Most normal Americans have never heard of the “Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” project being pushed by the tax-loving bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But in the world of tax policy, BEPS is suddenly attracting a lot of attention, mostly because the business community has figured out it’s a scheme that would require them to pay more money to greedy governments.
I’m happy that BEPS is finally getting some hostile attention, but I wonder why it took so long. I started criticizing the project from the moment it was announced. Given the OECD’s dismal track record of promoting statist policy, there was zero chance that this project would result in good policy proposals.
Though I will say that the Wall Street Journal quickly recognized that the BEPS scheme was a ruse for tax increases on the business community.
And the editors of the paper have continued their criticisms as BEPS has morphed from bad concept to specific policy. Here are some passages from an editorial earlier this week.
…the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development this week released its final proposals for combatting “base erosion and profit shifting,” or BEPS. …The OECD claims governments lose anywhere between $100 billion and $240 billion in revenue each year to such legal strategies, and it has spent two years concocting complex rules and new compliance burdens to stop it. Perhaps the worst of the OECD’s ideas is…country-by-country reports to every jurisdiction in which a company operates would detail operations in that area, and where it has paid tax on any relevant profits.
The WSJ is particularly concerned about proposals to require sharing of information with irresponsible and corrupt governments.
Ostensibly this…data would be kept confidential. Fat chance about that, especially if a high-taxing government thinks it has spotted an opportunity to grab more revenue or indulge some political grandstanding. A related proposal would require companies to hand over their so-called master files to governments. Those files, which detail global operations and intra-company transfers, are essentially guides to proprietary business strategies. Passing them to the authorities, and especially governments that run state-owned enterprises competing with multinational firms, is an invitation to mischief.
The OECD’s proposals also will mean higher compliance costs.
Companies could also be forced to spend years in courts and arbitration challenging potential new instances of the double taxation the current global tax system was developed to avoid. …Underlying all of this is the belief that the fiscal problems of the world result from insufficient tax collection, when the real culprit is anemic growth.
The final point in the above passage deserves special attention. Economic growth in many industrialized nations is relatively anemic because of bad government policy. And since people are earning less income and businesses are earning fewer profits, this means less revenue for government.
But rather than fix the policies that are causing sub-par growth, the politicians want to impose higher tax rates.
Needless to say, this will simply lead to less taxable income, making it even harder to collect revenue (this is the core insight of the Laffer Curve).
It’s also worth citing what the Wall Street Journal wrote over the summer on the BEPS issue. The editors started with an important observation about companies being able to invest in high-tax nations because they can protect some of their profits.
The global war on low tax rates entered a new stage… Hang onto your wallets—and your proprietary corporate data. …Governments have noticed that companies try to protect themselves from rapacious tax policies. …This is all legal for now, and a good thing too. Shielding profits from growth-killing taxes helps make investment and job creation in high-tax jurisdictions more economical.
And the editorial also warns about the dangers of giving dodgy governments access to more information, particularly when some of them will be incapable of protecting data from hackers.
The compliance burden these rules would impose counts as a new tax in itself. Despite some attempts to allow companies to file only one global disclosure in the jurisdiction of the corporate headquarters, in practice firms are likely to have to submit multiple, overlapping documents around the world. Sensitive corporate financial information would then be shared among global tax collectors. If you believe the OECD’s claim that all this will be kept confidential, have a chat with any of the millions of federal employees whose personnel files Uncle Sam allowed China to hack.
By the way, I don’t doubt for one second that companies push the envelope as they try to protect their shareholders’ money from government.
But less money for government is a good outcome. Particularly when politicians are imposing taxes – like the corporate income tax – that hurt workers by impeding capital investment.
The main thing to understand, at least from an American perspective, is that businesses have a big incentive to shift money out of the United States because politicians have saddled our economy with the world’s highest corporate tax rate, combined with the globe’s most punitive worldwide tax system.
Dealing with those problems is the right approach, not some money grab from an international bureaucracy. I shared these ideas in this brief presentation I made to an audience on Capitol Hill.
For what it’s worth, the chart I shared is all the evidence you could ever want that governments aren’t suffering from a lack of corporate tax revenue.
Moreover, while I don’t like OECD schemes to enable higher tax burdens, the BEPS project won’t equally affect all businesses.
Let’s look at how the project specifically disadvantages American companies (above and beyond the self-imposed damage from Washington).
Aparna Mathur of the American Enterprise Institute explains how BEPS will make a bad system even worse for US-based multinationals.
The U.S. has much to lose from a shift to this system. …the U.S. today has the highest corporate tax rate in the OECD. Under BEPS, this would affect the real decisions of firms to locate jobs and capital investment in the U.S.. In a recent report Michael Mandel points out that the BEPS principles will give multinationals a strong incentive to move high-paying creative and research jobs out of the U.S. since that is the easiest way to take advantage of low tax rates. …The current U.S. system of corporate taxation has many flaws. …the changes envisaged under the OECD’s BEPS project would make matters even worse.
This doesn’t sound good.
Some people have complained about corporate inversions, but it doesn’t hurt America when a company technically redomiciles in a nation with better tax law. After all, the jobs, factories, and headquarters generally remain in the United States.
But the way BEPS is structured, companies will have to move economic activity out of America.
Last but not least, Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center identifies some major systematic flaws in the BEPS project. She starts by pointing out what the OECD wants.
Europe’s largest welfare states…are leading the charge through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to raise corporate tax rates globally. …The underlying assumption behind the base erosion and profit shifting, or BEPS, project is that governments aren’t seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. …Its solution is to force those companies that wisely structured their operations to benefit from low-tax jurisdictions to declare more income in high-tax nations.
And then she explains what will be the inevitable result of higher tax burdens.
Far from filling government coffers in order to continue funding massive redistributive welfare regimes, BEPS will strangle global economic output and erode tax bases even further. …Corporations provide an easy political target for tax-hungry politicians, but the burden of corporate taxes falls on ordinary citizens. Employees, shareholders, and investors will bear the brunt of the OECD’s corporate tax grab, all because European politicians refuse to accept responsibility for building bigger governments than their economies can sustain.
So what is the Obama White House doing to protect American companies from this global tax grab?
The good news is that some folks from the Treasury Department have complained that the project is targeting U.S. multinationals.
The bad news is that the minor grousing from the United States hasn’t had an impact. Not that we should be surprised. Because of a shared belief in statism, the Obama Administration has worked to expand the OECD’s power to push bad tax policy around the world.
P.S. Since today’s topic is arcane yet important international tax issues, allow me to share an update on the horribly misguided FATCA law. As is so often the case, the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal is the source of great wisdom.
Or, in this case, maybe it would be best to write “the source of great sadness and frustration.”
America is the only country that taxes citizens on their global earnings, and in 2010 Washington exacerbated that by passing the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or Fatca. As this law comes into force, it is doing immense harm to…the 8.7 million U.S. citizens living abroad, who have essentially been declared guilty of financial crimes unless they can prove otherwise. …American leadership overseas, from volunteer organizations to the business world, has diminished. No one wants an American involved when their citizenship attracts a maze of rules, regulations, potential fines and criminal penalties. …It’s painful to witness the anguish of patriotic Americans as they contemplate giving up their U.S. citizenship, as record numbers have been doing. In 2014, 3,417 renounced their citizenship, a 266% increase over 2012, before Fatca came fully into effect.
Interestingly, the way to solve the FATCA problem is the same way to deal with the corporate inversion issue.
Simply shift to a territorial system.
The best solution is for the U.S. to join the rest of the world in taxing based on residency rather than citizenship. …Doing so would advance American fairness, mobility and economic competitiveness.
Sadly, only a handful of lawmakers, most notably Senator Rand Paul, are making noise on this issue.