TAX, SOCIETY & CULTURE

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What Kinds of Corporate Entities Evade Tax? The Human Factor in Third Party Info Reporting

Published Apr 15, 2019 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

Under what circumstances should we expect corporate entities to evade tax? The following guest post by Gaute Solheim of the Norwegian Tax Administration posits that it is most likely when they are small, owner-operator gigs, and much less likely when they are giant multinationals. The rationale, drawn from insights about why third party reporting is vital in a self-reporting system, is that the bigger the company, the more people have to work cooperatively to engage in fraud, many of whom will be employees with no direct economic upside. Of course there must be exceptions--Enron comes to mind. But Solheim's observation is that the human self-interest that makes third party reporting an effective compliance tool also minimizes the frequency and scope of Enron-type evasion. Cross posted from the Surly Subgroup.
Gaute Solheim, Senior Tax Advisor, Norwegian Tax Administration
(Mr. Solheim writes in his individual capacity and does not purport to represent the views of the Norwegian Tax Administration.)
I happened to reread a paper by Wei Cui from 2017 on Third Party Information Reporting (TPIR) some weeks ago. Based on my own practical experience working for the Norwegian Tax Administration, I found it hard to agree with him on uselessness of TPIR. In this post, I will explain why I expect good quality in TPIR filing. I plan to write a later post on why TPIR is useful.
I will start with crediting Cui for outlining very well what I will call “the story of the corporate tax revenue collection machine.” He does a good job describing how the government has outsourced the bulk of the revenue collection to corporations. I would love to see papers adding empirical numbers to this description. My Norwegian perspective is a world of VAT, corporations withholding taxes on wages and delivering massive amounts of data used to prepopulate the personal tax filings. The way Cui describe the role of the corporations in the “tax revenue collection machine” is probably even more spot on for me than for a reader with a US perspective.
As I read Cui, he expect legal entities to cooperate sufficiently to ensure fairly good quality TPIR. He does some reasoning on why this is to be expected, but I did not find his arguments very convincing. This may be because for some years I have had a different line of reasoning ending with the same conclusion. What follows is based on material I used in a talk some ten years ago for my colleagues at the Large Taxpayer Office in Norway. The theme of that talk was why we found less evasion in our segment of taxpayers than what other tax auditors found when auditing smaller entities. I called the talk “The Human Factor in Tax Filing”. I believe the reasoning I used there also may explain high quality TPIR.
To make it clear: This is about tax evasion (or deliberately misreporting). Tax avoidance is a different beast.
I started out by observing that legal entities cannot write, and hence are unable to fill out their own tax returns. They need human beings to help them. My next observation was that you can split these “helpers” into two groups. Group one is humans with direct economic upside from evasion, typically the owner(s) of the entities. Group two is humans with no direct economic upside from evasion, typically employees without an owner interest. My third observation was that the influence these two groups had on the filings was strongly linked to the size of the entities. In the smallest one-person owner/manager entities, people with direct personal economic upside from evasion (group one) have a large influence on the numbers filed. In the largest multinational corporations, people with no personal direct economic upside from cheating (group two) do most of the work.
Based on these unsystematic observations of reality, I made the following diagram of my estimate of how the influence of people with economic upside from misreporting (red line) and those without (blue line) varies as a function of entity size. The vertical axis goes from zero control to a hundred percent. On the horizontal axis, each entity is counted as one.Capture1st.PNGI do not have empirical studies to back up any claim that the balance of influence between the two groups shift at a specific gross income or similar figure. If forced to make a guesstimate, I would, for Norway, say somewhere around USD 5 million, with big variations among business segments. I will, for the sake of simplicity, use USD 5 million as the crossing point.
Corporations with less than USD 5 million in revenue are by far the main bulk of the population. Based on this perspective, we would logically start wondering why all these entities represented by humans with incentives to cheat average to a compliance rate of 90% or better. This is the perspective I understand Cui is debating in the last half of his paper, and he formulated some explanations that did not fully convince me.
As a longtime tax auditor, the number of entities to me is an administrative problem. I’ve always measured my own work in money saved: How much of the tax gap did I manage to plug? To get this perspective on reality, I must change the unit of measurement on the horizontal axis from entities to dollars. Each entity claims a space equal to the share of the total government revenue collected or paid by that entity.Capture2nd.PNGSomething very interesting happens to the perspective when we change from entities to dollars: The main bulk of government revenue is collected, reported and paid by the small group of big entities where the people with no upside is in full control over the numbers reported.
I only have hard numbers for corporate income tax (CIT) in Norway to back up this perspective, but I am confident that it holds true in general. Sixty-five percent of all CIT in Norway is paid by entities with revenue higher than approximately USD 150 million. The corporations with billions in revenue and thousands of employees are few, but they represent the bulk of what matters. When we use this perspective—money—we see that individuals with no personal gain from non-compliance handle the main share of input to the revenue collection machine and TPIR. This is true whether the reports are on wages and taxes withheld from them, VAT, or the entities’ own corporate income tax.
There is another important human factor, the down side. I have observed legal entities with feelings only when someone employed by the entity has made a mistake and the mistake has become public. The public relation department will issue a statement telling the public “The entity is very sorry that a trusted person have failed to live up to the high ethical standards of the entity as explicitly laid out in internal memos, rules, etc.” Then they throw that someone under the bus. Everybody knows this.
Since everybody knows this, it would be strange if that knowledge did not shape the behavior of the people engaged in taking care of compliance tasks on behalf of the huge impersonal corporation. They have no personal gain and they know who the scapegoat will be.
Based on this rather simple analysis of the human factors involved, I am convinced that compliance and quality TPIR is what I in general should expect from large corporations. I do know from experience that in some particular settings this will not hold true, but the big picture is to expect compliance. I will now shift to the smaller entities.
Cui gives a few examples illustrating how the employer and the employee have a win-win scenario in misreporting (cheating). He leaves out some elements that I find very practical in real life. I must confess that a few times in my life it has happened that I was guilty of doing something qualifying at least for a fine. But I’ve never been tempted to do something that relied on recruiting a partner in crime. Somehow human nature realises without thinking too hard about it that conspiracy is on a different scale than a moment of weak ethics. If you do not figure it out on your own, the penal code makes that very clear.
The win-win situation described by Cui differs a lot from an owner/manager deciding to keep some income off the books. While you may do that alone as owner/manager, the Cui win-win may only be established by recruiting someone to take part in the scheme. In addition, the owner knows that employers and employees from time to time end up with conflicting interests. Lay-offs are but one example. From my limited knowledge of the US penal system and tax legislation, I have the impression that an employee deciding to inform the IRS about the misdeeds of a corporation may get much more lenient treatment than the corporation and the owner/manager of that corporation. As a hypothetical owner/manager, I would at least think twice.
This is not saying that this kind of collusion does not happen. It does, but the human factor and a simple risk analysis informs me that it should be more the exception than the rule. Undeclared income is a much more likely scenario in the small corporations than manipulated TPIR. This result is not produced by the integrity of the corporation, which I believe has none, but is what you expect from human beings when acting based on the incentives present in the situation. The sum of these very human choices is what we may call a compliant corporation, sending the tax authorities high-quality TPIR.
As Cui correctly observes, even high-quality TPIR is pointless if it does not contribute to something useful. Tax authorities are collectors of revenue, not of data points. Why I do not agree when Cui concludes that TPIR is not useful will be the theme for a later blog post.
And again: This was about evasion, not avoidance.

Tagged as: compliance guest post information institutions tax gap

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Today at McGill: Mehrotra on value added taxation

Published Nov 20, 2017 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

Today, Ajay Mehrotra, Northwestern University and the American Bar Foundation, will present "The VAT Laggard: A Comparative History of U.S. Resistance to the Value-Added Tax, as part of the annual Spiegel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium at McGill Law. This is a fascinating topic as the United States considers major tax reform without explicitly embracing VAT as much of the rest of the world has done. Prof. Mehrotra's new project will explore the U.S. position in light of how Canada, Japan, and other jurisdictions were able to overcome historical resistance to a national VAT by adopting a Goods and Services Tax (GST).

The tax policy colloquium at McGill is supported by a grant made by the law firm Spiegel Sohmer, Inc., for the purpose of fostering an academic community in which learning and scholarship may flourish. The land on which we gather is the traditional territory of the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk), a place which has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst nations.


This fall, in celebration of the centennial anniversary of the introduction of federal income taxation in Canada, the Colloquium focuses on the historical significance and development, as well as the most recent challenges, of the modern tax system in Canada and around the world. The complete colloquium schedule is here.

The Colloquium is convened by Allison Christians, H. Heward Stikeman Chair in Taxation Law. 

Ajay Mehrotra's talk will take place from 2:35-5:35pm in New Chancellor Day Hall Room 101, 3644 Peel Ave, Montreal. All are welcome to attend.

Tagged as: colloquium history McGill tax policy

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Modern Day Robin Hood? Taxpayers as Facilitators of State Level Tax Games

Published Mar 20, 2017 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

In an interesting twist on contemporary debates about tax planning by multinational companies, Prof. Leandra Lederman recently posted a very interesting column about how one government seems to have benefited from some clever tax planning at the expense of its own national government, with the help of a multinational company that appears to have received nothing for its trouble.

This is the strange case of Volkswagen's tax structuring involving the Spanish provinces of Navarre and Catalonia. What is strange is that, in this particular instance, Volkswagen's structure appears to have created no tax benefit for itself, but resulted in the province of Navarre effectively transferring itself a large pot of revenue from the national coffers.

Prof. Lederman's post explains that Navarre is an "autonomous community", which, unlike Catalonia, independently administers the VAT, and therefore only issues VAT refunds when products are exported from Navarre to a buyer located outside of Spain. (Most of Spain's other provinces have a harmonized VAT system administered at the national level). If products are sold to a buyer outside of Navarre but still in Spain, such as Catalonia, Navarre does not issue a refund because there has been no export. But if the purchasing company in that other province then sells to a subsequent buyer outside of Spain, the Spanish Treasury issues a refund to the company and voilà, Navarre has transferred itself a windfall in the amount of tax it collected and Spain paid back.

Over a period of several years, Navarre reportedly collected approximately 1.5 billion Euros from the Spanish government using Volkswagen in this manner. By routing its export sales through an intermediary in Catalonia rather than directly from Navarre, Volkswagen acted as a conduit to route revenues from the state to the province. Given its own indifference to who, as between Navarre and Spain, refunds the VAT on its exports, using an intermediary in Catalonia appears like an act of pure generosity to the province of Navarre. Prof. Lederman goes through the case that brought this issue to attention and queries: what's in it for Volkswagen? She notes that nothing in the public record suggests that VW received anything in return—"it simply did Navarre a favor." That seems unlikely; certainly, as Lederman points out, Navarre would be capable of having made some other concessions. These would not necessarily be made public.

Absent concessions, is this a modern day Robin Hood story, with VW effectively taking from the state to give to the province? Navarre is not quite at the bottom of Spain's provinces economically (at least according to wikipedia) but neither is it near the top spot in terms of gross regional product (it is, however, near the top in terms of purchasing power parity, as well as in other factors such as employment rates). Should we cheer or disparage the tax trickery that resulted in an ongoing transfer of wealth from Spain to Navarre?

Also curious is why Spain wouldn't have anticipated this problem far in advance of this situation arising. It seems that the government proposes to resolve the issue by renegotiating the Convenio Económico Navarra-Estado (Navarra-State Economic Agreement), which governs the VAT administration among other matters. I am no VAT expert but it seems to me that having designed a destination based VAT system and having agreed to independent administration of that system by one or more of its provinces, the state might have immediately recognized that revenue transfers from itself to the non-harmonized province(s) would be likely unless there was some mechanism requiring the VAT-collecting province to be the VAT-refunding province in the case of ultimate exports.

Like Prof. Lederman, I would be curious to know whether this sort of situation has arisen in other contexts--do sub-national governments routinely look for ways to transfer state revenues to themselves using taxpayers as conduits? Should we liken the province's passively benefiting from a system not solely of its own making as acceptable tax planning or harmful tax competition? Likewise, should we view the taxpayer's willingness to facilitate the transfer (for apparently no reason but its good nature and general willingness to cooperate) as a victory or a failing in the taxpayer-state relationship?

Tagged as: exports tax competition tax culture tax policy VAT

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Idiot's Guide to DBCFT, Ryan Style

Published Jan 18, 2017 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

I've been fielding several "what is is this DBCFT idea" kinds of questions so I thought it might be helpful to present the six basic features of the DBCFT as proposed (in very general form) by Paul Ryan and a very simple chart to explain how the DBCFT would "work" if it was enacted as described in Ryan's "Better Way" plan.*

Accordingly, based on that proposal, the six main features of the DBCFT would be:

  1. domestic sales are included
  2. foreign sales are excluded
  3. dividends from foreign subsidiaries are exempt
  4. all foreign costs are non-deductible
  5. net interest is non-deductible
  6. allowable domestic costs are immediately deductible (expensed)

Obviously these are oversimplifications and I'm ignoring transition rules and so on, but these are the basic building blocks. The Ryan plan proposes a tax rate of 20%. 

So what happens if these building blocks are put in place via legislation, assuming away all transition issues etc., and that a tax imposed is a tax collected?** If we imagine a product that will sell for $125, and costs $100 to produce (in materials and labour), this is what happens:


Box 1: MAGA ideal: made in America, by Americans, for Americans. Tax will be collected on profits earned by selling goods produced & sold domestically. The DBCFT most resembles an income tax in this scenario (though expensing and non-deductibility of interest still moves it toward a consumption base); it will also be the easiest to collect.

Box 2: Exports. Tax exemption for sales abroad will create (possibly permanent) NOLs to carry forward indefinitely. This will require deciding on loss-shifting policy. This is obviously not an income tax but it not a VAT either.

Box 3: Imports. Sales in the US of goods produced abroad are taxed on a gross basis, more like an excise tax (or yes, a tariff). With an estimated $1.2 trillion trade deficit, this part of the DBCFT is expected to raise the most revenue but the success of that strategy depends to some degree (maybe a large degree) on remote sellers collecting tax (that’s complicated--see Europe).

Box 4: Foreign Sales of Foreign Products. Neither costs nor revenues are counted for goods produced and sold abroad, even if produced and sold by a US-based company. This part of the DBCFT would be more or less consistent with either a VAT or territorial income tax.

That, in a nutshell, is the basic skeleton of the DBCFT as proposed in the Ryan plan. It will be interesting to see what, if any, of this ends up enacted IRL.

* There is absolutely zero chance that the proposal will be enacted as described. Still, it is helpful to understand the basic vision. I do not claim to be an expert on the DBCFT and offer here no analysis or predictions about the incidence of the tax, or the impact such a tax would have on US or world capital flows, investment, consumption, economic growth, or international relations. This paper by Wei Cui, or this one by Wolfgang Schoen are helpful in addressing many of these issues.
** A tax imposed is never a tax collected. There is always a gap between a great idea (or for that matter a not so great idea) and something that can actually be carried out: tax administration is tax policy.

Tagged as: DBCFT Tax law tax policy US VAT WTO

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How to rob from the poor and give to the rich: Border Tax Equity Act of 2016

Published Nov 07, 2016 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

In September, Donald Trump started calling for the US to tax imports from Mexico and China etc, on various theories having to do with his vision of what fair trade policy involving the United States would require. Democratic lawmaker Bill Pascrell appears to have seized the moment to re-introduce a bill that has failed multiple times in the U.S. Congress over the years, namely, the so-called Border Tax Equity Act. The idea of this act is simple: tax US consumers on imports and give the money to US companies that export things. If you find it amazing that anyone anywhere could support a tax and redistribute scheme like this, blame it on the pitch: Pascrell (and others) laud this as an answer to what they have characterized as a discriminatory practice, namely the exemption of exported products from value added taxes (VAT) by the 160+ countries that have federal consumption taxes. The argument is that "[t]he disparate treatment of border taxes is arbitrary, inequitable, causes economic distortions based only on the type of tax system used by a country, and is a primary obstacle to more balanced trade relations between the United States and its major trading partners."

This argument is specious and I don't expect the bill to pass but this issue is one that just does not seem like it will go away, I think because it is too easy to pitch the VAT border tax adjustment as "unfair." I had an exchange with trade expert Simon Lester almost ten years ago on this very subject, and re-reading my response today, it seems to cover the bases so I thought I would re-post it. You can see his original post here including a discussion in the comments between myself, Simon, and Sungjoon Cho on the matter. Sungjoon helpfully linked to a GATT working party report from 1970 but his original link is dead, however you can find that report here. Here is what I said (highlights added):

The great fallacy here is that the foreign exporter to the U.S. is somehow subject to no tax while the U.S. exporter is subject to two taxes. This is simply not the case. Other countries, especially our biggest trading partners (e.g. Canada) have both a federal corporate income tax and a federal consumption tax, while the U.S. has only a federal corporate tax. You cannot honestly assess the impact of the VAT in the context of only one country’s corporate income tax, and supporting this legislation this way is dishonest. The Textileworld site you reference conveniently ignores foreign corporate taxes in its analysis—I will leave you to decide for yourself why they might do that.

...I will give a drastically oversimplified example. Assume a U.S. person manufactures a product in the U.S. which it will sell in Canada. The company’s profit on the sale is subject to federal income tax in the U.S., plus VAT in Canada (there called a general sales tax). Let us assume a Canadian company makes a similar product. With the same profit margin as the U.S. company on that product, the big issue here is the different rates of federal corporate taxes each company pays to its home country, because both pay an equal amount of VAT tax in that market. What the export credit in the U.S. would do is lower the U.S . company’s federal income tax burden relative to the Canadian one.

Now flip the scenario, the U.S. manufactures and sells a product in the U.S., where there is no VAT, and the Canadian company manufactures a product in Canada to sell in the U.S. Now each company again will pay its income tax to its home country but what happens to the VAT? Well there is no U.S. federal sales tax, and Canada’s VAT only applies to sales in that market, so the VAT is not imposed on the Canadian product coming in to the U.S.—it is exempt from their VAT. Again, in the U.S. market, there is no price distortion other than the difference in corporate income tax burdens—neither product is subject to VAT. If the U.S. imposes a border tax, I think you might now see that as distortionary (to the extent you believe that a tariff is distortionary in any event). Now you might say yeah, but many states have state sales taxes, wouldn't that equalize the incoming product, exempted from sales (VAT) tax in its foreign country? The answer is, of course, yes. But you don’t see very many people complaining if New York does not impose its sales tax on a product being shipped out of New York for sale in Canada—that is a (much-ignored) direct corollary to the VAT exemption.

I could go on but this argument has been made many times before. I appreciate that tax is complex and there are many alternative taxes and scenarios in which they apply differently, so that it is easy to be swayed by something that “seem unfair.” The bottom line is that people will continue to compare VAT to income taxes when it suits their purposes (i.e., supports protectionist policies like the border tax), and not when it doesn’t (i.e, when they want to pressure a government to lower its corporate tax rate to align with other nations’ corporate tax rate). But don’t be fooled by someone who tries to get you to look at one piece of a complex puzzle and guess what the image is.
Further...
[I]f you seek a level playing field, border taxes and rebates do not achieve that, and in fact, I doubt anyone could ever be confident about how to go about getting it via tax breaks for some and tax penalties for others (I have some ideas about where I would start, but I'll restrain myself). A border tax/rebate does not operate like an inverse VAT or offset an extra cost imposed by a VAT. A border tax is a tariff and a rebate is a subsidy, plain and simple, and I would expect many of our trading partners to oppose it if enacted.

Incidentally, abolishing all income taxes might solve the problem of the income tax competition, but then you have a much different problem. By some estimates, if the U.S. were to abolish the income tax entirely in favor of a sales tax, the rate could be as high as 50%. More likely scenario: we keep the income tax just like it is and ADD a 10-20% federal VAT. This would get rid of the erroneous "VAT as distortion" complaint but I personally would rather keep the debate and take a pass on the VAT.
Today, I am less convinced that the income tax is worth saving and more open to a federal VAT, but that's a discussion for another day. To the above I would only add that in 2009 the US Congressional Research Service undertook a study called International Competitiveness: An Economic Analysis of VAT Border Tax Adjustments, well worth reading--the authors were Maxim Shvedov (now tax policy expert at AARP) and Donald Marples, whose more recent work on inversions with Jane Gravelle is also of interest. Their conclusion:
Economists have long recognized that border tax adjustments have no effect on a nation's competitiveness. Border tax adjustments have been shown to mitigate the double taxation of cross-border transactions and to provide a level playing field for domestic and foreign goods and services. Hence, in the absence of changes to the underlying macroeconomic variables affecting capital flows (for example, interest rates), any changes in the product prices of traded goods and services brought about by border tax adjustments would be immediately offset by exchange-rate adjustments. This is not to say, however, that a nation's tax structure cannot influence patterns of trade or the composition of trade.
In summary: No, taxing at the border for the reasons given does not introduce "equity." It introduces WTO-prohibited tariffs and export subsidies. One could imagine that if the tariffs so raised were used to fund public goods, the possibility for an equitable outcome could be increased. But taking the money out of the pockets of US consumers and putting it in the pocket of US exporters in no way fulfills the stated policy goal.

Tagged as: fairness politics tax policy VAT

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Analysis of Canada's Tax Gap Pre-Study

Published Jul 26, 2016 - Follow author Allison: - 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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Canada "Tax Gap" Study Released

Published Jul 05, 2016 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

The Government of Canada has released its first study of the "tax gap," which the Government defines as "the difference between the tax that would be paid if all obligations were fully met in all instances, and the tax actually paid and collected." The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has not completed a study of the income tax, but has released this paper on the concept and methodology. It has presented a report for GST/HST (Canada's VAT), estimating the tax gap to average about 5.6% per year over the period 2000-2014. For 2014, this produced an estimated tax gap of about $4.9 billion:



This study has been undertaken after many calls from academics and nongovernment organizations, including Canadians for Tax Fairness, which according to the CRA will be involved in consultations regarding the ongoing study. Canadians for Tax Fairness estimate that Canada loses $7.8 billion in income tax revenues to "tax haven" use, a number they constructed using Statistics Canada's foreign direct investment data.

The Government acknowledges that there is no reliable method for measuring the tax gap, and that the exercise is one in speculation based on imperfect information:
There are a number of challenges facing tax administrations undertaking tax gap estimation. The key challenge is access to the comprehensive and good-quality data necessary to produce estimates. A significant proportion of the tax gap involves unreported or under-reported income and assets and economic activity that are deliberately hidden from the government. As a result, many countries that publish tax gap estimates highlight their uncertainty.
Expect more to come from this exercise as the tax gap study is a key component of the Government's pledge to spend $444 million over five years "to enhance [CRA] efforts to crack down on tax evasion and combat tax avoidance."

Tagged as: budget Canada compliance CRA evasion governance

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Graetz: The Tax Reform Road Not Taken -- Yet

Published Jun 22, 2014 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

Michael Graetz has been working away at convincing Americans to accept a national level consumption tax, and he has another go at it with The Tax Reform Road Not Taken -- Yet. Here is the abstract:

The United States has traveled a unique tax policy path, avoiding value added taxes (VATs), which have now been adopted by every OECD country and 160 countries worldwide. Moreover, many U.S. consumption tax advocates have insisted on direct personalized taxes that are unlike taxes used anywhere in the world. This article details a tax reform plan that uses revenues from a VAT to substantially reduce and reform our nation’s tax system. The plan would (1) enact a destination-based VAT; (2) use the revenue produced by this VAT to finance an income tax exemption of $100,000 of family income and to lower income tax rates on income above that amount; (3) lower the corporate income tax rate to 15 percent; and (4) protect low and-moderate-income workers from a tax increase through payroll tax credits and expanded refundable child tax credits. This revenue and distributionally neutral plan would stimulate economic growth, free more than 150 million Americans from having to file income tax returns, solve the difficult problems of international income taxation, and remove the temptation for Congress to use tax benefits as if they are solutions to the nation’s pressing social and economic problems.
Prof Graetz has been working on this idea for quite some time and he's likely right that a national consumption tax would solve some major problems for the US income tax system. It would reverse the "income" tax from a mass tax to a class tax again, refocusing the income tax regime on its most productive base, namely, the upper-middle class. It would go a long way (but not by any means all the way) in resolving some of the worst aspects of citizenship taxation. It is just a fact that including non-residents as if they were resident throws people right into the deep end of US tax law even if they are regular working class households, because everything they do is "foreign" and therefore subject to the world's most complicated anti-avoidance regime. Eliminating income taxation for a large majority of those people would go some steps toward a remedy without actually fixing the fundamental problem.

But Prof Graetz's has been an uphill battle. I can think of at least two main reasons for this: first, introducing any new tax is political suicide in the US and second, it would be little more than a double tax (for those that would remain in the income tax system) because the US income tax is in large part already a consumption tax in that it exempts so much in the way of savings. As we know from Haig-Simons, income equals consumption plus delta savings over the period. When savings are exempt, income taxation is equivalent to consumption taxation. So introducing VAT in the US means imposing a new consumption tax on the very same base as something we currently call an "income" tax.

For those that would be exempt from the income tax, the VAT would simply step in and claim roughly the same amount of tax, and therefore presumably the picture wouldn't change much in terms of revenue raised, but would change quite a lot in terms of form filling and paper filing, which means less administration for the same tax. That would be great for the ever-starving IRS. (A cynic might observe that it could mean less from penalties from those who fail to file things properly, which is set to become a most fruitful source of extra revenue in just a couple of weeks.)

Moreover, the switch from an income tax system that ultimately acts like a consumption tax to a straightforward an easier-to-administer consumption tax might solve the revenue problem, but it would still need cash transfers to solve the progressivity problem and therefore can only be solved with another form of political suicide, namely, increasing welfare payments to the poor (that's the "refundable credits" part of the plan).

Still, worth reading and watching as Prof Graetz continues to wage what often seems like a one-man battle to change attitudes toward a national VAT in the United States. It is striking how difficult it is to convince Americans to embrace a tax that would do almost exactly what the current income tax system does, but at a fraction of the cost. On principle people really still like the income tax and they really hate the idea of a national consumption tax. Cognitive dissonance? Or a naïve hope that the income tax can be restored to its former glory if we can only figure out a way to tax savings again?

Tagged as: scholarship Tax law tax policy VAT

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Today at McGill Law: Tax Justice and Human Rights Research Symposium #TJHR

Published Jun 18, 2014 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

Today is the first day of the Tax Justice and Human Rights Research Collaboration Symposium, a three-day conversation among students, academic researchers, and tax justice advocates and activists on the topic of tax justice: what is it, how is tax connected to human rights or how could it be, and what research needs to be done to further this emerging field? You can follow the proceedings and make comments on twitter at #TJHR.

Here is the day's lineup:

Day 1: Emerging Scholars Symposium
Wednesday, 18 June

Time
Topic
Location
08:30 – 09:00
Registration & Arrival Tea/Coffee
Atrium
09:00 – 09:30
Welcome RemarksDaniel Jutras (Dean, McGill Faculty of Law)
Room 316
Panel A
Samuel Singer (Associate, Stikeman Elliott), Moderator
Room 316 
09:30 – 10:00
Leyla Ates (PhD candidate, University of Wisconsin and Istanbul Kemerburgaz University), Developing Countries And Globalization of Tax Law Making: Turkısh Tax Law Reforms on Fighting Tax Evasion
Steven Dean (Professor, Brooklyn Law School), discussant
10:00 – 10:30
May Hen (Master's candidate, Simon Fraser University), Who runs the Cayman Islands? Field notes on elite tax discourse
Lyne Latulippe (Professor, University of Sherbrooke), discussant
10:30 – 10:45
Refreshment Break
Third floor lobby
Panel B
William Stephenson (Editor in Chief, McGill Law Journal), Moderator
Room 316
10:45 – 11:15
Regina Duarte (LLM Candidate, Federal Univ. of Minas Gervais, Brasil),Globalization, Tax Competition and Tax Base Erosion: a Matter of Human Rights
Henry Ordower (Professor, Saint Louis Univeristy), discussant
11:15 – 11:45
Martin Hearson (PhD candidate, LSE), Why Do Developing Countries Sign Tax Treaties?
Lee Sheppard (Journalist, Tax Analysts), discussant
11:45 – 12:15
Montano Cabezas (LLM Candidate, Georgetown University Law Center),Giving Credit Where it is Due: Rethinking the Corporate Tax Paradigm
Kim Brooks (Dean and Weldon Professor of Law at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhouse University), discussant
12:15 – 13:45
Stikeman Chair’s Luncheon featuring a keynote talk by James A. Robb, Stikeman Elliott
Atrium
Panel C
Sas Ansari (Phd Candidate, Osgoode University), Moderator
Room 316
13:45 – 14:15
César Alejandro Ruiz Jiménez (LLM Candidate, Vienna University), Right to Property and Taxation
Stephen Cohen (Professor, Georgetown University Law Center), discussant
14:15 – 14:45
Juan Agustin Argibay Molina (LLM Graduate, McGill), Trade Mispricing in Argentina: A Case Study
Neil Buchanan (Professor, George Washington University Law School), discussant
15:45 – 15:15
Daisy Ogembo (Assistant Lecturer, Strathmore Law School, Nairobi), VAT Refunds and Tax Justice
Andre Moreira (Associate Professor of Tax Law, Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil), discussant
15:15 – 15:30
Refreshment Break
Third floor lobby
Panel D
Sarah Blumel (Independent), Moderator
Room 316
15:30 – 17:00
Incubator Session: Designing a Research Project, Methodology & Collaboration, and Publishing
Adrienne Margolis (Founder and Editor, Lawyers 4 Better Business);Krishen Mehta (Senior Advisor, Tax Justice Network); Gabriel Monette(Réseau Justice Fiscale); and Shirley Pouget (Senior Program Lawyer, International Bar Association Human Rights Institute)
17:00 – 19:00
Cocktail reception
Atrium
19:00 – 20:30
Roundtable on Tax Justice and Human Rights: Open to the Public
Allison Christians (Stikeman Chair in Tax, McGill Faculty of Law), Moderator
Featuring Alex Himelfarb (Director, School of Public and International Affairs, York University); Kate Donald (Adviser to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights); Attiya Waris (Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Nairobi); and Denise Byrnes(Executive Director, Oxfam Québec)

Tagged as: conference human rights justice McGill scholarship tax policy

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New series of papers on why government can and should bring financial services into the tax base

Published Jul 02, 2013 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

The Victoria University of Wellington (Australia) has a new SSRN issue of interest, featuring a series of papers by Sybrand van Schalkwyk and the ever-prolific John Prebble, all on the topic of consumption tax and financial services. The first of these is the big picture:

"Value Added Tax and Financial Services" 
Asia-Pacific Tax Bulletin, Vol. 10, pp. 363-370, 2004
Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper No. 29/2013
Value added tax (VAT) is a relatively modern development. Designers of VAT recognized from the outset that the way in which financial institutions are remunerated creates significant difficulty when the tax is applied to their services. Administrative difficulties relate to imposing invoice-based VAT on service fees charged as part of the margin between buy and sell rates. Theoretical reasons relate to arguments that financial services should not be taxed under a consumption tax because, it is argued, financial services are not consumed in the way in which goods and services are consumed. Because of these difficulties, most jurisdictions have opted to exempt financial services from VAT. However, the commonly accepted reasons to exempt financial services from VAT are not compelling, since financial services are no different in relevant respects from other services. Moreover, there are methods by which financial services could be brought within the VAT base. Furthermore, although exemption is the simplest way for a VAT to treat financial services, it causes significant distortions in the economy. 
This paper is of special interest to me because it confirms my own view that societies are increasingly accepting tax systems that intentionally tax the "easy-to-tax" most vigorously, the "hard-to-tax" much less vigorously and more randomly, and the "impossible-to-tax" not at all, and that these categories have been intentionally constructed from regulatory decision-making that renders various activities to a given category in systematic and purposeful ways.

There are fundamental justice issues at stake in these regulatory outcomes. If Prebble and van Schalkwyk are correct that exempting financial services from VAT is a policy choice that has been made on the basis of an unexamined theory that these flows are hard or impossible to tax which in turn has been decided because of a failure to institute measures that would make them easy (or at minimum easier) to tax, then the failure to include financial services within existing VAT systems is a grave source of injustice within that tax policy choice (that is, in addition to and apart from the question about whether consumption taxation is itself a violation of justice in the exercise of taxation by states).

The papers that follow focus on various ways to increase the coherency of the taxation of financial flows--what I would suggest is an effort to show us that financial flows could in fact be easier to tax, if not "easy-to-tax," given various regulatory reforms:
"Defining Interest-Bearing Instruments for the Purposes of Value Added Taxation"  
Asia-Pacific Tax Bulletin, Vol. 10, pp. 418-426, 2004Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper No. 30/2013 
This is the second of a series of four articles on the taxation of financial services under a value added tax. The first article considered whether, from a theoretical viewpoint, financial services should be included under a value added tax. It concluded that the arguments in favour of treating financial services in the same manner as any other service outweighed the arguments against doing so.

This second article considers the definition of interest bearing financial instruments in some detail. It also considers the kinds of activities that qualify as financial services in relation to the instruments. The definition of financial services is important where a different type of treatment is applied to financial services. If financial services were taxed like any other service, then no definition would be needed. However, where, as in New Zealand, supplies of financial services can be exempted, the definition of financial services becomes very important. Alternatively, if some financial services are to be zero rated or taxed but not others, then it is necessary to have a global definition of financial services followed by individual definitions of the particular kinds of service that are to be brought within the tax base one way or the other. This article begins by considering interest-bearing instruments. 
"Imposing Value Added Tax on Interest-Bearing Instruments and Life Insurance" 
Asia-Pacific Tax Bulletin, Vol. 10, pp. 471-468, 2004
Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper No. 31/2013
 
Exemption of financial services from Value Added Tax (VAT) is commonly accepted as being an anomaly in the New Zealand goods and services tax legislation. While exempting financial services from VAT is attractive to the legislature because it is a simple way of addressing the difficulties of applying VAT to financial services, it causes significant distortions, for instance tax cascading, which in turn causes price distortions. The application of VAT to interest-bearing financial instruments and life insurance is complicated by the way in which financial intermediaries charge for these services.

The first part of this article investigates how interest-bearing instruments can be taxed under VAT, and the second part how life insurance can be taxed under VAT. There are several options for the treatment of interest-bearing instruments. They can be exempted, zero-rated, or included in the tax base. In this last category, there are three possible methods of including interest-bearing instruments: the invoice, cash flow, and truncated tax flow systems. The last is recommended because policy makers have come to realize that the cash flow system cannot be applied without significant modification. 
"Imposing Value Added Tax on the Exchange of Currency" 
Asia-Pacific Tax Bulletin, Vol. 10, pp. 469-483, 2004
Victoria University of Wellington Legal Research Paper No. 32/2013
 

Exemption of financial services from Value Added Tax (VAT) is commonly accepted as being an anomaly in the New Zealand goods and services tax legislation. While exempting financial services from VAT is attractive to the legislature because it is a simple way of addressing the difficulties of applying VAT to financial services, it causes significant distortions, such as tax cascading, which in turn causes price distortions. The application of VAT to services that bring about the exchange of currency is one instance where financial services could be included in the VAT base. Services bringing about the exchange of currency are a species of financial service, but are inherently different from other financial services since they are relatively simpler than other financial services. Reasons advanced for exempting financial services in general do not necessarily apply to services bringing about the exchange of currency.
Bravo to the authors--this represents a lot of work and adds much to the discussion of how economically-integrated yet politically independent nations can approach the subject of taxation from the perspective that justice matters in policy decisions.

Tagged as: fairness institutions justice research scholarship tax policy VAT

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