Wednesday, 6 May 2009

How tax havens helped to create a crisis

By Sol Picciotto
Published: May 5 2009 20:04 Last updated: May 5 2009 20:04
Banks employ large teams of highly paid people to devise transactions mainly for the purpose of avoiding tax. These activities seem to be far more profitable than the humdrum business of managing payments and channelling savings towards investment. Why?
The answer shows the close link between tax avoidance and the speculation that has fuelled financial instability for 30 years. There were clearly other causes of the current crisis but the faults of the international tax system were a big contributory factor.
International tax co-ordination depends on treaties based on a model devised 80 years ago. To prevent double taxation, the treaties generally give governments the right to tax returns from an investment in the investor’s country of residence. Business profits, meanwhile, are taxable in the “source” country where the activity takes place.
But for most of the past century, international investment was dominated by multinational corporations, which could choose the location of their sources of funds and organise their affiliates’ capital structures. This enabled them to devise techniques to ensure that they were not taxed unfairly, as they saw it, exploiting ambiguities in the concepts of residence and source using legal entities formed in convenient jurisdictions. Such methods were also pioneered, with rather less legitimacy, by wealthy people resentful of high income taxes.
The relaxation and final abandonment of exchange controls in the 1970s led to the blossoming of “offshore” finance and a boom in tax havens. These depend on both outright tax evasion and the exploitation of grey areas by tax avoidance. Since large multinationals are as much financial as business entities, they have freedom to devise complex financial structures – financial institutions, such as banks, even more so: in recent separate surveys by the US Government Accountability Office and the Tax Justice Network, the largest user of tax havens in every country surveyed was a bank. Tax authorities have enormous problems puzzling out these structures. If they can, it is often hard to characterise them as shams.
The leading countries themselves are also host to major financial centres, from which most of these activities are directed. The revenue authorities in these countries, not least the US and the UK, have been cowed into accepting these activities for fear of losing finance business.
Take hedge funds, for example. The tax authorities in the US and the UK have accepted a lax interpretation of residence and source rules, accepting that these funds are resident and their profits sourced offshore (mostly in the Cayman Islands) – even though they are effectively managed from London and New York. Not only are the funds’ gains treated as realised in Cayman, and hence not taxable, but their distributions are not subject to withholding tax – a great benefit for their investors. The funds’ location in a secrecy jurisdiction facilitates tax avoidance and is an open invitation to evasion.
For multinationals and rich investors the point is the same: returns on financial transactions are ultimately taxed at a low or zero rate, making them far more profitable than genuine business endeavours. This distortion of the tax system has greatly fuelled the excess of liquidity channelled into largely speculative financial transactions. The offshore secrecy system has been a main element of the opacity that has undermined corporate and financial regulation.
The remedies lie in fundamental reforms of international fiscal and financial regulatory co-operation, and their co-ordination. International tax co-operation requires a comprehensive, multilateral system for both obtaining and exchanging information for all tax purposes, with proper safeguards for taxpayers. Requiring multinationals to break down their accounting information by each country in which they do business would inject much-needed transparency into the system. Reform should include a shift towards unitary taxation, which most international tax specialists recognise is long overdue. This would be preferable to the Obama administration’s new proposals to tinker with US rules on tax deferral.
These reforms would make the international tax system more effective and fairer, and remove a major rationale for tax havens. They would produce large cost savings for business and perhaps even close down the departments in banks that conjure up wasteful and distorting tax-driven schemes.
The author is an emeritus professor at Lancaster University and a senior adviser to the Tax Justice Network.

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