whether there will be shareholder litigation (more than nuisance suits) in the event of a major clawback by the EU.

Tagged as: corporate tax disclosure EU fiscal state aid tax competition tax policy TFEU

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Intergovernmental Agreements (IGAs) as Hybrid Tax Agreements

Published Oct 17, 2015 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

I recently published "Interpretation or Override? Introducing the Hybrid Tax Agreement." Here is the abstract:

In the effort to overcome foreign law impediments to the implementation of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), the U.S. Treasury introduced intergovernmental agreements (IGAs). IGAs are hybrid tax agreements: Treaties to most of the world, in the United States they instead constitute an executive interpretation of the underlying tax treaty. This introduces a great deal of interpretive uncertainty where the terms of IGAs and tax treaties conflict. Prompted by recent queries in the EU regarding the legal nature of the IGAs, this article explores a concrete example of the legal principles at stake by examining how the public policy rules for information sharing found in US tax treaties interact with the information exchange provisions found in the IGAs.
Further in, I explain that it is difficult to understand how as a matter of international law the IGA, as a document that purports to "interpret" the underlying tax treaty, in fact obviates some of the provisions of the treaty, but do so only for the party other than the United States. I conclude:
Process matters in law. It is what makes the rule of law function as a legitimate source of authority. It is ironic that even as the United States partners with its fellow OECD members to try to address the major challenges to international taxation posed by hybrid legal entities and hybrid financial instruments, Treasury has invented the hybrid tax agreement. Conflicts resulting from this invention are inevitable and I anticipate they will be costly. I believe that Treasury took a few shortcuts around established legal precedents on the road to implementing FATCA. I understand that this may be considered expedient in the effort to get FATCA to work. But in the long run the sacrifice renders a disservice to the rule of law. That sacrifice deserves careful reflection by all those affected.
I continue to be fascinated by the rapid developments in international taxation over the past several years, in terms of both substance and process/rule of law.

Tagged as: FATCA governance IGAs scholarship tax policy treaties US

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