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Archive for September 23rd, 2012

Since I’m probably the foremost defender of tax havens in the United States, I tend to get a lot of press inquiries whenever something happens that brings attention to these low-tax jurisdictions.

In recent months, almost all of the media calls have been because (gasp!) Mitt Romney engaged in sound business practices and used tax havens to boost earnings while also legally minimizing the amount of money siphoned off by the buffoons in Washington.

I’ve explained that prominent Democrats routinely utilize tax havens for business and investment purposes, including as Bill Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Robert Rubin, Peter Orszag, and Richard Blumenthal. I’ve also discussed the issue for the Wall Street Journal’s online interview program, and I slammed ABC News for empty and biased reporting on the issue.

Most recently, I got interviewed by NBC’s big station in New York City. They inexplicably seemed to think it was a big scoop that they were able to form a company in Nevis, though at least they gave me an opportunity to explain that taxpayers benefited from tax havens and tax competition.

But I don’t want to focus on my rather generic comments. Instead, I want to address the explicit assumption in the story that it is bad for Nevis (or any other jurisdiction) to have a simple and efficient process for forming companies.

Notwithstanding the news report, this is a good thing, a practice that should be applauded rather than condemned. Indeed, the World Bank highlights the importance of easy company formation in their important “Doing Business” project.

Moreover, there’s an implicit assumption in the story that not only is company formation somehow a sketchy thing, but that it’s only an issue for small Caribbean islands in the “offshore” world.

That’s completely inaccurate. Indeed, even leftists have acknowledged that Delaware is one of the premiere jurisdictions in the world for company formation, and I’ve explained that the U.S. has very attractive laws for international investors that have attracted trillions of dollars to the American economy.

Interestingly, we now have some very good evidence from three academics that the “offshore” world is much stricter about enforcing laws than the “onshore” world. Here’s what they did.

This paper reports the results of an experiment soliciting offers for these prohibited anonymous shell corporations. Our research team impersonated a variety of low- and high-risk customers, including would-be money launderers, corrupt officials, and terrorist financiers when requesting the anonymous companies. Evidence is drawn from more than 7,400 email solicitations to more than 3,700 Corporate Service Providers that make and sell shell companies in 182 countries. The experiment allows us to test whether international rules are actually effective when they mandate that those selling shell companies must collect identity documents from their customers.

And here’s what they found about so-called tax havens compared to high-tax nations. As you can see, the rules are much more likely to be obeyed in the low-tax jurisdictions that are always getting smeared.

A finding that runs directly counter to the conventional wisdom is that rich countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are worse at enforcing the rules on corporate transparency than are poor countries (see Figure 2). For developing countries the Dodgy Shopping Count is 12, while for developed countries it is 7.8 (and tax havens are much higher at 25.2, as discussed below). The significance of this finding is that it does not seem to be particularly expensive to enforce the rules on shell companies, given that poor nations do better than rich countries. This suggests that the relatively lackluster performance in rich countries reflects a simple unwillingness to enforce the rules, rather than any incapacity. One of the biggest surprises of the project was the relative performance of rich, developed states compared with poorer, developing countries and tax havens (see Figure 3). The overwhelming policy consensus, strongly articulated in G20 communiqués and by many NGOs, is that tax havens provide strict secrecy and lax regulation, especially when it comes to shell companies. This consensus is wrong. The Dodgy Shopping Count for tax havens is 25.2, which is in fact much higher than the score for rich, developed countries at 7.8 – meaning it is more than three times harder to obtain an untraceable shell company in tax havens than in developed countries. Some of the top-ranked countries in the world are tax havens such as Jersey, the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, while some developed countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States rank near the bottom of the list. It is easier to obtain an untraceable shell company from incorporation services (though not law firms) in the United States than in any other country save Kenya.

These are remarkable findings, but now let me take a moment to explain the correct interpretation of these results. Some people will argue that this data shows that there should be harsher rules imposed on the “onshore”  company formation business.

Au contraire. The goal should be to ease the regulatory burden everywhere. Simply stated, it is foolish to fight terrorism, corruption, and money laundering with costly rules that require the monitoring of countless legal actions.

Indeed, I’ve already explained how anti-money laundering rules are ineffective – or perhaps even counterproductive – in the fight against crime, largely because they generate a haystack of information, thus putting law enforcement in the unenviable position of searching for needles.

From a cost-benefit perspective, law enforcement should focus on actual criminal behavior. It wouldn’t make sense, after all, to have the government spy on everyone who buys a car merely because some people use autos when committing crime.

But that’s pretty much a good description of the mentality behind rules and regulations that target the company formation business.

P.S. For more information on the beneficial impact of so-called tax havens, Pierre Bessard wrote a great column about the topic for the New York Times.

P.P.S. I don’t want to overlook my statist friends. Here are a couple of short anti-tax haven videos from left wingers. The first one is tedious and amateurish, but I found the second one reasonably entertaining.

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Many people want to believe in Unicorns, the Loch Ness Monster, and Bigfoot. I think those people are rational and reasonable compared to the folks in Washington that spend their days dreaming of “bipartisan” and “balanced” plans to fix the budget mess.

Here are the two things you should understand. First, you need to grab your Washingtonese-to-English dictionary so you can learn that “bipartisan” and “balanced” are almost always code words for “higher taxes.” Second, budget deals with higher taxes (as the New York Times accidentally admitted) don’t “fix” anything.

The Simpson-Bowles budget plan is a good example of why taxpayers should be quite skeptical. Put together by a former Republican Senator from Wyoming and Bill Clinton’s former Chief of Staff as part of President Obama’s Fiscal Commission, the Simpson-Bowles proposal is viewed by the inside-the-beltway crowd as fiscal Nirvana.

Unsurprisingly, Simpson and Bowles are quite fond of their plan. Here’s their key assertion from a column they recently wrote for USA Today.

The Simpson-Bowles commission offered a reasonable, responsible, comprehensive and bipartisan solution that won the support of a majority of Democrats and Republicans on the commission. Most importantly, it would reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade — enough to put the debt on a clear downward path relative to the economy.

Gee, sounds nice, but let’s look at the details, all of which can be seen by downloading their report.

A main problem is that Simpson and Bowles misdiagnose the problem. I think it’s fair to say that their focus, as they explicitly state in their report, is to “…stabilize and then reduce the national debt.” But as I explain in this video, the real problem is a federal government that is too big and spending too much. Red ink is just a symptom of that problem.

Moreover, the report even includes Keynesian policy, stating that “…budget cuts should start gradually so they don’t interfere with the ongoing economic recovery.”

But let’s set aside rhetorical sins and grade the plan.

Restraining Spending: C+

But the components of the plan make me think they won’t even achieve the plan’s anemic targets.

Eliminating Departments and Programs: D

  • The Simpson-Bowles plan does not call for shutting down a single program, agency, or department. Not even cesspools of waste and inefficiency such as the Department of Education or Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Reforming Entitlements: C-

Reducing Bureaucratic Bloat: B

  • In terms of controlling spending, this is the part of the report that is most admirable. It calls for a three-year freeze on excessive compensation and urges reductions in bureaucratic bloat – albeit only through attrition.

Controlling the Tax Burden and Reforming the Tax Code: C-

The best policy, needless to say, is getting rid of the corrupt tax system and replacing it with a simple and fair flat tax. That obviously wasn’t what Simpson and Bowles decided to propose, but the flat tax is a benchmark that allows us to judge the components of their plan.

They basically get two policies right and two policies wrong. If they were major league baseball players, a .500 average would make them superstars. In Dan Mitchell’s policy world, they’re below average.

Lowering Tax Rates: A-

  • This is the best feature of all the revenue provisions. The Simpson-Bowles report proposes a top tax rate of between 23 percent-28 percent, significantly below the current top rate of 35 percent (and well below the 39.6 percent top rate that is part of President Obama’s class-warfare proposal). The corporate tax rate also would be reduced.

Reducing Double Taxation: D

  • The plan would increase the double taxation of dividends and capital gains. The U.S. already has a very anti-competitive system and this would be a step in the wrong direction (though ameliorated by a lower corporate tax rate).

Limiting the Tax Burden: D-

  • The plan assumes that laws should be changed to increase the federal tax burden to 21 percent of GDP from the long-run average of 18 percent of economic output. That’s unfortunate, but it’s even worse than it seems since the tax burden already is scheduled to rise to record levels because of what’s called “real bracket creep.” The Simpson-Bowles tax hikes would be an additional burden on taxpayers.

Eliminating Corrupt Loopholes: B

  • The good news is that some deductions are curtailed and a few are eliminated. The best components are the repeal of the deduction for state and local income and property taxes. So no more indirect preferences that reward profligate states such as California and Illinois. The healthcare exclusion also is capped, which would be a nice step on the long – but important – task of dealing with the third-party payer crisis in the healthcare sector.

I’m not a fan of the Simpson-Bowles plan, but I do give them credit. They decided to focus on the wrong variable and they have some bad policies, but at least it’s a real proposal.

It’s not anywhere close to the Ryan budget, but it’s a heck of a lot better than what the Senate Democrats have produced (nothing) and what the President has proposed (kicking the can down the road).

But doing a better job than the remedial students is damning with faint praise. Just in case you’re tempted to grade them on a curve, just remember that balancing the budget without tax increases doesn’t require any heavy lifting. All policymakers have to do is limit the growth of spending so it grows by an average of 2.5 percent annually over the next decade.

Other nations, such as New Zealand and Canada, got great results when imposing multi-year periods of fiscal restraint. Certainly it’s not asking too much to expect American lawmakers to exercise similar levels of prudence?

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