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Evasion, Avoidance, and Bashing Panama in a World of Aggressive Tax States

Published Apr 19, 2016 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

I've talked to a few journalists and commented a bit on the Panama Papers (e.g. here at 6:09 and here) but I've refrained from writing much to date because I am uneasy about a couple of central themes in this story: first, the constant confluence of tax evasion and tax avoidance, which are two completely different phenomena that require two very different responses in my view, and second the bashing of Panama as if only bad things can be done there, so anyone who does anything there from anywhere else must be doing a bad thing.

I am uneasy about this bashing because, although I think there are bad guys doing bad things in Panama, I also think there are bad guys doing bad things all over the world and I don't like Panama being singled out; I am also wary of suggesting that in a world of global trade and investment flows, anything and everything done through or with Panama must eternally be tinged with a sense of wrongdoing. This sense seems to imbue the imagination in the campaigns to "shut down the tax havens." What, exactly, does that mean? Does it mean that some countries, because someone decides they are mostly bad actors, must be effectively cut off from the global financial system and no one must be allowed to transact with or in these countries from the outside? What if most of the world are actually bad actors, each scheming to use its tax system to undermine and undercut the others? That's essentially the vision drawn by the OECD in countering BEPS, so we will run into some problems if we take this reasoning to its logical conclusion. But if this is not the idea behind shutting down tax havens, then what is envisioned, exactly?

Tax justice advocates seem to envision an invasive global regulatory regime in which every person in the world will have all of their assets and financial information catalogued and tagged and made public to everyone else, in order to make sure no one can break any tax rules. If this is being done just for tax--that is, if this is what it takes to make the income tax "work," I am not sure that the income tax is worth all of that trouble and everything given up to achieve it. That includes privacy, which appears to itself have become a suspicious word in certain circles, as if only those doing bad things have a desire to keep anything about their lives private. Let us recall Glenn Greenwald's words on why privacy should not come to be seen as a sinister desire. It is possible to break the tax law like it is possible to break any other law. But is requiring everyone to show all of their assets to everyone else in order to prove no laws have been broken a valid response to this enduring problem? I cannot agree with this Orwellian vision of the world. I also do not think this view is sensible if the issue is really driven by tax. If it is, then surely we can find a less invasive way to fund public goods and services.

This brings me to the evasion/avoidance point, which I find being abused just as much by lawmakers and policy advocates as it is by journalists who don't know any better.

Tax evasion is a crime that involves hiding things from a legal authority. Tax avoidance is not a crime that involves hiding: it is achieved in full view of the legal authorities. The former is a very very difficult problem but is not primarily a tax policy problem. Instead it is primarily a global financial system problem that is created, like most global financial system problems, by virtue of the difficulty of regulating behaviours in a world in which technology has moved us far beyond the frontiers of the nation state.

On the other hand, 'aggressive" tax avoidance (loosely speaking; more analysis here)--that is, avoidance not intentionally allowed by rules such as those to defer tax on retirement savings--is a tax policy issue. Taxpayers and their advisers are always going to cook up new schemes to get around inconvenient tax rules. Knowing this, regulators must decide whether and how to react. They may react with any number of tools that create an infinite call and response loop among regulators, taxpayers, administrators, and judges. These include such things as general and specific anti-avoidance rules, uncertain tax position disclosure, and random audit strategies. None of these things has the first thing to say about how to deal with a corrupt government official who steals money from the public fisc and invests it in US and European stocks and bonds through a maze of trusts and companies formed in other jurisdictions. It's just a totally different problem.

I know and understand that bad guys are always lurking around to defeat the tax law, as they are in any regulatory field. I don't have any special insights about how to deal with corruption and criminality. But in my experience with tax, when a government moves to "crack down" on bad guys, the really serious criminals--including government officials themselves--all too often escape while everyone else finds themselves increasingly tracked, surveilled, and treated like criminals even as the resources to cope with fixable tax policy flaws diminish. I don't have any answers for these worries.

Tagged as: evasion governance offshore tax policy



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

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

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

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

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

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

I should hope not.

Tagged as: fiscal state aid governance institutions international law lobbying



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

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



Tax and Human Rights: What's Next? #TJHR

Published Jun 21, 2014 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Yesterday we concluded the McGill Tax Justice and Human Rights Research Collaboration Symposium. It was an action-packed three days and I left feeling that what I had set out to generate had in fact been accomplished: a cross-platform, cross-disciplinary conversation on the intersection of taxation and human rights. Everyone learned a great deal about a range of people who want to think about how taxation and human rights concepts work together, and a range of ideas and challenges generated by that exercise. I think I came away with at least a sense of the current landscape of this field, its recurring themes and questions, and where the research is likely to go in the near future. 

I'll write some more on this as I have a chance to reflect on the proceedings and review some of the tape of the sessions I had to miss (running a conference is all too unfortunately more about moving people around and dealing with technology and such than sitting back and listening). We have sought waivers from the conference participants and will be able to upload some of the sessions, or parts thereof, in the coming weeks. We are also in process of obtaining permission to post papers and presentations, and as those come in we will post those as well.  Not all presenters and presentations will be available online but enough, perhaps, to give a sense of what took place over the past three days. Updates on available content will be available at the conference website, linked above. 

As with any conference, what the participants say is only part of the story: the other and more lasting part is the networking and connection building that takes place. I heard from some of the participants about exciting new connections and possibilities for future collaboration. I myself managed to connect with many participants with whom I hope to collaborate again in the future. It is an exciting field and one I believe is gaining momentum. There is much work to be done.

The photo on the conference flyer, reproduced above, is a detail of the grand entrance to Old Chancellor Day Hall at McGill. We added it to the flyer as a tribute to the history of research and learning that goes on in this institution, and as a symbol of openness, welcome, and inclusion that characterizes the Faculty of Law at McGill. I hope and believe that the symposium opened many doors for future collaboration on the subject of tax justice and human rights. 

More updates in the weeks to come. 

Tagged as: conference fairness human rights justice McGill research scholarship Tax law tax policy



Proposed Legislation will Shine More Light on Lobbying, Self-Dealing in Congress

Published Mar 23, 2014 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Last week, US Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced the Transparency in Government Act of 2014, a bill "to amend the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the Rules of the House of Representatives, the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, and the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 to improve access to information in the legislative and executive branches of the Government, and for other purposes." I am always worried about those other purposes, because funny things tend to get slipped into law this way, but the bill is interesting.

Government Executive Oversight calls it "a grab-bag transparency bill" that would "use technology to boost public oversight of program spending, standardize agency reporting on use of the Freedom of Information Act, shed greater light on lobbying and add new requirements for judges to disclose financial investments," as ell as "toughen online disclosure requirements for lawmakers’ personal finances, office expenses, gift reports and foreign travel." All that sounds like it is worth doing.

I especially like the idea of putting completed FOIA requests online, but would like to see the law go even further: if it's FOIAble it ought to be automatically disclosed and available to the public, not have to wait for individuals to file applications. I realize that this presents administrative costs but FOIA is a constructed barrier that unnecessarily imposes costs on individuals to release information that is of public benefit. If a government is producing thousands of pages of ultimately public documents I don't see why the individual must be forced to compel publicity in the vast majority of cases; the opposite should be true.

The other main part of the bill is its attempt to make public officials more honest about their backroom dealings, including politicking and rule changing.

Finally it's about time for another attempt to stop Congress from inside trading after they "quietly" undid the 2012 Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act which was meant to curb this behavior. Congress, it seems, was worried that transparency would expose members to identity theft. This is something that Congress worries about a lot when it comes to themselves but seems incapable of determining how to stop when it comes to those not in Congress.

It is nice to see at least one Congress person push for transparency and accountability in Congress, but given past experience there is unfortunately all too much room for doubt that any reforms will stick even if they pass. I always hope to be proven wrong in this skeptical view.

Tagged as: lobbying political malfunction u.s.



Taxing the Corporation: Home Depot and the State's Claim of Right

Published Dec 29, 2013 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

The Arizona Court of Appeals recently issued a decision in the Home Depot case, which involves determining when the state has jurisdiction to tax a corporation. The case is about a domestic multi-state business but it has interesting implications for the taxation of multinationals. In brief, Home Depot (a Delaware corporation headquartered in Georgia) formed a subsidiary in 1991 to hold its trademarks. It then entered into a licensing agreement with the sub, Homer, under which it paid a royalty for the use of the trademarks. The royalty started at 1.5% of gross sales, and increased to 4% in the years at issue. The Arizona Department of Revenue decided that Homer and Home Depot constituted a unitary business for Arizona state tax purposes, the Arizona Tax Court agreed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

So here we have a Delaware corporation, headquartered in Georgia, doing business in Arizona through retail stores, but stripping its income out of the state in order to avoid the state level corporate income tax. That is, of course, the basic modus operandi of Google, Apple, Starbucks, GE, Amazon, et al, each of which sells products and services around the world yet pays low single digit corporate tax rates in each jurisdiction by stripping out its income in the form of license fees, interest, and other inter-company payments to subsidiaries located in low-tax jurisdictions.

Internationally the defense that countries employ against this behavior is the arm's length standard, under which each government that claims jurisdiction over any part of the multinational treats that part as if it was an independent party acting at arm's length with respect to the rest of the company. Indeed Home Depot raised its compliance with the arm's length standard as a reason for the court to dismiss the Arizona revenue authority's jurisdictional claim over Homer. But the Court points out that compliance with arm's length is not the issue in a question about establishing a jurisdictional claim:

Home Depot, nevertheless, argues its transactions with Homer have been at arm’s length, and points out that the Department has not challenged the appraisal establishing the legitimacy of the royalty it pays Homer. [Under prior case law] the principle [is] that unitary treatment will be imposed or allowed whenever the activities of the affiliated organizations affect the other(s) in ways that are "so pervasive as to negate any claim that they function independently from each other."
Under a statutory regime that allows for unitary taxation, in other words, the state can claim jurisdiction to tax with respect to any corporation anywhere, if it can establish pervasive links among affiliated corporations, or "operational integration." And what are the marks of such operational integration, such that the state's jurisdiction to tax is established? The Court lists fifteen, pursuant to Arizona state law:
1. The same or similar businesses conducted by components;
2. Vertical development of a product by components, such as manufacturing, distribution, and sales;
3. Horizontal development of a product by components, such as sales, service, repair, and financing;
4. Transfer of materials, goods, products, and technological data and processes between components;
5. Sharing of assets by components;
6. Sharing or exchanging of operational employees by components;
7. Centralized training of operational employees;
8. Centralized mass purchasing of inventory, materials, equipment, and technology;
9. Centralized development and distribution of technology relating to the day-to-day operations of the components;
10. Use of common trademark or logo at the basic operational level;
11. Centralized advertising with impact at the basic operational level;
12. Exclusive sales-purchase agreements between components;
13. Price differentials between components as compared to unrelated businesses;
14. Sales or leases between components; and
15. Any other integration between components at the basic operational level. 
Not every listed factor must be present in order to establish operational integration. Having established its jurisdictional claim, the state does not claim all of the income of the entire multistate operation, but rather applies its own internal formula for determining what portion of the whole is attributable to the group's Arizona operations. 

Herein lies the lesson for international taxation: corporate taxation of a multi-state group is possible on a unilateral basis--a state need only stake its own jurisdictional claim and have the werewithal to enforce it. Arizona's Court of Appeals seems to be suggesting that the state's jurisdictional claim need not be hampered by any artificial constructs, whether these be rules assigning corporate residence or contracts allocating rights. Presumably the allocation formula cannot be 100% but also relies on some decision about the extent of the jurisdictional claim--although this has not been argued or established here. The decision further implies that enforcement is possible as a practical matter, presumably on the basis of the operations and assets that are currently in the state. The question raised is whether the Arizona market will continue to be attractive to Home Depot, such that it will accept unitary taxation by the state in order to continue to do business there. These are empirical questions, and the economic evidence I have seen so far suggests that the business will not leave solely as a result of the tax (especially if there is no alternative market that would deliver the same profits at a lower tax cost: here is a short summary that covers some of the bases on this question).

Substituting nation-state for state in these assumptions, these are big normative claims about the right of the state to assert a jurisdictional claim to tax, as well as its ability to follow through once the claim of right has been established. These assumptions raise even bigger normative claims about the fairness and efficiency of any system that fails to exercise a jurisdictional claim where it exists, since failure to exercise a claim in one sector forces the other sectors to take up the slack thus distorting tax outcomes on the basis on noneconomic factors. 

Tagged as: corporate tax jurisdiction tax policy transfer pricing u.s. unitary taxation



Journal Issue: Mobile Money in Developing Countries

Published Mar 25, 2013 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Recently the Washington Journal on Law Technology & the Arts issued a symposium issue entitled "Mobile Money Symposium 2013." Description:

This special issue of the Washington Journal of Law, Technology & Arts contains papers contributed to a conference held at the University of Washington School of Law on April 20, 2012. The conference, entitled Mobile Money in Developing Countries: Financial Inclusion and Financial Integrity, was organized by the University of Washington School of Law with the support of the Linden Rhoads Dean’s Innovation Fund, Deakin University School of Law, Australia, and the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL).
All of the papers are available for download. They are:
  • The 2012 Revised FATF Recommendations: Assessing and Mitigating Mobile Money Integrity Risks within the New Standards Framework by Louis de Koker; 
  • Governance of Global Mobile Money Networks: The Role of Technical Standards by Jane K. Winn; 
  • Privacy and Security Concerns Associated with Mobile Money Applications in Africa by Andrew Harris, Seymour Goodman, and Patrick Traynor; 
  • The Role of UNCITRAL Texts in Promoting a Harmonized Legal Framework for Cross-Border Mobile Payments by Luca G. Castellani; 
  • Mobile Money as an Engine of Financial Inclusion and Lynchpin of Financial Integrity by Claire Alexandre and Lynn Chang Eisenhart; 
  • The Role of Anti-Money Laundering Law in Mobile Money Systems in Developing Countries by Emery S. Kobor; 
  • M-Payments in Brazil: Notes on How Country Background May Determine Timing and Design of Regulatory Model by Gilberto Martins de Almeida; 
  • Safaricom and M-PESA in Kenya: Financial Inclusion and Financial Integrity by Mercy W. Buku and Michael W. Meredith; 
  • Mobile Money, Financial Inclusion and Financial Integrity: The South African Case by Vivienne A. Lawack-Davids; 
  • Reporting of Suspicious Activity by Mobile Money Service Providers in Accordance with International Standards: How Does it Impact on Financial Inclusion? by Miriam Goldby; and 
  • Mobile Payments In The U.S.: How Disintermediation May Affect Delivery of Payment Functions, Financial Inclusion and Anti-Money Laundering Issues by Erin F. Fonté.
The one on Safaricom looks like a fascinating case study:
The recent and widespread availability of affordable mobile phone technology in developing countries has paved the way for the development of a number of mobile money and electronic remittance services. One of the most successful of these services is Safaricom’s M-PESA program, launched in the East African nation of Kenya in March 2007. Since then, the program has successfully enrolled 15.2 million users, transferred more than US$1.4 trillion in electronic funds, and contributed significantly to poverty alleviation and financial inclusion efforts in rural Kenya. This Article seeks to trace the development of M-PESA in Kenya, provide a snapshot of the Kenyan implementation of and experience with the program, and consider the role that services like M-PESA might play in national and international anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing efforts. 
Interesting throughout.

Tagged as: scholarship



International tax as revealed in SEC filings

Published Feb 04, 2013 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

I've written before about how opaque international taxation is because most of the law is worked out in ways that are not made visible to the public, namely through non-judicial review of transfer pricing and related disputes among nations.  I've argued for both corporate tax disclosure and publication of competent authority agreements as a remedy to much of this opacity. Tax Analysts' Transfer Pricing Roundup [gated] offers a fascinating window onto this world:

Transfer Pricing Roundup summarizes significant tax disputes that publicly listed firms have disclosed to regulatory authorities. The regular monitoring of these disclosures sheds light on the friction points within the U.S. system of transfer pricing enforcement. Many of the disputes profiled here involve adjustments resulting from controversial cost-sharing arrangements.
Some of the highlights:

  • Accenture PLC, a global management consulting, technology services, and outsourcing company, reported its unrecognized tax benefits could decrease by $637k or increase by $208k depending on how things go with some settlements, lapses of statutes of limitations [read: if they were going to catch us with our fingers in a cooky jar, it's about to be too late] and other adjustments relating mostly to transfer pricing matters 
  • Amazon is disputing transfer pricing adjustments in the US that would result in additional tax of $1.5 billion, and in France to the tune of $250 million. 
  • Amazon also recorded reserves for tax contingencies of $336M for 2012 and $266M for 2011, to cover transfer pricing, state income tax, and research and development credit positions.
  • Cooper Cos. Inc., a medical device company, has $29.5M in "unrecognized tax benefit," $5M of which relate to transfer pricing and other issues "that could significantly change in the next 12 months because of expiring statutes [see above] in unnamed jurisdictions." 
  • Dell continues an ongoing battle with the IRS over transfer pricing adjustments dating back to 2004-2006. Dell reports that "An unfavorable outcome in this matter could have a material effect on the company's operations, financial position, and cash flows."
  • Microsoft is also involved in a protracted battle with the IRS over transfer pricing involving 2004 to 2006, which could have a "significant impact" on the company's financial statements if it is not resolved in Microsoft's favor. Microsoft does not expect resolution any time soon: must be some thorny issue to work out there. Microsoft's tax contingencies and liabilities are huge: $7.7B and $7.6B as of December 31, 2012, and June 30, 2012, respectively.
Much, much more at the link. Most of these are pharma and software companies--i.e., lots of IP that has been moved offshore and is busy stripping income out of high-tax countries with variations on the dutch sandwich, which looks a little something like this:
Now with Less Fiber!
My feeling is that it is a real shame that most or all of these cases will get settled and eventually quietly erased from balance sheets with little or no explanation and therefore no advancement in the development of international tax law whatsoever, despite all of the resources that will have been sunk into the cause by the private sector and government alike. What a shame.

Tagged as: corporate tax globalization governance offshore rule of law transfer pricing u.s.



How the Wealth Gap Damages Democracy

Published Sep 18, 2012 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

Pacific Standard reviews Inequality and Instability by James K. Galbraith and Affluence & Influence, by Martin Gilen:
Gilens and James K. Galbraith are among the few experts who’ve been working on the subject for more than a decade. Their conclusions reinforce the fears of those of us who’ve suspected that inequality is a blight on American society. Indeed, the damage to democratic values is not in some distant dystopian future: Gilens states plainly that the relationship between the policy desires of the wealthiest 10 percent of the population and actual federal public policy over recent decades “often corresponded more closely to a plutocracy than to a democracy.”
...Galbraith believes that recent volatility in inequality levels stems almost entirely from the increased accumulation of wealth among those working at the top of the technology and finance sectors.
The biggest problem, he insists, is that in recent decades, we seem to have forgotten how to grow the economy except by increasing inequality. The result has been a series of bubbles, and bubbles always cause damage when they pop.
...Gilens’s concerns are different, more pessimistic. He maintains that the poor and middle class have precious little representation in federal policymaking. Surveying a 40-year period, he finds that legislative outcomes almost never correspond to the public opinion preferences of the poor (at least when their expressed interests differ from those of the rich), whereas they much more frequently match the policy preferences of the wealthiest 10 percent. He does not flinch from the harsh conclusion: “The complete lack of government responsiveness to the preferences of the poor is disturbing and seems consistent only with the most cynical views of American politics.”  
 I haven't read either book yet but both sound worth reading.

Tagged as: culture inequality scholarship u.s.



Predator Nation

Published May 23, 2012 - Follow author Allison Christians: - Permalink

From the writer of Inside Job, the multiple award-winning documentary on the financial crisis, comes a follow-on book:

Charles H. Ferguson, who electrified the world with his Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, now explains how a predator elite took over the country, step by step, and he exposes the networks of academic, financial, and political influence, in all recent administrations, that prepared the predators’ path to conquest.
     Over the last several decades, the United States has undergone one of the most radical social and economic transformations in its history.
  • Finance has become America’s dominant industry, while manufacturing, even for high technology industries, has nearly disappeared.
  • The financial sector has become increasingly criminalized, with the widespread fraud that caused the housing bubble going completely unpunished.
  • Federal tax collections as a share of GDP are at their lowest level in sixty years, with the wealthy and highly profitable corporations enjoying the greatest tax reductions.
  • Most shockingly, the United States, so long the beacon of opportunity for the ambitious poor, has become one of the world’s most unequal and unfair societies. 
If you’re smart and a hard worker, but your parents aren’t rich, you’re now better off being born in Munich, Germany or in Singapore than in Cleveland, Ohio or New York.
This radical shift did not happen by accident.   
Ferguson shows how, since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, both major political parties have become captives of the moneyed elite.  It was the Clinton administration that dismantled the regulatory controls that protected the average citizen from avaricious financiers.  It was the Bush team that destroyed the federal revenue base with its grotesquely skewed tax cuts for the rich. And it is the Obama White House that has allowed financial criminals to continue to operate unchecked, even after supposed “reforms” installed after the collapse of 2008.  
Predator Nation reveals how once-revered figures like Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers became mere courtiers to the elite.  Based on many newly released court filings, it details the extent of the crimes—there is no other word—committed in the frenzied chase for wealth that caused the financial crisis.  And, finally, it lays out a plan of action for how we might take back our country and the American dream.
If you haven't seen Inside Job, you should; you can watch it on Netflix.  It features a number of uncomfortable interviews with people who ought to have known better.

Tagged as: inequality institutions u.s.