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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!

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.

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



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

Published Feb 03, 2016 - Follow author Allison: - 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



Please Give: Passionate Plea for IRS Funding from Former IRS Commissioners

Published Nov 11, 2015 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

The IRS faces constant funding pressure from Congress, despite becoming a victim of constant mission creep thanks to Congressional mandates (ACA and FATCA in particular). Over the years many have pled with Congress to stop underfunding the agency. The latest comes from seven former commissioners, who note that not least among the reasons to fund the IRS is the need to spend money on cyber security as the IRS fends off one million hacking attempts each week.

That's a lot of hacking because of course the payload is enormous. FATCA has surely expanded the payload significantly by developing an enormous database of personal information attached to bank account numbers and detailed account activity on a global scale. Even a small breach of security with respect to that vault will be disastrous for the taxpayers involved.

The commissioners also suggest that the IRS workload is going to increase due to BEPS. BEPS is expected to result in more treaty-based conflicts among jurisdictions, so I expect more competent authority hours will be needed. But it's likely also the case that country-by-country reporting requirements will add another enormous treasure trove of information to the database, further increasing the payload.

At minimum, Congress has simply got to fund security for this massively expanding taxpayer information database.

November 9, 2015

The Honorable Thad Cochran
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate
113 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

The Honorable Harold Rogers
U.S. House Committee on Appropriations
U.S. House of Representatives
2406 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington D.C. 20515

The Honorable Barbara A. Mikulski
Vice Chairwoman
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate
503 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510

The Honorable Nita M. Lowey
Ranking Member
U.S. House Committee on Appropriations
U.S. House of Representatives
2365 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515 
Subject: IRS Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2016
Dear Chairman Cochran, Vice Chairwoman Mikulski, Chairman Rogers and Ranking Member Lowey: 
We are all former Commissioners of the Internal Revenue Service. Over the last fifty years we served during the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, William J. Clinton, and George W. Bush.

We are writing to express our great concern about the proposed reductions by the House and Senate in appropriations for the Internal Revenue Service for the current fiscal year that will end on September 30, 2016. We understand that the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate have proposed to reduce the FY 2015 IRS appropriation of $10.9 billion by $838 million and $470 million, respectively, for the current fiscal year. If Congress were to reduce the IRS appropriation for the current year, it would represent yet another reduction in the IRS appropriation. The appropriations reductions for the IRS over the last five years total $1.2 billion, more than a 17% cut from the IRS appropriation for 2010. None of us ever experienced, nor are we aware of, any IRS appropriations reductions of this magnitude over such a prolonged period of time. The impact on the IRS of these reductions is that the IRS has lost approximately 15,000 full-time employees through attrition over the last five years, with more losses likely in the current fiscal year unless Congress reverses the funding trend. These staffing reductions come at a time when the IRS workforce is aging, with nearly 52% of IRS employees now over the age of 50 and 24% already eligible to retire. Three years from now, 38% of IRS employees will be eligible to retire. This loss of IRS knowledge and experience is alarming, particularly in light of the fact that, out of a present workforce of about 85,000 employees, the IRS has only about 3,400 employees under the age of 30 and only 384 employees under the age of 25 due to hiring freezes for budgetary reasons at the IRS since 2010 and periodically from 2005 to 2010. Over the last fifty years, none of us has ever witnessed anything like what has happened to the IRS appropriations over the last five years and the impact these appropriations reductions are having on our tax system.

These reductions in IRS appropriations are difficult to understand in light of the fact that, at the same time these reductions have occurred, the Congress repeatedly has passed major tax legislation to substantially increase the IRS workload. Most recently the Congress passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, two major new programs, each of which significantly expands the IRS' tax administration burdens. The IRS personnel reductions come at a time when the IRS is stretched to the breaking point to cope with tax enforcement challenges attributable to global and domestic changes that are impacting our tax system. Increasingly, the United States is facing tax challenges as the result of efforts that are taking place in the international tax arena to deal with the tax non-compliance that is accompanying the continued globalization of business and investment activities. The most recent tax changes to address international tax non-compliance are proposed in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Report. Regardless of one's view of these proposed changes, it is clear that the IRS will be substantially impacted by changes and challenges of other countries who adopt them.

Additionally, increasing incidents of identity theft and refund fraud are being perpetrated against our tax system by large, sophisticated organized crime syndicates around the world. These criminals seek to file false returns and claim fraudulent refunds using personal taxpayer data obtained from sources outside the IRS. At the same time, many unlicensed, unregulated return preparers are preparing and filing fraudulent tax refund returns. Every time there is an information technology hacking event in the public or private sectors in which Social Security numbers are stolen, the likelihood exists for additional identity theft and refund fraud. The growing refund fraud challenge to our tax system is especially alarming to us because of the need, which is fundamental to our tax system, for the IRS to be able to assure taxpayers who are paying their fair share of taxes that other taxpayers are doing the same thing. To emphasize the seriousness of refund fraud, the Government Accountability Office earlier this year placed identity theft and refund fraud on its list of "high risk areas" in the federal government, a sure sign to each of us that the IRS should have more, not fewer, enforcement resources to deal with this threat to the integrity of our tax system,

To place the impact on our tax system of the Congressional IRS appropriations reductions over the last five years in its proper context, Congress almost annually over the last 25 years has passed legislation that has imposed additional burdens on IRS tax collection and administration under our revenue laws. During this time, the Congress also repeatedly added more and more socio-economic incentives to the tax code and called upon the IRS to administer these new socio-economic programs, including healthcare, retirement, social welfare, education, energy, housing, and economic stimulus programs, none of which is related to the principal job of the IRS to collect revenue. At the same time, Congress passed even more legislation to pay for these tax spending programs. The result is that almost 30 years after the 1986 Tax Reform Act, our tax laws are a mess. Our tax laws have become so difficult for taxpayers to understand that 80% of all individual taxpayers now use paid consultants or software to prepare their income tax returns. Because of insufficient IRS resources in FY 2015, an average of more than 60 percent of the taxpayers who called the IRS for assistance in preparing their returns during the last filing season were unable to reach an IRS assistor, even after many taxpayers had remained on the telephone for more than 30 minutes before they were automatically cut off because of the volume of calls, which the reduced numbers of IRS assistors were unable to handle. Equally serious are the cybersecurity threats illustrated by the problem that occurred earlier this year involving unauthorized attempts to access taxpayer information using the IRS' Get Transcript online application. Separately, the IRS continues to experience about one million attempts each week to hack into its main information technology systems. Although the IRS has so far successfully thwarted these attacks and its main systems remain secure, all of this astonishes us and emphasizes to each of us that the IRS taxpayer assistance and IRS information technology resources are severely underfunded, especially when compared to the increasing cybersecurity budgets of private sector companies.

It is clear to each of us that the IRS appropriations reductions over the last five years materially and adversely affect the ability of the IRS to assist taxpayers who are trying to comply with their tax obligations, as well as the ability of the IRS to detect and deter taxpayers who have not complied with their tax obligations. Recently, we understand that the IRS estimated a direct annual revenue loss to the Federal government in tax enforcement at $6 billion last year and $8 billion this year, due to such appropriations reductions. Historically, for every dollar invested in IRS tax enforcement, the United States received $4 or more in return, and we understand that continues to be true today.

The Congressional Budget Office in its June 2015 Long-Term Budget Outlook projected future fiscal challenges to the United States because of the large and increasing size of our national debt and rising future operating deficits attributable to an aging U.S. population and rising healthcare costs. It, therefore, is imperative that our tax system in the future operate at an optimal level in order to maximize the revenues the IRS collects. For that to happen, the IRS must be able to assist taxpayers who are trying to comply with their tax obligations, and at the same time be able to enforce the tax laws against those taxpayers who have not complied with their tax obligations. In short, because of our country's fiscal and other challenges, our tax system must work and work well to collect the taxes that are owed.

Some have argued that the IRS can solve these problems by simply becoming more efficient. This argument ignores the reality that the IRS is already, by far, the most efficient tax collection agency among large countries in the world. The OECD recently released its bi-annual analysis of tax administration across the developed world and reported, based on 2013 statistics which don't reflect the most recent IRS budget cuts, that the amount the IRS spends to collect a dollar in taxes is approximately half the average amount spent by all OECD countries. Germany, France, England, Canada and Australia all spend as much as two to three times the amount the IRS does to collect a dollar of revenue.

In light of the foregoing, we fail to understand how it makes any logical sense to continue to reduce, rather than increase, the IRS budget for FY 2016 in order to optimize the IRS' ability to provide taxpayer service and to enforce the tax laws to increase revenue collections. To put it succinctly, we do not understand why anyone with present and projected debts and annual losses as large as those of the United States would refuse to pay for telephone assistance to people trying to fulfill their tax obligations, would turn their back on $8 billion annually in additional revenue, or would fail to make an investment that offers a return equal to at least four times the amount invested. For these reasons, we respectfully call upon each of you to support and work to accomplish the passage of an IRS appropriations request for FY 2016 that is substantially in excess of the appropriation for the IRS in FY 2015.

Mortimer M. Caplin (1961-64)

Sheldon S. Cohen (1965-69)

Lawrence B. Gibbs (1986-89)

Fred T. Goldberg, Jr. (1989-92)

Shirley D. Peterson (1992-93)

Margaret M. Richardson (1993-97)

Charles O. Rossotti (1997-2002)

Tagged as: FATCA governance information institutions IRS US



New government in Canada; new fiscal policy

Published Oct 20, 2015 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

Canada's federal election unfolded last night with a decisive victory for the Liberal Party under the leadership of Justin Trudeau. Campaign promises include a much needed commitment to transparency, including budgetary "honesty" as outlined in the party's Fiscal Plan. Here are the main promises:

  • cancel child benefit cheques for millionaires, increase child benefits for the middle class & below 
  • increase the marginal tax rate on Canada’s 1%, cut taxes for the middle class
  • review tax expenditures, target tax loopholes that particularly benefit Canada’s 1%. 
  • be honest about the government of Canada’s fiscal position, base projections on Parliamentary Budget Officer report. 
  • run modest deficits for three years, invest in growth for the middle class.
  • offer a plan to balance the budget in 2019.
Here's the revenue picture: 

Hmm, I am not seeing any revenue from legalizing & taxing marjuana, suggest Canada take a page from Colorado on this point. I predict the revenue impact will be more than zero.

Will be fascinating to watch how the promises play out IRL.

Tagged as: Canada tax culture tax policy



Spiegel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium at McGill Law

Published Sep 28, 2015 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

McGill Law's annual Speigel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium kicks off today with a presentation by Roseanne Altshuler on the viability of a switch from worldwide to territorial corporate taxation in the United States. This year's colloquium will focus on the fundamentals of corporate tax policy by critically examining issues in national and international tax policy. Today's talk will take place from 14:30-17:30pm in Room 202 of New Chancellor Day Hall, 3644 Peel Ave, Montreal. Students, faculty and the McGill community in Montreal are welcome to attend.

Here is the colloquium line-up for the fall:

Monday, September 28: Rosanne Altshuler

Rosanne Altshuler is Dean of Social and Behavioral Science and a Professor of Economics at Rutgers University. She was the Chair of the Department of Economics at Rutgers from 2011 to 2015. She has written widely on federal tax policy, including her most recent article “Lessons the United States Can Learn from Other Countries’ Territorial Systems for Taxing Income of Multinational Corporations.”

Monday, October 5: Steven Dean

Steven Dean is a Professor at Brooklyn Law School and a specialist in tax law. His research addresses a range of tax and budgetary issues, including unconventional solutions to problems such as tax havens, regulatory complexity and tax shelters. His recent article, “Tax Deregulation,” considered the surprising implications of enhancing taxpayer autonomy.

Monday, November 2: Richard Murphy

Richard Murphy is a chartered accountant and economist. He is the founder of the Tax Justice Network and the director of Tax Research LLP, which undertakes work on tax policy, advocacy and research. Mr. Murphy is the co-author of several publications on tax policy, including his most recent book, “Over Here and Undertaxed: Multinationals, Tax Avoidance and You.”

Tuesday, November 10: Daniel N. Shaviro

Daniel Shaviro is a Professor of Taxation at the New York University School of Law. Professor Shaviro has written several books examining tax policy, budget policy and entitlements issues. His most recent book, “Fixing US International Taxation,” offers an analytical framework for international tax policy that sidesteps the standard worldwide taxation vs. territorial taxation framework.

Monday, November 23: Kim Brooks

Kim Brooks is Dean and Weldon Professor of Law at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University. Dean Brooks’ research focuses on corporate and international tax law and policy. She focuses on using a discrete area of tax law to understand a larger tax concept, and using the tax system to promote international economic justice. Dean Brooks has written widely on tax treaties and international taxation, including her recent chapter, “The Troubling Role of Tax Treaties” in the volume 51 of “Tax Design Issues Worldwide: A Series on International Taxation.”

Monday, November 30: Albert Baker

Albert Baker is the Global Leader in Tax Policy at Deloitte & Touche LLP, where he specializes in international tax, including mergers and acquisitions, corporate financing and corporate reorganizations. His recent research focuses on base erosion & profit shifting, a project to address concerns that current international tax frameworks result in double non-taxation, or stateless income, or reducing the tax base in high tax countries.

The Spiegel Sohmer Tax Policy Colloquium has been made possible by a generous grant from the law firm Spiegel Sohmer, Inc., Montreal, for the purpose of fostering an academic community in which learning and scholarship may flourish. I am delighted to welcome these distinguished guests and look forward to today's discussion.

Tagged as: colloquium corporate tax McGill scholarship tax policy



Fei, Hines, Horwitz on PILOTs as Property Taxes for Nonprofits

Published Apr 28, 2015 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

Interesting new paper on PILOTs: "payments in lieu of taxes" that some municipalities request of otherwise tax-exempt orgs. At a recent talk I did at Notre Dame on the topic of taxation and human rights, I explored the dual "social contribution" budgets that highly visible/profitable multinationals often have in impoverished places--the tax budget (that ends up appearing quite small in many cases) and the Corporate Social Responsibility or "CSR" budget (the fees some companies pay to build infrastructure or schools or provide basic services as a matter of "good corporate citizenship"). I brought up Starbucks' dealings with HMRC in response to charges of tax dodging as a rarely-seen tax-like-but-not-quite-tax arising in a developed country, and wondered aloud whether we ought to consider this kind of CSR outlay as in the nature of a tax, or not. One of the audience members suggested that the Starbucks payment or a CSR budget seems analogous to PILOTs, so it's worth taking a look at them. Good idea. I'll add this paper to the reading list. Here's the abstract:

Nonprofit charitable organizations are exempt from most taxes, including local property taxes, but U.S. cities and towns increasingly request that nonprofits make payments in lieu of taxes (known as PILOTs). Strictly speaking, PILOTs are voluntary, though nonprofits may feel pressure to make them, particularly in high-tax communities. Evidence from Massachusetts indicates that PILOT rates, measured as ratios of PILOTs to the value of local tax-exempt property, are higher in towns with higher property tax rates: a one percent higher property tax rate is associated with a 0.2 percent higher PILOT rate. PILOTs appear to discourage nonprofit activity: a one percent higher PILOT rate is associated with 0.8 percent reduced real property ownership by local nonprofits, 0.2 percent reduced total assets, and 0.2 percent lower revenues of local nonprofits. These patterns are consistent with voluntary PILOTs acting in a manner similar to low-rate, compulsory real estate taxes.

Tagged as: CSR culture economics scholarship Tax law tax policy



The Importance of Corporation Tax Policy in the Location Choices of Multinational Firms

Published Oct 21, 2014 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

The Irish Department of Finance released this report yesterday in connection with its 2015 budget. The report considers data on newly established multinational subsidiaries across 26 European countries from 2005 to 2012. Here are a few key points from the executive summary:

  • We find a consistent negative effect of the corporate tax rate on the probability of a country being chosen as a location by multinationals. 
  • We find a highly significant, albeit modest sized, effect of allowing for non-linearity in the effect of the tax structure. In other words, a change in the tax rate will have a larger effect if the starting point is a low rate of tax compared to if the same size change is applied to a higher tax rate.
  • We find large variations in the sensitivity to tax rates across sectors. For manufacturing firms, the effect is similar to the baseline but for service firms the effect is noticeably smaller. Services firms may be more likely to make location decisions based on the need to be close to their identified customer base and this reduces their sensitivity to tax rates. 
  • When comparing the effect of taxation to other important factors, we find that taxation is the largest single determinant of the location decision. 
  • Financial sector firms are most sensitive to changes in corporation tax rates, with an estimated marginal effect more than double those of the other sectors. This is likely to be a reflection of the more footloose nature of these firms, and has important implications for the potential effect of a tax change in Ireland, given the weight of the financial sector in foreign investment in this country. Firms with higher assets sizes appear more responsive to corporation taxation in their location decision. 
  • Combining all effects of tax and country characteristics, Ireland had a 3.1% probability of being chosen as a location for the newly established subsidiaries over the period investigated. For context, Irish GDP is 1.4% of the EU-26 total, so this demonstrates the attractiveness of the country as a destination for foreign investment well in excess of its size. 
  • If the Irish tax rate had been 15% over the period in our sample, the number of new foreign affiliates entering the country would have been 22 % lower. 
  • If the tax rate had been 22.5% (the sample average), the number of new foreign affiliates would have been 50 % lower. 
The idea that Ireland will really give up its favorable tax regimes under external pressure just seems implausible as a result. I know, Ireland is going to repeal the residence rule that gave rise to the double Irish. But there's always the double dutch not to mention an alarming proliferating of patent boxes so that means Ireland will have to come up with something else. If the US, the UK, the Netherlands, etc. aren't going to give up their goodie bags, it is difficult to see Ireland doing so.

Tagged as: corporate tax EU tax policy



Bruce Zagaris on US Perspectives on Information Exchange

Published Jun 17, 2014 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

Bruca Zagaris has a two-part article on U.S. policies on the exchange of information in tax matters, published  by Tax Analysts on June 9 and  June 17, of great interest (but gated, unfortunately). He provides an overview of the applicable treaties (bilateral and MAATM), TIEAs and IGAs, and discusses the various forms of information exchange. He gives a nice level of detail on how information exchange requests are processed in the US and how the US achieves its information goals vis a vis other countries. He goes through the legal structures and the developments at the OECD and EU. He then provides a series of detailed hypotheticals focusing in on US information exchange policy with respect to Latin America. Bruce is very clear about the lack of reciprocity that characterizes the US position toward information exchange and notes, rightly, I believe, that this position is sure to lead to conflict going forward.

His conclusion is rather bleak but I don't disagree with anything he is saying. Here are a few excerpts:

The U.S. budgetary problems, the pay-as-you-go system, the revenue estimates obtained for the anti-tax-haven bills, and the proclivity of some members of Congress to focus on tax enforcement and compliance directed at U.S. taxpayers concealing money abroad ensures that the anti-tax-haven bills will constantly be appended to appropriations legislation in this session of Congress and in future sessions. There are so many anti-tax-haven initiatives and the lack of actual reciprocity by the U.S. government, as opposed to the rhetoric, may well lead to dispute resolution proceedings soon and to disagreements within the international initiatives of the OECD and FATF, as a result of the perceived lack of a level playing field. 
A global trend toward criminalization of tax compliance and enforcement will continue.... Governments will continue to try to privatize tax enforcement by deputizing FIs and service providers regarding reporting, ethics, and a range of other requirements. Criminal investigations and prosecutions of noncompliant institutions and service providers will continue. 
... Disagreements are likely to continue among the OECD and developing countries about the proper financial architecture, not only in tax policy, but also financial regulation. If possible, the G-8 countries will try to continue to centralize decision-making in elite informal groups, such as the G-20, the Financial Stability Forum, and the OECD and the groups it controls, such as the Global Forum on Taxation. 
... OECD and Latin American governments, including the United States, Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, will continue to impose sanctions through blacklists and countermeasures against small financial center jurisdictions, both unilaterally and through international organizations (for example, the OECD and IMF) and informal groups (for example, G-20, FATF, and Financial Stability Board), even though small-state offshore financial centers do a much better job of enforcing the prohibition on anonymous companies and bank accounts than do large OECD countries, and the United States is the main offender in failing to enforce the international standards prohibiting anonymous companies 
The biggest potential impediment to the United States achieving its global tax priorities is the political gridlock, especially regarding the budget, spending, raising taxes, and raising the debt limit. ... 
The upshot of globalization and increased penalization of international tax and money movement flows is increased pressure on financial intermediaries, including lawyers, trust companies, banks, accountants, and other wealth management professionals who must advise clients. Increasingly, tax authorities, law enforcement, and regulators will be acting to obtain information and bring administrative and criminal cases for reporting violations, nonpayment, nonfiling, and allegedly fraudulent activities, or conspiracy to do the same.
All in all this is a tremendous resource for anyone wanting to understand information exchange from the US perspective. I hope that others will undertake similar analyses for other countries, so that we can start to understand what tax information exchange actually looks like now, and what it will likely look like going forward. The combination of non-reciprocity, a starved administration, and political gridlock in the US with a continued policy jealousy on the part of the US and its close "elite" allies that Bruce describes portends deep trouble ahead for the rest of the world, especially as these countries continue to reserve their own rights to act as tax havens.

Tagged as: FATCA information institutions international law Tax law treaties u.s.



Koskinen: Tough as Nails on Individuals; Cautious and Worrisome on US Multinationals

Published Jun 03, 2014 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

Further to the last post, below are the full remarks from Commissioner Koskinen, with a few key remarks in bold. The remarks are long but I think worth reading in their entirety if only for the marked contrast between the IRS' divergent approaches to "cracking down" on individuals versus US multinational companies. These approaches will most certainly diverge further in the future, if Commissioner Koskinen's statements reflect hardening policy positions. 

I don't want to spend too much time analyzing what is, in the main, a plea for Congress to give the IRS more money, and secondarily some cheerleading for the hard work put in by the IRS and the financial industry to get FATCA operational. Still, it is worth noting that there is much unstated here, for instance: what is meant by "home" jurisdiction--a question no one seems too keen to ask or answer even as we rush headlong into global automatic information exchange. If we actually care about getting these things right we have got to have a global conversation about who owes what to whom as a matter of justice and as a matter of rights, and most importantly: who is going to make those decisions. 

When we don't have those conversations it is all too easy for someone to wax enthusiastically about the project of demanding the bank account numbers and balances of millions of people who don't reside in their country while in the next breath advising caution and restraint when it comes to other countries taxing "their" corporations.

JUNE 3, 2014

Thank you to the U. S. Council for inviting me to be here today. I’m honored to have the opportunity to participate in this important discussion about international tax issues.
Although I have been IRS Commissioner for only a few months, I have quickly come to appreciate the great importance of focusing on the international tax compliance of both business and individual taxpayers. And I’ve come to understand that it is not possible to overstate the challenge that globalization poses to tax administration for the United States and I’m sure for many other jurisdictions as well. Rapid and extensive globalization of markets, business models, and financial systems has presented taxpayers and tax administrations with challenges and opportunities of all sorts.

As you know, the United States government is attempting to respond to the global challenges -- sometimes aggressively and sometimes cautiously and collaboratively, but hopefully always with thoughtfulness, perspective, and a sense of global responsibility. It seems we are in a critical time in these respects, as all of you know well, and this makes it a very exciting time for global tax administration, a time in which rapid and dramatic changes are afoot. For example, it was only a few years ago that tax administration officials were talking about the need to pierce the veil of bank secrecy, and today it seems that veil is being shredded as we move toward a cooperative environment based on tax transparency.

One of the most exciting aspects of our current times is to see governments working so closely together to ensure that taxpayers comply with the tax obligations of their home jurisdictions. With respect to individual tax compliance, we see this collaboration in the process by which FATCA will soon go into effect, and its younger but already bigger sister, the Common Reporting Standard, or CRS, will soon be adopted globally. The cornerstone of these efforts, of course, is the automatic, multilateral exchange of information, which signals quite clearly that international tax transparency is no longer a distant hope, but rather an immediate reality.

But as far as we have come on this road, there is still a great deal of work to be done. Although the policy issue has been settled and tax transparency is the common goal, tax administrators still must answer the question of how we make automatic information sharing work well as a practical matter. We must devise brand new systems, processes, and protocols that maximize efficiencies, minimize burden on taxpayers and financial intermediaries, and ensure the safety and security of the information being transmitted. But before talking about these, I would like to step back for a moment and look at where the U.S. is today on offshore tax compliance and how we got to this point.

The IRS’ serious efforts to combat offshore tax evasion, which had long been a problem, began in 2008 with our efforts to address specific situations brought to our attention in part by whistleblowers. The most notable example of this was the situation with UBS. The IRS realized that the globalization of investment opportunities, and the marketing of those opportunities, could do serious harm to the integrity of the U.S. tax system if complete tax transparency was not part of the equation. This is especially true because our tax system is built on the notion of voluntary compliance. Allowing wealthy individuals to use overseas accounts without paying taxes not only erodes the home jurisdiction’s tax base, but it also is an affront to the vast majority of taxpayers who play by the rules and expect their neighbors to be doing likewise. So from the outset, the IRS adopted a clear message: International tax evasion was, and would continue to be, a top priority for the agency, and people hiding assets offshore would find themselves increasingly at risk of enforcement actions.

A turning point in our enforcement efforts came in 2009 with the agreement reached with UBS. This agreement represented a major step toward global tax transparency and helped build a foundation for our future enforcement efforts. Importantly, the agreement sent the message that the IRS would pursue tax evasion around the world, wherever it might be based, and would also focus on those facilitating tax evasion practices. The agreement also showed the IRS’ keen interest in working cooperatively with other governments to obtain the information needed to bring evaders to justice.

Since 2009, the IRS has taken a multifaceted approach to the offshore noncompliance problem. This has included working diligently and cooperatively with other governments to obtain information on U.S. owners of offshore accounts, as well as banks and other promoters of tax evasive techniques, and using that information to prosecute those willfully evading the law. We have mined the information we’ve obtained for future leads, and have shared our findings with other governments to help them enforce their own laws.

While maintaining strong enforcement programs, the IRS has also sought to encourage taxpayers to come into compliance voluntarily. In 2009, the agency first made available a special Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program, or OVDP. This program has allowed U.S. citizens with undisclosed offshore accounts to voluntarily disclose those accounts, pay a monetary penalty, and avoid criminal prosecution. Because of this program’s success, modified voluntary programs were made available in 2011 and again in 2012. Since 2009, these programs have resulted in more than 43,000 voluntary disclosures from individuals who paid more than $6 billon in back taxes, interest, and penalties, and the numbers continue to rise. In fact, we have noted a significant uptick in participation since the Department of Justice announced its program for Swiss banks last August. So we have clear evidence that our enforcement efforts are working together with our voluntary programs, and we are hopeful that this dynamic will flourish until the offshore problem is stamped out completely.

Now, while the 2012 OVDP and its predecessors have operated successfully, we are currently considering making further program modifications to accomplish even more. We are considering whether our voluntary programs have been too focused on those willfully evading their tax obligations and are not accommodating enough to others who don’t necessarily need protection from criminal prosecution because their compliance failures have been of the non-willful variety. For example, we are well aware that there are many U.S. citizens who have resided abroad for many years, perhaps even the vast majority of their lives. We have been considering whether these individuals should have an opportunity to come into compliance that doesn’t involve the type of penalties that are appropriate for U.S.-resident taxpayers who were willfully hiding their investments overseas. We are also aware that there may be U.S.-resident taxpayers with unreported offshore accounts whose prior non-compliance clearly did not constitute willful tax evasion but who, to date, have not had a clear way of coming into compliance that doesn’t involve the threat of substantial penalties.

We are close to completing our deliberations on these respects and expect that we will soon put forward modifications to the programs currently in place. Our goal is to ensure we have struck the right balance between emphasis on aggressive enforcement and focus on the law-abiding instincts of most U.S. citizens who, given the proper chance, will voluntarily come into compliance and willingly remedy past mistakes. We believe that re-striking this balance between enforcement and voluntary compliance is particularly important at this point in time, given that we are nearing July 1, the effective date of FATCA. We expect we will have much more to say on these program enhancements in the very near future. So stay tuned.

Now, I’ve mentioned FATCA a couple of times and let me talk about it more directly. With FATCA, Congress took a significant stride towards global tax transparency by calling for automatic information reporting on financial accounts held by U.S. taxpayers, no matter where those accounts are located. And so, as everyone knows, FATCA’s enactment has had a dramatic impact on the global financial system, as financial intermediaries all around the world have had to modify their systems and processes to carry out what FATCA calls for. We know that this implementation has been difficult and costly, to say the least, and I’d like to thank the financial community for working so closely with us to ensure that, in the future, all international investors are also tax-compliant investors. In a truly global economy, this is fundamental, of course, and I believe at some point in the future all of us, in both the private and public sectors, will look back with not only a strong sense of accomplishment, but also with wonder at how it ever could have been otherwise.

I’ll also note that the U.S. government’s preparations for FATCA have not exactly been easy. Since enactment, the IRS and Treasury have been working extremely hard to solidify the legal framework, global relationships, and infrastructure necessary to convert FATCA from a concept into a practical reality, and this has been no small task. For four years now, FATCA implementation has demanded a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication on the part of a relatively small group of public servants, without whom offshore tax evasion might still be considered a viable practice. These folks have diligently worked on issuing guidance that is clear and eases the FATCA compliance burden as much as possible, and they have made a herculean effort to take into account the extensive stakeholder comments we’ve received in order to get there. I know there are still a few more things to do, but I should take the time, midstream, to thank the IRS and Treasury FATCA team for the work they have completed so far, because that work has been monumental.

And beyond the legal and regulatory framework that’s been created, you’ll find a number of other very novel elements of the FATCA implementation effort that are important in their own right.
First, so that we can identify and interact with our stakeholders in the global financial community, we had to create a new Global Intermediary Identification Number, or GIIN, and develop a unique registration system. This system allows financial intermediaries around the world to establish their FATCA-compliant status and obtain a GIIN to prevent FATCA withholding when receiving payments from U.S. sources. The FATCA registration system opened several months ahead of schedule and has performed flawlessly to date. So far, tens of thousands of financial institutions have established FATCA accounts and received their GIINs. And just yesterday in fact, we successfully made available to all potential withholding agents the so-called “IRS FFI List” of Foreign Financial Institutions, so those agents can download the database of IRS-issued GIINs to their own systems and use that data to determine which of their account holders are FATCA-compliant and thus free from FATCA withholding.

Second, we had to be very mindful that FATCA data will be coming to us from a wide variety of sources and in a variety of ways. So we had to reach intergovernmental consensus, with extensive input from the financial sector, on a common data format, or schema, that will allow us to process and interpret all FATCA data, no matter its source, once we receive it. This hard work was guided by the OECD, and for that effort that I would like to extend my special thanks to the OECD representatives here in the room today, as well as to the individual members of the OECD Secretariat staff and the private sector financial community not with us who diligently worked through a tremendous amount of detail to ensure that FATCA information reports can be used efficiently and effectively, not only by the IRS but by our reciprocal FATCA partners as well.

Third, the automatic exchange of bulk information contemplated by FATCA will require a modern mode of data transmission, one that, frankly, is not available at the moment. This too has presented a challenge for IRS like no other faced in the past. So, working again with our partners in tax administration around the world, we have had to design a new system for electronic data exchange that will allow FATCA data to be transmitted quickly and securely. So far, we are pleased with the resulting design of this new “International Data Exchange System,” which we refer to as IDES. We believe it will accomplish our goals, and anticipate it will be available to users by January of the coming year so that FATCA data can flow on time.
In this regard, I also want to emphasize that we take very seriously the need to ensure that the financial data transmitted through IDES will be transmitted securely, kept confidential, and used only for tax purposes. Protecting this information and assuring its intended use must be our number-one goal. Toward that end, we designed IDES to include state-of-the-art encryption protocols, and we developed a set of safeguard standards addressing the security and use of data once it is received by a government.

Lastly and importantly, during the past several months, we have been conducting bilateral meetings with each one of our reciprocal FATCA partners to ensure that our safeguard needs are understood and that we and our partners achieve a high level of comfort that FATCA data will be kept confidential and used only for tax purposes, as our treaty and information exchange agreements contemplate.

Before I leave the subject of FATCA implementation, I want to mention our resource limitations at the IRS. The agency continues to be in a very difficult budget environment. Since Fiscal Year 2010, IRS funding has been reduced by more than $850 million, or about 7 percent, and we have 10,000 fewer employees, even as our responsibilities have continued to expand. In the absence of additional resources, our ongoing funding shortfall has major, negative implications for the agency’s ability to continue to adequately fulfill its dual mission of excellent taxpayer service and robust tax compliance programs.

Having said that, it is also important to point out that Congress has mandated that the IRS implement FATCA. Whatever else we are going to do, the IRS must move forward with our non- discretionary legislative mandates, and FATCA is at the top of that list. So I want to assure those of you dealing with FATCA implementation in other ways and in other realms that the IRS will continue to find the necessary resources for FATCA, and implementation will not be disrupted by our budget constraints.

Let me also offer a few words on FATCA enforcement. First, as I have already said, we realize that FATCA implementation is challenging not only for the IRS, but also for the financial institutions that are covered by it. We understand there is a great deal of complexity in FATCA, and that financial institutions must make substantial modifications to their processes and systems to implement it. And we understand that complying with the letter of these requirements, down to the final dotting of “I”s and crossing of “T”s, will take some time. As we announced publicly in an IRS Notice last month, we intend to view 2014 and 2015 as a so-called “transitional” enforcement period during which we will take into account a financial institution’s good-faith efforts to comply in our evaluation of what constitutes acceptable FATCA compliance.

Second, we’re well aware that our offshore enforcement resources going forward will need to be dedicated not to small-scale issues that those trying to be FATCA compliant may have, but rather to broader-scale problems presented by those who choose to seek new ways to evade their tax obligations. That is, we recognize that compliance with FATCA by those trying to comply, and with the new Common Reporting Standard when it goes into effect, will improve and be fine- tuned over time. Problems in this area will be corrected by the compliance-minded. The IRS and other enforcement agencies around the world will be able to focus on the structures and arrangements that, unfortunately but inevitably, will be devised to stay in the shadows in a new world of tax transparency. And in that new world, governments will need to work closely together to shine light into those shadowy spaces until they no longer exist.

Now, although I’m suggesting here that FATCA will not put a complete end to the offshore problem we face, I am telling a very positive story, not a bleak one. FATCA and CRS clearly will make it much more difficult and costly to hide assets, so that those who still seek to do so will be forced to spend money to devise more complex structures, turn to riskier jurisdictions and riskier forms of investment, and face far greater certainty of prosecution when found. FATCA will also de-stigmatize those holding offshore accounts for legitimate purposes, as those accounts will be both reported and reported upon in the normal course, while tax administrations focus their enforcement efforts against those truly seeking to evade taxation.

Interestingly, we can already begin predicting that governments will be working on these future problems completely in concert. In fact, because our interests are aligned and the new instruments of transparency and enforcement we are developing together will be shared, I believe the melody of our total success will be sweet and come quickly.

Now, before I conclude, I would like to say a few words about the topic that is front and center at this conference that is, Base Erosion and Profit Shifting, or BEPS. 

For some time now, the IRS and the U.S. Treasury have been active participants in the OECD’s project to address BEPS on a global scale. We fully support the goal of developing a coordinated and comprehensive action plan to update our international tax rules to reflect modern business practices. Hopefully, this coordinated work will help prevent, rather than exacerbate, the double taxation disputes that could arise if countries unilaterally attempt to address these issues without consensus-based principles. And of course, consensus-based principles are also critically important to ensuring that businesses have the tax certainty they need to operate efficiently around the globe.

That said, I have one point that I believe needs to be considered in the context of these important discussions. I urge that your policy and legal determinations not be made without thoroughly considering the practical implications of these decisions, not only for businesses, but for tax administrations. Let me provide just one example to illustrate what I mean.

I understand that among the reforms being considered is a process known as “country-by-country reporting,” under which multinational businesses would be required to provide, to the tax authorities in each country in which they do business, certain financial information, broken down by country (hence the term, “country-by-country reporting”). I also understand that one possibility for disseminating this data is for all the information reports to be provided to the tax administration in the business’s headquarters country and then shared by that tax administration with the other jurisdictions through the vehicle of treaty-based information exchange. Lastly, I’ve heard it is contemplated that these reports would be exchanged for general risk assessment purposes, not for purposes of an existing audit, which is the current, well-established information exchange standard.

So, given all this, let’s assume that the IRS receives 2,000 of these reports from U.S.- headquartered businesses (although the number could easily be much higher than that) and let’s assume that an average of just five other countries ask for each of these 2,000 reports in any given year. This would mean 10,000 new annual requests for exchange of information coming into our competent authority’s office. And this is just the initial requests. If the proposed new risk assessment standard would justify follow-on requests for additional specific or clarifying information to further the risk assessment, the demand could grow even greater on our Exchange of Information program, or EOI, which is the conduit used by foreign governments to request tax information from us.

So, I ask that this type of simple impact be taken into account as you go forward on this issue and the others you are working to address. One possible way to exchange “country-by-country” reports would be to require that they be automatically exchanged electronically, perhaps through the IDES system I mentioned earlier. Automatic exchange would eliminate the need for a person to evaluate whether or not a requesting country really has a legitimate interest in the information for risk assessment purposes. Together with this might be an agreement that there would be no follow-on requests unless an audit is begun. If this type of care were not taken, then tax administrations with a significant number of headquarters companies would have to reallocate our already dwindling resources to our EOI programs so that we can deal with just this one aspect of the BEPS project.

So again, I urge you in your policy discussions to carefully consider the administrative impact of your decisions. In order for your policy goals to be achieved, any new regime needs to be workable not only from the perspective of taxpayers but also from a tax administration standpoint

Let me close now by saying that the IRS looks forward to working with our tax administration partners around the world as we move together toward greater tax transparency and greater coordinated efforts to address common compliance challenges. Thank you for letting me spend this time with you today, and I would be happy to take your questions. 

Tagged as: FATCA rule of law social contract Tax law tax policy u.s.



It Isn't Just about Greece: Domestic Politics, Transparency and Fiscal Gimmickry in Europe

Published May 23, 2014 - Follow author Allison: - Permalink

Here is an interesting article by James Alt, David Dreyer Lassen and Joachim Wehner that might help explain why it's hard for governments to contend with the problem of tax planning (or base erosion, or however one might like to categorize the issue): governments themselves are inclined toward playing around with numbers, too, or what the authors call engaging in gimmickry. It's also another compelling argument for more transparency in governance coupled with an example of why governments are ambivalent about meeting that goal. Abstract:

This article analyzes the political origins of differences in adherence to the fiscal framework of the European Union (EU). It shows how incentives to use fiscal policy for electoral purposes and limited budget transparency at the national level, combined with the need to respond to fiscal rules at the supranational level, interact to systematically undermine the Economic and Monetary Union through the employment of fiscal gimmicks or creative accounting. It also explains in detail how national accounts were manipulated to produce electoral cycles that were under the radar of the EU budget surveillance system, and concludes with new perspectives on the changes to (and challenges for) euro area fiscal rules.
And here are some observations from the paper:
We show that: (1) despite reporting rules and an elaborate monitoring mechanism (including Eurostat), political incentives resulting from the electoral cycle and the state of the economy systematically undermined compliance with SGP fiscal rules; (2) under such rules, the scale of gimmickry depends on the degree of fiscal transparency in the domestic budget process; (3) incentives for fiscal gimmickry grew with the adoption of these fiscal rules, and tampering with accounting related to subsidies was not the only way in which countries evaded the SGP and Eurostat supervision; and (4) contrary to a good deal of contemporary discussion, non-compliance with the SGP was not 'all about Greece'. Greece was indeed an extreme case, the least transparent of the countries we study. However, the patterns we identify appear whether or not we include Greece in the data.

Countries with higher fiscal transparency generally observed SGP requirements for fiscal reporting, but occasionally violated the deficit limits.

When larger deficits loomed in an economic downturn, low-transparency countries also systematically circumvented the reporting rules using creative accounting.

Our result – that despite common supranational rules and monitoring, domestic institutions (budget transparency), politics (elections) and economic cycles (recessions) explain much of the variation in outcomes – reinforces the argument that 'the source of fiscal discipline is at the domestic level'.

...asymmetric information in an economic union is not only of academic interest, but has serious, real-world consequences for sustaining co-operation among national governments.

...Why would governments choose to misrepresent the state of their public finances? Euro member countries generally face three audiences: domestic voters, bond markets and the EU itself. Conceptually, countries projecting deficits or debt levels that violate the SGP rules can – for a given level of budget transparency – do three things. Each involves a different trade-off. First, they can observe the fiscal rules and make real adjustments to tax and expenditure levels, which will placate bond markets and Eurostat, but will be costly if the resulting policies are unpopular with voters at the national level. Secondly, they can forego fiscal consolidation, break the rules outright, and post deficits and debts in excess of SGP thresholds. This also can come at a price. Greece's entry into the common currency was delayed due to too-high deficits and, after the introduction of the euro, the system had penalties that made it potentially costly for countries to violate the rules. Thirdly, countries can resort to gimmickry, leaving real outcomes (especially spending) unchanged.8 Voters are unharmed in the short run, and gimmicks fool bond markets and supranational authorities to the extent they are undetected. Here the trade-off is intertemporal: if undetected, gimmickry keeps governments on good terms with everyone in the present, but may entail considerable costs, if deficits and debts later accumulate, in the form of high bond yields and even political unrest. Strategic choice could involve more than one of these avenues for action.

...If countries face costly constraints – either politically, from voters, or economically, from supranational fiscal rules or markets – why would countries not simply reduce transparency in order to facilitate fiscal gimmickry? They could, but making governance structures less transparent is visible, carries substantial reputational costs and, in our context, is penalized by bond markets. can we make gimmickry observable and quantified, when the point of misrepresenting fiscal quantities is to avoid detection? We next show how gimmickry can be inferred from traces left in the national accounts, even after Eurostat scrutiny.

...One measure of gimmickry that is reasonably well known to practitioners is the stock-flow adjustment (SFA). The SFA is a statistical residual, an accounting item defined to reconcile the difference between a change in a government's debt (the total face value of the 'debt-like' or 'fixed' claims held against it) and budget deficit (the excess of spending over revenue)

...shares and other equity' transactions become gimmicks when, for instance, payments to cover recurring losses by a state-owned company are treated as equity purchases instead of current transfers.

...A government's electoral incentives are captured by years left in its term of office, ending in zero in the election year: there should be more gimmickry when fewer years are left

...Panel A clearly reveals an electoral cycle in gimmicks which is conditional on transparency. But increasing transparency reduces or eliminates the electoral cycle.
... Appendix 8 presents estimates with different measurements and coding of rules, transparency and other variables, varied samples and including a lagged dependent variable. Those tests qualitatively support our main results: the presence of an electoral cycle in gimmicks, more pressure from hard times and recourse to gimmicks exacerbated by rules – all of which are conditional on limited transparency.
Moreover, supranational fiscal rules that are intended to sustain co-operation instead exacerbate incentives for national governments to manipulate reported data rather than fix fiscal policy.

These are systematic tendencies, rather than the actions of any single country. Budget process transparency can reduce the incentives to manipulate, even those that would otherwise intensify in times of economic stress. Warnings that have been raised in policy and research papers since the early 1990s about the risks of moral hazard in economic policy making for countries in economic unions remain a concern.
 The following observation meshes with other work on the tendency of governments (such as here and here and here) to deficit-finance more generally:
In democracies, even advanced ones, politicians' incentives to employ gimmicks get stronger as elections approach.
And finally the punchline:
...The results show that Greece was not a special case; rather, it was the extreme case of a general, and comprehensible, pattern.
The appendices contain rich details and references.

Tagged as: economics scholarship tax policy